Clare Melhuish reviews Sir Richard Gregory on ways of viewing the world
Architects are all too aware of the fact that different people see things in different ways - one man's aesthetic nightmare is another's utopian dream - and when it comes to satisfying planners, neighbours, client and, perhaps, English Heritage, it is like walking through a minefield of conflicting perceptions and tastes. But if you take into account the fact that, from one person to the next, what the brain perceives may be substantially distinct from what the eye actually registers, the task of designing anything begins to look like an impossible challenge.
Scientist Sir Richard Gregory's main concern for architects, voiced in a lecture marking the launch of the Bartlett's 'Constructing Realities' series, seemed to be that building 'funny-shaped buildings' could be 'quite dangerous' - because 'objects need to obey the rules the brain has developed', and, at least in western society, that means adhering to right angles, parallel lines, and perspective. At the same time, however, 'if you don't have any funny shapes, you'd die of boredom'.
What, then, should an architect do? Gregory did not have any answers. Indeed, the main purpose of his lecture seemed to be to raise doubts about our visual understanding of the world, without offering the reassurance of any objective certainties.
Ultimately, he pointed out, the ambiguity and contradictions inherent in the way we see and understand things - so great that even the different parts of the same brain can't understand each other - force one to realise the impossibility of any dogmatic belief, and the consequently farcical nature of the world's affairs.
Gregory's thesis is that perception comprises 'virtual realities created by the brain'. Some knowledge is innate, 'built into the brain by natural selection', allowing babies, for example, to recognise the human face from the moment of birth, but much of it is cognitive, shaped by our different experiences of the world, and cultural background. Take the hollow mask test: most people find it impossible to see it as a hollow face, so conditioned are we by our understanding that human features project outwards. However, the minority of people who work with moulds on a daily basis may develop the ability to see it as indeed hollow. Similarly, non-western cultures that have never developed the rules of perspective will see both the real world and perspectival images of it in a different way, without depth, and are more likely to inhabit round buildings.
Most architects probably realise that 'when you squeeze a three-dimensional shape into two dimensions you get amazing distortions', but the eye-brain relationship also does other funny things, like enlarging distant objects, and making vertical lines appear longer than horizontal lines of equal length so that, for example, skyscrapers look taller than they really are. The question remains whether an enhanced understanding of these operations would lead to higher quality in the designed environment.
Sir Richard Gregory was speaking at the Archaeology Institute, University College London, hosted by the Bartlett School of Architecture and Planning, on 15 January