Elements of architectural language which affect the perception of heritage: An experiment using eye-tracking technology

By Armagan Dogan

Over the last decades, extensive research has been conducted across various disciplines regarding memory, different architectural languages, perception of the environment, and how experiences and memories affect the place attachment of the people. However, the impact of perception and memories on the evaluation of cultural heritage is not widely studied. Furthermore, the protection of modern heritage as a phenomenon facilitating sustainable behaviour and strategies for public involvement is also not studied comprehensively. 

As the Modern Movement era and its heritage are a moot case in the architectural sphere, and its architectural merit is not appreciated by the society in the way it deserves, research was conducted between the years 2016-2020 in Kaunas, Lithuania, as a part of my PhD studies. The research aimed to understand the role of cultural memory on the formation of architectural languages and to develop a model to measure people’s perception in their assessment of cultural heritage, which can be used in adaptive re-use strategies of built heritage. Furthermore, it was argued that a better understanding of this phenomenon could allow specialists to proceed from a more informed perspective regarding adaptive re-use of built heritage and comprehend society’s perception towards it. Therefore, an experiment was conducted in 2019 using eye tracking glasses as part of my PhD research.

The experiment aimed to study indicators of the cultural heritage evaluation process that people were not expressing verbally. This was achieved by collecting data using eye-tracking glasses while people viewed architecture. Eye-tracking technology is commonly used in marketing and customer/consumer experience, but it is not a common research method for cultural heritage, however, recording eye movements provides valuable information and insights for understanding perception and the factors affecting the perception [1]. Eye tracking can provide detail about what someone finds interesting and what they are attending to. 

The methodology in this experiment followed that of Yarbus and focused on the scan paths of the eye movements [2]. According to Yarbus, when people analyse complex objects, the eye fixates on aspects of objects relevant to the question the observer is trying to answer while scanning in between these fixated points (Figure 1). 

Figure 1. An example of scanpaths from Yarbus’ experiment in 1967 (taken from the article of Haji-Abolhassani & Clark, 2014 [3])

For example, when he showed the painting of Ilya Repin to his participants, he asked various questions, such as the financial status of the people in the painting or the age of the people in the painting. During the experiment, when the question was concerning the financial status, participants focused on the clothing of the people in the painting, however, when the question was concerning the age, participants focused on the face of the people in the painting. I concluded that, if I asked the right questions to the participants in my own experiment, it is likely that they would look towards specific spots and fixate areas that would help them to answer my questions. Therefore, the results would indicate the most attended (or fixated) spots and would give me physical indicators to use in the creation of my model. 

In that regard, my experiment at Kaunas University of Technology, with the participation of 20 students, followed the same rationale. During the experiment, using eye tracking glasses, the eye movements and gaze points were recorded while each participant was observing a set of photographs showing eleven different buildings. Whilst viewing each photograph they were asked to decide if the building was cultural heritage or not, to see which parts of the buildings they focused on for evaluating the heritage value. 

The results of an eye tracking experiment can be viewed using sequence analysis, or using heatmaps (with darker areas corresponding to items and objects that are fixated on most frequently). In my study, the heatmaps were found to be more beneficial since they show where participants were fixating (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Example of the heatmaps produced in the eye-tracking experiment, which shows information about the areas on a building that are attended most often by each participant. The points that were fixated on for longer are displayed in red, while the shorter fixations were displayed as yellow 

According to the results of the research, certain elements of architecture were found to influence people when they evaluated whether a building was cultural heritage. These elements were Ornament, Material, Patina, Line, Colour, Expressive Architectural Elements, and Alterations/Interventions [3]. The indicators were used for the creation of a model, which can be a method for calculating the conceivable perception of society towards cultural heritage. The knowledge gained by the model can inspire the adaptive re-use process, and it can help form different strategies such as deciding which characteristics of a façade require special protection or what parts need a specific emphasis. My work suggests that it would help to include more about the user or observer perspective in the evaluation process, and this would help in preserving the integrity of buildings.


[1] Doğan, H. A. (2021). Improvement of the cultural heritage perception potential model by the usage of eye-tracking technology. Journal of Cultural Heritage and Sustainable Development, 11.

[2] Yarbus. A., L. (1967). Eye movements and vision. Plenum Press: New York, USA.

[3] Haji-Abolhassani, A., & Clark, J. J. (2014). An inverse yarbus process: Predicting observers’ task from eye movement patterns. Vision Research, 103, 127–142.

[4] Doğan, H.A. (2019). Assessment of the perception of cultural heritage as an adaptive re-use and sustainable development strategy: case study of Kaunas, Lithuania. Journal of Cultural Heritage and Sustainable Development, 9(3), 430-443.