On the Interpretation of Architecture
Theory of Interpretation

Vol. 12, No. 2, December 2008


___Irina Solovyova
& Upali Nanda
San Antonio, Texas
  Embodied Intuition


Is design an analytical act governed by logic, or an intuitive act steered by emotion? Is it either, or both? Do designers undermine the role of intuition even while inadvertently relying on it? Do designers mistrust their intuitive judgment while struggling to conform to formal education and professional expectations? All these questions can be answered only once we understand the very nature, and role, of intuition in design.

In this paper we argue that design is an intuitive interpretation of our previous spatial experiences. We investigate the concepts of intuition and of sensory and emotional perceptions of space that result in the embodiment of spatial experience, and we reintroduce the term of “Embodied Intuition”[1],[2]. We look at intuition in everyday life, creativity and intuition, and theories of embodiment from neuroscience, anthropology, and architecture. We build an argument that without an emplaced and embodied sensitivity, our intuitive interpretation becomes disembodied and weak, and as a result, the creation of architecture becomes mere simulation.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary[3] defines intuition as the immediate knowing or learning of something without the conscious use of reasoning; instantaneous apperception. In reality, intuition is very similar to an insight and is nothing else but the ability to make elliptic shortcuts from a situation to a response[4]. Myers[5] described it as some things we know we know, but we don’t know how we know them. Most people will agree that intuition can be described as ideas or feelings that guide our thoughts and behaviors. Intuition is intrinsically intertwined with our collateral experiences, memories, and implicit thought.

Implicit thought may be said to occur when a thought – for example, the correct solution to a problem – influences experience, thought, or action, even though one is unaware of the thought itself. Implicit thoughts may consist of ideas, beliefs, or images – any cognitive content, in fact, that is neither a percept (a representation of a current event) or a memory (a representation of a past event); they appear to be closely associated with the experiences of intuition, incubation, and insight – all hallmarks of creative problem solving[6].

First, let’s look more closely at intuitive problem solving and decision making in everyday life and in design. Research suggests[7] that intuition may be integral to completing tasks successfully that involve high complexity and short time frames, such as corporate planning, stock analysis, and performance appraisal. Architectural design addresses the same constraints. As Dane and Pratt (forthcoming) claimed,

Intuition, as a holistically associative process, may actually help to integrate the disparate elements of an ill-defined problem into a coherent perception of how to proceed.

In architectural design, there are various parameters and complex issues that need to be addressed and prioritized. In fact, as suggested by Archea[8], when given an architectural problem, one has to create one’s own puzzle before one can solve it.

In architectural school students are taught and encouraged to think analytically and to have a strong reason for every decision they make. Novice professionals tend to approach design problems in the same way, and not until later do they learn to trust their intuition. There is some research to show that the analytical approach is not necessarily the best for problem solving[9],[10]. Glöckner’s[11] study of intuitive and heuristic methods of decision making showed that intuition beats fast and frugal heuristic, and consistently showed that few individuals apply complex-rational thought to solving problems. In Glöckner’s study, participants decided the city size based on the given cues[12]. Given that it was a relatively simple task, one can speculate that in a more complex task, the reliance on intuition would be even greater. According to Shapiro and Spence[13], intuition tends to be more effective than logical analysis in enabling individuals to develop an understanding of the structure of a complex system. Therefore, intuitive judgments are more effective than rational analysis for unstructured problems; again, a context relevant to architectural design.

We can draw another parallel between intuition – as it applies to decision making in management  – and the design process. Uncertainty of the situation is likely to result in a multitude of plausible alternative solutions rather than a single objective criterion for success, wrote Dane and Pratt[14]. This description is similar to Lawson’s description of how designers explore the problem through a series of attempts to create solutions[15]. In general, designers tend to structure the problem by exploiting the aspects of possible design solutions[16]. Thus, in design it is a typical process to produce a range of possible solutions to the problem, and then choose the one best-fitting or most plausible. Often these decisions are reached intuitively, even though the process of formulating the various solutions may be argued rationally.

There is also a possible link between intuition and creativity, given that design is commonly accepted as a creative process. Some authors[17] claim that innovation begins with the embryo of intuition. Little empirical research has been conducted to support connections between intuition and creativity, but it seems obvious that the creative process relies highly on intuition. An indirect link that is supported by the literature is the connection between intuition and emotion. Dane and Pratt[18] analyzed previous research and provided a summary of evidence that suggested intuitive judgments have an affective component:

  • Shirley and Langan-Fox[19] defined intuitions as feelings of knowing.
  • Epstein [20],[21],[22] claimed that all processes in the non-conscious (experiential) system are emotionally driven, and all frameworks in experiential system are derived from emotionally significant experiences.
  • Evidence from organizational, cognitive, and neurological psychology suggests that affect and emotions are an integral component of intuitive judgments[23].

