Bad (Habit)at: Architecture as Action Forms
“The objects which surround my body reflect its possible action upon them.” (Bergson, 1988, p. 21)
As humans, we would like to believe in the autonomy we hold over our actions. However, we have to concede that we do not act entirely on our own accord. As Bergson writes, the environing matter participates in the production of our thoughts and actions by suggesting to us how to act upon them. Humans are not “free willed” as we would like to think we are. We are not accustomed to the concept of non-human entities possessing agency, and that our agency is co-constitutive of both human and non-human influences. By equating inanimate matter with their corresponding action possibilities, James Gibson’s ecological perspective on affordance (1979) illustrates the non-disassociation between the human animal and the material environment. It also grants us a glimpse into the plenitude of potential actions offered to us by our environment, although we often find ourselves looping through the same motions. This is due to our environment disposing us to act in specific manners, which are then drilled, over time, into our muscle memory; our bodies are preprogrammed to perform the same habitual actions when confronted with similar situations.
French novelist, Georges Perec (1997), in questioning the habitual, bemoans that our conditioned way of living has desensitised us, stating that “this is no longer even conditioning, it’s anaesthesia. We sleep through our lives in a dreamless sleep” (p. 210). We cruise through our everyday spaces in routine choreography – waking, eating, moving, sleeping – ambling through life like a somnambulist. It is time to wake up.
This paper investigates how architectural devices can provoke the body into better and more actions. The title of this paper is a wordplay, using parentheses to tease the word ‘habit’ out from ‘habitat’. It was George Teyssot (1996) who identified the etymological association between the two words, stating that “habitations are actually places for long habits” (p. 53). This connection between the two words reveals the normative architectural notion that a house should be designed to reinforce habits. This paper, on the other hand, challenges conventional design objectives of reinforcing our conditioned way of living and advocates for the contrary; architecture should disrupt the habitual.
The etymological relation between the two words also resonates with the enactivist model of cognition that our behaviours arise from the dynamic interaction between us, as the organism, and the environment. It unveils the situatedness of our actions within a particular context, and as Teyssot (1996, p. 53) continues to define, habitats are “places where habits may be inscribed in a space that awaits them”. This paper adopts the definition of the body as an ecological site in which our being is defined by its relation to the world. The body exists not as a distinct and autonomous entity, and the various mechanisms of our thoughts, actions, behaviours, experience and perception manifest through the dynamic and complex interweaving with the environment. As our agency is constituted by both human and non-human forces, there is the potential for physical devices to nudge humans into alternative actions. Conventional designs often disregard the suggestive influence inanimate objects have on our behaviour. Therefore, designers need to understand their role in the production of the material environment and the capacity of the things they create to affect people’s behaviours. What actions await in the spaces we create?
2. Architecture’s Action Form
2.1 Architecture as Verbs
We have grown accustomed to viewing the world as solids, and to the formal appreciation of architecture being its primary design language. Can we conceive of an alternative architectural vocabulary that consists not only of nominative terms that limit spatial appreciation to forms, surfaces, lines and curves? An architectural language in which action is the form? Pallasmaa (2005) proposes that architectural images have less of a noun than a verb form. Rather than thinking of a door as a panel with a knob, we can think of it in its suggested act of entering and exiting; instead of thinking of a chair as a surface propped by four legs, we can think of it in its implicit action of sitting. Architecture then can be conceptualised in terms of its solicited actions instead of its physical attributes. Spatial structures thus function as a condition and a facilitator for human life, or as Pallasmaa (2011, p. 123) beautifully describes, “promises and invitations” for actions.
In his paper discussing the sociology of a door-closer, Latour (1988) anthropomorphises the nonhuman, technical mechanism of the hinge entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring that the door is kept closed. He humorously equates the engineered combination of the hydraulic piston and spring with that of a “well-trained butler” (p. 302). This mechanical butler has the ability to prescribe behaviours of users passing through and to discriminate between the types of users who could enter or exit. His choice of words presents the nonhuman door-closer as an entity with an agency. For example, in an earlier design without the hydraulic mechanism to ensure the slow closing of the door, the door-closer hustles users to move through quickly or risk getting slammed in the face; a “very rude, uneducated porter” (p. 301) as opposed to a polite butler. Latour’s anthropomorphic analogies enable us to perceive nonhuman entities beyond their object form. Similarly, Gregory Bateson (1979, p. 109) described the switch as “the thing that is not except at the moments of its change of setting, and the concept ‘switch’ has thus a special relation to time. It is related to the notion ‘change’ rather than to the notion ‘object’”.
According to Gibson (1979), affordances are “action possibilities” offered to an animal by its environment. In his seminal paper, he distinguishes between the physical properties of an object from its implicitly suggested actions – noun versus verb form. The suggested actions of material surfaces can be what we, the animal, perceive as “climb-on-able or fall-off-able or get-underneath-able or bump-into-able”. By adopting an affordance-based definition of architecture, we perceive spatial elements not by the physical delineation of their surfaces but as cues and lures. Architecture then becomes the encounter of the physical body meeting space.
