How do we know what we learn in an architecture or design school? How does visual or other instruction engaging the bodily senses inform the teaching of design as a creative yet iterative, pattern-making process? And what are the epistemological mechanisms that have historically supported such pedagogical practices converting bodily movements, tactile sensations, color tones, and sound signals into painted images, concrete artifacts, and built spaces?
In Kinaesthetic Knowing, Zeynep Çelik Alexander examines the methodical construction of such knowledge by describing the codification of psychological intuitions into a pedagogical system that has perpetuated itself in design schools over several generations. For decades now, modern architecture has been criticized for its orthogonal logic, disembodied rationality, and overconfidence regarding the power of the mind. Çelik Alexander counterargues that twentieth-century art and architectural historians, practicing designers, and visual arts pedagogues drew from the anti-intellectual aesthetics of bodily movement, psychological impulse, and feeling to produce new experiential subjects who drew, built, and shaped artifacts with a presumably natural propensity unmediated by critical reason. She compellingly demonstrates how such an ostensibly unfettered form of creativity was harnessed into didactic regimens, rules, and principles solidified by modern design institutions in early twentieth-century Germany, including the Bauhaus and its epigones in the United States and other parts of the globe. Traversing aesthetics, epistemology, and design education, Kinaesthetic Knowing expands the notion of Gestaltung from the formation of modern artifacts to the shaping of human subjects and the restructuring of areas of knowledge, including scientific and design techniques and their interrelated histories.
One of the book's many feats is that it makes the history of psychological aesthetics relevant again for the study of architectural history. Çelik Alexander describes not simply an “aesthetics from below”—that is, an aesthetic system informed by the physiological capacities of subjects and material properties of objects (as opposed to an “aesthetics from above,” predicated on a priori ideal principles)—but also aesthetics in action, a type of “practical aesthetics” similar to that envisioned by Gottfried Semper in Style (1860), which was later instrumentalized toward the goals of educational reform in architecture and the applied arts. Consequently, in this account, the aesthetic mechanism of empathy, or Einfühlung, which from Heinrich Wölfflin onward has been associated with a psychologizing history of architecture, encompasses not only the projective identification of a human subject with an artifact or building during moments of aesthetic contemplation but also the active process that creates such structures and spaces to stimulate the psychologically susceptible subject through an empathetic form of design. August Endell's ornamented interiors in Berlin's Wolzogen-Theater (1901), described in masterful detail in the third chapter of the book, are the products as well as the agents of such mechanically reproduced excitation (Erregung), attempting to invigorate the psychologically enfeebled inhabitants of the metropolis, whose bodies had already been turned into sources of quantifiable information by experimental psychologists in previous decades. The book's main objective, then, is the transformation of psychology into a technology for the production of calculated effects through the employment of human emotions (formerly undependable) as reliable and effective tools of design.
The often-spectacular architectural effects of such psychological technology originate in a more covert yet fundamental epistemological transformation. As Çelik Alexander argues in the book's first chapter—a theoretical biography and/or genealogy of the idea of kinaesthetic knowing—German epistemology of the nineteenth century solidified a distinction between two kinds of knowledge represented by the terms Wissen and Kennen. The first refers to “propositional, discursive, and conceptual knowledge that was conventionally understood to be the ideal of rigorous science”; the second, to “nondiscursive, nonconceptual knowledge obtained by experiential acquaintance” (12). This double layering of knowledge transforms a rigorous grammatical distinction concerning verb usage in the German language into a universal principle of aesthetics of quasi-Humboldtian aspirations. Çelik Alexander locates the origin of this distinction in the writings of physiologist Wilhelm von Helmholtz from the beginning of the nineteenth century, following his comparative examination of the different modes of knowing offered by Isaac Newton and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. She then traces its trajectory from its prehistory in the German Enlightenment to its technological reenergizing in the mid-nineteenth century via Gustav Fechner's psychophysics and Wilhelm Wundt's psychographic experiments to its phenomenological cladding toward the end of the same century in Wilhelm Dilthey's psychology of “lived experience.”
However neat, the classification of these two forms of knowledge was never free of contradictions: How are we supposed to learn something we already know or intuit “by nature”? How can a mode of art making that abhors strict rational formal principles institutionalize a new pedagogical norm predicated almost exclusively on the study of form? The practice of kinaesthetic knowing appears to capitalize on the speculative gap between an unacknowledged presentiment and a deeply embedded form of certainty into which a formerly insecure intuition could uncritically solidify.
The same intuitive gap discloses that the presence of kinesis in kinaesthetic knowing implies not only the centrality of bodily movement in aesthetic cognition (distinct from synesthetic perception, mentioned in the book's final chapter on the Bauhaus apropos Wassily Kandinsky's 1911 Über das Geistige in der Kunst) but also a performative transference from one area of knowledge and learning technique to another. Structured according to four of these epistemic techniques—looking, affecting, drawing, and designing—the book's narrative builds on the disciplinary transference between psychological research and architectural practice via design pedagogy. Kinaesthetic Knowing describes a composite operation aiming to trace the inner oscillations of the self in order to retrace and ultimately control the subject's external movement and positioning in space, including social, political, and cultural environments.
