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  • Michael Mehaffy

Why environmental beauty matters more than we once thought

Relegated in the modern era to the status of entertainment or luxury, the universal human experience has more recently come roaring back into the picture in the fields of neuroscience, psychology and medicine – with evidence that it is an essential ingredient in livable cities and towns for all.

An environment almost universally perceived as beautiful: Utah’s Bryce Canyon, in the USA. Photograph by Michael Mehaffy.

The well-known architectural theorist Christopher Alexander once remarked that “Really one of the very largest problems that is facing the Earth just now… is the spread of ugliness.” That assertion took many people back: how can ugliness, or a low degree of beauty, be one of the planet’s largest problems? But Alexander connected the issue to the broader phenomenon of environmental degradation.

“By the standards of the 20th century,” he said, “it sounds like a sort of rather trivial and unimportant issue. It's not. It's on the same scale as the alarm that was spread when people

began to realize that the Brazilian rainforest was being destroyed.”

Perhaps it is surprising to hear the claim that such a “subjective” and “psychological” phenomenon as aesthetics is somehow tied to urgent environmental concerns. But new research is beginning to bear out an intriguing connection.

We’ve all heard the phrase countless times: “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” For some “socially constructed” forms of beauty, that can certainly be true: different people and groups can modify their aesthetic experiences and judgments of different kinds of structures, and when surveyed, they clearly experience different (often wildly divergent) degrees of aesthetic enjoyment. But increasingly it appears that these are the “branches,” so to speak, differentiating from a common “trunk” of widely or even universally shared aesthetic experiences: beautiful sunsets, beautiful mountain landscapes, beautiful kaleidoscope patterns, etc.

Tellingly, these structures have particular mathematical properties, particularly those related to different forms of symmetry. These include not only the familiar mirror or “reflectional” symmetry, but also rotational symmetry (radial shapes), translational symmetry (shapes that repeat and/or transpose), scaling symmetry (shapes that are similar at different scales, like fractals), and various complex contributions of them (think of a kaleidoscope, combining reflectional, rotational, translational and scaling symmetries in beautiful patterns).

MANY FORMS OF SYMMETRY: Natural structures exhibit mirror symmetry (like he tiger) but also rotational (Sun), translational (ducks), and scaling or fractal (fern). The same is true of human architectures.

AND COMPOUND SYMMETRIES. Examples include kaleidoscopes, complex fractal patterns generated by computers, and the rich landscapes of the natural world.

Semir Zeki, Professor of Neuroscience at University College London (and a keynoter at the 59th International Making Cities Livable conference), has surveyed the research, including his own, and concluded that “beauty is not quite as subjective as it might at first seem.” Indeed, evidence suggests that the appreciation of beauty is “hard-wired” into our brains, perhaps as an evolutionary response to the environments in which we have lived for countless eons.

The experience of beauty may be something that occurs within our individual brains, but it is clearly triggered by structures in the physical world, and by their specific properties -- symmetry, pattern, mathematical proportion and so on. This experience is a form of stimulation of certain parts of the brain, and the brain needs this stimulation, Zeki says.

Professor Zeki notes that the parts of the brain that respond to the perception of beauty "don't just sit there waiting to be stimulated, they need to be stimulated all the time." The experience of beauty is a universal human need, because it "nourishes the emotional brain." This is particularly true for the experience of beautiful environments, and beautiful architecture. For that reason, Zeki says that "beauty in architecture is not a luxury, it is a necessity."

In the case of what he calls "biological beauty" - human bodies, natural scenes, and so on - research finds cross-cultural agreement about what is beautiful. This may relate to a deeper form of symmetry, connecting ourselves to our landscapes -- particularly important for architecture.

ABOVE: The "deep symmetries" of structures that we feel ourselves deeply connected to: bodies, landscapes, the beauty of the planet.

A growing body of research is documenting the harmful impacts when people are deprived of beauty - as they are in, say, a prison cell, an environment designed specifically as a form of punishment. But urban environments can have similar devastating effects. Zeki notes the housing complexes that have had to be bulldozed as a result of their perceived ugliness, and he laments the "wanton destruction and chaotic building" that is causing such harm to urban residents.

ABOVE: Two environments in London, within a few miles of each other. Left, the beautiful Seven Dials area, and right, a typical "modern" office complex. These environments have a measurable impact on human health and well-being -- a finding with profound implications for the responsibility of designers.

Out built environments clearly can improve our health and well-being -- or they can cause stress, discomfort, and unease, perhaps even contributing to the long-term decline and the unsustainability of our urban environments. Environmental designers surely have a "duty of care" to attend to the well-being of the people for whom they make their environments.

This is not much of a challenge for the wealthy, who can seek out beautiful environments on their own (as they clearly do). But most everyone else is dependent on environmental designers, technical specialists, real estate developers and other professionals, to provide places that are healthy, safe, equitable, ecologically responsive, and, yes, beautiful. Surely this should be seen, above other more self-interested concerns, as a basic professional responsibility.



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