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Architecture and First Impressions: How is this
relevant to architecture? // Kelsey Middelkamp


“I enter a building, see a room, and – in the fraction of a second – have this feeling about it.”

-Peter Zumthor (1)


The architect Peter Zumthor believes architecture is similar to a first impression.2 What does this mean and what evidence supports Zumthor’s feeling? An impression is “the first and immediate effect of an experience or perception upon the mind,” and also, “an image in the mind caused by something external.” (2) More specifically, a first impression, being a psychological concept, is a holistic phenomenon in which a composite of signals emitted by a new stimulus is imagined almost immediately.(3) Such snap-judgments evolved as a survival skill in an eat-or-be-eaten world, however, first impressions are not purely an animalistic survival skill. Culturally and socially we are proficient to judge others through archetypes, stereotypes, consciously, or otherwise.(4) If Zumthor’s assumption is correct, and we sense architecture like first impressions, then for all an architect’s effort, a space is understood immediately, pre-reflectively, the product of millions of years of evolution.


The etymology of façade teaches that seeing a building is similar to perceiving human faces. In terms of recognition, a study First Impressions: Making Up Your Mind After a 100-ms Exposure to a Face revealed that in a tenth of a second, humans are able to make characteristic assumptions of a stranger’s face. (5)


Image of face detection and expression classification. Face detection was based on an equalised greyscale, left column. The first cluster of images are the “baseline” images from which all results are derived. In the next clusters of images, the green square represents disgust, the red square represents anger, the white square represents happiness, and a grey square represents a neutral expression. (6)

In a connected study by Chalup et al., facial recognition software was used to, at first, detect human faces, then, in the second portion of the study the same software was overlaid onto building façades.(7)  The results yielded that building façades are detected similarly to faces.

Facial detection software was applied to each façade in which the colors represent expression classification. (6)

Facial perception is particularly formed in the brain as stimulated by embodied simulation or empathy, which not only connects people to other people, but with objects as well. In The Sense of Touch, Ebisch et al. demonstrate that the brain broadly interprets touch between both animate and (like material elements in architecture) inanimate objects in ways strikingly similar to facial recognition. (7)

The image represents how the human brain perceives the touch between animate and inanimate objects. This brings up the question, could this be similar to how we perceive first impressions of both animate and inanimate objects? (8)

If the brain pre-reflectively scans a room like a face, with similar accuracy in judgment, empathy and nuance, then it must be like a first impression. For the scientist, the lesson is that our knowledge of space is more biological, than it is cognitive. For architects, the lesson is that we must design a space with the understanding of how the brain perceives a space. If we do not take this information into account, then the observer will not have a positive aesthetic experience, instead they will create a poor first impression of the space, which is very hard to turn around into a positive one.

Andrea Palladio, Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice (1566-1610). Although one’s first impression is their own the architect has composed the façade to feel a particular way.  Palladio used precise arrangements of structural elements as well as ornament to create this façade. (9)

Architecture affects us emotionally before we consciously understand it. (10)  As Peter Zumthor will have it, “We perceive atmosphere through our emotional sensibility – a form of perception that works incredibly quickly, and which we humans evidently need to help us survive.” (11)


Now that we have a basic understanding of how the brain perceives a work of architecture, how is this relevant to our project at Camp Wood? These findings are pertinent for a number of reasons, the most important being how the studio derived the design for an experience along a pathway. Knowing that humans identify architecture in the same manner as a first impression, we can deduce that the same can be said about the site at Camp Wood. In order to have the most impactful work of architecture on such a remarkable site, the studio thought it best to have an experiential sequence of the project and the prairie itself. Humans make up their mind about something or someone in a fraction of a second, which makes an architect’s job very difficult. They have to capture and captivate an observer’s mind in only a few seconds in order for that observer to have an aesthetic experience. The solution our studio came up with was to have various stations along a path that played to the senses of humans. At each of these stations, one sense was specifically targeted however that does not mean that more than one sense will be experienced at any given time. Also, about every other station or so is large enough to be a makeshift gathering space to collect one’s thoughts either alone or with a group, which is always a good idea when trying to get children to understand this vast environment. We used materials that were natural to the site in the design of this project, such as stacking the limestone we pulled up from the ground to create a large dry stack limestone wall. Using these natural materials helps the brain to gain a sense of the environment and of the built architecture, which in turn accelerates the time in which it takes to have an aesthetic experience.  



(1) Zumthor, Peter. Atmospheres. Basel: Birkhäuser, 2006: 10. Print.

(2)  Ibid.

(3)  Flora, Carlin. “The First Impression.” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, LLC, 14 May 2004. Web.

(4)  Websters, New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Barnes and Nobel, 2003: 96

(5)  Willis, Janine, and Alexander Todorov. “First Impressions: Making Up Your Mind After a 100-Ms Exposure to a Face.”

       Psychological Science 17.7 (2006): 592-98. California State University Chico. Sage Publications. Web.

(6)  “Simulating Pareidolia of Faces for Architectural Image Analysis,” Chalup, et. al, International Journal for Computer Information

        Systems and Industrial Management Applications, Vol. 2 (2010): 262-278.

(7)  Chalup, Stephan et. al. “A Face-House Paradigm for Architectural Scene Analysis.” CSTST (2008): 27-31.

(8)  “The Sense of Touch: Embodied Simulation in a Visuotactile Mirroring Mechanism for Observed Animate or Inanimate Touch,”

        Ebisch, et. al. Journal of cognitive neuroscience 20, no. 9 (2008): 1611-1623.

(9)  Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, Bob Condia, 2015.

(10)  Pallasmaa, Juhani. “Body, Mind, and Imagination: The Mental Essence of Architecture.” Mind in Architecture. Cambridge,

        Massachusetts: MIT, 2015. 51-74. Print.

(11)  Zumthor, Peter. Op. cit.

(12)  Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press, 2016. Web.


Written by Kelsey Middelkamp

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