Conceiving the environing matter in their “verb-essence” (Pallasmaa, 2005, p. 64) unveils the performative nature of objects. Thus, it might be useful to look into theatre studies to help us in shifting our understanding of architecture from a noun to a verb form. After all, the “construction of action” (Easterling, 2012) is the basis of theatre. A good performer does not play “being the mother” – noun form – but instead portrays “smothering a child” – verb form (Easterling, 2012). In immersive theatre productions from companies like Punchdrunk and Secret Cinema, the audience is free to roam the set and craft their own narrative based on whichever course they choose to embark. Actors are not confined to an elevated stage but instead, are planted throughout the entire space where they would enact their scenes before moving on to the next place. These planted actors function as a performative instrument, cueing and influencing the course of actions taken by each audience. As such, an audience may attend the same theatre production multiple times but generate a different narrative each time. Architectural objects should operate like planted actors, triggering users into actions while at the same time, offering a myriad of action possibilities – performative, but not prescriptive.
2.2 Non-disassociation between Body and Environment
Latour’s paper mentioned above, titled Mixing Humans and Nonhumans Together, proposed a new sociology vocabulary as a critique against the then accepted study of humans without any association with nonhumans. He concludes the paper by claiming that “studying social relations without the nonhuman is impossible” (Latour, 1988, p. 310). Adopting the theory of affordances ensures that the environment is always relative to the human animal, and vice versa – an absolute non-disassociation between the body and the material environment. It also acknowledges nonhuman entities as co-constitutive of human agency. We sit on a chair because the surface of the seat allows, and sometimes coaxes, us to sit.
Shusaka Arakawa and Madeline Gins (2002) developed a concept of an ‘architectural body’, where they view the body-environment as a continuous assemblage with no distinction between where the body ends and where the environment starts. The environment is to be a second, third, and even ninth (or so they have counted) skin of the body. They articulate the concept of embodiment with their theory of ‘landing sites’ which maps out the body’s sited affectivity relative to its environment. The body is intrinsically sited within a space and the links between the body and environment are manifold, so that it is impossible to abstract the body out of its surrounds. The intention to study a person would prove futile unless one develops a “person architectonic” and examine the sited organism as a whole (Arakawa and Gins, 2002, p. 6) – the body as an ecological site.
Arakawa and Gins classify the body’s sited affectivity into three categories: perceptual, imaging and dimensionalising. The perceptual landing site describes environmental cues that managed to enter the conscious awareness of perception. Many of the stimuli in a person’s surrounding fall below the threshold of active awareness, outside the focal areas of the perceptual landing sites (Arakawa and Gins, 2002), leading to the misconception in some that they have sovereignty over their own agency. The active, on-going participation of the environment on our agency is simply imperceptible. William Connolly (2011, p. 150) defines affect as “an electrical-chemical charge that jolts or nudges you towards positive or negative action before it reaches the threshold of feeling or awareness”. By defining persons as sited entities, the notion of having absolute autonomy over our actions starts to disintegrate. Humans are actually “hackable”, malleable beings. This is evident not only in our physical interactions but also in the digital realm, where clickbait has proven successful in influencing our internet activity and the information we consume. Enactivism is a model of cognition proposed by Varela et al. (1991) as a criticism against the traditional opinion that postulates the mind as a disembodied, passive, information-processing entity that functions independently of the environment. The enactive model highlights the intricate and dynamic connectedness between the organism and environment, and thus debunks the myth of free will, illustrating how “outside environments fold into the fabric of our bodies” (Dewsbury, 2012, p. 79).
There exist a rich diversity of bodies; each of different dimensionality, of varying shapes and sizes; each embodying different genders and cultures; each with its different set of skills, abilities and disabilities. Yet contemporary architecture often assumes a stereotypical, Neufertian identity of the body. Disabilities studies expose the discriminatory reality of architecture, in which conventionally designed environments are conducive for the development of habits in those who “exhibit normative embodiment” but hinders habit development in those who do not, i.e. people with disabilities. (Engman and Cranford, 2016, p. 28). Conclusions from these studies not only demonstrate the influence the material environment has over the development and enactment of our actions, but also highlights the lack of diversity anticipated by the built landscape. This cookie-cutter approach toward architecture leads to narrowed spatial experiences.
As a humorous critique against the standardisation imposed on our bodies, Thomas Carpentier proposes an add-on to Neufert’s data reference book that caters towards different types of bodies: real, fictitious, grotesque, amputated, peculiar, odd, oversized. For example, he depicts an elevated bedroom design for a legless dancer to create a uniform level where the bodies of his wife and him can “interact and mingle without difference” (Carpentier, 2017, p. 7). As affordance theory prioritises the body in the conception of an environment, adopting an affordance-based approach in architecture will open up a host of action possibilities that celebrates anomalies and accommodates a diversity of bodies.
