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Is Denver’s contemporary architecture killing us?

Denver architect Don Ruggles worries that the odd angles and sharp points meant to excite are also causing neuroaesthetic problems. "This is a public-health issue, not a style issue."

Unusual architecture, like the Daniel Libeskind-designed Hamilton wing of the Denver Art Museum, is designed to excite. But Denver architect Don Ruggles worries the odd angles and sharp points of some contemporary architecture is so disorienting that it can have a dangerous impact on our health. (Marvin Anani, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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In the not too distant future, a Colorado architect believes, someone will enter a novel, contemporary building designed with odd angles and sharp points, one of those places created to be “exciting” and “unusual,” and have a heart attack.

And, this architect contends, as neuroscience advances and our understanding of neuroaesthetics deepens, the courts of the future will side with the heart attack victim’s family when they sue the building’s designer.

Lawsuits are coming? Someone could go to jail for funky design? And don’t we all have a few places in mind whose architects we’d like to punish?

Don Ruggles, president of Ruggles Mabe Studio in Denver — dedicated to “quiet, elegant and romantic architecture” — has written a book about the connection between brain science and aesthetic appreciation.

Architect Don Ruggles, who considered the neuroaesthetic impact of architecture in his new book, “Beauty, Neuroscience and Architecture,” viewing architectural models. (Marvin Anani, Special to The Colorado Sun)

He claims, with support from neuroscience, that the human brain seeks certain timeless patterns without which we lack equilibrium and a sense of well-being. Freaky, fun, unusual designs may excite, but they also agitate and upset.

Design not only evokes emotion, Ruggles stresses, it has an impact on our health. Beauty can induce calmness and relaxation.

In “Beauty, Neuroscience and Architecture,” 2018 University of Oklahoma Press, Ruggles traces the idea of beauty back to our reptilian brain, the original fight-or-flight response necessary to human survival. He has lectured around the world on this topic for a decade, including recently at a University of Colorado, Denver master’s class.

“Beauty has been marginalized quite a bit over the last century,” he told the students. “We need to bring it back. Architecture directly affects our health and well-being.”

Architect Don Ruggles, who authored, “Beauty, Neuroscience and Architecture.” (Marvin Anani, Special to The Colorado Sun)

He offered to give a reporter and photographer a tour of Denver citing examplesof his theories. Driving around town, he reiterated how our instinctual drive —approach/avoid — comes into play.

“The brain is a pattern-recognition machine,” he said.“Avoidance is five- to seven-times stronger than approach.”

He’s cites mind/body science to back up his very specific classical taste in architecture. Cortisol, sympathetic inputs, fight/flight versus calming, parasympathetic inputs and cell repair… it’s complicated. The point is, he explains, is that since we first climbed down from the trees, humankind has had a deep-seated need for beauty, since beauty literally, physically creates a sense of safety and comfort.

“Beauty is not ‘in the eye of the beholder,’” Ruggle said, “but a neurological event.”

And so we climb into his SUV and let our neurons fire.

Built around 1910, the Cheesman Pavilion appeals to the most basic neuroaesthetic sensibilities — its vast lawn playing to the human brain’s preference for wide open spaces and its orderly neoclassical design stable and pleasing. (Marvin Anani, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Pausing on the lawn Cheesman Park, Ruggles explains that our human brains favor the open savannah, where we can see into the distance in case of approaching predators. That’s why the expanse at Cheesman Park is among the most requested wedding sites in town, he says. See the mountains in the distance, the expanse of grassland, and finally the sturdy, familiar, Parthenon-like structure? This puts us at ease.

Turning to face the marble pavilion, he notes our brains find the stable structure pleasing. Ruggles explains is actually a “9-square” tic-tac-toe board. The Cheesman Pavilion, circa 1910, with its neoclassical top-bottom-middle design, is iconic and timeless.

Next, our brains seek out the familiar face pattern, he notes, the first thing an infant learns to distinguish being mother’s two eyes and a mouth. The features are often replicated in houses with two windows and a door.Once you start seeing faces in architecture, they’re everywhere. Cruising the upscale Polo Club neighborhood, he points out homes that are inviting, he says, because of the patterns — two dormers and a door, or two-windows and a door.

Denver architect Don Ruggles says there is a “hormonal, physical reaction” — in a good way — to the patterns repeated in the facade of the historic Weckbaugh Mansion at 1701 E. Cedar Ave. It was designed by architect Jules Jacques Benedict and completed in 1933. (Marvin Anani, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Witness the Weckbaugh Mansion, at 1701 E. Cedar Ave., designed by Denver architect Jules Jacques Benedict and completed in 1933.

“There’s a hormonal, physical reaction to the pattern,” Ruggles said.

