The Case for Beauty

Architect Donald H. Ruggles presents scientific reasons to design with beauty in mind

“There is a deep-seated need for beauty and when that need is filled, a sense of safety and comfort is created.” — Donald H. Ruggles, AIA

Beauty, and tending to its role in our lives, may sound like a luxury rather than a necessity. Recent developments in neuroscience disagree. Discoveries in fractal geometry, microbiology and psychology, too, prove that beauty is in fact necessary for health and well-being, and its manifestations can be seen and measured in art and architecture since the dawn of our recorded history. 

Donald H. Ruggles, AIA, NCARB, ICAA, presents in his book, Beauty, Neuroscience & Architecture, the scientific forces behind the emotional impact of beauty. Ruggles will visit Jacksonville during AIA Jacksonville’s Architecture Week, April 29 through May 3, to give a lecture, scheduled for May 2, on his book’s premise. With over fifty years of architectural experience, Ruggles is currently president of Ruggles Mabe Studio, a boutique residential architecture and interior design firm based in Colorado, and founder of  The Center for Beauty, Neuroscience & Architecture, which provides learning content for architectural design professionals, students, and “thought leaders.”

In two-hundred photographs and illustrations, and numerous, highly credible quotes, Beauty, Neuroscience & Architecture explores a legacy of evolution that is visible in our architecture. “Beauty is not just in the eye of the beholder,” says Ruggles. “Beauty is deeply rooted in patterns that were established in human prehistory, and that were made material as people gradually created the built environment.”

Notre Dame de Paris is often listed as the most beautiful example of Gothic cathedral design in France and is a veritable symphony of nine square.

Ruggles puts emphasis on the timeless, or primal, as he describes it, pattern of the nine-square grid. Psychology has long explored the impact of human face recognition on infants, and the face is the first nine-square pattern that every human sees. The response to all stimuli begins here, and Ruggles says, “At the most fundamental level, humankind is genetically predisposed to seek two things: survival and pleasure.” Our survival response is an adrenaline reaction of fight or flight produced by the sympathetic nervous system. An endorphin-releasing and stress-relieving pleasure reaction is attributed to the parasympathetic nervous system. Ruggles asserts that design should work with an awareness of the nervous system’s inputs. This particular pattern provokes the emotion of beauty, a reaction that is inherent to us.

The visual nine-square pattern is seen in an unbelievable range of historical examples in Beauty, Neuroscience & Architecture. Ruggles points to the built environment of the Chinese Tangshan culture of 5000 BC as the earliest known manifestation of the pattern. It is seen in their village plan and Great House, which, incidentally, have been recently reconstructed by archeologists. The pattern overlays each individual pyramid of Giza, as well as the entire site plan, and Ancient Greece’s Parthenon, among many more iconic structures. In modern history, it is utilized in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, including as the organizational concept for his most-recognized home, Fallingwater, selected to be included on the World Heritage List by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee. In art, Ruggles points out the nine-square pattern in masterworks that span centuries, from Botticelli’s 15th c. Birth of Venus to Clyfford Still’s abstract expressionist pieces of the 1950s. The nine-square grid links these buildings and paintings despite their scope of origin. “Seemingly, the root of the pattern is founded on a universal truth common to all civilizations and has been for all time,” he says. 

“In recognizing that visual patterns can subconsciously activate survival and pleasure responses, we are confirming that art and architecture, because both at their essence are schemes of visual patterns, have an important role to play in our health and well-being.”

The evidence of humankind’s search to express beauty is expertly produced in Beauty, Neuroscience & Architecture. Ruggles’ understanding of our perception of beauty and its significance in our lives informs not only an awareness of its saturation within our history, but inspiration for future aesthetic, environmental creation.

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