The Fallacy of Habits
3.1 Habits as Building Blocks
Human beings are creatures of habit. Habits operate as an optimisation tool to ensure that the mind does not go into cognitive overdrive as we go about our daily tasks. Habits are defined as “self-valorising repetitive behaviours that can be performed with minimal conscious effort on the part of the subject” (Engman and Cranford, 2016, p. 28). This definition highlights two essential aspects of habits.
First, habits are repetitive actions that instinctively react to situations encountered regularly. Jean Piaget (1952) introduced the concept of schema in his cognitive development theory, which he defines as: “a cohesive, repeatable action sequence possessing component actions that are tightly interconnected and governed by a core meaning.” (p. 240) It is a cognitive framework that organises and interprets information; a system which pigeonholes experiences into mental categories. Therefore, it allows for mental shortcuts in which we tap on past experiences to discern the appropriate action to take in situations that we often encounter. Second, habits are actions we enact without active awareness. Our habituated actions are performed at the periphery of consciousness to free up cognitive processing power that can then be directed towards new and more complex problems (Joas, 1996). As our actions become habituated, “the brain stops fully participating in decision making” (Duhigg, 2012, p. 20). As a result, the body automatically falls back on its muscle memory and tend towards enacting familiar, repeatable actions. Habits form the building blocks for the development of human cognition; however, we are also losing our bodies to the automatic.
3.2 The Filter of Habits
Although habits relieve us of a cognitive burden, they also desensitise us. Michael Pollan (2018, p. 15) laments that habits are the “muscles of attention atrophy”. He writes, “The good thing is I’m seldom surprised. The bad thing is I’m seldom surprised.”
The act of ‘seeing’ should be distinguished from ‘recognising’. Seeing is the act of perceiving something for the first time; recognising, on the other hand, is the act of identifying something that we have already established. Victor Schlovsky (1991, p. 9) writes, “A phenomenon, perceived many times, and no longer perceivable, or rather, the method of such dimmed perception is what I call ‘recognition’ as opposed to ‘seeing’.” Our enactment of habit falls under the category of ‘recognising’. Through repeated reliance on our habits, we have become conditioned and constricted in our actions – fixed in our ways. Infants, on the other hand, continuously exhibit the phenomenon of seeing anew, or neophilia – the love of novelty, the new and the unfamiliar. We, with our dulled and conditioned minds, should learn from infants their delight, surprise and wonder that arises from their virginal seeing.
Our proclivity towards our habits makes us unable to access the full potential afforded to us by the environment. The material environment suggests to us how we can act on them. The word can, instead of must or should, is used because objects are in fact open-ended in their action possibilities offered to the human animal. An object presents multiple ways of acting upon it, but we often choose to act in a singular, repeated manner. Therefore, the actual affordance of an object is distinguished from its potential affordance (Rietveld and Kiverstein, 2014). Factors that limit the actual actions produced by the human animal include the lack of appropriate skills by the animal to act accordingly and socio-cultural norms that dictate ‘proper’ or ‘acceptable’ actions (Rietveld and Kiverstein, 2014). Costall (2015, p. 51) terms the “single, definitive” use of an object its “canonical affordance”. Frequently resorting to our habituated actions also contributes to the object’s canonical affordance, eliminating all other options offered by that object. Our habits act as a filter, sifting out alternative actions and thus reducing the potential for a variety of interactions; this results in what Arakawa and Gins (2002) describe as an “insufficiently procedural” environment, which demands little from the body.
3.3 In situ habits
The enactment of habitual actions is grounded in our innate sensorimotor faculties, and thus predominantly embodied, revealing the material environment’s complicity in the triggering of our habits. As Dewsbury (2012, p. 74) writes, “Material dispositions are then the environmental memories, or ‘material thoughts’, that get wired into our bodies over time and enact our habits such that we act almost without thinking.” In a sense, architectural elements function as spatial prompts that trigger our implicit, pre-reflexive sensorimotor capabilities. Noë (2010) succinctly describes, “architecture is frozen habit.” Through the repeated encounters with architectural spaces, the body hones its tacit sensorimotor capabilities that allow for the efficient and appropriate spatial negotiation; forming “profound bodily memory of an intimate, human-scale architecture” (Jelić et al., 2016, p. 6). The photographic series of Munari’s Seeking Comfort in an Uncomfortable Chair published in 1944 depicts him resisting against the material dispositions, the ‘material thoughts’, of the chair, subverting the armchair’s canonical grip over his body.
Most architectural spaces are structured based on fixed design conventions. Thus our bodies have been trained to manoeuvre around the standardised dimensions of architectural elements such as stairs, doors, seats, and tables. This is evident in our daily activities where we instinctively navigate quickly up a flight of stairs without having to be actively aware of placing each foot. The intricate complicities between our body schema and the environment become apparent when we feel the discrepancy the moment we encounter a design that deviates away from normative designs or dimensions. For example, each step of the Carlo Scarpa’s stairs specifies using either the left or right foot, causing a “rupture” in the habitual pattern of climbing stairs (Jelić et al., 2016, p. 7). As mentioned previously, studies in the development of habits amongst people with disabilities reveal that contemporary architectural environments impede the development of habit in people who lack normative abilities, due to the absence of ‘body-world isomorphism’. (Engman and Cranford, 2016). The term “body/world isomorphism” refers to the coupling of a body that is physically attuned to its environment. An absence of a body/world isomorphism inhibits the development of habits, either when the body does not conform to the stereotype that the environment anticipates (Engman and Cranford, 2016), or when, in the case of Scarpa’s stairs, the body encounters an environment that deviates from the norm. Svizzera 240: House Tour, the 2018 Swiss Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale, recreated a typical setting of a house, with the fittings either enlarged or scaled down. Wandering through this series of dimensionally discordant spaces, visitors find themselves aware of the jarring misfit between their bodies and spaces they typically take for granted.
