Co.Design

Why Our Brains Love Curvy Architecture

People are far more likely to call a room beautiful when its design is round instead of linear. The reason may be hard-wired into the brain.

When the great architect Philip Johnson first visited the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, designed by Frank Gehry, he started to cry. "Architecture is not about words. It's about tears," Johnson reportedly said. Something about the museum's majestic curves moved him at an emotional level. Many others must get a similar feeling, because the building is usually ranked among the most important in modern times.

Whether or not Johnson and Gehry realized it, the Bilbao and its swirling façade tapped into a primal human emotional network. Time and again, when people are asked to choose between an object that's linear and one that's curved, they prefer the latter. That goes for watches with circular faces, letters rendered in a curly font, couches with smooth cushions—even dental floss with round packaging.

The Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at Harvard Medical School
The Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at Harvard Medical School

Recently neuroscientists have shown that this affection for curves isn't just a matter of personal taste; it's hard-wired into the brain. Working in tandem with designers in Europe, a research team led by psychologist Oshin Vartanian of the University of Toronto at Scarborough compiled 200 images of interior architecture. Some of the rooms had a round style like this:

Courtesy of Oshin Vartanian

Others had a rectilinear form, like this:

Courtesy of Oshin Vartanian

Vartanian and collaborators slid people into a brain imaging machine, showed them these pictures, and asked them to label each room as "beautiful" or "not beautiful." In a study published earlier this year, they reported that test participants were far more likely to consider a room beautiful when it was flush with curves rather than full of straight lines. Oblong couches, oval rugs, looping floor patterns—these features got our aesthetic engines going.

It's worth noting this isn't a men-love-curves thing; twice as many women as men took part in the study. Roundness seems to be a universal human pleasure.

Beauty ratings were just the first step in the study. The researchers also captured the brain activity that occurred when the study participants in the imaging machine considered the pictures. Turns out people looking at curved design had significantly more activity in a brain area called the anterior cingulate cortex, compared to people who were looking at linear decorations. The ACC has many cognitive functions, but one is especially noteworthy in the context of Vartanian's study: its involvement in emotion.

So curved design uses our brains to tug at our hearts. Some of us cry outside great buildings as a result. Some of us reach for another brand of dental floss. Some of us, beyond all rational judgment, type in Comic Sans font. "Our preference for curves can not be explained entirely in terms of a 'cold' cognitive assessment of the qualities of curved objects," Vartanian tells Co.Design. "Curvature appears to affect our feelings, which in turn could drive our preference."

The Bilbao-sized question is why exactly curves give us a visceral pleasure. Some neuroscientists believe the answer may have adaptive roots.

Another brain imaging study, conducted several years ago by Moshe Bar of Harvard Medical School, found that viewing objects with sharp elements—once again, square watches, pointy couches, and the like—activated the amygdala. That's the part of the brain that processes fear. Bar and collaborator Maital Neta proposed that since sharp objects have long signaled physical danger, human brains now associate sharp lines with a threat. Curves, meanwhile, may be seen as harmless by comparison.

"In other words," says Vartanian, "we prefer curves because they signal lack of threat, i.e. safety."

There's a nice clarity to that explanation, but it certainly has some limitations. The most basic of these is that some sharp lines feel warm and welcoming (see: the New York City skyline, or Ikea furniture) and some curves are plenty scary (see: a rattlesnake, or Nicki Minaj). Not every straight-versus-curve contest is as clear as knife versus spoon. Culture, context, and familiarity can all influence our perception of contour.

It's also critical to point out that just because people have a natural neural affinity for curves doesn't mean round design is always superior. If researchers asked people to rate architecture based on functionality instead of beauty, for instance, they might get different results. (In fact, Vartanian says he's studying that question next.) The Bilbao in all its sinuous glory may bring tears to the eye, but it probably took a very rectangular truck to bring construction material to the Bilbao.

[Image: Guggenheim, Carballo via Shutterstock]

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39 Comments

  • john

    This is basically the Theory of Aesthetics. I was taught in architecture school that the bases of beauty lies in the universe and that "the universe was female". Curves and circle are the universe's female forms. As noted there are not many, if any, square (male) shapes in nature.

    This is why we prefer the look of a Corvette (curvy and sexy) to that of Ford F-150 pickup truck (straight lines and masculine). A wine glass -female (curvy) versus a tumbler (masculine).

  • sit.zazen

    When you look around nature, rectangles and boxes are not common shapes. At all. But there are lots and lots of round and curved things, including the sun, moon, earth itself, women (particularly pregnant ones), our heads, and so on. Who doesn't love a spiral snail shell, for example? Other than certain crystals (usually found only sporadically and in a few caves) it is pretty hard to think of anything rectangular.