Emotion is an integral component of our relational existence and our embodied interactions with the world. Embodied interactions are best explained by the following second-generation claims of the cognitive science of the embodied mind[24].

  • Conceptual structure arises from our sensorimotor (sensation and movement) experience and the neural structures that give rise to it.
  • Mental structures are intrinsically meaningful by virtue of their connection to our bodies and our embodied experience.
  • Reason is embodied, in that our fundamental forms of inference arise from sensorimotor and other body-based forms of inference.

By being in the world, by doing things and visiting places, we unintentionally collect a great repository of experiences. The essential point is that in the design process, intuition draws on our entire experience, not only on what we consciously isolate as relevant information. Studies in neuroscience[25] showed that to understand a new situation, people capitalize on

stored mental representations, which reflect the entire stream of previous experiences that are associated with the critical event, such as sensory, visceral, and experiential representations[26].

It is this “embodied intuition” that sets an architect apart from someone who can simply put a building together. Reinterpreting Khatri’s and Ng’s definition[27], we can say that intuition as a synthetic psychological function allows an architect to comprehend the totality of a given design task and synthesize a great number of isolated bits of information involved with each project to create a coherent design.

For example, childhood experiences are quite powerful and form a strong foundation for our adult life. At the same time, we tend not to refer to childhood experiences when we design. In “Some Place like Home,” Toby Israel[28] showed that our sense of self and space are intimately and profoundly intertwined with this connection planted in childhood. These grow and change throughout life and are shaped by the meanings that different places have for us. Designers can explore such psychological connections between person and space to help consciously create more fulfilling places.

Hogarth[29] summarized various different roles of intuition in human life. Intuition can look backward and forward in life. In the first case it provides context of justification; in the second, context of discovery. Intuitions can also be expressions of preferences. And finally, intuitions are expressions of cultural capital or unique and shared life experiences of a particular person. Most importantly, Hogarth[30],[31] stated that intuition is domain-specific. Studies in a variety of disciplines (literature, sports, chess, medicine, and physics) have shown the same characteristic of the domain-specificity of intuition. A common example from everyday life would be driving. In architecture, as in driving, certain processes become so automated that professionals can design by drawing on their personal experiences and professional knowledge in an automated, subconscious way. In this case, “feels-right” design can be later justified and explained in a logical fashion, although at the time it happens, it happens intuitively. As Nigel Cross noticed[32], the concept" “intuition” is a convenient, shorthand word for what really happens in design thinking. He called this process “abductive design.”

It is common sense that both rationality and intuition are needed in the solving of any design problem[33]. Psychologist Epstein[34] discussed two ways of knowing: experiential and rational. Experiential knowing is intuitive, automatic, and non-verbal, and rational knowing is rational, analytic, and verbal. Noddings and Shore[35] distinguished between reason and intuition as separate modes, where intuition allows for subjective certainty, and reason permits objective uncertainty. Intuition allows us to sense the answer and feel with certainty that we know something[36], and reason permits us to remain skeptical. Intuition is a source of insight and direct responsiveness, necessary for the construction of knowledge[37].

While we accept that the ability to abstract is precious and essential to creative thought, abstraction devoid of the initial embodiment risks reducing the process to mere appearance. To be able to abstract, first we must gain the ability to be aware of and reflect on our own embodied experiences. Intuition is inherently embodied and may be confused if the embodied concepts are borrowed from a different, artificial paradigm. Hideki Yukawa made a salient point in his book[38]:

Abstraction cannot work by itself, by its very nature. One must abstract from something else which is more concrete and rich in content. In other words, man has to begin with intuition or imagination, and then he can proceed with the help of his power of abstraction.

A designer’s prior experience – not only professional expertise, but overall autobiographic experience – plays a significant role in her or his ability to design. According to Downing[39] design is an act of understanding and the pragmatic use of past experience to identify, peruse, and imagine possible futures. The design process, in other words, can be seen as a transformation and translation of an architect’s experience into a new imagery of places. Architects draw knowledge and import from the remembered past: they consciously – through metaphor – or unconsciously combine, abstract, and distort the past through acts of imagination in order to fuel images of possible places. Emotions are expressions of the way a person understands an experience: they filter and structure the person’s perception of the situation and information[40],[41],[42], they focus attention[43], and they greatly influence construction of memory[44],[45],[46],[47]. Momentary experiencing and the memory of past experiences are essential for the construction of meaning in general[48],[49] and of the meaning of a place as a qualitative totality of complex nature[50]. Or as Myers pointed out[51], unconscious, intuitive inclinations detect and reflect the regularities of our personal history.