Boxy modern architecture may be intriguing at first glance, but architect Don Ruggles, who considers the neuroaesthetics of the build environment, says in the same way the eye moves quickly away from the building, people who live or work there are unlikely to stay long. (Marvin Anani, Special to The Colorado Sun)

By contrast, across the street from the historic mansion is a boxy modern glass-sided home that looks intriguing. Ruggles rejects it, saying the design “may cause stress or may cause the eye to move on…People pay a lot of money for these houses but they don’t stay long.”

The most eye-popping examples are two public spaces downtown: The Hamilton wing of the Denver Art Museum and, next door, the Clyfford Still Museum.

This is where Ruggles really becomes passionate about his theories. The glitzy silver, dramatic and surprising Frederic C. Hamilton Building, a collage of unexpected angles and sharp points sheathed in titanium designed by Daniel Libeskind and Davis Partnership Architects in 2006, may be a Denver landmark.

But Ruggles disdains it as an impossibly uncomfortable building inside and out. Is it lifting off or falling down? Sure, it’s iconic, but it gives Ruggles the feeling of needing to escape.

Architect Libeskind famously said in a TED Talk that people “applaud the well-mannered box,” but that he wished to create something more, something new, something radical. Libeskind preached “architecture is a confrontation with our senses.”

Ruggles may be the anti-Libeskind. He believes humans seek security in the built environment, that we would rather avoid confrontation. He (like many architects) rejects the Hamilton building as impractical, a slap at history’s accumulated architectural knowledge. Plus, inside it makes people dizzy.

The Clyfford Still Museum, which is adjacent to the Hamilton wing of the Denver Art Museum, is a modern building that follows classical architecture principles. Architect Don Ruggles, who considers the neuroaesthetic impacts of design, says there is a sense of balance between the Still and the Hamilton wing. (Marvin Anani, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The Clyfford Still museum, by contrast, is modern but follows classical principles, Ruggles said. There he notes the “9-square” design: three elements up and down, three elements across. It may look bland beside its neighbor, but it is firmly rooted and calming. Ruggles believes buildings work well together. “There is a sense of balance between the two.” 

Of course you don’t have to be a traditionalist to find the Hamilton building problematic. Harsh Parikh, a modernist Denver architect and president of Parikh Stevens Architects, agrees about the dizzying effects of the Hamilton building, calling it “Libeskind’s monument to Libeskind.”

But Parikh doesn’t buy Ruggles’ premise.

“I don’t agree that the human mind is conditioned for classicalproportions. The human mind evolved over 100,000 years. It’s a real stretch to argue that we are predisposed to find a more traditional aesthetic appealing.”

Besides, he says, the idea of what’s beautiful or restful is a fluid concept,neither cross-cultural nor universal across time.

“To take traditional notions barely 2,000 to 3,000 years old and say that humankind is somehow hard-wired to appreciate those things, is probably taking it too far,” Parikh said.

The Daniel Libeskind-designed Hamilton wing of the Denver Art Museum, is designed to excite. But Denver architect Harsh Parikh doesn’t buy the notion that its collage of unexpected angles is a neuroaesthetic offense to humans. He says the idea of what’s restful is fluid. (Marvin Anani, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“Tradition develops over time within a cultural context,” Parikh said. “You could argue that when Buckminster Fuller was building a geodesic dome, it might have seemed alien to a Greek architect, it didn’t to an Inuit who had been living in igloos. What people develop a nostalgia for is not universal.”

In the end, Parikh said, “this is more a conservative-versus-progressive argument.”

William Logan, publisher of Modern In Denver magazine,thinks it’s more of a good-versus-bad argument.

“We spend most of our time trying to draw distinctions between good design and bad design rather than by typology or style, as there are good designs and bad designs within all types of architectural styles.”

Similarly, modernist architect Brad Tomecek, of Tomecek Studios, understands Ruggles’ point, and believes that proportion and scale are very important, but human needs and responses have evolved. “We used to live in caves,” he said, “that’s not these times. This discussion is more about the integrity of the project,” Tomecek said. “It’s all about quality.”

But Ruggles retorts that his concern is not conservative/progressive, modern/traditional. “In fact, I include many examples of modern design and art in my book that support the usage of homeostatic design. The point is to utilize the current information coming out of the neuroscience profession to better our profession. This is a public-health issue, not a style issue.”

In line with Ruggles, Meredith Banasiak, at Boulder Associates Architects, specializes in neuroscience for architecture, namely health care and senior-living design.

Banasiak says her field is growing steadily, with applications beyond the healthcare setting. “It’s happening now because we have the ability to measure,” she said, citing a government workplace study that took physiological measurements of human response to building features.

“I recently attended a conference of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture. One of the big recent findings was on how we design prisons. The effects are not just psychological, it really structurally changes the brain. The results really did push for new policies in prison design.”

In a chapter in a book due out soon, Banasiak writes about museum design and acknowledges “reports of a sensory response in the brain from conflicting information.” (She, too, gets dizzy in the Hamilton building).

The principles of neuro-architecture aren’t mainstream yet,Banasiak said. “Don is ahead of the curve.”


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