What architecture does, by Margit van Schaik

‘We shape our buildings, and afterwards they shape us’, those were the words used by Winston Churchill in his plea to rebuild the British House of Commons exactly as it was, after it was bombed during WW II. According to him, the arrangement of Parliament members in opposing benches contributed to the debating culture so typical of the British political system, in which two parties confront each other with opposite opinions. In this view, political buildings are not only seen as the formal representation of its political system, but also as a shaping force.

This research aims to understand this shaping role by considering how human beings are connected to their environment, building on theories of for example Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and the recent movement of embodied embedded cognition. From an enactive perspective, Thompson and Varela (2001) distinguish three kinds of cycles with which human cognition is integrated with the environment. These three kinds of cycles provide a framework that is used to explore how architecture can influence the behavior of its users.

  1. 1. Organismic regulation: under this kind of cycles, we understand the unconscious processes that regulate the state of the organism, in order to keep it safe and healthy. Emotional states, regulated by the autonomic nervous system, determine our first instinctive reaction to a building.

  2. 2. Sensorimotor coupling: these cycles concern more elaborate actions and movements through the environment. Perception and action are much more interwoven with each other than we have traditionally assumed. One of the first to acknowledge this was Gibson, who proposed his Theory of Affordances in the seventies. Through the actions that a design affords, it influences the behavior that logically follows from it.

  3. 3. Intersubjective interaction: using the recently discovered mirror neurons, people can empathize with others, but also understand and interpret their environment. It is through these cycles that we can experience a building aesthetically, in the sense described by Robert Vischer as ‘Schauen’, and read any messages that architecture might convey.

Through the emotional states it evokes, through the actions it affords and through the messages it conveys, architecture can change the way we behave in it. This is illustrated with the help of a case-study: the Plenary meeting hall of the Dutch House of Representatives. The existing design is analyzed in terms of how it influences its users through the three described kinds of cycles. For example, the hall is organized in such a way that politicians in the debating area are watched by many people, which might make them more alert than the observing public, sheltered behind the railing. It affords people to sit in the direction of the debating area, to talk to their colleagues without disturbing the meeting, to speak to everyone through the microphone and to discuss matters privately in the hallway.

To elaborate on the three kinds of cycles further, and explain how they can be implemented in the design process, the most important decisions in designing a Plenary meeting hall are considered with regard to how they can stimulate different kinds of behavior. For every cycle, and on four scale levels, a decision has been described to stimulate a more intense debate, a stronger separation of powers and consultation between politicians.

The last part of this research reflects on how the given theories alter our perception of architecture. It states that the idea of Cartesian dualism has led to two other forms of dualism in architectural theory. Theorists that have emphasized the role of architecture as a language system, have thought of architectural meaning as an additive feature. In such a view, there is a distinction between the objective form of a building and its meaning that can be deducted through interpretation. However, such a view has little to do with how architecture is meaningful for its general users, as their experience is constructed through the three cycles of operation. Closely allied to this, there is a distinction between what is called ‘represented’ and ‘embodied’ meaning in architecture, between the meaning that is identified through the interpretation of references and the meaning that ‘automatically’ arises when using a building. This view can be discarded in the same way as Cartesian dualism, as the interpretation of references is just as embodied as other forms of meaning.

The research is concluded with the observation that presumably as a consequence of the described dualisms, the third kind of cycle has dominated contemporary discussion on meaning of architecture, both by architects and architectural theorists, leading to a chasm between what architecture is said to represent and the actual experience of the user. Nevertheless if architectural design is to do justice to its users, it is to take into account all three cycles. It is to acknowledge its influence, caused by the emotional states it evokes, the actions it affords and the messages it conveys.

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