There is a new buzzword around architecture schools these days: affordances. It is actually not a new word, though it is an invented one, having been coined by the psychologist J.J. Gibson [PDF] in 1977, but it is getting picked up today by those who are interested in architecture that is fluid, open, and somehow scientifically based. I heard it around architecture schools as far afield as Vienna and L.A. this last spring, and it is at the core of the work of RAAAF, a Dutch firm “working at the intersection of architecture, art, and landscape,” as they put it, and co-headed by Erik Rietveld, a philosopher who has made the theory of affordances central to his own investigations [PDF].
“The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill,” explains Gibson. What is important about this seemingly simple statement is the “complementarity of the animal and the environment,” he goes on to say. The world we (as animals) inhabit is neither an objective fact nor a subjective aspect of our existence, but a world we use and shape as we perceive it, and vice versa. As Gibson puts it: “the awareness of the world and of one’s complementary relations to the world are not separable.’
The landscape of affordances is by now the result of human action as much as of natural forces. Man has “changed the shapes and substances of his environment...to change what it affords him. He has made more available what benefits him and less pressing what injures him.” We have developed “niches” that hide us, which we have developed into places that support our notions of privacy and comfort. We have molded and shaped surfaces to afford us a variety of different possibilities, from being able to navigate them to providing us perches, places to gather, and any number of social and solitary activities. We have opened new vistas and made natural surfaces more useful, while also creating environments that are more dangerous and challenging. Those actions have, in turn, shaped our sense of what the environment is and how we can develop in and through it.
The theory of affordances would seem on one level to be one that just makes common sense and, on the other hand, to be a way of describing our environment that is most useful for interaction design. What has made the theory of affordances come to the fore in architecture lately has been the advances in computer visualization and simulation. Of particular note are those programs that let us simulate the movement of individuals or crowds through artificial environments, and then show how changes in slope, the existence of barriers, and degrees of porosity influence how people make us a space. Patrik Schumacher, one of the more notorious principals of Zaha Hadid Architects, proclaimed during final reviews at the University of the Applied Arts in Vienna that “no design will any longer make sense without crowd simulation.”
Affordances are, in other words, a way of seeing architecture as an evolving and interactive landscape. That does not necessarily mean that its forms should have the look of fluidity. RAAAF has experimented with designs such as “The End of Sitting,” which will be on display at the Chicago Architecture Biennial later this year. It is neither an office furniture system nor an interior design, but rather a landscape that affords different modes of working. The architecture of affordances, in other words, is one that bases itself neither on function nor on form, but on the perceived and exploited uses to which we can put the environment architects create.
A theory of affordance lets us understand buildings not as objects, but as environments that afford us possibilities, that open and enclose, that respond and give us clues, and that do not differentiate themselves into the duality of inside and outside, form and space, structure and enclosure. If that theory lets us create architecture that is more human, that allows us to be at home in the modern world, and that opens us up to each other and the world we have made together, then it is a useful design tool.