the Interpretation of Architecture
Theory of Interpretation
Vol. 12, No. 2, December 2008
& Upali Nanda
San Antonio, Texas
Is design an analytical act governed by logic, or an intuitive act steered by emotion? Is it either, or both? Do designers undermine the role of intuition even while inadvertently relying on it? Do designers mistrust their intuitive judgment while struggling to conform to formal education and professional expectations? All these questions can be answered only once we understand the very nature, and role, of intuition in design.
In this paper we argue that design is an intuitive interpretation of our previous spatial experiences. We investigate the concepts of intuition and of sensory and emotional perceptions of space that result in the embodiment of spatial experience, and we reintroduce the term of “Embodied Intuition”,. We look at intuition in everyday life, creativity and intuition, and theories of embodiment from neuroscience, anthropology, and architecture. We build an argument that without an emplaced and embodied sensitivity, our intuitive interpretation becomes disembodied and weak, and as a result, the creation of architecture becomes mere simulation.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines intuition as the immediate knowing or learning of something without the conscious use of reasoning; instantaneous apperception. In reality, intuition is very similar to an insight and is nothing else but the ability to make elliptic shortcuts from a situation to a response. Myers described it as some things we know we know, but we don’t know how we know them. Most people will agree that intuition can be described as ideas or feelings that guide our thoughts and behaviors. Intuition is intrinsically intertwined with our collateral experiences, memories, and implicit thought.
Implicit thought may be said to occur when a thought – for example, the correct solution to a problem – influences experience, thought, or action, even though one is unaware of the thought itself. Implicit thoughts may consist of ideas, beliefs, or images – any cognitive content, in fact, that is neither a percept (a representation of a current event) or a memory (a representation of a past event); they appear to be closely associated with the experiences of intuition, incubation, and insight – all hallmarks of creative problem solving.
First, let’s look more closely at intuitive problem solving and decision making in everyday life and in design. Research suggests that intuition may be integral to completing tasks successfully that involve high complexity and short time frames, such as corporate planning, stock analysis, and performance appraisal. Architectural design addresses the same constraints. As Dane and Pratt (forthcoming) claimed,
Intuition, as a holistically associative process, may actually help to integrate the disparate elements of an ill-defined problem into a coherent perception of how to proceed.
In architectural design,
there are various parameters and complex issues that need to be addressed
and prioritized. In fact, as suggested by Archea,
when given an architectural problem, one has to create one’s own puzzle
before one can solve it.
Emotion is an integral component of our relational existence and our embodied interactions with the world. Embodied interactions are best explained by the following second-generation claims of the cognitive science of the embodied mind.
By being in the world, by doing things and visiting places, we unintentionally collect a great repository of experiences. The essential point is that in the design process, intuition draws on our entire experience, not only on what we consciously isolate as relevant information. Studies in neuroscience showed that to understand a new situation, people capitalize on
stored mental representations, which reflect the entire stream of previous experiences that are associated with the critical event, such as sensory, visceral, and experiential representations.
It is this “embodied intuition”
that sets an architect apart from someone who can simply put a building
together. Reinterpreting Khatri’s and Ng’s definition,
we can say that intuition as a synthetic psychological function
allows an architect to comprehend the totality of a given design task
and synthesize a great number of isolated bits of information involved
with each project to create a coherent design.
Abstraction cannot work by itself, by its very nature. One must abstract from something else which is more concrete and rich in content. In other words, man has to begin with intuition or imagination, and then he can proceed with the help of his power of abstraction.
A designer’s prior experience
– not only professional expertise, but overall autobiographic experience
– plays a significant role in her or his ability to design. According
design is an act of understanding and the pragmatic use of past experience
to identify, peruse, and imagine possible futures. The design process,
in other words, can be seen as a transformation and translation of an
architect’s experience into a new imagery of places. Architects draw
knowledge and import from the remembered past: they consciously – through
metaphor – or unconsciously combine, abstract, and distort the past
through acts of imagination in order to fuel images of possible places.
Emotions are expressions of the way a person understands an experience:
they filter and structure the person’s perception of the situation and
they focus attention,
and they greatly influence construction of memory,,,.
Momentary experiencing and the memory of past experiences are essential
for the construction of meaning in general,
and of the meaning of a place as a qualitative totality of complex
Or as Myers pointed out,
unconscious, intuitive inclinations detect and reflect the regularities
of our personal history.
In daily life we make interpretations about the stuff around us all the time – how it might work and what we can do with it. We develop an exquisite awareness of the possibilities and sensory qualities of different materials, forms, and textures. This awareness is evident from our actions, even when we are not conscious of them – these are our “thoughtless acts.” Understanding intuitive interpretations might be a significant source of insight for designers.
Our minds constantly process vast amounts of information outside of consciousness.
Inside our ever-active brain, many streams of activity flow in parallel, function automatically, are remembered implicitly, and only occasionally surface as conscious words.
Miles Richardson’s anthropological theory illustrated how body experience and perception become material – in the case of architecture, for design – by considering how we transform embodied experience into a symbol and then remake that experience into a different object.
[Richardson] suggested that we use objects to evoke experience, thus molding experience into symbols and then melting symbols back into experience. Embodied space is being-in-the-world, that is, the existential and phenomenological reality of place: its smell, feel, color, and other sensory dimensions.
Learning for architects
has traditionally involved travel, looking at actual buildings, and
learning by doing. Such learning is a rich and direct experience, emotionally
engaging, and it can be drawn from easily during the design process.
Learning can be explicit, taught in coursework and instructional modes,
or implicit, imbibed from our environment, both internal and external.
Implicit learning can be defined as a process by which people acquire
knowledge about rule-governed complexities of a stimulus environment
independent of conscious attempt to do so.
When directly experienced, perception and actual experience of a space
contracts and expands in relationship to a person’s emotions and
state of mind, sense of self, social relations, and cultural predispositions.
It is an endless source of learning, but is it useful for design problem
can intuition be of value? It can warn us of the predator who would
convince us to buy an inferior system; it can help us discern the valuable
from the junk offering of the marketplace; it can offer insight when
we have an innovative idea and predict future trends in the marketplace;
in short, it can bring us the most valuable knowledge when the timing
There are theories on how
one can educate intuition through reflection on how (s)he makes intuitive
decisions, and by exposing oneself to the environment promoting passive
Authors of this paper believe that in architecture, we can begin by
simply trusting our intuitive judgments more and by allowing intuition
to come out of its ban and enter the walls of academia. As intuition
relies on entire experience, it might greatly benefit many architectural
students and architectural professionals to be intuitive and enhance
their knowledge, skills, and capacity of abstract and logical thinking.
1) Encouraging designers to trust their intuition.
2) Educating architects to inform their intuition.
Implicitly: through travel, interaction with a variety of people and
cultures, and exposure to different ideas and environments.
3) Training designers to reflect on their intuitive judgments and to understand how their own process affects the design product.
4) Training professionals to foster intuition for increased and efficient access to a vast resource of personal and professional experiences faster and more efficiently.
It is important for us
to hone our intuitive abilities, in order to create designs that are
enriched not just by formal education and knowledge, but by a lifetime
of experience. As early as 1962, MacKinnon
observed, as a result of his thorough study, that architects as a professional
group were distinctly more “intuitive” than the general tested population.
Eighty percent of the general architectural population had intuitive
personalities, and one hundred percent of architects judged as most
creative in the USA at that time were intuitive types. So why do we
resist our nature?
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