This complex understanding of space that we owe to our sensual experiences and emotional connections can never be taught or developed through cognitive processes alone[52]. Space cannot be understood in any way other than through direct experience. Rachel McCann[53] called space the empty container of experience. Space enables experience, but then we remember not the place itself, but our experience of it, our feeling about it[54],[55]. There are three levels of understanding space[56]: sensation, perception, and conception–emotion–thought. In other words, our modes of connection to reality range from basic sensations to an indirect mode of symbolization, and emotion tints all human experience. In fact, according to Tuan[57], there is a point where space (freedom) becomes place (location) via direct-intimate or indirect-conceptual experience gathered through different modes, such as the sensorimotor, tactile, audio, visual, or conceptual. In architectural education and architectural publications, there is much emphasis on abstract space, but not on dwelled place, which is connected intrinsically to our embodied and emotional fabric. Tuan understood place as an “object” you can dwell in, whereas space is that which gives you freedom to move. For example, concepts such as comfort, security, and “sense of home” cannot be taught or explained; they have to involve sensory and emotional engagement, as well as memory and/or conceptualization of these sensations and emotions. They refer not just to physical space, but to located “place.” Think of Grandma’s kitchen[58], which symbolizes notions such as “sense of home” and comfort. The overall experience of happy times during childhood – in Grandma’s kitchen, with the smell of cookies baking and family around the table – form that notion. When designing, architects use the same kind of imagery that we all use when trying to envision a space we’ve never experienced first-hand. We create an image of it by referring to our prior experiences of similar spaces.

In daily life we make interpretations about the stuff around us all the time – how it might work and what we can do with it. We develop an exquisite awareness of the possibilities and sensory qualities of different materials, forms, and textures. This awareness is evident from our actions, even when we are not conscious of them – these are our “thoughtless acts.” Understanding intuitive interpretations might be a significant source of insight for designers[59].

Our minds constantly process vast amounts of information outside of consciousness.

Inside our ever-active brain, many streams of activity flow in parallel, function automatically, are remembered implicitly, and only occasionally surface as conscious words[60].

Miles Richardson’s anthropological theory[61] illustrated how body experience and perception become material – in the case of architecture, for design – by considering how we transform embodied experience into a symbol and then remake that experience into a different object.

[Richardson] suggested that we use objects to evoke experience, thus molding experience into symbols and then melting symbols back into experience. Embodied space is being-in-the-world, that is, the existential and phenomenological reality of place: its smell, feel, color, and other sensory dimensions[62].

Learning for architects has traditionally involved travel, looking at actual buildings, and learning by doing. Such learning is a rich and direct experience, emotionally engaging, and it can be drawn from easily during the design process. Learning can be explicit, taught in coursework and instructional modes, or implicit, imbibed from our environment, both internal and external. Implicit learning can be defined as a process by which people acquire knowledge about rule-governed complexities of a stimulus environment independent of conscious attempt to do so[63]. When directly experienced, perception and actual experience of a space contracts and expands in relationship to a person’s emotions and state of mind, sense of self, social relations, and cultural predispositions[64]. It is an endless source of learning, but is it useful for design problem solving?

As noted by Purcell and Sodersten[65], design problems are often not only ill-defined, but also are identified and stated in abstract terms involving laws and principles. The designer must bring the conceptual and the physical together, create a solution that embodies a physical expression of relevant concepts, and present an appropriate solution. It is absolutely correct that the architecture professional is currently a manager whose main tasks are to coordinate contractors and consultants with whom she or he works and to complete paperwork. At the same time, it is that small, critical portion of creative design that differentiates architects from managers and engineers. When we simply follow codes and laws, we get what in the U.S. are called builder houses – functional but characterless, identical, and not always particularly comfortable structures. What we call “architecture” is a different level of building design: it is the design that offers a personal, rich, living environment well-suited for all its required functions, which caters to its unique users. Embodied intuition is what can help design students learn how to take their design beyond merely rearranging building elements according to rules of composition and laws of building codes. Further, if offers professionals a streamlined process to designing meaningful architecture.

