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Visual Delight in Architecture
Chapter Summaries

Chapter 1: Planetary Rhythms

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Life on earth has a profound challenge of adapting to the ever-changing patterns of light and dark created by our planet’s complex relationship to the sun and moon, which result in an intricate rhythm of daily, monthly, and seasonal changes. Over eons, all life forms have evolved systems that help them to predict and adapt to these changes. Similarly, humans have consciously evolved calendars and time-keeping systems to help them predict these planetary cycles. Understanding these cycles should be fundamental to any building professional designing spaces inhabited by humans.

In doing so, it is useful to understand the deep evolutionary roots of our human relationship with light. This is perhaps best exemplified by how one of the simplest types of cellular organisms, plankton, responds to light in the ocean. Terrestrial plants and animals have a similar challenge, and have evolved complex genetic mechanisms to help them anticipate upcoming changes in the pattern of light and dark. These mechanisms operate not just at the level of the individual, but also entwine entire ecological systems. Humans have very similar biological needs and physiology. Our buildings and cities should reflect this, and be designed to support our circadian health and well-being.

Although circadian rhythms are pervasive in all life forms, the topic has only recently garnered prominent scientific attention. The discovery of the ipRGC in the early years of this century, identifying the retina as providing the primary signal to the circadian system, has impelled new scientific interest in chronobiology. In addition to early attention to common jet lag symptoms and seasonal affective disorder (SAD), researchers have been identifying ever more health consequences of disrupted circadian rhythms, especially related to sleep quality. The public health implications are enormous. These physiological processes are complex, with many feedback loops, and are not yet thoroughly understood. Furthermore, we do not yet fully understand the what optimum, healthy exposure to sunlight or daylight looks like in the modern world. Until we do, prescriptions for artificial lighting solutions inside of buildings are premature. In the meantime, we can be certain that illumination from daylight is natural and always locally appropriate. Our experience of a hunger for daylight may be best described as a natural appetite.

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The eye has been called a miracle of evolution, but scientists, beginning with Darwin, can explain the likely evolution of the eye via natural selection. Considering the visual systems of other creatures, from zooplankton, through insects, fish, and birds can help us to understand the many ways our remarkable human visual system is similar or different. Correctly detecting and interpreting movement is critical to survival, and thus, current neurologic theory posits that complex body movements, vision, and cognitive power have evolved together hand-in-hand.

Our nighttime (rods/scoptopic) and daytime (cones/photoptic) visual systems are very different, and have interesting evolutionary histories. Rods are up to 10,000 times more sensitive to light than cones, and are grouped into large ‘receptive fields’ that pre-process visual information before it is transmitted to the brain. Due to the pervasiveness of electric lighting, many modern humans have not developed a comfortable ability to operate under fully scotopic conditions.

Color vision is quite variable within the human genome, and thus color perception can vary considerably between people. Cones are even more energetic than the rods, and require a constant supply of blood providing oxygen and nutrients. To economize, they are also concentrated in a small area, called the fovea, that provides most of our highly detailed and color vision. Our eyes are constantly scanning, in movements called saccades, so our brains can fill in visual details and create a coherent image. We keep learning about new complexities of the eye, such as how the rods and cones interact, how daily and seasonal changes may affect visual perception, and how these may also impact childhood visual development.

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Human brains are structured to favor visual information, but our visual perception is often so flawlessly detailed we rarely question the intricacies of its function. It is worth a dive into neurology to better understand the potential cognitive benefits of looking out of windows.

The brain is constantly trying to predict the future, by refining models based on past experience of both inward and outward sensory information. We rarely have complete information to inform our predictive models, and this is especially true of visual information that is continuously sampled in discrete saccades. Visual information is assembled into a cognitive map that assists orientation, movement, navigation, and storage of memories. The hippocampus brain structure, which has been shown to receive circadian stimulus directly from the retina, is central to the formation of both cognitive maps and long-term memories.

Studies suggest that a more complex visual environment supports better memory formation. Visual ‘distractions’ have been shown to improve memory formation and retrieval. In various ways, memory formation and retrieval, along with spatial awareness, cognitive maps, attention, distraction, and boredom, all seem to have some connection to our relationship with windows.

