On Cognitive Dissonance and The Architectural Canon

Are students encouraged to exercise their own free will in judging what is good architecture, or pressured instead to blindly trust received authority?

Contemporary art museum built as an oversized industrial shed. The world’s most respected critics praised this building as an “architectural masterpiece.”

Drawing by Nikos A. Salingaros.

The whole point of having a predictive theory of architecture is to successfully explain and anticipate user reactions. Condensed into some checklist, a theoretical formulation of positive versus negative architectural properties could, in practice, be applied to images and renderings of existing and as yet unrealized buildings. If the theory is correct, then the predicted reaction to a building should correlate very strongly to the user’s physical experience when he/she has a chance to visit it.

Such a predictive theory already exists (Alexander, 2001). It is not widely known to design professionals because it remains so far at the margins of architectural culture. By contrast, currently-accepted architectural theories have no predictive capacity, but are instead intended to justify built forms after-the-fact.

Evaluating historical buildings with such a checklist validates the method. We already know that those are “great buildings.” What really interests us is the predictive value as far as buildings not yet built. Why spend millions to erect something that generates an anxious or depressing atmosphere, when that quality could be detected and fixed before construction? This analytic approach bypasses professional practice, where the success of a building is supposedly guaranteed by the architect’s name.

While our concern here is with prediction, even evaluation after-the-fact is problematic. Standard methods of post-occupancy evaluation are neither rigorous nor uniformly applied, so embarrassing design mistakes are often made that could have been easily corrected beforehand.

Applying a predictive theory will save money presently wasted on building non-adaptive environments, than in having to modify them later. But society is loath to change the way it does things, especially when a global industry is involved. If it makes a huge profit and keeps construction and engineering companies happy, why take any unnecessary risks by changing the model? And no one dares come back and touch a building by a celebrity architect, even though it is an abject failure. That would imply that someone had made a mistake. More than protecting any individual architect, architectural culture vehemently affirms its own infallibility.

I recently gave some guest lectures in a colleague’s “Great Buildings” survey course. Both of us were convinced that introducing geometrical criteria for judgment would lend a unifying theme to all the disparate buildings covering the history of humankind. We needed some compact set of relations that link to living patterns. I explained Alexander’s “Fifteen Fundamental Properties” (Alexander, 2001; Leitner, 2015; Salingaros, 2015a) to the class, and how to identify these properties in buildings. Teams of students then presented one building at a time, identifying as many of the fifteen geometrical properties as possible.

This method worked marvelously for the historical buildings, as students discovered all of the expected geometrical qualities built into the designs. Finding that dissimilar “great buildings” share common geometrical features—that, moreover, generate the buildings’ appeal— helps to unify our understanding of design and the history of architecture. Those criteria contribute subconsciously to our perception of what makes a building “great” but are not normally noticed. It was especially interesting to see early modernist buildings embodying some of the desirable geometrical properties. (After all, their architects were trained in the classical idiom.)

A surprise came with modernist icons and more recent buildings. I expected the students to discover that many famous modernist and contemporary buildings do not satisfy Alexander’s “Fifteen Fundamental Properties.” Architectural culture judges those using totally distinct (and sometimes opposite) criteria. I watched and listened with amazement while students presented iconic buildings lacking any of the fifteen fundamental properties, yet the teams showed diagrams illustrating geometrical features that were simply not there!

What caused this bizarre misunderstanding? Actually, a binding judgment was made before the class had even begun. All the buildings included in the picture textbook used for this course had automatically acquired the status of “great.” At the same time, the geometrical checklist made an intuitive sense, reinforced by the fact that well-loved buildings relied on these properties. These positive geometrical characteristics were correctly identified as universal; hence the contemporary “great” buildings, it was assumed, must satisfy them.

The students faced a contradiction that had to be resolved in either of two ways: (i) admitting that recent buildings violate universal geometrical properties which older great buildings satisfied, thus labeling modernist and contemporary icons as deficient; or (ii) convincing themselves that the desirable properties were actually present, and making up nonsensical diagrams to “prove” this. Questioning the authority of a textbook that validates iconic buildings as “great” was inconceivable. Of the two possible resolutions to cognitive dissonance, the second one — inventing a fictitious reality — is actually the least painful.

The next year I also presented guest lectures to a similar architecture class. This time, I taught a slightly different set of criteria with which to judge buildings: biophilic design properties (Salingaros, 2015b). I thought we would have more success with those, since architectural culture has begun to embrace Biophilia (but not yet Alexander’s Fifteen Fundamental Properties). The results were much the same, however. Again, the students described imaginary properties in their buildings.

The Solomon Asch Experiment: “Which line is longer?” The result influenced by group pressure: “Line B is longer!”

Drawing by Nikos A. Salingaros

This very disturbing experience parallels the biased cognition experiments of Solomon Asch (Salingaros, 2014). There, a subject was convinced by group pressure to say that the obviously shorter of two lines was in fact longer. People did so willingly, even though their response contradicted their own eyes and intelligence! The experiment included a large group of subjects who responded orally, one after another. Everyone in the room except the one true subject was instructed to say, quite naturally: “line B is longer.” The experimental setup was maneuvered so the unsuspecting subject was the last to answer.

Conforming to group opinion reduces stress due to cognitive dissonance, which is an inconsistency between one’s own direct experience and the authoritative opinion of others. A person experiences a state of intense discomfort, and will seek to restore cognitive consistency through any means, even if the resolution turns out to disagree with reality and the person’s own senses! This conclusion is frightening. After architecture critics declare unanimously that some building of negligible architectural value is a “masterpiece,” then the rest of the world has to meekly follow suit, and invent spurious reasons to justify this opinion.

Architectural culture’s basic value system resists analytical approaches. Trying to introduce useful geometric criteria as an analytical tool inevitably leads students into a psychological quandary. Newer canonical buildings chosen exclusively because of their industrial form language become exempt from any further evaluation. Are students encouraged to exercise their own free will and intelligence in judging what is good architecture, or pressured instead to blindly trust received authority?


Christopher Alexander (2001) The Nature of Order, Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life, Center for Environmental Structure, Berkeley, California.

Helmut Leitner (2015) Pattern Theory, CreateSpace, Amazon.

Nikos A. Salingaros (2014) “Cognitive Dissonance and Non-adaptive Architecture”, Doxa, Issue 11, Norgunk Publishing House, Istanbul, January 2014, pages 100-117.

Nikos A. Salingaros (2015a) “Alexander’s Fifteen Fundamental Properties”, ArchDaily, 2 May 2015. Chapter from the book: Unified Architectural Theory: Form, Language, Complexity, Sustasis Press, Portland, Oregon and Vajra Books, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2013.

Nikos A. Salingaros (2015b) “What Do Light, Color, Gravity, and Fractals Have To Do With Our Well-Being?”, Metropolis, 10 August 2015. Reprinted as a chapter in the booklet: Biophilia and Healing Environments, in paper form, Off The Common Books, and online, Terrapin Bright Green LLC, New York.

Categories: Architecture, Design Education