Dragonfly: An Ecological Approach to Digital Architectural Design

In J. M. Taron, V. Parlac, B. Kolarevic & J. S. Johnson (eds.), ACADIA: Integration through Computation (2011)
In his keynote address delivered to The American Society for Esthetics in 1976, James J. Gibson wrote, “Architecture and design do not have a satisfactory theoretical basis.” He then asked, “Can an ecological approach to the psychology of perception and behavior provide it?” (1976, p. 413) We believe that it can, at least in part. In this paper, we expand upon Gibson’s insights into the nature of perceptual experience by applying the concept of “affordances” to the design of architectural objects in general, and to the domain of digital architectural design in particular. On our account, the affordance-concept supplies a useful theoretical basis for conceptualizing the relationship between environments and occupants with respect to the form and behavioral meaning of geometrically constructed layouts. Donald Norman (1988) first introduced affordances to interaction design theorists, as a conceptual tool for predicting how agents will interact with a given product. The extensive body of literature that has since emerged, from human-computer-interaction studies (Ackerman, 1996; Conn, 1995; Moran, 1997; Norman, 1999) to architectural theory and practice (Koutamanis, 2006; Maier and Fadel, 2009), has followed Norman’s lead in defining affordances, somewhat amorphously, as whichever action-related properties of objects are sufficient to elicit the intended forms of behavioral interaction between the agent and object. However, while this is correct, it is only half the story. It leaves unexplained how human perceivers detect and “pair down” on the potentially vast range of possible affordances (at a given time), to select the ones that will be relevant to the coordination and guidance of the targeted actions. Call this the “selectivity problem,” a proper treatment of which is missing from the literature. This is no small matter. If the theory of affordances is to be useful to architects and designers, if it is to have explanatory and predictive power over how perceivers will interact with their surroundings, then some account of the cognitive procedure by which affordances are selected for the deployment of specific behaviors is necessary. Otherwise, it is unclear what the theory hopes to predict or explain. To this end, we maintain that the couching of affordances in a framework of human intentionality is not only consistent with Gibson’s theoretical views (i.e., the action-oriented definition of the concept of affordances not only suggests an intentional perspective), indeed, such a perspective is necessary if we are to succeed in implementing the affordance-concept into an architectural design context in a way that addresses the selectivity problem. This is one of the goals of “Dragonfly,” a first attempt at implementing the affordance-based control of perceptually guided-action into a digital design simulation. Dragonfly enables human interaction with geometry by encoding the basic principles of ecological psychology (including a rudimentary form of intentionality) into an interactive CAD environment. New vistas for future research and interdisciplinary approaches to design are then discussed, with a special emphasis on their applicability to architecture.
Keywords Philosophy of Architecture  Philosophy of Cognitive Science  Philosophy of Perception  Philosophy of Psychology  Perception-Action  Ecological Psychology  Intentionality  Cognitive Science  Computation  Spatial Awareness
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