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Psychologists long thought that sustained attention and vigilance were the gold standard for cognitive performance. Selective attention provides the information that is used in working memory. As working memory improves, so does executive function and goal-directed activity. Distraction was thought to be the enemy of attention. However, lack of distraction may result in boredom, also associated with negative emotions and poor cognitive performance. From what few naturalistic studies we have, it is clear that boredom increases inside buildings and during circadian lulls, while its opposite, vitality, increases after exposure to bright light. Working memory and positive emotions have been shown to improve for people working near windows, in spite of visual distractions, suggesting a net positive effect on attention.

Early psychological research held that mind wandering was also the enemy of attention, and produced only negative outcomes. However, recent fMRI imaging has shown that mind wandering is associated with the new discovered ‘default mode network’ (DMN), a ubiquitous and rhythmic cognitive pattern, which is the opposite of the type of directed-task performance commonly studied. Instead the DMN seems to support the ‘autobiographical self,’ helping people remain self-aware and engage in mental time travel, i.e. remembering the past and planning for the future, and importantly, engage in incubation, i.e. insightful problem solving.

Researchers are finding the DMN is part of a universal cognitive rhythm of inward then outward awareness. It has many similarities to REM sleep, and thus is aptly nick-named daydreaming. Observations from writers and other creative people seem to confirm these relationships, and reinforce the hypothesis that views to the outside world may help support this essential cognitive function.

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Chapter 6: Learning to See

As babies, we first learn to identify faces, then objects, quickly becoming expert and taking joy in the accomplishment. Understanding motion is one of the next key challenges in making sense of the visual environment, both the motion of objects and our own motion, which involves great cognitive complexity. Considering visual illusions can help us to better understand both strengths and weakness of our visual system. For example, perspective plays strongly into our visual understanding, but is easily distorted. Temporal illusions are also useful to understand, since vision is so closely tied into our sense of time and reality. Differences in time perception have been observed in natural versus urban environments, and may be connected to our level of boredom or engagement with the visual environment.

We also increasingly notice the strengths and weaknesses of our visual system as we start to age. After age forty, most people need corrective lenses to help with presbyopia. Other forms of low vison become increasingly common with aging, and are often not well understood by younger people who design physical environments. Decline of visual function makes older people even more sensitive to visual conditions, and in need of stronger circadian stimulus.

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In understanding patterns of daylight illumination, it is first important to differentiate between the qualities of sunlight versus daylight. Together, sunlight and daylight create a vast array of illumination patterns. Variations in colors, shadows, and highlights all contribute to our perception of daylight spaces. The more a designer understands about how the physics of daylight and the biology of human perception interact, the greater the potential to turn science into art, and vice versa.

Our perception of color is a great joy, and a function of five contributing factors: the spectrum of the light source; the properties of the material we are looking at; the sensitivity of our retina; cognitive processing; and finally, the cultural context. Shadows and highlights importantly contribute to our understanding of three-dimensional space. Without them, the visual environment looks flat and dull. The distinction between attractive highlights and sparkle versus uncomfortable glare is one of degree. Avoiding glare is often presented as the primary objective of daylit buildings, but we currently lack good methods to really understand and predict it. There is considerable evidence that people prefer looking out windows at views despite predicted glare. It may be time to completely rethink our understanding of visual quality, by putting view quality into the equation.

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Designing buildings that use daylight as the primary illuminant requires a different mindset than is often taught in architecture schools, because daylight is dynamic, big, and follows its own whims. To do a good job, it is essential to master solar geometry. The experience of twilight and nightfall also vary dramatically by latitude. Other important regional differences in daylight quality are influenced by weather patterns, landforms, and cultural inheritance.

Daylighting buildings via toplighting is very efficient and has been used since ancient times. Recent innovations in skylight technology have greatly improved their performance. Sidelighting may be the most common approach to daylighting, but has more challenges to ensure visual quality. For example, contrast glare can be avoided if daylight enters a room from at least two directions. The best way to balance the visual conditions in a daylit room is usually with more daylight, because daylight is always in sync with itself.