Mind your Step (Ong, Chrapana and Niaka, 2018) investigates the “rupturing” of the habitual behaviour of climbing up or down a flight of stairs. An existing flight of stairs was hacked as an experiment to achieve the same “rupturing” effect without having to change the dimensionality or form of the stairs. Time-based kinetic obstacles were inserted into the stairs to disrupt what the body would normally anticipate from a typical environment of a staircase. By disturbing the regular rhythmic cues of the steps, the body is placed in a heightened and tentative state, where every next step has to be calculated. The architectural devices introduced into the preexisting space disrupts the body/world isomorphism and thus break habitual patterns and enactment.
3.4 The Irony of Comfort
Arakawa and Gins (2002) believe that architecture should be conceived as an extension of the biological function of the body and hence involved in maintaining the vitality of the body; to the extent of declaring their intention of architecturally training bodies to resist death. To combat decay and death, they have designed domestic spaces which situate the body in a perpetual state of disequilibrium with the environment. The house thus serves as a training ground and through the body’s constant renegotiation with the architecture, grows stronger against the deterioration of the body. For example, the ground of the Biocleave House undulates such that the house becomes a terrain of hills. The inhabitants are thus made to go about their daily routines in intensified awareness as their bodies navigate the slants and inclinations. It is interesting to note that they relate comfort with the corporeal decay of a person.
Comfort has been commonly accepted as an ideal state, with conventional design objectives reinforcing this notion. Contemporary architecture has created a desensitised model of living which demands little to nothing from the body. However, architecture should aim to resist the bodily obsolescence being engendered by our habitual comfort. RAAAF is an architecture studio whose design praxis resolves around affordance theories. They designed the installation The End of Sitting to imagine a different office environment – which denies its users the comfort of sitting – in response to the increasing trend of sedentary behaviours. They inserted a landscape of cut-outs that accommodates a range of standing and leaning positions, each niche providing only temporal comfort. As such, people have to switch positions every 20 to 60 minutes (Rietveld et al., 2015). Ironically, it is this designed discomfort that optimally serves the body. Scientific observations conducted during this installation concluded that majority of the participants preferred to switch positions and felt more energised working in this environment. Furthermore, productivity in this alternative office setting is on par with that of a conventional setting (Withagen and Caljouw, 2015). Architecture should have the responsibility to coax the body into more actions, rather than letting it slip into indolence.
Don’t be a Couch Potato (Ong, Chrapana and Niaka, 2018) was an experiment that confronted the passivity of sitting as an audience, with the objective of having members of the audience continuously moving and actively negotiating with their material environment. The seats were ‘hacked’ into a ‘remote controller’ of a movie, made using conductive pads and tape that were affixed throughout the auditorium seats. As the movie was distorted – with the colours inverted, speed either too fast or slow, pixels glitched – the audience were made to use their bodies to connect the conductive buttons, thereby completing the circuit and activating them. As a result, the audience had to ‘work’ to watch the movie proper. By tapping on the body’s natural conductivity, the body was made to actively interface with the environment. It was interesting to observe participants pushing their bodies into unusual positions, with one user even using her chin to interface with the buttons. Incidentally, the participants discovered that they could link up their bodies to complete the circuits and this led to an even greater variety of actions and positions. It was not only the physical space of the auditorium but also the act of sitting that was hacked.
A common misunderstanding of the notion of comfort is the body’s “alleged preference” for the absence of external stimuli; “a sort of sensory weightlessness” (Teyssot, 1996, p. 49). We assume that an undisturbed, subdued state best serves the body. On the contrary, external stimuli are critical to human life. The sensorial starvation that plagued cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin serves as an instructive example. During extended missions, smells and audio tapes of the sounds of birds, winds, trees, running water were sent to him, revealing the necessity of stimulation as fundamental for survival (Teyssot, 1996, p. 49). It is ironic that astronauts have to rely on evocative objects to be sent to them to artificially invoke stimuli that are absent in the vacuum of outer space, while here we are on earth trying to suppress these naturally available stimuli. We attempt to create this calm environment through “technological apparatuses that guarantee climate control (aeration, ventilation, heating, humidity), energy management, and network connection (lighting, electronics, telecommunications)” (Dard, 1988, p. 119 cited Teyssot, 1996, p. 49). Philippe Dard wrote this in 1988. The apparatuses of today are far more advanced. As technology progresses, we are better equipped to deny the body stimulation, excitement, and thus vitality.
