As the heated debate over the appropriate architectural style for federal buildings has started up again, both the public and our legislators need to take note of decisive developments in applied aesthetics.
First, scientific studies reveal that public buildings are loved if they have a healing effect on their users. Contrary to popular belief, public choice does not reflect an ignorance of more esoteric (and assumed more sophisticated) architectural knowledge; rather, it is the human body’s evolved biological response to what is in front of us. This has to do with biology and mathematics, not abstractions.
Second, we are witnessing a revolution with the introduction of artificial intelligence (AI) in its verbal and visual versions. There have been experiments in eliciting what the public prefers in architectural styles by asking drawing programs to produce photo-realistic and artistic renderings of beloved imaginary buildings. Those preferred examples turned out to be in old-fashioned architectural styles in complete agreement with recent public polls. The same results come out when using painting software to create new imaginary buildings that are loved.
Third, public survey preferences for more traditional versus modernist and deconstructivist style languages are confirmed using Visual Attention Software to analyze their façades. This software by 3M Company, trained using AI, predicts where the eye is attracted on a building’s façade.
An attractive building engages the user’s unconscious attention, with special emphasis on the entrance and appropriate design elements such as ornament, signage, and window and door frames that enhance the user’s perception of the whole. A survey of preferences for new courthouse buildings in China selected the Classical Western style language further adapted with local design elements. These preferences arise from universal human bodily responses.
Fourth, the verbal application of AI answers the question of the best style languages for federal buildings — completely and unambiguously. To clarify the problem, I earlier sought to define its opposite. Asking the AI program ChatGPT to list the characteristics of “inhuman architecture” resulted in an uncannily accurate description of the modernist and deconstructivist style languages.
ChatGPT listed inhuman descriptors, including sharp angles; a cold, minimalist, sterile aesthetic devoid of ornament; dark and cramped spaces; asymmetrical, contorted, or twisted shapes; overbearing or oppressive design; monotonous repetition, etc. Those design elements should never be used for federal buildings because their forms emit a negative unconscious message.
I also asked ChatGPT for a complete description of what design criteria are most appropriate for public buildings. No style language was singled out, but the AI program generated a list of constraints obeyed by all traditional style languages before the industrial modernism of the 1920s.
An obvious conclusion is that guidelines for future U.S. buildings should not impose a style language, which raises a key point for the current debate. Showcase buildings should instead follow known rules about how architecture adapts to give a healing response to the human body, as established by medical science.
ChatGPT Defends Human Architecture
I asked ChatGPT two questions. First, I asked it to list detailed characteristics of buildings that evoke public feelings of solidity, trust, and confidence. These should be appropriate for giving an impression of a caring government institution that welcomes the public and promises fairness and honesty. These buildings would represent the opposite of concentrated power, forbidding and oppressive design, or crazy disorder that you cannot trust.
Second, in addition to the façades of public buildings that give a friendly, inclusive, and welcoming visual message, I asked how the design of components and details such as material surfaces, edges and shapes, windows, doors, door frames, and window frames can help to achieve this positive impression. Also, how do we design the open space in front and on the sides of a building to make it friendly and welcoming — the opposite of seeming oppressive — to the user who has to approach it and enter it?
The above two questions elicited 22 responses, summarized in a shorter list below for convenience. Readers are strongly encouraged to perform this exercise for themselves: It only takes a few seconds. ChatGPT is free and open to questions and generates a new response each time. If similar word prompts are used, then the basic message should be essentially the same.
To help achieve the above objectives, federal buildings could incorporate architectural elements that are enduring and rooted in a sense of history. Classic styles such as neoclassical, Georgian, or Renaissance can convey a sense of permanence, stability, and trustworthiness. Mentioned spontaneously by ChatGPT, these are only three examples among several style languages that could be profitably used.
2. Symmetry and Harmony
Symmetrical designs create a sense of order and balance. Symmetry is visually appealing and can evoke feelings of trust and reliability, and thus it is a common feature of all traditional buildings.
