Return of the sensuous chemist. Personal experience as design research

Guillaume-François Rouelle (1703–1770). Image from ScienceDirect

Personal experience is a key to deeper understanding and knowledge. Masters from the 18th-century chemist and professor Gabriel-François Rouelle to 20th-century architect Frank Lloyd Wright have considered personal experience as imperative part of their research practices.

TEXT HEINI LEHTINEN

Nihil est in intellectu quod non prius in sensu — nothing is in the intellect that is not first in the senses,” stood in a banner in a classroom behind Gabriel-François Rouelle, a French 18th century chemist and a professor.

In the dawn of the industrial revolution, chemistry was still a very practical application, human body was related to a machine, and chemistry was considered ‘sensuous technology.’

In the machine of a human body, the senses were components of the apparatus. Rouelle and his colleagues taught a generation of French chemists and chemical amateurs to use and trust their vision, hearing, smell, taste and touch as tools of measurement. For Rouelle, though, senses were not to be let loose in a laboratory. On the contrary, he carefully taught his students that certain colours, tastes and odours were crucial parts of a process or an analysis. These skills, again, could only be learned through experience.

Even though there might have been some collateral damage in the laboratory while learning to the method of sensuous technology in chemistry, mastered senses were probably relatively useful tools although less accurate than later, machine-based technologies.

Even today, there are still quite some occupations in which the senses are used to detect and analyze. Among others, coffee companies have quality controllers using their senses of smell and taste, fragrance industry employs some of the most accurate noses in the world, and majority of surveillance is carried out by watching and listening.

These occupations, however, mainly use sensorial input or lack of it as a method of gathering and analyzing information. As a method of research in a design process, sensorial experiences can be further translated into design.

Method of personal experience is not new in the field of design, especially in architecture. The examples of the significance of experience spring from architecture due to the fact that phenomenology has much deeper roots in architecture than in other subfields of design. However, the following examples are not only limited to the fields of architecture or art, but they are applicable to other fields of design, design research and design education as well.

To architect Frank Lloyd Wright, personal experience was inseparable from the design process. He taught his students that deep understanding of spirit of place was such an integral element of the design process and so inevitable for the actual design that he urged his students to sleep outdoors on the land where the planned building was, or was supposed to be built. He also made them work on the land to understand the rotation of the day, of the sun and the moon, the weather, the shadows and the seasons prior to the actual design process.

Architect Juhani Pallasmaa writes about the primary role of embodied human condition and the importance of instinctual reactions and sensory realism in Alvar Aalto’s and Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture. He also states that similar traits of multitude and primacy of sensory experiences can be found in the work of Glenn Murcutt, Steven Holl and Peter Zumthor.

What is interesting, then, based on Pallasmaa’s notions, is that although the thinking and designs of Wright, Aalto, Zumthor, Holl or Murcutt are highly appreciated, the methods they conduct or conducted still haven’t reached design or architecture education or practice any widely today. This came up, for instance, in several conversations with architecture students at Porto Academy ’13, and international summer school for architecture students, organized in Porto, Portugal by the Faculty of Architecture University of Porto (FAUP) and Indexnewspaper in the summer 2013. This can be considered surprising knowing the success and appreciation of the work of the aforementioned architects.

(Non-)subjective experience

Personal experience is criticized of being extremely subjective and therefore not relevant as a method of design. It is, however, a key to deeper understanding and knowledge on the topic in hand, and it might change perception on the researched topic quicker and more profoundly than other types of research.

Personal experience brings together bodily and mental understanding and memory. It also allows tying the experience to knowledge gained through other research methods as well as to cognitive and emotional processes.

However, there are some aspects to be considered when using experience as a method of research and learning. Firstly, the experience needs to be backed up with previous knowledge and research to be more than a personal journey. Secondly, the experiences need to lead the research further instead of staying as one-off personal experiences. Thirdly, learning and understanding through personal experience can be supported by technological developments, such as brain scanning technologies, and reveal connections and similarities between the ‘subjective’ experiences of individuals.

John Dewey writes about the role of experience in education and learning as part of progressive education:

“To proceed as if any form of direction and guidance by adults were an invasion of individual freedom, and as if the idea that education should be concerned with the present and future meant that acquaintance with the past has little or no role to play in education.”

Although the case of Dewey’s education is different from using personal experience as a method in further design research, it’s not difficult to agree with him: in a learning or research process, the present and the future gained by an experience need to be backed up with the past to root learning and to create a framework for the new cognitive and emotional understanding.

Sensuous technology (re)born

A designer can use the method of sensorial experience as a strictly personal method for new inspiration and revelations as part of the individual quest of new solutions. Another way is to use experience as a research method as a personal confirmation to other forms of research, or vice versa, find new dimensions on discoveries and information found through other research methods. As Juhani Pallasmaa states:

“Design practice that is not grounded in the complexity and subtlety of experience withers into dead professionalism devoid of poetic content and is incapable of touching the human soul, whereas a theoretical survey that is not fertilised by a personal encounter with the poetics of building is doomed to remain alienated and speculative — and can, at best, only elaborate rational relationships between the apparent elements of architecture.”

What makes the significance of experience even more relevant today than in the previous decades is the recent technological development.

Developments in brain scanning technologies (fMRI) enable measuring the brain activity during an experience — or during a sensation or perception. Development of sensor technology enables measuring physical reactions and responses. Even though the experience or a sensation is considered subjective, the brain receives and interprets the messages in similar ways. This leads to creating new connections between bodily experiences and the brain. Also new knowledge on the connection of the body and the brain — perceiving a human being as a bodymind instead of an entity of separate body and mind — have opened a way to new ideas, visions and research on processes of human brain.

New research technology has a chance of revealing new aspects on designers’ working processes and enabling new methods of working as well as new ways of understanding stages of a design process. Also, it has already started to reveal patterns and consistency in perceiving and experiencing our everyday material and immaterial surroundings, and through this, open new points of view to aspects of human experience that have previously been considered impossible to reach due to the assumed subjectivity of the experience.

If the new research methods, again, succeed in revealing and measuring patterns in human perception and experiences on the level of the body and the mind, this new information would provide new tools for designers in designing surroundings or human interactions — based on experiential factors and sensorial inputs.

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The essay, originally written in 2014, is a part of ‘Design for Connectedness,’ an overarching concept of Brussels-based design and research agency Raven & Wood Agency. ‘Design for Connectedness’ looks into the experience of connectedness to ourselves, others, the environment, time and energy as crucial elements of well-being, and as a method of design research.

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REFERENCES

DEWEY, John 1938. Experience and Education. [Pdf.] (March 16, 2014.) 
HOWES, David (ed.) 2005. Empire of the Senses. The Sensual Culture Reader. UK: Biddles. 
MCLENNAN, Jason 2004. The Philosophy of Sustainable Design. Canada: Ecotone. 
PALLASMAA, Juhani 2005. The Eyes of the Skin. Architecture and Senses. Padstow: John Wiley & Sons.
PALLASMAA, Juhani 2009. The Thinking Hand. Existential and Embodied Wisdom in Architecture. Italy: Conti Tipcolor.