What then should we propose? If the body is irrevocably sited, and if comfort is the “state for which the presence of the material environment disappears” (The Funambulist, 2013), then the disassociation caused by our indisposition toward inactivity threatens our vitality. Through this research, we have established that the state of inertness and non-disturbance as an ideal is a misconception; we should attempt to invert the body’s propensity toward its habits. So is total volatility and discomfort what we should propose? Are we to architect harsh, demanding environments that place the body in perpetual disequilibrium?
We have to first acknowledge the body’s unwavering pursuit of homeostasis. Due to our predisposition towards comfort, when the body is in a state of discomfort, an active negotiation with the environment is generated. The photographic series of Munari’s struggle with the common chair invokes a sense of vitality painted by the deliberateness of his actions and movements as his body seeks its equilibrium. Drawing on the philosophy of Spinoza in which he associates joy with action, Lambert (2013) considers spaces that facilitate more actions, and thus activating the body, as an Architecture of Joy.
Therefore, this is a proposal for an architecture that vacillates between comfort and discomfort, equilibrium and disequilibrium, order and pandemonium; an architecture that “moves us from the everyday and normal into a world tilted a bit strangely” (Bleeker and Nova, 2009, p. 41). We should aspire towards spaces that induce delight and wonder, and resist languor.
According to the ‘architectural body’ concept of Arakawa and Gins, the structuring of a person’s subjectivity consists of an assemblage of devices that ceases not at the outline of the flesh but continues through into the environment. We cannot ignore the nonhuman or the environment in the definition of the human. In response, our embodiment of technology presents an opportunity to restructure the human and recast its interaction with the world. Technology is instrumental in mediating a transformation in our behaviour and agency. Therefore, we have to evaluate the thing (object, matter, nonhuman, device) and how it should relate to the body. Elizabeth Grosz (2001, p. 177) writes:
“Although technology is in a sense made by us and for our purposes, it also performs a transformation on us: it increasingly facilitates not so much better action but wider possibilities of acting, more action.”
What follows is a proposal of a design methodology for a joyful architecture that incites both better and more actions. It consists of two parts. First is a list (by no means exhaustive) of guiding principles for the design of architectural devices in relation to the body. The second part presents a few design strategies to disrupt the habitual in our everyday spaces. This serves to introduce some of the underlying concepts in Choreographed Traces, an on-going design experiment that explores the active experiences of architectural spaces.
5.1 The Thing is a designed action
Pallasmaa (2005) defines architecture as promises and invitations for actions. Grosz (2001, p. 169) similarly writes that a thing “functions as a promise” and is our “provocation to action”. The domain of architecture thus shifts to choreography, where action is the form. By conceptualising architectural elements in its verb form, architecture becomes a notation exercise in which the architect orchestrates movements, relationships and actions. To architect an environment is to deliberately change a body’s potential to act. Objects exist as prompts and cues, enmeshed in a landscape of active bodies. “Active forms design a disposition – a set of capacities for shaping space over time (Easterling, 2012).” A thing is a devised disposition, a designed action.
5.2 The Thing is potentially open
Habits close us off to the whole host of action possibilities offered to us by the environment. Objects designed around specific, habituated usages become instructive and restrictive, leaving little room for users to interpret alternative uses. Many contemporary devices promote inaction by eliminating the corporeal involvement in accomplishing tasks (“Ok Google, Hey Siri”). Also, things that assume a stereotypical identity of the body discriminate against types of users that diverge away from the norm. On the contrary, the objects we create should allow us to access the full spectrum of action possibilities available. They should enable the body to resist the compulsion towards routine and subvert the canonical grip of habit. The environment we architect should compel us to explore alternative actions and induce “the pursuit of spontaneity of use or with a certain degree of indeterminacy” (Rietveld, E. and Rietveld, R., 2011, p. 34).
The installation, MUNARI routes in midair, by Francesco Librizzi studio references Munari’s Seeking Comfort in an Uncomfortable Chair with the objective of conferring the visitor experience the same “restlessness” of Munari negotiating his chair in multiple positions. Metal structures suspend in the air in which visitors can hang, sit, or swing. The geometry of the structures is kept simple and thus open, reminiscent of playground structures where as kids, we would explore and acquaint ourselves with the mechanisms of our bodies.
5.3 The Thing should be delightful
An Architecture of Joy describes spatial encounters that increase the body’s potential to act (Lambert, 2013). By subscribing to Lambert’s Spinozist reading of architecture, objects that facilitate more actions and demand more from the body induce a sense of delight. Furthermore, the wonder that comes from infants’ attentive first seeing of the world demonstrates that delightful things do not contain any trace of pre-determinacy. Drawing on cybernetic studies, it can be deduced that a delightful environment is one that continually offers variety and unexpected behaviours to users, either by having the outputs unpredictable or including the unpredictable environment in the equation (Gage, 2006). For example, one of the conditions for Gordon Pask’s “aesthetically potent environments”, which refer to spaces that facilitate “pleasurable interactions”, is that it has to offer adequate variety (Pask, 1971, p. 76).