Symmetry’s role in the environment is profound yet terribly misunderstood (I did not use ChatGPT to investigate this question here). The human brain seeks complex nested symmetries in its surroundings and is cognitively frustrated when those are absent. Lacking them leads to “symmetry-deficit disorder.” Design symmetry does not refer to an empty overall bilateral symmetry but instead to a variety of multiple symmetries on many scales, each reinforcing each other, and all tied together by scaling (called “fractal”) symmetries.
3. Quality Materials
Employ quality materials, such as brick, stone, or wood. They not only convey strength but can withstand weathering.
4. Texture and Space
To cultivate an inviting structure, include a large entrance and wide-open foyer. Use textured materials to both engage the senses with a tactile experience and create visual appeal.
5. Abundance of Light
To provide plenty of natural light and an air of openness, use large windows with nearby seating. Small windows can feel dark and inhospitable, so opt for extra sunlight with proportionate windows that harmonize with the general aesthetic and allow onlookers to see inside. This grants a feeling of transparency.
6. Meaningful Artwork
To make visitors feel proud of and identify with the United States, buildings should incorporate artwork that reflects America’s culture, history, and values.
7. Strong Doorways
Doors should be made of high-quality, durable materials, such as solid wood or metal with a warm finish. Doorframes should complement the architectural style of the building.
8. Gathering Places
Courtyards, plazas, or atriums offer friendly places for guests to interact, which will increase the feeling of community, encourage conversations, and promote trust. Public art displays, sculptures, and fountains can serve as the heart of public areas, providing a natural place for people to gather.
9. Welcoming Outdoor Spaces
The space in front of the building should be open, inviting, and user-friendly. It should include well-kept landscaping, pathways, and seating areas. Buildings should have shaded areas or covered walkways to protect visitors from sun and rain.
“Using these design elements and details, both the exterior and the surrounding open spaces can be designed to create a friendly and welcoming atmosphere, ensuring a positive experience for those approaching and entering the building,” ChatGPT concluded.
The advice from AI, therefore, is to privilege more traditional style languages. Furthermore, we now have on-hand diagnostic design tools that can help to guide an innovative design toward human adaptivity. This evolving process contradicts the precooked “fashionable” styles of the past several decades. Architects who insist on imposing inhuman designs — because that’s all they know to offer — should no longer be commissioned to design federal buildings.
Why We Should Trust AI’s Architectural Advice
Concerned citizens are arguing against inhuman architecture, yet this essay used nonhuman intelligence to do so. The results reported here utilize AI in a vast survey, not as a mysterious mechanism that overrides human intelligence. By asking questions with carefully chosen word prompts, AI collects answers drawn from tens of billions of existing data. These data come from humans, just like in an old-fashioned person survey, only this pool is many orders of magnitude larger, and the results are ready in seconds rather than weeks. Such surveys also require no funding!
Getting useful responses to help in any decision can come down to the number of respondents. Doing things the established way (by pursuing architectural fashion) limits the question to a tiny group of self-appointed “architectural authorities.” They will always give a narrow opinion, promoting their preferred inhuman style language.
The corporate media commandeers emotions and channels public debate into ideological dead ends to avoid facing the inadequacy of dominant building styles. AI enables us to go around those entrenched power interests to reach the public’s truly universal opinion. The result liberates us from design ideology. ChatGPT organizes human inputs if we are careful not to use the architectural establishment’s code words since those will straitjacket the responses into the dominant styles.
In conclusion, an unexpected tool is now available to help us toward a democratic choice. Let the citizens who will actually use federal buildings decide on the appropriate local style language and not be bullied by an arrogant power group into accepting the inhuman architecture that has been forced upon us for decades.
By sidestepping architectural academia that adheres fanatically to nihilistic ideologies, AI helps us to make design decisions based on medical and neurological evidence. But continuing in the obscurantist manner of “business-as-usual” is an affront to our democracy.