On Attentive Body and Enriching Perceptual Dialogues 

JAN/FEB 2022

   It has been explored philosophically and empirically that dynamic interactions between our environment, body, and brain are actively reciprocal. Meaningful interactions between all three fail to be nurtured during everyday life when outdoor urban spaces fade to a predictable stage for disengaging habits and pre-defined experiences. My research dissects such interactions, while exploring new opportunities embedded in body schema for triggering meaningful perceptual dialogues. Via interdisciplinary investigations and speculative design studies, this research evaluates how certain environmental qualities activate consciousness of our attentive bodies.

Research Context & Core Questions:
   Urban environments that actively stimulate meaningful everyday experiences are proven to benefit users' quality of life. However, due to a lack of tools and language, our embodied experiences are regularly overlooked during landscape design processes. Priority is often focused towards ecological or functional requirements rather than the experiential qualities of intervention. As a result, urban environments often become predictable stages for experiences that fail to stimulate our body and mind. Here, perceptions of a place remain similar disregarding how and when it’s experienced. This turns us into disembodied observers of spaces instead of active subjects intentionally experiencing the environment – there is a lack of perceptual dialogue between our body and environments. 

    Enriching perceptual dialogue focuses on the narratives of perceptual events that are subjective to the thinking body of space and phenomenon in time. The fluid boundary between our body and the world serves as padding that mediates between toucher and touched (McCann, 2013), from which perceptual narratives evolve and transform. David Leatherbarrow describes a type of work that is explicitly designed to be undecided and allow for multiple readings. Yeoryia Manolopoulou calls it ‘architecture of chance’. Jonathan Hill promotes the immaterial quality of space as it’s dependent on perception, creative interpretation and fictions. As perceptions being hypotheses, based on the re-construction of sensory encoding- transformation- decoding (Johnson, 2000), we rely on aspects such as context, surrounding phenomenon, memory, imagination, and unfolding narratives via movement to draw perceptual conclusions about the spatial experiences. By controlling how the design registers these elements differently, a series of perceptual dialogues can be initiated. For example, in the context of traditional Chinese gardens, by shifting light conditions or obscuring contextual reference, the spatial depth fluctuates, which allows the viewer to be aware of bodily movements and acts of seeing- they are active in the shaping of their experience rather than passive in their receipt of it.

     My research builds upon the hypothesis that certain configurations of space, with all its indeterminate richness in material and immaterial, can serve as a prompting element that invites the consciousness of the attentive body via enriched perceptual dialogues. The research will investigate topics of body schema (a system of sensory-motor capacities) shared by Phenomenology of Perception (Merleau-Ponty, 1945) and consciousness of place (concept of ma) in East-Asian Aesthetics, with new developments in enactive architecture experience in neuroscience (Jelic, 2016) and embodiment in cognitive psychology (Clark, 1999). Through these, it aims to uncover potentials embedded in our inherent bodily ways of experience, and incorporate such enriched qualities into innovative design processes and practices. The following questions provide a framework for the research:
         What design interventions actively encourage perceptual dialogues by registering our body schema in embodied experience? 
        How to incorporate body schema effectively in the design process to enrich meaningful perceptual dialogues?
        Can activating perceptual dialogues stimulate an attentive state of body and mind? 

