Examples of the built environment are often discussed in terms of a building — that which is drawn up and represented through documentation and realised as a structure such as a house, a restaurant, hospital or high-rise office block. I propose, however, as an alternative to considering the thing we design as a building or a cluster of buildings surrounded by landscape, that the conception of the environmental situation has great benefits. Why is the environmental situation a more appropriate way to understand the built environment or 'the thing' that a designer designs? The built environment exists in the world simultaneously as an interpretation and as a tangible entity which influences the processes of interpretation. These dimensions come together as the architectural experience.
In order to address the 'everydayness' of built environments, the complexity of the environmental situation, and architectural experience, a multi-dimensional framework is required. A methodological rationale was developed by the integration of existing approaches to investigating and describing the person environment relationship, with the philosophy of inquiry espoused by C.S. Peirce (Smith,2001). The use of an open approach to inquiry and analysis incorporating Narrative Inquiry and Grounded Theory, also served to capture the built environment as experience and as interwoven relationships, rather than through the traditional discourses of form and function.
A 'Peircean approach' also potentiates a new discourse which allows disparate theoretical stances to be amalgamated including the works of Wittgenstein, Schulz, Peirce, Eco and others. It thereby merges and potentiates new ways of discussing the built environment, as well as, differing relationships with people and the process of interpretation. As a consequence, the context of our design decisions may be challenged and extended by framing our approach with this knowledge. This paper is an introduction to some of the issues involved in adopting a Peircean framework to the studies of the built environment.
This paper is based on a presentation to Institute for Studies in Pragmaticism, Texas Tech University, Lubbock, , United States of America, 2001.
There are a number of core concepts that are pertinent to the discussion of architectural experience in the context of a Peircian approach. My objectives, within this paper, are to expose the relevance of Peirce to understanding the physical environment, to identify my work as one example in which Peircean concepts assist to do this, and to also introduce the field through a discussion of existing works.
To set the scene let us consider the following proposition:
In modern society the built environment is part of 'how it is' or 'what it is' to exist in the world. Therefore, to design the 'built environment' can not be removed from the discussion of how people experience life.
Within this statement are embedded some fundamental assumptions and beliefs. These include firstly, that the environment is more than just a physical entity in which people visit, live, and the like. Secondly, that designing concerns the relationship of human and non-human aspects, as well as, human experience.
The architectural, and therefore, interior environments, are part of the continuum which is our life or understanding of the world. Therefore, to comprehend 'what it is to design' requires knowledge of experience and in association interpretation. Peirce's theories allow us to address these issues of aesthetics, experience and interpretation to reveal the intangible within the seemingly simplistically defined tangible objects we design, because his work deals with meaning and relationships. Although written at the turn of the twentieth century, Peirce's ideas still provides insights for contemporary designers.
The outcome of such insights is a shift in focus by the designer to the person-environment (P E) relationship from the building or even discussions of 'place'. By looking at the relationship in detail, it is evident that we may come to understand the built environment as it is experienced. We may also as a result, gain insights into the role of environment in the person-interpreter and the person-person relationship. This in turn is interlinked with social issues such as identity and discrimination.
Although there are many ways to understand the environment and person connection (Berleant, 1991; Aitken, 1991; Aitken, 1992; Moore,1987; Zeisal,1975; Smith, 2001), each has its particular implications for how we understand our world, while largely ignoring the implications for, and of, the other frameworks or ways of understanding. I propose that, because of these limitations, we need to take a more multi-dimensional approach to discussing environmental issues, to ensure that we understand what it is to create a building and interior as it is situated in the world, and experienced as an entity in relation to one's life (Smith,2001). This is also the process through which we may encounter 'the other'
or that which is not yourself. This is the context of architectural experience.
People are positioned in time and space, and the influence upon us of these positionings in how we create meaning, is an integral aspect of the design of the built environment. An alternative to discussing the environment in terms of a building — that which is drawn up and represented through documentation and realised as a structure— is the conception of the environmental situation. We exist and experience our world through environmental situations. The situation, or 'whole', has arisen from a unique merging of individual entities—human and non-human. Therefore, the environment appears to exist as a collection of relationships that occur between the person and the other
. These particular relationships come into being
over space and time and, once present, have particular characteristics. We may encounter these entities in various ways as the situation per se in its various modes of being, and/or individual aspects of the situation in their various modes of being.