As Downing[66] noted, design education succeeds by defining the boundary between the autobiographical and professional experiences of a designer. She found that mature professionals often drew from the informal imagery of their autobiographical memories during design. Architecture students, on the other hand, displayed lesser fluidity across domains and experiences, resorting to more formal imagery. At the same time, research in other professional domains indicated that intuitive experts’ decisions are not necessarily better than intuitive novices’ decisions[67],[68], even though strategies of processing information vary. Linking this fact back to architecture, we can hypothesize that trusting intuition in designing while in architecture school or at the beginning of the career can improve the quality of the designs. Attempting to design only with pure logic and reason leaves many important factors unattended and sacrifices a valuable life-long repository of experiences unvisited.

How can intuition be of value? It can warn us of the predator who would convince us to buy an inferior system; it can help us discern the valuable from the junk offering of the marketplace; it can offer insight when we have an innovative idea and predict future trends in the marketplace; in short, it can bring us the most valuable knowledge when the timing is critical.
The critical benefit intuition offers is that it gives us the ability to work smarter, not harder – to be the most efficient and creative we can

There are theories on how one can educate intuition through reflection on how (s)he makes intuitive decisions, and by exposing oneself to the environment promoting passive learning[70]. Authors of this paper believe that in architecture, we can begin by simply trusting our intuitive judgments more and by allowing intuition to come out of its ban and enter the walls of academia. As intuition relies on entire experience, it might greatly benefit many architectural students and architectural professionals to be intuitive and enhance their knowledge, skills, and capacity of abstract and logical thinking.

Both education and profession need to take a step toward:

1) Encouraging designers to trust their intuition.

2) Educating architects to inform their intuition.

a. Implicitly: through travel, interaction with a variety of people and cultures, and exposure to different ideas and environments.
b. Explicitly: through instruction of basic principles and fundamentals of building edifices and thoughts.

3) Training designers to reflect on their intuitive judgments and to understand how their own process affects the design product.

4) Training professionals to foster intuition for increased and efficient access to a vast resource of personal and professional experiences faster and more efficiently.

It is important for us to hone our intuitive abilities, in order to create designs that are enriched not just by formal education and knowledge, but by a lifetime of experience. As early as 1962, MacKinnon[71] observed, as a result of his thorough study, that architects as a professional group were distinctly more “intuitive” than the general tested population. Eighty percent of the general architectural population had intuitive personalities, and one hundred percent of architects judged as most creative in the USA at that time were intuitive types. So why do we resist our nature?

Paper in Russian


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[1] Solovyova, Nanda 2003.

[2] Pallasmaa 2001.

[3] http://www.m-w.com/

[4] Damasio 2000, 327.

[5] Myers 2004, 17.

[6] Etch et al. 2000, 34.

[7] Dane and Pratt, forthcoming.

[8] Archea 1985.

[9] Hogarth 2001.

[10] Gigerenzer 2007.

[11] Glöckner 2008, 321.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Dane and Pratt, forthcoming.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Lawson 1990, 33.

[16] Darke 1978.

[17] Weintraub 1998, 10.

[18] Dane and Pratt ibid.

[19] Shirley and Langan-Fox 1996.

[20] Epstein 1990.

[21] Epstein 1994.

[22] Epstein 2002.

[23] Dane and Pratt, ibid., 15.

[24] Lakoff and Johnson 1999.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid, 82.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Israel 2003, viii.

[29] Hogarth 2008.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Hogarth 2001.

[32] Cross 1999, 29.

[33] Jones 1992, 63.

[34] Myers 2004.

[35] Thayer-Bacon 2000, 153.

[36] Ibid., 154.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Yukawa 1964, 119.

[39] Downing 2000, 83.

[40] Robinson 1996.

[41] Orange 2000.

[42] Carroll 2001.

[43] Ibid.

[44] LeDoux 1992.

[45] LeDoux 1996.

[46] Christianson and Safer 1996.

[47] Gebdlin 1962.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Langer 1980.

[50] Norberg-Schulz 1980.

[51] Myers ibid., 29.

[52] Langer 1942.

[53] McCann 2005.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Conway 1990.

[56] Tuan 2003.

[57] Tuan 1977.

[58] Downing ibid.

[59] Suri 2005, 164.

[60] Myers ibid., 29.

[61] Low 2003, 14.

[62] Low ibid., 14.

[63] Volz and Von Cramon 2008, 76.

[64] Low ibid., 12.

[65] Purcell and Sodersten 2001.

[66] Downing ibid.

[67] Hogarth 2001.

[68] Klein 2002.

[69] Weintraub ibid., 336.

[70] Hogarth 2001.

[71] MacKinnon 1962.