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Architects and Designers Appraise Spaces Differently Than Us

A tension in architectural taste.

Key points

  • People’s psychological and neural responses to the built environment fall along three dimensions—coherence, fascination, and hominess.
  • Architecture experts prioritize coherence more than lay people.
  • A preference for fascination emerges quickly, but to appreciate a sense of hominess requires more time.
  • Differences in taste between architects that design spaces and the people who inhabit them are worth exploring when conceiving new buildings.
Source: Fallingwater by lachrimae72 on Pixabay
Source: Fallingwater by lachrimae72 on Pixabay


Years before I began to study human psychological responses to the built environment, I was thrilled to visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1935 masterpiece, Fallingwater. Nestled in the woods of Western Pennsylvania, the home felt a part of (rather than apart from) nature. Water, wood, and stone converged into compelling forms reminiscent of Japanese aesthetic sensibilities. Inside the house, the space was comfortable and cozy, even as it connected inhabitants with the outside environment. Mr. Wright understood the power of biophilic design well before the term was introduced by Erich Fromm and popularized by EO Wilson decades later.

Even as I admired Mr. Wright’s masterful construction, I felt a subtle resistance. My discomfort was a reaction to his all-encompassing control of the space. The choice and placement of every piece of furniture and fixture were dictated by his vision. He decided how people would interact with the most personal of their surroundings—their home. Embedded in my discomfort, was a tension between the authority of architectural expertise and the autonomy of inhabitants. Our recent paper (Weinberger et al., 2022), begins to identify this tension.

Psychological Responses to the Built Environment

In previous studies (Coburn et al., 2020; Weinberger et al., 2021), we reported that people’s psychological and neural responses to the built environment fall along three dimensions that are typically correlated with how well people feel. These dimensions are coherence, the organization and legibility of a space; fascination, a complexity that invites exploration; and hominess. the sense of belonging in a space. Fallingwater certainly scores highly on all three dimensions.

Our research also shows that people vary in the importance they give to these three dimensions. For example, people on the autism spectrum are not influenced by fascination as much as neurotypical folks (Vartanian et al., 2021). We suspect that fascination, which is linked to the informational richness, might overwhelm people on the autism spectrum.


If groups of people weigh these dimensions differently, what about architecture and design experts? It seems plausible that they would experience spaces differently than lay people. In our new study (Weinberger et al., 2022), we predicted that architecture and design experts respond along these dimensions differently than people without formal training. For architectural interiors, we found that experts and design novices experienced hominess similarly. However, experts conflated coherence and fascination while lay people distinguish these dimensions. We also found that experts were more likely than lay people to experience natural landscapes with the same three dimensions of coherence, fascination, and hominess, suggesting that their training in dissecting space generalized to how they view the natural environment. In these first two experiments, experts were classified based on how people described themselves.

In a final experiment, we were more intentional in recruiting experts. We enrolled architecture graduate students and law students—the latter have similar degrees of education but not specific architecture training. To test whether expertise effects require deliberative thinking, we also included a rapid judgment task in which people were given one second to decide if they liked a space or not. For such rapid judgments of preference, fascination was most relevant to all participants. As fascination is related to arousal (Gregorians et al., 2022), it makes sense that people would react quickly to this dimension. In contrast, an appreciation of hominess did not emerge at such a rapid time scale. Architecture students, unlike law students, also responded to coherence immediately, recapitulating an earlier report in which we found that design students were more influenced by coherence than other people.

Tastes Vary

People vary in their tastes in architecture (Weinberger et al., 2021). During the pandemic, we all became more sensitized to the aesthetic qualities of our homes and how these spaces contribute to our sense of well-being. Some of us might willingly relinquish our personal opinions to professional designers, perhaps more so if those designers are visionaries like Mr. Wright. However, many of us might respond to such spaces differently than their makers. Knowing that architects value coherence more than lay people provides a point of conversation. Such conversations are important if architects are to promote the well-being of people who will inhabit the spaces they design long after they have moved on to new projects.


Coburn, A., Vartanian, O., Kenett, Y. N., Nadal, M., Hartung, F., Hayn-Leichsenring, G., Navarrete, G., González-Mora, J. L., & Chatterjee, A. (2020). Psychological and neural responses to architectural interiors. Cortex, 126, 217-241.

Gregorians, L., Velasco, P. F., Zisch, F., & Spiers, H. J. (2022). Architectural experience: Clarifying its central components and their relation to core affect with a set of first-person-view videos. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 82, 101841.

Vartanian, O., Navarrete, G., Palumbo, L., & Chatterjee, A. (2021). Individual differences in preference for architectural interiors. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 101668.

Weinberger, A. B., Christensen, A. P., Coburn, A., & Chatterjee, A. (2021). Psychological responses to buildings and natural landscapes. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 77, 101676.

Weinberger, A. B., Garside, E. W., Christensen, A. P., & Chatterjee, A. (2022). Effects of expertise on psychological responses to buildings and natural landscapes. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 84, 101903.

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