New efforts are underway to evaluate the success of daylight design. Electric lighting should ideally be considered as a supplement to daylight. Daylight and electric light are very different, and can be complementary. Window management via curtains, blinds, or shades is critical, as are the user-interface systems for controlling them. Finally, placement of windows not only lets daylight in, but also frames a view out, which can drastically alter an occupant’s perception of the space.

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A ‘good view’ has rarely been a topic of rigorous study. However, many forms of evidence reinforce the importance of sky, trees and animals, people and pathways, landmarks and water as elements of strongly preferred views. People are often inarticulate about view content or quality, but they will complain of lost views, especially a water view.

Bigger, wider views are almost always preferred, but absolute size of objects within the view seems of little importance. There are interesting perceptual distortions in size based on how interesting or disturbing the observer finds an element of view to be. Some degree of change within a view is engaging, with intermittent or unpredictable events often generating the greatest interest.

These may be ‘alerting events’ that cue an observer to pay closer attention.

Many types of window systems balance inward and outward views. Scrims and veils control attention inward and outward, and can be emotionally reassuring, or troubling, depending on context. Reflections can also create ambiguity and interest, or be disorienting and frustrating, depending on the intent of the viewer. Coherence and legibility are primary desires for most observers.

Spatial frequency is a concept that helps to define scale and detail. While large spatial frequencies convey the most important information (structure), we seem to get the most joy out of small spatial frequencies (detail). Movement, whether of the object or observed, also adds information and increases the coherence of a view. Fractal relationships and perspective allow us to mentally zoom in and out and they provide special satisfaction. A simple construct that helps to ensure a balance of most of the positive elements described above is a ‘Three-layered views.’

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The history of school design presents an interesting perspective of changing attitudes towards daylight and view. By the 1960s windows were considered an ‘operational nuisance.’ The prestigious Michigan study is an excellent example of biased, poorly-executed research which, even so, had a lasting influence. Later, a rare convergence of forces enabled the first large study of daylighting impacts on student learning, which was transformational for school design.

Two follow-on studies confirmed and refined the significance of all aspects of the indoor environment for student performance, and also highlighted ‘the war’ that often wages in schools between teachers and building managers. The more detailed window characteristics considered in the Fresno study had two to six times the predictive power compared to the Capistrano Study, but its findings were more complex, showing interactions with thermal comfort, ventilation, and acoustics.

The controversy continues over whether these findings are of a magnitude to warrant policy changes in school design. However, it is important to recognize that many other major educational investments are made with far less evidence, and have higher costs and shorter-term impacts. It is also interesting to note that there is mounting evidence that daylight and view have positive effects not only for elementary education, which has been easier to study, but also for adolescent and adult education.

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A lot of effort was put into verifying energy savings in buildings, especially to document the cost effectiveness of daylighting. There was an early assumption that energy efficiency must involve some sacrifice. However, many case studies were showing ways that daylit buildings were benefiting owners beyond the value of the yearly energy savings. There is a long history of daylit retail spaces, however, Walmart’s adoption of skylights was transformational, suggesting that daylighting could not only provide excellent return on investment, but help retailers be more profitable too.

HMG set out to quantify some of these non-energy benefits. In the first study of Ralph’s Grocery stores, all things being equal, daylit stores sold 40% more than their sisters. A second more detailed study of the hardware chair OSH showed a dose-response relationship, and higher transactions associated with more daylit stores.

Yet, despite such evidence, skepticism remained, especially without attribution for the companies studied. Often direct bodily experience of daylight spaces proved more compelling than careful statistical analysis. Even within companies, rapid staff turnover and company acquisitions continually eroded institutional knowledge of the benefits of skylights.

The durable elements of buildings which determine daylight and view will benefit occupants long after the original owners depart. Thus, policies should look beyond immediate financial benefits and advocate for a sustainable ‘loose fit.’

