Ian Ellingham could talk about buildings all day. The architect, land economist and academic certainly has the credentials to do so. But often he just listens, with no shortage of people ready to offer their opinions about the structures and streetscapes integral to our daily lives.
He doesn’t mind. In fact he loves it, noting: “Architecture is about people, and people are amusing.”
A Western alumnus, Ellingham, MBA’79, has been studying how we esteem buildings for most of his career. Now, he aims to fascinate the general public and inform practitioners in his most recent book, Understanding Ugly: Human response to buildings in the environment.
The book centres on his two main research interests: decision-making and human response to the built environment.
“Decision-making relative to property is very interesting, because buildings are long-term assets with long-term implications,” Ellingham said. All the more reason, he argues, to understand and design buildings based on evidence reflecting the needs and preferences of consumers.
“Architecture is one of those areas where explicit market research isn’t really done,” he said. “There’s more market research done in designing a blow dryer. Marketers know the visual appearance of a product is important and design accordingly. But you can spend millions of dollars on a building doing no market research at all. That’s stunning.”
Psychologists have studied human response to visual aesthetics for years, with neuroscientists more recently using advanced technology to track our response to architecture and process the data. Ellingham believes these insights could be used to create buildings that delight successive generations, creating a positive impact economically, socially and in terms of sustainability.
Yet the knowledge remains largely out of reach from those who could make it happen.
“There’s been decades of wonderful material published in academic journals, but it’s not accessible or written in a form that’s useful to architects, developers, engineers and builders,” Ellingham said.
Aiming to bridge the gap between academic findings and application, Ellingham has synthesized “mountains of material” to offer lessons for practitioners in a format the wider population can enjoy. His book also shares research he conducted while earning his PhD in architecture and urban studies from the University of Cambridge.
In blind surveys distributed throughout neighbourhoods in eastern England, he presented photographs of different types of housing in the United Kingdom and asked people to rank and comment on them.
“People really want to tell you their opinions,” he said. “I sometimes got back more forms than I put out. A husband and wife would disagree with each other, so they would photocopy the form and I’d get each of their answers back.”
Ellingham saw patterns among neighbourhoods and age groups. Centenarians, having survived the hardships of war and the global Depression, gave high marks for a home’s functionality. But a growth in affluence and education has seen values change. Today, with greater economic stability and laws in place to ensure sound, safe structures, we respond to buildings that delight us visually. And although preference is subjective, two factors are influencing our immediate response: familiarity and legibility, Ellingham said.
“When you encounter something new, your brain tries to relate it to something you’ve already come across. For that, the building must be legible. If you’re confused by it, you’ll reject it as ‘ugly.’
“Sometimes there’s too many materials, leaving people wondering if it’s brick, stone or wood,” he said. “Or there’s too many forms. People can’t read it and relate it to the familiar.”
Historic and renovated buildings do very well in people’s choice awards, Ellingham said, which may explain Western’s University College’s enduring appeal, and why it appears on many lists of Canada’s most beautiful campuses. But what makes the building “beautiful?”
“It’s one material, stone, plus glass,” Ellingham said. “It’s gothic with elements of symmetry and ornamentation, which are all related to academia, at least in western culture and in the Ontario market. We also know naturalness is important, which exists in the landscape and surroundings.”
And what of comparisons of the building to Hogwarts from the Harry Potter series released almost a quarter century ago?
“A part of familiarity that can’t be overlooked is the positive associations and feelings we tie to buildings,” Ellingham said. “Many people still see postsecondary education as romantic. The architecture ties into that and is something Victorians understood and used very well.”
Ellingham hopes a more evidence-based approach to design will consider such nuances, along with the more predictable responses people have to the visual aspects of buildings. And he believes well-informed decisions will help developers and architects create sustainable communities, while making the world we inhabit a little more pleasing.
“It’s not easy because people are complex,” Ellingham said, “but that makes it all the more intriguing.”