Optimal grip on affordances in architectural design practices

an ethnography

Erik Rietveld , Anne Brouwers

pp. 545-564

In this article we move beyond the problematic distinction between "higher' and "lower' cognition by accounting for so-called "higher' cognitive capacities in terms of skillful activities in practices, and in terms of the affordances exploited in those practices. Through ethnographic research we aim to further develop the new notion of skilled intentionality by turning to the phenomenon of the tendency towards an optimal grip on a situation in real-life situations in the field of architecture. Tending towards an optimal grip is an inherently affective and dynamic phenomenon. It has been under explored in philosophy, despite its central place in Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology. When the architects experience discontent, attention is typically solicited by the affordances through which possible ways of continuing the improvement of the design can be explored. In various ways this tension or disequilibrium - fueling a tendency towards an optimal grip - is encountered in the complex architectural design practices that we observed. Based on our field material we distinguish between: a) grip in visual perception, b) grip on the design, and c) grip on "how to design'. The move towards an optimal grip takes shape by joining forces with a landscape of affordances. This landscape includes, for instance, affordances for grasping a cup of coffee, affordances provided by a cardboard model to improve it, as well as for engaging with a person who is not physically present. Because they are skilled, the architects can be responsive to these different affordances in similar ways. Furthermore, in practice the architects are responsive to multiple affordances simultaneously. Through our analysis of the tendency towards an optimal grip we show that our surroundings contribute to skillful action and cognition in a far more complex way than is currently acknowledged in philosophy and cognitive science.

Publication details

DOI: 10.1007/s11097-016-9475-x

Full citation:

Rietveld, E. , Brouwers, A. (2017). Optimal grip on affordances in architectural design practices: an ethnography. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 16 (3), pp. 545-564.

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