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Access to daylight and views are importantly determined by enduring decisions about building and urban form. There are many types of constraints, including landscape elements, technological limitations, cultural traditions, and legal codes. While social restraints on building forms, such as codes and standards, may be resisted by building owners, they can ensure important resiliency during unexpected or extreme events.

Land use patterns, including street layouts and property lines, are very persistent over centuries. Many of our common prototypes for daylit building were inherited from the Roman empire, based on two- and three-story buildings which were primarily toplit. As buildings got taller, their relationship to daylight and views changed. Stairways and fire safety were commonly limiting factors until the adoption of steel construction and elevators in the late nineteenth century. Towers have since become important landmarks and tourist attractions in most cities, but also create inherent conflicts of shadowed streets and blocked views. Analysis of shadowing, solar access, and view-sheds promises future urban plans that can better balance all needs, and create enduring urban forms that preserve access to daylight and views for all residents, rather than just the privileged few.

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It is widely understood that views have great monetary value, as evidenced by their real estate value. However, this value has been difficult to assess in the abstract. Views have long been tightly entwined with property rights. They often convey a sense of ownership, supervision, mastery, and privilege to those that have them, even in public places when there is no direct ownership involved. This may partly be because views reinforce a potent sense of place and orientation, providing a definitive reminder of ‘where you are’ in time and place. However, unlike other more transitory sensory experiences, views can also convey a sense of permanence and timeless connection, as reflected in many place names.

Recurrent experiences of any given view can evolve into a highly personalized ‘point of view,’ impacting one’s sense of self, and even providing an odd sense of companionship. People’s fondness for views builds over time, as cognitive and emotional interactions accumulate, almost regardless of content. As a result, many writers report that the view at their work desk helps them more easily re-enter their literary mental state, maintain their focus, and then effortlessly return back to present reality.

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Finding the right balance of environmental conditions is a challenge for any workplace. We have much evidence that access to daylight and views is strongly preferred by workers, but unfortunately not the norm. There is a long history of office design trying to balance various environmental needs with new fixes, but with persistent disappointment on many fronts. Air quality plus acoustic, thermal, and visual comfort are inevitably tangled together. The advent of ‘hoteling’ offers the promise of greater interior design variety and worker choice, while also pushing office design towards ever more flexible interior environments. The design of building apertures is one of the most persistent, and now one of the few remaining, design choices for architects. Observing the kinds of environmental choices workers naturally make, when given the opportunity, can be very informative.

It is also instructive to examine worker response to extreme conditions and unusual work environments; for example, computer programmers, basement workers, and inhabitants of submarines and space stations. Likewise, courthouses and technology companies have special concerns. In addition to individual worker benefits, the impact of daylight and view on overall organizational productivity can also be studied, given large enough study populations and appropriate field conditions. Evidence shows small, but consistent and significant, positive effects.

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Chapter 15: Healing Daylight

Healthcare design architects embraced ‘evidence-based design’ long before other areas of the profession, going back to roots in the nineteenth century. In 1984, Roger Ulrich’s research launched current interest in daylight and views in hospital settings. Evidence is particularly compelling relative to daylight and view’s influence on patients’ sleep quality, depression, pain management, and recovery time. Resulting reductions of hospital costs have gotten the attention of hospital administrators and planners.

In addition to patients, daylight and views are also important for doctors, nurses, staff, family, and other visitors. Children and the elderly are particularly sensitive. There are many parallels with how animal ‘patients’ experience daylight and views, who might be considered as proxies for human patients who are not able to articulate their needs. This can be especially poignant for hospice patients and family, for whom the fleeting ‘nowness’ of a view can provide essential solace.

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Iconic daylight and views create transformative experiences, specifically intended to communicate cultural ideas across generations. Iconic daylight, a quality of otherworldly light that defies the default assumptions of our brains, can be found in both natural moments and designed environments. The exceptional quality of light in Yosemite is similar in many ways to that of Venice, or the tunnels of sacred Tori at Fushimi Inari in Kyoto, Japan. Exceptional directionality, color, and diffusion of daylight are often used to convey religious experience, from the ancient Roman Pantheon to European Cathedrals to the modern chapels of Saarinen and Wright. The discovery of daylight in First Nation origin myths is personified in the design of an anthropology museum in Canada by Erickson.