The trade-off for the efficiency granted to us by technological machines is delight, pleasure and wonder. It is time we reclaim them back into our spaces.
5.4 The Thing should be speculative
“To measure the life ‘as it is’ by a life as it should be (that is, a life imagined to be different from the life known, and particularly a life that is better and would be preferable to the life known) is a defining, constitutive feature of humanity.” (Zygmunt, 1976)
Zygmunt claims that it is fundamentally human to be dissatisfied with the present state and seek out alternatives. The environment affords the animal possibilities of actions, but the human animal is one the rare species that have the ability to alter, change and redesign what the natural environment provides. Technology – techne, the ability to craft and make – distinguishes the human animal from the rest and allows us to invent apparatuses and devices capable of effecting transformations.
Rather than viewing these instruments – the thing – as separate from the human, we should concede that they are an extension of the human and the “condition for human action” (Grosz, 2001, p. 177). By understanding how human life is constituted by both human and nonhuman entities, our embodiment of technology presents an opportunity to the restructuring of the human life, and thus “potential to be otherwise” (Dewsbury, 2012, p. 76). Our designs should motivate us to shake off the veil of habit and comfort, challenge our supposed immutability and question the status quo.
Manual for Disrupting the Everyday
Defamiliarisation is a technique used in theatre, literature, design and art where everyday objects, cast in new light, are made unfamiliar. It celebrates the experience of the uncanny, which describes the strange and odd feeling invoked by familiar objects in unfamiliar contexts.
The work, Ikea Disobedients, by Andrés Jaque Arquitectos, questions the standardisation of Ikea furniture and the impact of their predetermined use on the users’ lifestyle. In this work, various pieces of familiar Ikea furniture are ‘hacked’, in the sense that they are constructed with a systematic intention to not follow the assembly instructions provided. By creating a bricolage of hacked furniture pieces, the installation aims to represent domestic realities that do not abide by conventional domestic patterns assumed by the furniture giant.
Diller and Scofidio’s withDrawing Room is another work that aims to undermine various home organisation codes that impose restrictions on our domestic lifestyle. These include property rights, rules of etiquette, marriage contract and vanity. One defamiliarisation strategy employed was the use of cutting, where “pieces of institutional furniture are first cut or disabled, then reprogrammed with prosthetic devices” (Diller and Scofidio, 1994, p. 99). For example, to subvert the control the marriage contract has over our sleeping arrangement, they cut up the bed – “the site of the couple” – into halves, with one half fixed while the other is free to rotate. Through cutting and ‘undoing’, the familiar motif of the domestic home is represented in alternative modes.
Defamiliarisation, as a device, can be used to incite the wonder brought about by the “unencumbered first sight” (Pollan, 2018, p. 15), which the habituated mind fails to see. In his literary works, Perec prioritises attention to the ordinary, or as what he terms, the ‘infra-ordinary’, and looks at the banal through rose-tinted glasses. Just by shifting or focusing our attention, it helps us to see familiar things in novel light.
As an architecture practice, Haus-Rucker-Co was as concerned with the “inner space” of the mind as with the built environment. For their project Balloon for Two, they projected a viewing platform from the facade of a building, elevating the viewpoint of the users, thereby inducing a heightened awareness of the everyday scene of the street. Flyhead is a tinted plastic helmet with a set of headphones attached and is designed to distort and enhance the audio and visual perception of the wearer’s immediate environment. In both these projects, the physical environment remains unchanged, but just with a shift in perspective and attention, the experience of reality is altered. These psychedelic architectural devices are part of their Mind Expanding Program (MEP) whose objective was to “upset our habitual perceptions of the physical reality, consequently heightening our awareness of our surroundings”. (Walker Art, 2015)
All these examples exhibit a form of ‘hacking’ technique that changes the relationship of existing objects with the body, creating the uncanny feeling that jolts the body into deliberate attention.
In his book, Man, Play and Games, Roger Caillois (2001) classified four categories of play: agôn, alea, mimicry and ilinx. The last category, ilinx, refers to types of play characterised by vertigo, or games that “attempt to momentarily destroy the stability of perception and inflict a kind of voluptuous panic upon an otherwise lucid mind” (p. 23). Ilinx thus disturbs the body’s stability and inflicts on it physical and psychological disorientation. This is similar to the constant states of disequilibrium that the architectural spaces of Arakawa and Gins often impose on the bodies of their inhabitants. They define architecture as “a tentative constructing towards a holding in place” (Arakawa and Gins, 2002, p. 23). The use of the word “tentative” denotes a sense of always being kept on your toes; needing to be alert and ready at all time. The stable ground is the very basis of land creatures, and thus by ‘shaking things up’, the body is suddenly made aware of the delicate situation it is in.
An analogy of a tentative body-environment relationship is the “moment-to-moment feedback” of a boatman navigating his boat over the water. The terrain of the water is unpredictable due to external factors such as wind and tide; hence the boatman must “continually modify” his navigation to maintain his intended path (Gage, 2007).
