Parallax, love, and architecture
How cities feel about you
I’m in Venice today on the invitation of my good friend Davide Ruzzon, who has run an extraordinary educational program in architecture and neuroscience for quite a few years now. It’s such a pleasure to be here, even though the trip has not been without hiccups, as you’ll see. Understanding the difference between a Substack channel and a journal, I wouldn’t normally bother you with the hiccups, but I think they are curiously apropos give the content of this post.
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So, here’s what happened. I had an unusually exhausting trip across the Atlantic Ocean, courtesy of a couple of small children who effectively vocalized their disapproval of this whole flying idea, and a man who, perhaps auditioning for the role of Paul Bunyan in a West End play, was assigned the seat beside me and, seemingly, half of my seat as well. We’ve all been there. I arrived at my assigned hotel (very nice, great location, convenient to everything) in a sorry state. The short bus ride from the airport to Venice had seemed so luxurious compared to what had happened over the previous 18 hours that I was tempted to stretch out for a 15-minute nap. So perhaps what happened next was not surprising. In the hotel, and on the way to my room, I fell down an unexpected stair (unexpected stairs are something of a specialty in Venice. It’s an old city filled with idiosyncratic old buildings). Being not so far off Paul Bunyan size myself and carrying a couple of bags, I fell heavily. With hindsight, it’s surprising that bones were not broken. But other than a sore rib which may be cracked (please don’t make me laugh. Or sneeze or cough), I’m fine. For reasons that you’ll eventually understand if you have the patience to keep reading, I’m going to show you the offending stair. Here it is:
I admit that it looks innocuous. It’s a single step in a dimly lit corridor that, arguably, anyone should have noticed. The thing is, though, I’m stereo-blind. I can’t use what’s called retinal disparity—the difference in views between the two eyes, to calculate depth. Instead, I rely a great deal on self-produced motion. Like you, as I move around the world, the images of the things I see change in systematic ways that allow me to move through space, typically without lumbering painfully into the ground while simultaneously bellowing some frightfully bad words. But unlike most of you, I have fewer other resources to fall back on. Close one eye and you’ll get a little bit of a sense of how the world looks to me (except that both of my eyes work – just not together). In certain circumstances, motion fails me completely and when it does, outcomes can be unhappy. In this setting, what you might have seen, if you had been there, as a sudden change in elevation requiring an adjustment of stride, looked to me more like a change in lighting or even, perhaps a change in the colour of an old carpet. One of the main types of information I use to stay afloat in the world let me down. And then I was on the floor. Ouch.
The reason all of this matters is because one of the most interesting exchanges at the discussions at my lectures in Davide’s program focused on the importance of motion parallax—defined more or less technically as the changes in appearances and positions of objects and surfaces brought about by one’s own movement.
Now, I’m not the kind of person to think that the universe is unfolding some grand plan for me, perpetually putting me in the right place at the right time (especially if that place happens to be ungraciously tipped over on the floor of a hotel corridor while whimpering in pain), but I find it curious to recall that I cut my scientific teeth studying problems of motion parallax and depth. I didn’t get into this field because of my visual pathology, I should add. It was more of an accident, a suggestion of my PhD supervisor. It’s just funny how all these things align sometimes. It’s almost like a kind of parallax of its own.
The parallax view
But now on to the lesson Davide and I were trying to triangulate for the students in his class. It had to do with questions of scale in architecture, and particularly with the impact of different ranges of scale on human feeling and behaviour. Davide had asked me to talk about any work that I had done that referenced scale and this was easy because one of past students, Robin Mazumder, had carried out some interesting studies with me on the psychological impact of tall buildings. Some of Robin’s studies focused on the psychological impact of the Leadenhall Building in London, as compared to another nearby but very different building, St. Helen’s Church at Bishopsgate. So I came to Venice armed with a sheaf of data pertaining to the different experiences we have when confronted with buildings at different scales. Tall buildings, it seems, can make us feel uneasy, closed-in, less “happy” (there’s that shorthand word I don’t like using), and it can be demonstrated with measures of behaviour and even sometimes with measures of our bodies and brains.
Davide wanted to also make the comparison between the area known as La Défense in Paris and a lovely little area of Venice known as Campo Santa Margherita. If we include expanse both upward and outward in the idea of scale, as we should, then it makes sense that this comparison fits in nicely with my lab’s observations of the two London buildings.