Views of landscapes, monuments, and even common structures have been revered and preserved as part of the cultural heritage of a people. This may be most evident in memorials and cemetery design, where there is an explicit desire to communicate visually across time. Asian gardens have long been designed as a visualization of philosophic concepts, while views of historical cities, such as Edinburgh, create an intimacy of shared experience across time. Common urban landmarks can become emblematic of a place over time, increasingly referenced in art and literature, until they become treasured icons of the city.

Many recent research projects discussed in this book have investigated the benefits of ‘natural’ versus ‘urban’ views, and design projects have touted their ‘biophilic’ design, yet with little discussion of the implications of those terms. However, a visual image of ‘nature,’ along with judgments of pretty versus ugly, are culturally determined concepts, as first explored by the cultural geographer Yi-Fu Tuan. For example, early Taoist (Chinese) and Hindu (Indian) art forms demonstrate contrasting philosophic approaches to landscape aesthetics. Along with ‘nature,’ ‘wilderness,’ and ‘wildness’ are also culturally fraught terms.

European, and subsequently American, landscape aesthetics have also evolved over time, from minimalist medieval sensibilities, through religious metaphors in the Renaissance and the picturesque movement during the Enlightenment, to the most recent interest in blending naturalistic elements into preserved industrial landscapes. Olmstead’s landscape vision has been one of the most influential in defining ‘nature’ for Americans, yet even Olmstead blurred the boundaries between nature and artifice.

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Edward O Wilson first defined the Biophilia Hypothesis in 1984, which has since become a driving force in the design field. Daylight and views figure prominently in most descriptions of biophilic design. However, biophilic elements remain poorly defined and verification of specific effects are mostly lacking. The most compelling evidence of positive effects come from recent epidemiological studies of the effect of outdoor ‘greenery’ on public health outcomes.

There is great research interest in studying health and well-being effects of daylight, views, and other biophilic elements via simulations, which have led to mixed results. Japanese studies of real-time ‘forest bathing’ are perhaps the most promising in terms of identifying physiological causal mechanisms. There is also great commercial interest in substituting ‘technological nature’ versions of daylight and views for authentic experience. While technological nature might constitute a new art form, similar to digital music, it also presents a number of concerning threats that deserve careful consideration, such as loss of intrinsic value of building and urban design; trends towards overstimulation and resulting desensitization; generational erosion of expectations for authentic experience; and the co-option by marketing interests.

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A common question about daylight and views is: “Can’t we just simulate that?” The many dimensions of daylight and views probed in this book suggest that a technological solution will always be an inadequate substitution. A cultural commitment to daylight will require contributions from all types of building professionals, owners, and occupants. American architect Richard Neutra made an impassioned plea in 1969 for multidisciplinary investigations of how the built environment relates to human health and well-being. Fifty years later much progress has been made, but there are still hurdles to overcome. Research in this area tends to be poorly coordinated and lack a unifying hypothesis. It is important to consider research questions using multiple methodologies, and avoid reductionist research which inadvertently excludes the kinds of emergent properties that are common in biological systems.

Examples of emergent properties which may be significant in our response to daylight and views include: our fundamental sense of time and reality, tightly coordinated with other rhythms, at both an individual and a planetary scale; more robust cognitive maps, the opportunities they offer for mental exploration, and resulting problem solving and insight; the inward and outward mental explorations that successful windows enable, both humanizing our buildings and reflecting the structures of our own minds. As evidenced by many astronauts’ experiences, humans seem to be intrinsically fascinated with ‘earthgazing.’

This conclusion to Visual Delight in Architecture very briefly summarizes the wide range of arguments made throughout the book in favor of the essential importance of windows and views. It succinctly describes the current state of knowledge and tools relative to the role that daylight and views have in our buildings, and suggests potential directions for future research. The deep embrace of daylight and views as an essential element of a humane built environment will inevitably lead to a renaissance in design and research, as we explore new ways to optimize our buildings and cities for both current and future occupants.

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