A “moment-to-moment feedback” example of architecture is the ReActor House by Alex Schweder and Ward Shelley. The house pivots on a concrete pillar which allows the house to rotate and tilt. The architecture seismically responds to the minute movements of their daily routine, where they have to use their bodies as a tool for balance. The house tilts in response to external forces (wind, rain) and their internal movements so that each body is kept in a tentative state, challenging the learning process of its muscle memory by introducing unpredictable nonhuman forces and an external agent. This installation urges the body to find its complicities with the other body, and also with its environment; making visible the intimacy between the habitat and its inhabitants.
For his installation, Nowhere and Everywhere at the Same Time No. 2, William Forsythe populated a large room with swinging pendulums. Visitors have to avoid colliding with any as they move through the field of swaying plumb bobs. As they manoeuvre through this unpredictable environment, they are kept in a tentative state where they are alerted to their innate predictive faculties. This removes the action of walking out of its habitual context and heightens the kinesthetic awareness of its locomotion.
Near Future Laboratory, led by Julian Bleecker and Nicholas Nova, is interested in challenging the synchronised real-time efficiency of urban computing. They see the potential of ubiquitous computing as a tool to create meaningful social interactions and imagine a sort of “asynchronous city” where technology facilitates spontaneous explorations within the city (Bleecker and Nova, 2009). Inspired by the Situationists’ concept of urban dérive (drift), which advocates the act of getting lost as a way of exploring cities, they have created a series of ‘urbanwares’, or urban objects, that encourages unscripted wayfinding and chance encounters within the urban fabric. One urbanware is a deliberately faulty compass that exhibits a mind of its own and shows erroneous readings, with no reference to the true north. Another example is the Drift Deck, which functions as cue cards that prompt people to diverge away from their usual routes and rediscover the familiar city anew.
Another contemporary manifestation of the Situationists’ notion of dérive is Max Hawkin’s commitment to randomised living. As a way to relieve himself from the habitual trap of his routines, he has decided to let computational randomness dictate his life. A visit to his website reveals a host of tools that enable randomised living, from a bot that plans your next trip to a Spotify playlist that updates daily with a randomised selection of songs.
Evidently, through these projects, it is through randomness and erroneousness in which meaningful encounters occur. The dérive is a strategy put forth by the Situationists in the 1950s as a counter against the top-down rigidity imposed by modern urbanism. Likewise, Bleecker and Nova employed the technique of unpredictability put forth by dérive to resist the accuracy and efficiency prized by modern technology, and instead channel the computational power into meaningful engagements. There are rule-based computations, such as cellular automata or Conway’s Game of Life, where each initial permutation generates different behaviours and results. This sensitivity on initial conditions can be explained by the butterfly effect that describes how an infinitesimal change can yield a drastic difference in results. Employing computational randomness reveals a multitude of unpredictable possibilities, as characterised by the black boxes of Heins Von Foerster’s non-trivial machines that operate like “a chaos pendulum” (Gage, 2006, p. 776).
In his work Music of Changes, done in 1951, John Cage employed the operation of chance in the musical composition by relying on I Ching, an ancient Chinese divination text, to make his decisions. This resulted in a piece of indeterminate music which removes the ego and bias of the creator. As such, the role of the designer is downplayed, similar to Cedric Price’s praise of the “calculated indolence on the part of the architect” (Price, 1984, p. 18).
Playground designs truly epitomise the concept of architecture as an action form, where the conception of each play element corresponds with specific movements of the body.
Robert Morris designed his 1971 exhibition at the Tate Modern, which was recreated three decades after in 2009 as Bodyspacemotionthings, as an experiment on the physical interaction between the sculptural object and the body. He created a series of ‘Action Sculptures’ (Gosling, 1971), consisting of ramps, tunnels, spheres, cylinders, balancing surfaces and climbing walls, with the intention of the museum visitors putting their bodies to the test by actively participating in the works. He writes, “The object has not become less important. It has become less self-important” (Morris, 1966). The object is not to be understood by itself, but by its relation to the external; in this case, to the bodies of the participating museum-goers. However, what was not anticipated was that the visitors took the invitation to act too enthusiastically and went “bloody mad” (Daily Telegraph, cited The Guardian, 2009), with many hurting themselves in the process. Although instructional photographs demonstrating the intended use of each work were displayed, most were ignored as the visitors, intoxicated by play, interpreted the usage as they deemed. Morris’ exhibition demonstrates that while play structures are designed actions, they are ambiguous enough to induce a variety of interpretations and delight in their use.
John Cage (1961, p. 12) writes that play is “simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living”. In a way, play allows us to confront our body’s own mechanisms and offers glimpses of its complicities with the material environment.
Introducing Choreographed Traces
Choreographed Traces (Ong, Chrapana and Niaka, 2018) is proposed to be a mixed-reality playground, consisting of physical, playable sculptures and a superimposed virtual environment. The physical sculptures are choreographic devices, in the sense that they elicit actions upon them and capture the forces applied. The captured forces are then translated to generate a virtual vector field – to be projected over the physical space – while also being stored as part of a trace library.
