The Socratic Method

Questioning Our Assumptions About Design

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    Love Knows No Boundaries... But Don't Humans Love Boundaries?

    Laura Kazmierczak
    Nov 30, '17 8:19 PM EST

    Picture this:  you’re walking along a paved path on the perfectly manicured grounds of a hotel when you happen upon a tree encircled by a thin rope.  What is your reaction?  It is likely that you do not automatically desire to climb over this rope; rather, your natural reaction is quite the opposite.  Stay out!  Why do we know that this rope indicates such a command?  There is no visible sign.  Will an alarm sound lest you happen to climb over the rope in pure defiance?  Obviously you need to test it out, so you do climb over it, brazenly.  And guess what?  No alarm sounds.  Shock!  So what is the big deal about being on one side of this rope from the other?

    Many times we see signs warning us to keep off the grass or some other prohibited surface material directly adjacent to our walking path.  Of course, these warnings are most likely there for maintenance purposes.  But when we stop to think about it at a closer scale, this becomes irrelevant.  Step off of the path and onto the grass.  Does your view, experience, or perception of the space seem altered in any way?  Not really.  But you do feel something, being on the forbidden surface, don’t you?  It’s a bit thrilling recognizing we are somewhere we are not meant to be.  So why do our brains convince us that crossing over these assumed thresholds is the incorrect action to take?  The answer:  science.

    Biophilia, a scientific theory discovered by biologist Edward O. Wilson in the 1980s, is the explanation.  Its basic definition goes like this:  human beings are genetically predetermined to be attracted to other living things (plants, other animals, water, etc.).  As a species, we love being in, around, and exposed to nature and natural systems.  Since the discovery of this theory some 30-plus years ago, an emerging design typology has resulted:  biophilic design.  The overall concept is that there are (many) ways in which we can be designing to better connect with and support our surrounding environment.  There are over 70 identified elements and attributes of biophilic design, described in the original text covering this topic, Biophilic Design:  The Theory, Science, and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life by Dr. Stephen R. Kellert.  One of these elements is bounded spaces.  This particular principle is precisely why we decide not to climb over the aforementioned rope.  As humans, we prefer limits - cues that let us know where we can and cannot go.  It is believed that this preference stems from our evolutionary tendency as territorial creatures.  Our need for resources and security has, over time, morphed into our current-day penchant for distinct delineations within spaces, signaling to us reliable boundaries and spatial separations.

    Think about a traffic cone.  What is it, really?  At its core, a traffic cone is simply a molded piece of plastic painted its signature dayglow orange.  But to us as humans, it is so much more than that.  Without touching one another, when traffic cones are placed in a roadway, we perceive the connected line that they make.  But isn’t this “line” the result of another human deciding the path she/he feels fit?  With a few quick movements, this person has decided for us where we are to go and not go.  How powerful does a traffic cone become when it is examined in this way?  A simple piece of plastic is able to alter our course of travel and we are more than ok with it.  In fact, that’s exactly how we prefer it. Architecturally speaking, there is a constant conversation about the blurring of the indoors and outdoors; many architectural theses have explored this very notion.  But if our biological inclinations tend to prefer clear delineations, how do we go about resolving this seemingly conflicting tendency to provide bounded, safe spaces, while also blurring the line between interior and exterior?  Consider successful examples in architecture where a sense of security is accounted for, while also allowing an even flow between inside and outside.  One particular project that comes to mind is the ACT (Abused Child Trust) for Kids project in Australia.  The building itself is a heavy, concrete mass that surrounds a softer, landscaped courtyard.  This outdoor space incorporates curved, covered paths, linking the exterior site to the interior spaces.  These covered pathways appear to be inside-outside spaces; there is protection from the elements but no walls containing the user within the space.  That’s just one project example.  Do you have others to share for discussion?  What are your thoughts on bounded spaces?  What potential is there to take advantage of this phenomenon in design?

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This blog explores ideas about design and how it relates to our lives through research and critical thinking. As the title suggests this will be a platform to present thought provoking ideas intended for further discussion.

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