The built environment exists in the world simultaneously as an interpretation and as a tangible entity which influences the processes of interpretation. These dimensions come together as the architectural experience. This may be visualised by considering a threshold or boundary as an analogy. The threshold can only exist through the relationship of the in and the out or the before and the beyond. It occurs in various forms influenced by its spatial, physical or material aspects. These, in turn, influence the experiences such as entering, arrival, or departure (Smith,2001).
Architectural experience in the context of a Peircean approach
As stated previously, Peirce's theories allow us to reveal the intangible within the seemingly simplistic tangible objects we design. The outcome is a shift in focus by the designer to the person environment relationship. During the 1970s in architecture, semiotics or the study of signs became fashionable as a reaction to the International Style. Differing understandings of the material world meant that a new society—egalitarian, representing progress and hope—was proposed. The protagonists aimed to challenge the supposedly inhuman, barbaric, mechanistic, and/or boring outcome of the International style. It was proposed instead that the built environment 'has meaning' and this could be understood through the investigation of the architectural sign (Broadbent, et al in 1980). The linguist, and 'father' of semiotics, Saussure, influenced such work. One limitation of Saussure's approach was his understanding of a sign as a dyad, or to put it simply, that an object x comes to have a meaning y within a certain structure. The process of meaning making therefore, resembles 'pattern matching'. The appropriateness of an alternative approach, which allowed an understanding of the 'finer shades of meaning', was revealed to exist in the works of C.S. Peirce. Although Peirce is described as semiotician, his approach to the study of meaning is different. His work deals with semiosis: the sign is defined 'in terms of a triadic process, called semiosis...Signs are not a class of objects. They exist only in the mind of the interpreter' (Nöth
Should life be looked at as living in semeiosis? 'When I reconsidered the work in environmental meaning that dealt with schema, cues, nonverbal communication and the like, it seemed informative, yet simplistic, in regard to the study of the environmental situation. What about aesthetic experiences, affective responses or beauty? As I delved into the work of Peirce, I developed a sense that, if Semiotics was understood from a philosophical rather than from a linguistic perspective, that it might be a relevant way of considering the interpretation of the built environment: that is, as the Semeiotic' (Smith,2001). There are few researchers of the built environment who have referred to Peirce or have tried to apply his work to date. Those who have include Broadbent (1980), Lang
(1993) Gottdiener (1995), Dougherty (1990) and Vihma (1995).
Their work serves to introduce the potential of Peirce to the design professions. Lang
(1993) in the area of psychology aimed to address the Cartesian duality of person (P) and environment (E) and introduces semeiosis as a process.In his case-study of a chest in an apartment, he used a Peircean framework to understand the person-cultural system and to investigate the individual in a social world. He adopted the Peircian understanding that there is a need for a medium/sign to exist so an entity can have an effect through something other than itself. He proposed a system, in which intra and extra dimensions of person and object in exchange, influence understanding. The world exists beyond just people and objects to new entities of person-and-their-things or things-and-their-people.
Vihma (1995) in relation to industrial design, aimed to examine the design of industrially manufactured products and the resultant outcome. Her premise was that an object has 4 dimensions—syntax, materials, pragmatics, semantics. We can describe a product's representational qualities within the semantic dimension and try to address what a thing may represent: to identify how something can express something about itself. She analysed products, with particular reference to form, and how they reference iconically, indexically, and symbolically. These terms were defined and applied according to the works of Peirce.
In the field of architecture, Dougherty's application of the Peircean semeiotic was the most comprehensive. Dougherty (1990) aimed to expose the benefits to architecture of the semeiotic in understanding architectural communication and environmental perception. Dougherty's work acknowledges the distinction between the 'sign utterer', the 'sign' and the 'sign receiver'. Dougherty's investigation highlights the ambiguity within aesthetically dominant fields. Peirce's definition of a sign as a triadic relationship allows 'the vagueness' of interpretation and experience into the discussion. Dougherty discusses and adapts the triadic sign relationship as a tool of analysis. The differences were used as 'an awareness raiser'. For example, the selected building as a casestudy is interrogated in terms of iconic, indexical and symbolic understandings. The 'sign' is understood as a tool for expediating understanding of architectural meaning and communication.
All of these cited works add to the discussion of interpretation and meaning in relation to the built environment. However, in order to understand the everydayness of 'environmental experience' it was necessary to delve more broadly and deeply than any one of the studies had done individually. Without describing the following study in detail, as it has been done extensively elsewhere (Smith, 2001), the concepts that were generated through Peirce's influence will be raised.