Field of Actions
“The field describes a space of propagation, of effects. It contains no matter or material points, rather functions, vectors and speeds. It describes local relations of difference within fields of celerity, transmission or careering points, in a word, what Minkowski called the world.” (Kwinter, 2002, p. 60)
The concept of the field conveys relations, movements and transmissions. This play environment is thus conceptualised as a notation field, where every physical object – choreographic device – corresponds to an action or movement. There are four types of devices: movable frame, rope, seesaw and crank. These devices are assigned to read the analogue signals of the users’ movements, with each element capturing a different force that then translates and affects a specific component of the virtual field. For instance, the push and pull of the frames control the directionality of the vector field, while the oscillating rhythm of the seesaw influences the attractive and repulsive forces between vectors.
By capturing and translating the applied actions, it makes visible the action forms of the objects. The movable frames become ‘push’ and ‘pull’; the ropes become ‘tug’ and ‘grab’; the seesaw becomes ‘oscillate’ and ‘rock’. The words used – the action verbs – are by no means exhaustive.
These objects contain actions and interactions that may not have been expressed here. Pallasmaa proposes to communicate architectural images in their verb instead of noun form. This, however, still reduces the range of perceived actions to the limits of language. By translating the captured physical forces into a virtual vector field, it opens up the action form of the object beyond linguistic limits and accommodates the richness of movements afforded by the material environment. Objects then become performative rather than prescriptive; the virtual environment operating as a viewing portal through which users can perceive the physical beyond Pallasmaa’s noun-verb dichotomy.
In this project, virtual reality technology is utilised as a scope, an optical instrument, that grants users a peek into the otherwise hidden reality of the object’s active form. As a reference, Superception is a research project that explores how personal projection can align seamlessly with physical surfaces and enabling a more profound experience with nonhuman objects. In a way, the personal projection functions as a spotlight that reveals the effects and propagation of their applied actions on the objects.
The translation of physical forces into virtual vectors is not a direct, 1:1 mapping, thus introducing a degree of unpredictability into the system. Unpredictability within the interactive system can be generated by rules that simulate nature (Gage, 2006). For example, the Perlin noise effect generates organic textures that are vaguely discernible yet unpredictable. Stigmergy articulates how the subsequent behaviour of an agent follows the trace left by a preceding action, mimicking the natural behaviours observed in ants and river flow. By adopting these rules in the generation of the vector field, users can only partially decipher the relationship between their movements and the vector field, creating moments of a-synchronicity between input and output, thereby rendering a continually delightful space.
The designs of the playable sculptures are based on recognisable play motifs – seesaw, cranks, simple geometries – so that users are familiar with the notion that these objects are invitations to be acted upon. They are, however, placed in a new context – a mixed-reality – such that they form new relationships and understanding of the objects. By inserting a virtual overlay, they are made attentive towards their movements and interactions with these objects and more aware of these learned and conditioned actions. For instance, most of us grew up playing with seesaws and are familiar with the experience of its oscillation. However, by making visible the effects and propagations of the motion of this oscillation through a projected virtual environment, users are keenly made aware of their actions. This experience of uncanny is demonstrated in the project, 21 Balançoires, by Daily tous les jours, where the motion of swinging is decontextualised and made anew by having musical notes triggered by the movements of the swings. Therefore, by presenting these everyday, play objects in a novel way, it is hoped that the users would experience the joy of being kids once again.
– tiredness or inactivity, especially when pleasurable.
The original sense of the word ‘languor’ had a negative connotation, referring to ‘illness’, ‘distress’ or ‘faintness’. It was only after the 18th century when such lassitude conveyed a sense of dreaminess or romantic yearning. Perhaps it was due to the shift when we started to associate an ideal life with inactivity and inertness rather than with vitality. Our bodies have succumbed to the weight of languor.
Contemporary spaces often fall short in serving the body; they demand little from the body; they assume a singular identity of the body; they do not offer a variety of experiences; they do not aspire towards delight and joy. Underlying all these is the absence of action. Let us attempt to reclaim the body’s lost vigour back by investigating how we can reintroduce action, and thus vitality, back into our spaces.
Through this research, a few key points emerge: First, recognising architecture’s action form reveals the environment as a dynamic force field, where spatial elements function as cues and prompts, influencing the ebb and flow of our movements. The object and action forms are not in opposition with one another but, as affordances theory demonstrates, are co-existent. Second, through acknowledging the body’s situatedness, and thus malleability, we “[open] up ways of staging the relationship between the passive flesh of the body with the active lure of material affordance” (Dewsbury, 2012, p. 81). Third, “undoing the habitual” will shed the filter of habit and unveil the full spectrum of what the world has to offer. Fourth, our embodiment of technology presents an opportunity in the restructuring of a vital human life, and hence the role of technology should function like an amplifier, multiplying our actions and intensifying body-environment interactions.
The proposition is not a radical one: a proposal for everyday spaces to be tipped a little bit, just enough to prod the body into more and better actions.
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