The simplest traditional house often feels much better than one with modern architecture. This may seem surprising. After all, a modern building is usually designed by a highly educated architect, often using more advanced materials. The traditional house, on the other hand, was probably built by a team of illiterate craftsmen without detailed drawings to guide them.
But most traditional buildings have been designed on templates that have proved suitable to human lifestyle and comfort over centuries. Thus, when people found that a courtyard offered a range of possibilities, from sleeping in the open to working in it when the sun was low, it became a part of their expectations from a house.
Traditionally such buildings were designed on site by builders and dwellers, and not by a designer at a drawing board in a remote office. So, the people manipulating spaces and forms could get a sense of the possibilities they were engineering.
Design is about the arrangement of things. Architects arrange walls, spaces, buildings. And not just architects, each of us arranges objects and spaces all the time: furniture in the room, books on shelves, clothes in the wardrobe, even the stuff overflowing on our tables.
Form fit: Aspects of physical comfort can be tough for architects to design.
We may not realize this, but our bodies guide us in this activity. For example, the reach of your arm determines how deep you can place the mixer grinder on the kitchen counter. Your body is the yardstick by which your imagination judges arrangements—intuitively, instantly. So one look and you know that a passage is too narrow for you to squeeze through without bruising your elbows.
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The ‘affordance’ factor
Evolution has made us wise to the promise of spaces. In particular, it has trained us to recognize very quickly the support, pleasure and danger a space promises. Over human history, we have also learnt to put this wisdom to work in producing new spaces. That wisdom is at the core of what we call architecture. This timeless quality—the potential of a space—was termed “affordance” (that is, the possibilities a space affords) by American psychologist James J. Gibson in the 1970s. Gibson suggested that every animal sees promises in the environment. It recognizes that a cave affords shelter from rain, and that fire affords burns. Affordance, thus, is a specific promise of the cave, of a fire, or of a room. The concept was later brought into product design by Donald Norman, an American designer and communicator interested in the usability of products and technologies.
In light of this, we could say that architects design patterns of “affordances” (even if most have not heard of the term). They link different “affordances” so that we can enter through doors, walk down corridors, meet someone in the lobby in a quiet corner. When the sequence works as a whole, we say that the design is functional.
And the fact that architects actually arrange “affordances” has much to do with how our living, working and entertainment environments actually take shape.
You best recognize what promise a space holds for you when you are in it. The architect of that space, on the other hand, engineers those promises in absentia. That is, when she designs the space, neither she nor you are actually in it. She cannot sense, in person, the “affordances” that emerge as she designs the space on paper or on screen. And because the space is not built yet, she certainly cannot know how the body reacts to it.
Here lies the paradox of design. Architects design patterns of “affordances”. But what they actually manipulate (and can draw) are physical things: walls, doors, countertops. “Affordances”, since they are not objects, cannot be drawn. They can only be sensed, in person. The architect has no way of actually “seeing” what she is manipulating.
Is it any surprise, then, that so many spaces in our buildings and cities just don’t make us feel good?
The author is a Goa-based architect and author of Space for Engagement.
Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org