How do we define what’s most beautiful about a mega-yacht interior?
by Louis Postel | Showboats International | 2015
A beautiful space is a space we always want to return to, argues developmental psychologist Howard Gardner of Harvard. The trouble with such a definition, he would add, is that the only spaces universally acknowledged as beautiful are many years old: La Alhambra, The Pantheon, Chartres Cathedral.
Today, mega yacht designers are among the very few designers world-wide held to such high standards. Performance requirements are increasing exponentially: for speed, safety, sustainability, versatility — and for a beautiful space one always want to return to. With a few strokes of a felt pen on a dinner napkin, an M/Y designer draws on vast amounts of information and intuition to capture almost every yearning of the spirit, mind and body in a simple layout.
We said: almost every.
But perhaps not all. And in terms of modern performance standards, 5% can be huge.
All is a requirement beyond any single human to fulfill. Creating the awe-inspiring beauty on the level of Chartres or Al Alhambra requires collaboration. And this is where the emerging science of evidence-based, neuro-design and architecture has so much to offer in shedding light on a host of complex questions relating to the brain’s response to space, and the impact of space on the brain.
Dr. Julio Bermudez of Catholic University of America in Washington, DC lead a study using fMRI —functional magnetic resonance imaging — to capture the effects of just such extraordinary architectural experiences, or EAE’s. With these brain scans, Bermudez and his colleagues have shown that encounters with such EAE’s as Chartres or La Alhambra and arguably many an M/Y interior creates what he calls architecturally-induced meditative states.
In other words, maybe you don’t have to learn to meditate, just find yourself an EAE salon and let its majestic forms do all the work.
But now consider, en route to said salon, this question: what’s easier on the brain — curved bulkheads, or angled ones? “Well,” you could say, “I don’t need an fMRI to tell me that. Vessels as opposed to land structures are all about curves cutting through water.
“And, besides, Feng Shui masters were warning emperors about ‘poison arrows’ shot from sharp angles for over four thousand years. They had this down long before Frank Lloyd Wright banished right angles at the Guggenheim, followed by Frank Gehry use of aeronautic, wing-designing software to build his organic museums, and Santiago Calatrava his sail-born bridges.”
Science is, of course, annoyingly skeptical about accepting what Feng Shui has made obvious even to the most casual readers of the Sunday supplement. So we asked neuroscientist Michael O’Boyle of Texas Tech University in Lubbock, TX. For his take. A presenter at the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA), O’Boyle just completed an immersion study of people walking though virtual curved and angled spaces. His task was to measure the ensuing neuron response in his subjects’ amygdalae, the fight or flight centers of their brains.
“Indeed,” said O’Boyle, “anxiety increases when people encounter sharp things. They think, ‘sharp things may not be good for my survival.’”
“But here’s the thing we found: you have to balance the aesthetics of curved forms with the need for way-finding and this is where what call angular familiarity is so important. For example, on the bridge, or galley, when you need to find things fast, the route to the life-boats, exits and entrances. If you can’t find your way, your anxiety goes up, as well.”
Another source of anxiety on even the largest M/Y is ceiling height. It’s hard to experience the wow effects of EAE when you feel cramped in a lower deck cabin. Again, we turned to O’Boyle, who, with colleague Dr. Debajyoti Pati, has been testing a virtual skylight called a Luminous SkyCeiling. Originally designed as a “portal to nature” to calm patients in severely cramped spaces hospital rooms, or undergoing claustrophobia-inducing fMRI testing themselves
“We mounted these 2’ x 6’ sky layered compositions over patients’ beds, these SkyCeiling portals, to see if they created a relaxation response, leading to a faster recovery. Indeed, they appear to activate parts of the brain associated with depth perception — the cerebellum — creating a sense of imagined movement in beneficial ways that other images did not,” said O’Boyle. “Pictures of puppies, for example, had almost no measurable effect.”
Now let’s say, you’re leaving your relatively cramped stateroom completely refreshed by the SkyCeiling image “High Altitude Cirrus.” But where’s breakfast? Unfortunately, there are no neon signs that point to “Joe’s Diner.” O’Boyle studied the effect of angles on way finding, but what other clues help the brain find its way to breakfast, anyway?