However abstract some of these kinaesthetic ideas might appear, they are all motivated by a desire for physical expression in space. This becomes evident in the chapter titled “Looking,” which describes the production of “experiential immediacy” via the technologically mediated instruction of art history—specifically, the use of image projection by figures such as August Schmarsow and Wölfflin, who shifted from single- to double-lantern slide projection and from the back to the front of the lecture hall. The immobilization of their students, who previously had to turn their swivel chairs to view the image projection, was mirrored by the disembodiment of the speaker, who was simultaneously reduced to a dark silhouette and amplified into the pair of images on the screen, images that externalized the movements inside his mind or soul, as if the latter was the genuine projector of such “comparative” vision. The same kinaesthetic stratagem of double projection would then be reproduced via the equally didactic use of photography in art and architectural publications, such as Wölfflin's Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe (1915) and Paul Schultze-Naumburg's Kulturarbeiten (1901–17), both noted for their pairing of contrasting visual examples, and in the illustrated books of Wölfflin's student Sigfried Giedion, whose similar comparative method inhabits our histories of modern architecture.
The next two chapters are centered on Endell's decorated interiors and his Formschule in Berlin and on Hermann Olbrist's activities in the Debschitz school in Munich. These constitute the core of the book, demonstrating how the two-dimensional transpositions of Kennen transform into three-dimensional environments via the iterative processes of ornamentation and the implementation of a new type of drawing with seemingly unlimited psychographic capabilities. The same two chapters also manifest the contradictions surrounding the human subjects who are not the authors but the objects of such kinaesthetic knowing as practiced in design schools, including male trainees from economically less privileged social classes and female students recently allowed to enroll in German schools of applied arts as part of the “reform movement” in German education, which aimed to expand the process of aesthetic Bildung through practical training beyond the members of the haute bourgeoisie. While a pedagogy that privileges the common physical properties of bodies might appear democratizing, this process often reduces the same student bodies to mechanical mediums of psychic forces who automatically replicate the designs of their male instructors.
Ultimately, the kinaesthetic knowing of Kennen transmogrified into a more practical method designated by a verb that sounds almost like its German homonym, Können, meaning the practical ability of making (as opposed to merely knowing) things, most evident in Walter Gropius's training program at the Bauhaus, yet already traceable in Endell's Formschule. The covert substitution of Können for Kennen enables not only the production but also the reproduction of design by a replication of patterns ostensibly originating directly from the human body. Observing Johannes Itten guiding his students with hand gestures during the gymnastic and drawing exercises of his Bauhaus Vorkurs (and later in his own school in Berlin), we realize that such bodily training was predicated on a largely imitative process or eidetic mimicry—that is, “Do what I do” or “Do what you see me doing.” Such instruction authorizes a form of visual education emblematized by the Bauhaus programmatic diagrams and tables, in which words were arranged in recognizable optical patterns to maintain their communicative capacity as they gradually lost their linguistic content.
Between Endell's Formschule and the Debschitz school (both established in the early 1900s) and the Bauhaus (active from 1919 to 1933), there appears to be a chronological gap that may be bridged by figures such as Henry van de Velde or the teachers of certain Bauhaus masters, such as Adolf Hölzel, a mentor of Itten and Oskar Schlemmer, whose teaching and design practices are embedded in the “muscle memory” of kinaesthetic knowing. However, the same gap is indicative of the distance between the life and multiple afterlives of kinaesthetic knowing that signals, Çelik Alexander argues, the “survival of these practices despite the disappearance of the epistemological framework that made them historically possible” (201). By the late 1920s, the polarity between mind and body (or intellectual reason and felt experience) on which kinaesthetic knowing was predicated would be challenged, while the design principles choreographed by the same theory would survive, even if only as fossils of their ancestors, ossified and then digitally reanimated by a succession of pedagogical institutions.
The book's sobering conclusion should not, however, be interpreted as a call for a return to the rationalism associated with modern architecture or the rationality embedded in the philosophical tradition of the German Enlightenment, whose abiding legacy, Çelik Alexander asserts, sustains the dichotomies ingrained in kinaesthetic knowing. Yet at least part of this bodily grasping of things by psychologists like Wundt might be viewed as a defensive cultural reaction against a different epistemology, one marked by the influx of non-Western mentalities threatening to undermine the sovereignty of the human subject and its powers of reason—an animist epistemology that, by the end of the nineteenth century, German theorists could no longer pretend they did not know. This is only one epistemic example suggesting that kinaesthetic knowing also signifies a method of not knowing—or, rather, disavowing—what one does not want to know.
Nor can the limitations of kinaesthetic knowing be reinstrumentalized as an excuse to excommunicate either the body or the psyche from the teaching or practice of design, be it analogical or digital. Instead, as Çelik Alexander argues in her epilogue—a quasi-allegorical “return to Freud” via a detailed analysis of his 1895 design for an “outline” (Entwurf), later known as “Project for a Scientific Psychology,” whose abandonment was seen as a departure point for the discovery of psychoanalysis—another pathway has to be invented marking a new epistemic trope that renders a bodily epistemology of design viable while learning from the history of its previous malfunctions.
This book was written during a period that witnessed not only the growth of embodied computation in design schools but also the expansion of neurobiological research in all aspects of human activity, including the histories of art, architecture, and design. But it would also be hard for readers to miss that it was published in an era when we know all too well the pernicious power of systems designed to exploit the responses of “impressionable” and/or psychologically susceptible portions of the population, not by measuring their physiological signals but by recording the imprints of their digital activity. This is the new state of physiognomic research, whose evidence ought to make us even more attentive to the message delivered by this lucidly written, thoroughly researched, and methodologically groundbreaking book.