  This proposed research aims to establish and explore relationships between four major elements: perceptual dialogues, body schema, attentive state of body, and material/immaterial of landscape design practices in urban settings. The methodology involves three reciprocal processes: interdisciplinary theoretical research, analytical and ethnographic documentation of selective cases, and projective experiments via speculative design intervention involving prototyping and critical analysis. 
   What design interventions actively encourage perceptual dialogues by registering our body schema in embodied experience? The project starts with establishing a theoretical framework through interdisciplinary literature review on topics of body schema that are relevant to perceptual interactions and environmental design practice. Philosophically, the investigations on the thinking body in Merleau Ponty’s phenomenology will identify essential elements that stimulate perceptual dialogues such as unfolding depth, frontality and recession, ambiguity, partial views, curiosity and assumptions. From empirical science, research of embodied architecture experience and sensorimotor contingency will reassure how body schema mediates between us and the environment and start to draw relations to certain spatial interventions such as hiding and revealing (play of presence and absence), framing (filtering out context or directing intentionality), or relational structure based on sequence. Alongside, the theory of body schema will influence methods that ethnographically document experiences of selected cases via interpretative research, field writing, and innovative representations. I seek to understand how different systems of body schema are subjective to various conditions and interpret these experiences via an extended boundary of the anatomical body. By comparing experiences of different viewers at various times and circumstances, the level of enriched perceptual dialogues will be revealed. 
     Can activating perceptual dialogues stimulate an attentive state of body and mind? Investigations on the consciousness of the attentive body help to set up criteria for qualitative evaluation, such as memory, narrative, attention, emotional and physiological response. The practice-based, bodily-scale outdoor environments focused inquiry, intersects architecture and landscape architecture disciplines in both eastern and western contexts, with a focus on dynamic threshold conditions created by material and immaterial of landscape architecture. It features the aesthetics originated from paintings in traditional private East-Asian gardens, which highlights the emplaced body and view. These include Lingering garden (留园), Yi pu garden (艺圃), Humble administrator's garden (拙政园), Katsura Imperial Villa (かつらりきゅう) and Saihō-ji (西芳寺). Contemporary cases built within the public realm such as the works by Peter Zumthor, Steven Holl, Junya Ishigami and Sou Fujimoto that share this similarity in enriched perceptual dialogues will be inquired to establish cross-cultural relationships. The author’s own lived ethnographic experience of growing up in China and studying in the West will be incorporated into the process for reflection. 
     How to incorporate body schema effectively in the design process to enrich meaningful perceptual dialogues? Experimental practices (Nelson,2013) will be incorporated alongside to test, evaluate and reflect upon the theoretical framework. Identification and testing of design strategies via landscape material and immaterial, that encourage perceptual dialogues, will be undertaken via drawing, modeling and innovative methods informed by case study. Subsequently, this will involve a series of small-scale landscape installations at 1:1 scale in urban settings. They will be experienced by both local communities who are familiar with the place and visitors who are new to the area. Ethnographic processes involving semi-structured interviews will be conducted to bridge individualized perceptions and collective narratives while providing evaluation and grounding for new theory and design approaches. This aims to test how the incorporation of specific parameters via material and immaterial of landscape architecture activates an attentive state via shaping perceptual dialogues. 

The new understanding of perceptual dialogues, framed and examined via projective design, will develop new strategies for design process and implementation. This will broaden the traditional Cartesian-centered perspectives of reading, representing, analyzing and critiquing built projects via new perspectives and speculative media; contribute to a systematic and coherent framework for the embodied-experience-centered approach to be constructively implemented in the design decision-making process, towards more diversified and deepened bodily experiences of habitants. These aim to empower and heighten the user’s unique way of experiencing space and time. By engaging the fleeting moment of now via our attentive body here, we can form a more rooted relationship with place, thus re-address our relationships to others (human and non-human) in this interwoven matrix. Eventually, it helps to transform the space we go and time we consume to places where we belong.


Notes and Acknowledgment: 
This piece of writing is trying to sort out and narrow down my research interest and its potential contribution to the field. Though it stays broad at this moment, it covers some elements that are essential to my work and cultural background. Moving forward, it is certainly a draft that anchors my initial motivation when entering academic research in landscape architecture. 
Huge thanks to Dr James Simpson who has provided me with inspiring thoughts, constructive comments and kind guidance that made this piece of writing possible. Meanwhile, the conversations with Dr. Nicole Porter, Dr. Fiona Zisch, Dr. David Buck, Prof Johnathan Hale, Prof Lynne Manzo, Prof Elizabeth Hermann and Prof Scheri Fultineer helped to shape these research questions among all the puzzles in my mind. Lastly, Mark Goldstein and Eliza Valk 's help with the editing enabled me to articulate my thoughts in a fluid way, thank you.