Applying Peirce to the study of environmental meaning and interpretation.
If we accept (as proposed here) that the environment is part of how we exist in the world, then we may ask; How does the built-environment contribute to interpretation and the conceptions of 'the other' (human and non-human)? This question was the focus of an investigation of dining environments — the environments of the everyday practices of eating and socialising (Smith, 2001). Social formations (Schroder,1994;Fiske,1994) emphasise that our definitions of end-users are discursive practices (Smith,2001). They challenge us to look at the relationship, which we structure through our beliefs, between the physical aspects of our environments and the people. If we accept that the situation of the person within the environment is dynamic and involves discursive classification and provisional beliefs, then discrimination, or points where it may come into play, are possible and open to investigation. By looking at this P E relationship in detail, it is evident that we may come to understand the built environment as it experienced, and may consequently gain insights into the role of environment in the person-interpreter and the person-person relationship.
What was the relevance of the concepts of C.S.Peirce? In the above study (Smith, 2001), the works of Peirce introduced a way of looking at the environment and the associated identities of people as well as providing a way of describing what appears to be occurring. Although the work will not be discussed in length in this introductory paper, a brief overview of the influence of Peirce's writings is presented below.
Peirce provides, firstly, a framework for looking at
the built environment. Stimulated by Peirce's work, I was able to fuse differing perspectives, transform one mode of 'being' to another, to appreciate disjuncture as a sign of things not considered and to cater for the fluidity
of the person-environment positioning, relationship, and experience to be captured in its 'everydayness' (Smith, 2001). This challenged existing conceptions of the person-environment relation as a static form. For example, the environment is understood by some as being an ongoing determinant of person-behaviour and by others as an entity that is in a transactional relationship. By opening up the ability to view the relationship, multiple and concurrent relationships are proposed (Smith,2001).
Secondly, Peirce provided insights into a means to describe what had been observed. However, initially an important distinction is to be made. Insights include the understanding that the world is in relationship, meaning is the outcome of our belief about things, while challenging the notion of the environment as a fixed setting and 'the user' as knowable, that is, a type of entity (Smith, 2001). Through these insights, I came to redefine the environment as a collocation
(Smith, 2001). It should be also noted that, the object
as a physical thing, as opposed to a constituent of the sign, may provide difficulties for the novice
, whose life is embedded in the physical world of design, surrounded by buildings and furniture as tangible objects.
Thirdly, the concepts Peirce had identified acted as an explanation of what was inferred from the study. These included concepts of continuum; universes [firstness, secondness, thirdness], dimensions of significance, or modalities of being; pairedness (or that which comes into existence through relationships such as the in and the out); and boundedness (the limits within the continuum). The dining event exists, not only as an experience bounded by time and space, but also as part of a continuum. If the environment is a venue for dining, such as a cafe, then we observe the cafe from afar, the entry or transition spaces, the interior and/or from any of the zones within the interior. The experience of the environment, and therefore our understanding of it, is modified by the spatial contexts that we transverse as we approach, enter and dine. What we can see, interact with, sense and observe is continually changing as we move through space and time (Smith,2001). As such the built environment is no longer simply about 'the physical' or the bricks and mortar.
In summary, an understanding of environment influenced by a Peircean approach challenges the traditional understandings of the built environment that focused upon buildings and landscapes. As an alternative, the focus may move to new understandings where the environment potentiates (within a context of continuum and fluidity) recognition of the fluidity of the p-e relationship—simultaneously separate yet interconnected dimensions—and the built environment as boundedness within a field. Often unwittingly, a designer focuses on 'something' coming 'into being', and places 'material things' in relationships that represent their beliefs. Through the collocation (Smith, 2001) these things are brought into an 'interpretative field' bounded by/as space and time. The potentiality
then becomes an actuality
In conclusion, studies of the built environment can be informed by the writings of C. S. Peirce. Both his process of inquiry and his key concepts can inform our understanding. The outcome is new, or developing, understandings of the built environment and what it is to design. These shifting concepts can assist our understandings of the social dimensions of the built world such as issues of discrimination. The 'limit' on what a material thing could be
is limited, not by the physical and materiality, but instead by an inability to relate entities in new ways. The environment is an actual reactive experience where the building is a mediator— bringing together the expectation of the future with the experience of what it is 'to be there'.
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C.S. PEIRCE BIBLIOGRAPHY:
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END OF: Dianne Smith, "Architectural Context: A Peircean Frame"