    It seems to be just a basic truth of this universe that circles and spheres are the most natural (and efficient and useful) forms, and a few straight lines, but even a tree with it's straight trunk and branches is actually circular in overall design, seen from a distance.

    We must be a product of our environment, so why would we ever really start to like something so alien as a square or cube, when you think of it? Living inside them must cause deep damage to the psyche on a fundamental level, perhaps so fundamental as to be almost unnoticable.

  • sit.zazen

    (continuing..seems to be a limit here) However our natural instincts and sub/un-conscious mind knows what is best for us, and expresses it through emotions and intuitions and feelings..or simply attraction.

    Seems to me that most of the squares are products are the Industrial Revolution and resulted from mass production in order to make a lot of things fast and cheaply. Huge skyscrapers are thrown together in a few months these days...in fact the longest part (I've watched this process in my neighborhood) is digging and preparing the foundation. Once that is done, it's unreal how fast they go up.

    Hopefully with the advent of 3-d printing, increasing use of digital technologies, and (not holding my breath on this one) the increased free time that robots should give us, people will be able to start creating structures and things in a more artistic and natural way. I feel the payoff would be unfathomable in basic human happiness and increased mental stability, etc. :)

  • FunkMasterFuller

    Straight lines are not found in nature. I think that is our evolutionary strength, to manipulate materials to non organic forms. Early man carved down stones to a point to take down animals. The geometry of the pyramids, a flat top surface of a desk, flat panels screens all great examples of straight lines. While curves may remind us of nature, straight lines remind of to the power and capabilities of humans.

    I believe we feel curves in our body and cognitively embrace straight lines in our minds.

  • Tom Breen

    E. Fay Jones made one of the most beautiful statements on this subject when he gave a lecture at the School of Architecture at SUNY Buffalo. When asked which of his two most famous designs he thought were more beautiful, the rectilinear Thorncrown Chapel, or the curvilinear Mildred Cooper Memorial Chapel, he replied: “That is like asking which is more beautiful, a straight or a curved line, it is irrelevant.” Aesthetics are so much more complex than this simplistic study acknowledges.

  • Ana

    "you can't draw a woman with straight lines! no straight lines!" - 21st century philosopher sofia vergara for kmart

  • Patrick Irwin

    The second interior is more beautiful, because it is. It has great natural light; some connection with the outside. It uplifts.
    The curvy one is boring. I'm not being subjective here. Vox pop can't shout me down. Facts.

  • munchkin

    Better answers would focus on the precise radius of the curvature, rather than just flat out curvaceousness.

  • Joe Tremble

    Great article.

    This is something that I have inherently been aware of but never really defined.

    Very often a client will change their idea of how they look at a project just by introducing curves.

    A good example of this was a boring screening wall that was original designed just to hide ugly equipment.

    When turned into a curving shape, it redefined the entire space. We created a vibrant, inviting, useful area.

    See it here.

    http://www.linkedin.com/redir/...

  • Lapidary Artist

    "Thinking outside the box"...there must be a reason for this saying...perhaps 'straight' is the self imposed limitation to deal with more complex fluid perceptions.
    Just maybe one day the computer will become round and not the square wheel it currently is (and I don't mean Apple's simplistic corners on a square box).

    It is impossible to make a circle from zero's and one's no matter how many are used and unfortunately we are expected to accept square wheels all the time without realising it.

  • Charles_Siegel

    I think the evolutionary psychology of architecture is different from the evolutionary psychology that makes us appreciate other forms.

    Most obviously, hominids would have had a better chance of surviving it they built shelters that were stable - which means symmetrical. This is why people tend to be uncomfortable with wildly asymmetrical buildings like Frank Gehry's.

    You might be interested in my essay "Architecture and Evolutionary Psychology," originally published by the Prince's Foundation, which you can find at http://www.preservenet.com/arc...

  • tz

    Maybe this is why I like curvy automobile designs as opposed to square, sharp edged boxy one.

  • crdx

    Hmm. I'm the opposite. I have nothing against curves in general, but for cars I like boxiness.

  • Tiffany Pilgrim

    This is interesting to me because I have a very strong affinity for square/rectangle things! Everyone close to me knows this. When I see curvaceous design the first words that come to my head are, pointless, dumb, weak, innocuous. (That said, sometimes I do execute these type of designs when they are fitting) I never understood why Bilbao and Gaudy just made me gag.

    I do also appreciate the curvilinear design though. Straight lines with rounded edges (not too large of a radius though!)