But here’s where the ground shifted beneath me in an interesting way. Davide argued, quite brilliantly I thought, that one of the big contrasts between two sites that had such strikingly different scales was that, in a larger setting, as one walks about, there’s little or no motion parallax. Objects are so big and so far away from you that there isn’t a perceptible change in their relative locations unless you walk for quite a long way. This immediately reminded me of an old experience of mine in the Canadian Arctic while snowmobiling on the sea ice. I saw a majestic rocky cliff in the distance, and I really wanted to see it more closely. The problem was that my sense of scale was so confounded by the immensity of the setting, that even after quite a long trip across the ice (with increasing discomfort about the possibility of plunging into an unexpected hole into the frigid Arctic Ocean), the cliff didn’t seem to be getting closer. This fascinated me because it reminded me of the failed exploits of polar explorers in the past, some of which had come about in part because of a failure to appreciate the impact of scale on visual perception. But more than that, I got the feeling that that scene in the high Arctic didn’t care about me at all, which of course it didn’t. But the palpable feeling of being all alone, adrift, without the usual familiar moorings we have to the planet was very uncomfortable indeed.
Scale, parallax and love
Coming back to grand settings like La Défense, the parallel was immediately obvious to me. In an immense scene like this, where my own movements don’t seem to have any impact on the appearance of my surroundings, I lose agency. It feels as though I don’t have any connection to the setting nor any power to affect it.
Now compare this with the experience of an intimate space like Davide’s Venetian Campo Santa Margherita. In a more suitably scaled setting, my own movements produce visual motion signals galore. I feel much more mastery, more agency, and more comfort here. Indeed, it almost feels as though, in contrast to a huge setting which doesn’t care about me, that I’m being invited in. The arms of the Campo open to welcome me like an old friend offering a hug and a pat on the back.
It had never occurred to me to think about scale this way. When we discussed it, Robin Mazumder and I mooted the possibility that being surrounded by tall buildings might somehow enact the same kinds of defense mechanisms as a setting crowded with humans. We embody the buildings and treat them as strangers looming over us. That may not be a wrong idea, but I also like the thought that my perception of the pattern of a changing visual scene that is brought about by my own movements might be a curiously human way of effecting a link with setting that reaches into my heart. Settings that lack this affordance, by means of their scale, can feel forbidding, cold and detached.
This different way of thinking has also shaken up my thoughts about responsive environments. I’ve had some occasional meddlings with some really great people who work on environments that respond animatedly to the humans who come near them. The idea is to try to measure how a sculpture, let’s say, that moves and shimmers at the sight of me, might affect how I feel about the sculpture or, for that matter, how the sculpture feels about me. I’ve long been tickled by the possibility that such an installation, like the ones created by Philip Beesley’s team, shown in the picture, might be able to join into two-way empathic relationships with people.
But now with this new supposition is the thought that my emotional connection to a place might come about in part just through the “responses” that the place makes to my movements. It might not matter that those responses just fall naturally out of the place’s geometry and order and that, in the animate sense, the place is not really “doing” anything. Being something may be just enough.
When I tripped down that step in my hotel, the sequence of events unfolded as, perhaps, they only could out of a combination of my own little bit of neurodiversity in lacking certain kinds of cells in my visual brain and the peculiar combination of lighting and geometry in the setting. Really, I just lay on the floor for a few seconds and spit out some choice words. But it was hard not to think, at least in the moment, as if I had been resisted, almost shunned, by a forbidding environment that didn’t care about me. When we accidentally strike our thumb with a hammer, it's hard, if even for only a moment, not to hate the hammer. I didn’t really think, until after the meeting with Ruzzon’s class, about the straight-line pathway from that little mishap to a slightly deeper understanding not only of why I love my home but of why my home might also love me. Places can either reach out to embrace us, push us away, or simply ignore us. The power of a designer to decide which of these things happen, though sometimes unwitting, is always immense.
What I’m reading
My return to regular duties from sabbatical has been wicked. I confess that I’ve read almost nothing but technical material since September. If you have recommendations to save my soul, please send along.
What I’m eating
Since I last posted in October, quite a lot, though too much of it has been hastily prepared emergency rations as at Chez Ellard, as we all cope with massive increases in workload. Hoo boy. But given the content of the post, here’s the most Venetian thing I ate during my trip:
This is bigoli in an anchovy salsa. Traditionally, anchovies are fished from the Venice lagoon, mixed with garlic, good oil, a touch of lemon. Bigoli is slightly plumper than spaghetti, perfect for allowing the piquant, salty sauce to cling. Simple and delicious. Venice isn’t particularly known for gastronomy, but the local delicacies focus naturally on the waters. I think fish and seafood are best served without a lot of fuss, like this.
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Really interesting post . . . BUT I kept asking myself, what about those XL-scale moments that produce not a sense of discomfort but rather a sense of awe, for precisely the same reason you state (that place/building/whatever doesn't give a damn about you)-- say, the plaza in front of Amiens Cathedral or the Forbidden City or, or. What makes the difference between Too Big (Bad) and Too Big (Awesome), assuming there is one. Davide's point about sense of scale not changing is indeed brilliant. Hope your bruised parts are healing well. S