Why do some buildings exhilarate us and make us feel like we belong when looking at them while others can feel disharmonious?
Our subconscious mind determines how we perceive architecture. What we see with our eyes interacts with our brains, consciously and unconsciously.
Our brains process this data – this interplay dictates how our senses perceive what we are viewing.
Our subconscious mind is hardwired to react to shapes and patterns. These shapes and patterns seen in architecture and everyday life have been studied and codified into fundamental principles. As discussed in the Old House Guy Aesthetics webpage , understanding and following these principles result in architecture that is aesthetically pleasing.
The Gestalt principles help explain how our minds perceive architecture. The following is a guest post from Joffrey Essley who does a great job in explaining these theories.
Gestalt principles come from psychologists investigation into how we perceive the world around us. They theorized that the brain used certain organizing principles to make sense out of all that we see. Since these psychologists were German they came up for a German name for their principles. “Gestalt” means shape and Gestalt principles speak to how we perceive shapes.
Simplicity is one of these principles. It is often stated as a principle of preference. For instance I read that the principle of Simplicity means that “simple groups of well-shaped objects are preferred”. This is true, and is a helpful idea to understand if you are in design, but it short-changes the principle.
We not only prefer the simple, we go out of our way to perceive the simple. Indeed, we must break down anything complex into its simplest elements in order to understand it. Sometimes we even perceive simple objects that are only implied, as in the silhouette on the left. Without much prompting our brain can tell that it is composed of simpler shapes and should look something like the picture on the right.
Since this site is all about houses let us apply this principle to a real house.
Consider the house above. We quickly recognize the windows as being distinct from the walls. We can even group the windows into different sets based commonalities in size and shape and location. The walls themselves are not one indistinct mass of wall, but multiple walls forming different planes. The house, in a sense, becomes a collection of walls, an example of the principle of Simplicity in action.
How your mind organizes these simpler shapes is where most of the other principles come into play. For instance, chimneys are easily identified because they continue out beyond the line of the roof, and we group them together because they share a common fate. That is they are all pointed toward the sky. This idea of a “Common Fate” is another Gestalt principle, and it helps the mind group all these sky-pointing things together.
Let us go back to the original definition I presented, “simple groups of well-shaped objects are preferred”. This is a useful axiom to consider when designing a house. Making the job of the mind easier will often increase the pleasure we feel in viewing a house.
The designer of the above house certainly used a lot of “well-shaped objects”. The windows, with their white trim, tend to be very distinct from the brick. The problem here is that these are not “simple groupings”. There is some displeasure created by the jumble of shapes. It is not that this is an ugly house. I like it. It is just a case where it could have been more beautiful had we not been overwhelmed by the myriad of shapes we had to consider.
The Gestalt Principles apply to all areas of design, so if you plan on doing any kind of design work, even if it is just adding on a porch to your house, it will be worth your time to study all of these principles.
About the Author
Joffre Essley writes about homes and architecture at
You can see his Gestalt articles at
His passion and interest is architecture. By profession he is an engineer. He has a wife and three children, a dog and two cats, and lives in the country side of Central Ohio.
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