Scientists John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser and her husband Edvard Moser won the Nobel last year by discovering what looks to be our brain’s “Inner GPS.” O’Keefe’s work with rats back in 1971 established what O’Keefe named “place cells” — nerve cells that become activated each time a rat passes a certain location. When this happens the rat creates a mental map for navigation. Later, the Mosers added something called “grid cells” to our design vocabulary, based on their beloved rat subjects’ ability to know their position at any given time.
Will the “Inner GPS” someday help sea-sickness sufferers? Given that an M/Y is constantly in motion at sea or anchored off an unfamiliar coast, one would think that whatever cues a designer can make to help those “place cells” and “grid cells” locate a voyager’s position in this bewildering universe the better.
Dr. Dak Kopek is Boston-based environmental psychologist and the author of Evidence Based Design (Prentice Hall). “You can take the most gentle person and put them in the wrong environment and they can turn into a raving lunatic,” said Kopek. “Take passenger rage on commercial flights…Measurable increases in adrenal secretion. Boeing did a lot ground-breaking studies on the territorial crowding that went into its Dreamliner 787. In the end, they were actually able to add more seats, but create a greater feeling of space.
“Evolutionary psychologists were able to prove is that males differ from females regarding how much space and privacy they need. Males evolved 50,000 years ago as hunters, hard-wired to seek unobstructed terrain, and to communicate across the vastness non-verbally. Given that need for space, males are far more given to explosiveness around personal space violations and “air rage.” Females evolved differently, gathering fruits and nuts in groups, communicating verbally. Their need is more for communal space.
“The Dreamliner did a number of things to address the issue. Enlarged windows, soothing cobalt colors, streamlined overhead bins, increased humidity in the cabin releasing produce more relaxing, negative ions. It should be noted for yacht owners that splashing water has the same negative ion producing effect.
Well, okay, but what about obtaining the extraordinary architectural effects, the EAE’s on the M/Y’s now that everyone has settled down negative ion-laced hunter-gatherer mode? “We get a lot interesting data from realtors who show houses. It’s the first and last impressions that count far more than the ones in between, they tell us. The middle counts for almost nothing. Why this is so may be found in recent studies in neuro-linguistics. Our brains, they say, read words based mainly on seeing first and last letters, the ones in between are almost unnecessary.”
It remains to be seen whether a true EAE experience depends almost exclusively on an M/Y’s foyer, one’s entrances and exits. Whether entering or exiting, meditating or rough-housing, Professor Gardner might describe a beautiful M/Y interior as one you’d always want to return to. To ask whether the interior causes a 95% positive response in this regard, or a 99.9% positive response seems silly. And yet, in terms of high-performance, that’s exactly what’s being asked.
So how do we know we have truly arrived at a 99.9% full-blast, EAE-type experience, a “floating palace” on the level of Chartres?
“In terms of performance, clients are now demanding more than can be delivered,” said Darragh O’Brien reached in his office at the Evidence Based Design Journal, which his based in Kensington, Australia. “And even with the best M/Y designers, there are many things which just aren’t predictable. While in the automotive and aeronautic industry there’s a lot of prototyping, but not so much for private yachts.”
The only way to really know what’s going on with that unpredictable 5%, according to O’Brien, is to stop construction at 80% completion, and then proceed to tailor the remaining 20% based on feedback from the owner and crew. “Post-occupying analysis will be the next new thing,” he predicts. “But that will involve a cultural sea change to say to a client ‘you’ve hired the best in the world, but even the best in the world can’t always get that unpredictable 5% just right – so let’s check it out.”
Indeed, the very notion of undertaking a post-construction analysis seems like opening Pandora’s box. Wouldn’t the multiple onsite visits to the vessel, third party testing, the ethical, that is to say, above-board planting of sensors, lead to more trouble than knowledge gained? “There’s just so much anxiety around admitting to one’s fallibility. Still, we’re talking about a machine for living at sea — this had better be a great machine, running perfectly.”
That said, O’Brien is emphatic that scientific inquiry is not about having an answer. “Nor does it eliminate the irrational and creative. No good design has come out of the totally rational or the totally irrational, for that matter.”
The research coming out today about our brain’s relationship to space, and space to the brain will surely provide more questions than answers. If there’s skepticism on the part of the world’s best M/Y designers, there’s an equal measure of excitement. After all, one can say they are already hard-wired to achieving the very highest, Chartres-like levels of performance.