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Affordances and the Potential for Architecture divulges our engagement with the built environment is a deeply rooted experience. In a biological and philosophical sense, it reveals that the mind is inseparable from the body, just as the body is inseparable from its environment. The world displays itself before us as rife with potential movements, activities, engagements, for which we continuously rehearse the myriad possibilities and choose the best course of action in the moment. It defines our phenomenological natures through this readiness-for-action, and thereby suggests we will improve the spaces, buildings, and landscapes that we inhabit by mastering how we enact and perceive them. This concise manuscript proposes affordances as an important contribution to thinking about architecture, space, and perception. To be sure, Architecture is not an object but something we do.

The argument opens with Andrea Jelić’s pervasive question, “How does architecture afford being-in-the-world?” Identifying humans’ modern conceit of separating the mind from the body and the body from its situation—she frames our scaffold for experience alternately as one of co-dependence rather than of abstraction. Our perception nests and centers the sensory body in the unfolding discoveries of science’s new models of cognition, along the ecological thesis of James Gibson’s affordances. Likewise, Sarah Robinson, in “Articulating Affordances: Towards a New Theory of Design,” demonstrates that one size never fits all. Even as our bodies are equally constituted and share much in common, it is the specificity of differences between us that should instruct designers. There is no “average” body size for women nor a standard size of fighter pilot. Instead, there is a double entendre which asks desingers to understand perception as the confluence of varying influences, all the while considering the particularities of an individual. In architecture, a theory of affordances appreciates that while the rocking chair will always provide for rocking, its occupation depends on location and the frame of mind of the person so absorbed. Such sensory partaking in life, like rocking in a chair, is the material beauty of an architectural moment. It is the rocking chair which animates the porch. In “Just What Can Architects Afford?” Harry Mallgrave claims that after decades of architects reducing form to conceptual gamesmanship, one has to raise the question of where has this left architectural practice? Has it improved our cities or our houses? In the face of the mounting evidence to the contrary, and in view of the complexity of information age real life, wants, and desires, shall architects mindlessly follow the old Modernist track? The new biological models reveal that our engagement with buildings is “a whole-body experience,” one grounded not only in our multisensory, emotional, and visceral responses to the world but also in the phenomenal or “lived” nature of our being. Standing against the hollowing of human nature in contemporary digital practice, Mallgrave offers the lesson that we are indeed active agents in the culture that we create, and this built world can indeed be attuned to our biological and social natures. Beauty is something we do, an expression of the vital paradisiacal instinct grounded in human nature. James Hamilton, to wit asks, “How do Appreciators and Designers Discover Affordances?” He assigns to himself the difficult task of arbitrating for the ‘user,’ who might appreciate a building, while at the same time distrusting the designer to grasp the real intention of the things they make. He does so by examining Gibson’s claims for affordances and questioning the basis for understanding how objects appear to us or are useful within a specific environment. It seems that what something affords has to do with the experience or understanding you bring to the artifact and moment. You have to see a chair as a chair in order to sit upon it. A secondary and more difficult notion here is that even if a designer makes a chair, it may still be at odds with the peculiarities of the individual. As Dr. Hamilton concludes, “There is no shortcut to understanding on the part of appreciators, and none on the part of designers who design things for them.”

Architects say they must educate their clients, yet in order to make this strategy work, designers must be better educated in the needs, wants, and desires of their clients. Affordances are a way to understand the environmental actions and behaviors of our species, while recognizing that which makes us humans of individual needs. One size never fits all, although it begins in our mutual humanity and dependable biology. Taken in sum, these essays consider the model of affordances within the context of architecture and provide a valuable contribution to this discussion of how to conceive, think, and better attune the human organism with the environment in which we dwell.



Publication Date



New Prairie Press




Bob Condia


Architecture and neuroscience, built-environment, action perception cycle, affordances in architecture, J.J Gibson, atmosphere, mood, architecture, neuroscience


Architecture | Environmental Studies | Other Architecture

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Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License
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Affordances and the Potential for Architecture