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Bostonians may be hard-wired to hate City Hall Plaza

A heat map image of Trinity Church.ihcd-sussman

The design of Boston City Hall is a charged topic. Some people love it, others hate it, and for those who fall into the latter category, local architect Ann Sussman thinks she knows why.

“Biologists describe people as wall-hugging, which explains why they avoid City Hall Plaza,” says Sussman, author of the book “Cognitive Architecture” and a resident of Concord. “The edges are too hard, and your subconscious, which is guiding you, says don’t go there.”

The idea that we have hard-wired biological responses to the built environment is increasingly popular. Architects hope that by figuring out how to measure and decode these responses, they can learn to design buildings that function better and more effectively flatter our ingrown aesthetic sensibilities.


“The body is constantly communicating in ways we’re not fully understanding right now,” says Mark Collins, codirector of the Columbia University GSAPP Cloud Lab. “What everybody is interested in is tapping into the senses and getting this incredibly rich, detailed, but sometimes incomprehensible signal that comes out.”

At the moment, architects and their neuroscientist collaborators have a few “biosensing” techniques they can use to evaluate how people react to places. These include measuring galvanic skin response, monitoring brain waves with an EEG, and eye-tracking, in which a wearable device lets researchers record how people’s eyes move around a space. Sussman recently conducted one such study, a small-scale experiment in which she and her collaborators at Boston's Institute of Human-Centered Design had 33 volunteers look at a computer monitor outfitted with an eye-tracker as it displayed images of iconic Boston places like Trinity Church, City Hall, and Copley Square. Based on the eye-tracking data, the team created heat maps of the images, which glow brighter in places where people look the most and settle their gazes.


The results were not altogether surprising. People tended to fixate on areas of high contrast, like a doorway, and on other people (especially faces), like the portrait of Mayor John Collins on the side of City Hall and a pair of statues flanking the entrance to Trinity Church. Participants were also attracted to a black and white vinyl mural of a man on a raft installed last fall between the 44th and 50th floors of 200 Clarendon St.

“You can see how Boston Properties would be interested [in this kind of work]. It was smart to put up the art installation. It was one area where people looked most whether they consciously intended to or not,” Sussman says.

It’s tantalizing to think that we might be able to figure out exactly what people like in a building. Marketers, after all, have been deploying similar approaches for years to better capture consumers’ attention. But experts in the field caution that it still has a long way to go to become useful.

“I would like to see the enthusiasm for these new tools tempered just a little because my fear is that they won’t live up to their early promise if we over interpret the findings,” says Colin Ellard, a neuroscientist and design consultant at the University of Waterloo.

So far, researchers have experimented with a few different applications. A pilot project out of the GSAPP Cloud Lab at Columbia recently used eye-tracking to investigate how best to historically preserve the Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo. The aim was to identify the features of the building architects really focused on in order to prioritize interior and exterior elements for preservation. Another study, run by Ellard, monitored how people react to the plain exteriors of warehouses. The idea was to assess whether a few simple design flourishes could go a long way to boosting the visual appeal of the facades. Ellard found evidence that might be the case.


“One of the things we know for sure is the visual complexity of a facade has an effect on people’s emotional reaction to it,” he says. “Eye-tracking might be able to tell us whether those subtleties in a facade do capture people’s attention, whether they have a mitigating effect on the general story that low facade complexity is not a good thing.”

All of these insights might have been arrived at through intuition, or even by way of less sophisticated forms of technology. For now, biosensing is an intriguing but still limited tool in architecture — one that can be used as a cudgel in arguments about the design of City Hall, but which one day might help architects design buildings more in tune with the people who will use them.

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at