The value of exploring the wider context of your research.
In 2017, I took part in Arts in the Alps, a week long doctoral research school organised by the Maison de la création at the Université Grenoble Alpes. The call for participation caught my attention because it related to my research interests while at the same time provided me with an opportunity to expand my practice and research network.
My research and the topic of ongoing doctoral research centres on sensing and emotions in relation to wellbeing. This is informed by previous work, notably a project called Sensing the Urban Interior published in 2014. Following the principle of ‘spatial inversion’, whereby spaces between buildings habitually referred to as exteriors become interiors, I carried out a sensorial documentation of an urban interior, the More London Estate, a contemporary riverside business development in London. The location sits at the boundaries between inside and outside, private and public, enclosed and open space. This distinctive position and promise of interiority made it an ideal site of enquiry. The objective of the research was to uncover connections between the way we feel and our sense of belonging. This was achieved by documenting how the urban interior resonated with the senses to provide a framework for reflection as well as an incentive towards sensory transformations.
Prior to the start of my doctoral research, I also worked on a project called ‘Residual Ambiances – An Illustration of Urban Heritage as a Sentient Experience’. Our urban heritage incorporates many instances of abandoned buildings awaiting rescue, where residual fragments of past occupancies provide a stage for an immersive journey into the ambiance of the interior across past and present thresholds. Accordingly, this project illustrated a unique perceptual encounter between the abandoned interior of Poplar Baths in London and myself. Subsequently, I synthesised the emotion and intimacy of the sentient experience into a scenographic narrative and short performance. The interest of the project lied in its ability to articulate how sentient experiences activate a deep empathetic connection between body and space in the context of urban heritage. Following the completion of the project, I wrote a paper about it, which I presented at the 3rd International Congress on Ambiances in Volos, Greece, in September 2016. While there, I also took part in another activity called Volos Transects, a sensory mapping of the city.
So, when the call for the Arts in the Alps research school came through, I saw this as an opportunity to further explore the wider context of my research, share knowledge and practices, participate, contribute and experiment within and international network of researchers and artists.
Below is the information sent by the Arts in the Alps organisers to call for participants:
The Arts in the Alps Spring School is bringing together a community of leading researchers, artists and PhD candidates from the fields of architecture, dance, geography, fine arts, performance, sound art and linguistics to explore, collaborate and experiment new practices of interdisciplinary and practice-based site-specific research entitled:
“Gestures of here & there: la fabrique sensible des lieux”.
During the week participants had the opportunity to experiment, discuss and share interartistic and interdisciplinary practices of site specific research. Specifically, centered on the question of the memory of a place, this research intensive week aimed at investigating the site of the Bouchayer-Viallet which has many historical layers: industrial, eco-cultural and artistic. This site held a strategic position in the hydroelectric sector in the early 1900s and is now reconverted as a development zone by the city of Grenoble. A nearly 3000m2 steel and glass factory building is now the home of Magasin les Horizons, a Center for Arts and Cultures which is where the school was based.
Throughout the five-day intensive doctoral school, participants had the opportunity to attend a series of workshops, seminars and events facilitated by an international group of researchers and artists. The mornings were dedicated to collective activities workshops, readings and seminars while the afternoon sessions focused on practice-based art and research platforms with smaller groups. Participants were encouraged to experiment with sensory based research practices and to re-enact the collective and individual gestures which wove and continue to weave the multi-faceted identities of this historical site.
Erin Manning (Concordia University, Canada) / Brian Massumi (Université de Montréal, Canada) / Helen Paris (Curious UK and Stanford University, USA) / Rebecca Schneider (Brown University, USA) / Anne Volvey (Université d’Artois, France)
Organizing committee: Gretchen Schiller (Maison de la Création & UMR LITT&ARTS, UGA), Nataliya Grulois et Anne-Claire Cauhapé (Maison de la Création, UGA), Claudine Moïse (LIDILEM, UGA), Anne-Laure Amilhat Szary (PACTE, UGA), Anne Dalmasso (LARHRA, UGA) Martin Givors (doctorant LITT&ARTS, UGA); Rachel Thomas (CRESSON, UMR 1563 AAU, ENSAG), Inge Linder-Gaillard (ÉSAD, École Supérieure d’Art et Design •Grenoble •Valence), Béatrice Josse et Camille Planeix ( Magasin des Horizons, Centre d’arts et de cultures), Marie Roche (Centre de développement chorégraphique Le Pacifique), Rachid Ouramdane et Erell Melscoet (CCN2, Centre chorégraphique national), Matthieu Warin (Maison des habitants de Bouchayer-Viallet).
This was a complete departure from my usual ways of working. I tend to work alone when carrying out research or with participants. In the doctoral school, we worked in groups of 8 participants and there were 4 groups across the school in total, with 2 workshop leaders in each group. We also had a couple of people who worked in the school who came in and out of the sessions. People came from all over the world. In our group: UK, Canada, Belgium, Turkey, Australia, France, Spain who were artists, performers, academics, architects, philosophers.
Each day started with a somatic practice organised by Germana Civera. Amazing! A most emotionally invigorating activity. Every day for 5 days, a great way to start the day. Then we would take part in thematic workshops and there were also two seminars with Erin Maning and philosopher Brian Massumi. The day would end with a conference. We started the day at 9am and finished at 8:30pm. Everyone would then meet for dinner into a restaurant booked by our organisers, a different place each day. We ended the week in a beautiful guest house in the woods outside Grenoble for a celebration and final goodbyes.
The theme for my group was Mapping Lost Gestures and the workshops were run by Gretchen Schiller and Helen Paris, both a pleasure to work with. They made everyone feel welcome and very soon, it became clear that we had excellent group dynamics where everyone was happy to participate, and no one was making judgements on others. In the thematic workshops, we were required to mostly express ourselves through bodily gestures. It felt very awkward for me at first because I didn’t know what I was doing but I soon learnt from observing others more familiar with performance and by day two, I became more attuned to bodily gestures, and by day three it felt like a completely natural way of communicating. All the activities we took part in in the first 4 days were designed to help us prepare a 40 minutes performance to present to the other groups and tutors on the last day. The group worked incredibly well and we were all able to make a contribution and enjoy ourselves in the process.
This week -long research school was the most uplifting research event I have been to. People connected in a very positive way. There was a degree of freedom and an ability for us to take some ownership of what we did which means that we achieved a lot and it was also a pleasure to do it. The organisers recently sent us the link to a website where they posted filmed interviews of the people talking about the activities they organised. Watching the films brought back very fond memories. Although I haven’t had the opportunity to apply performance to my research since I started by doctorate, my work is about embodied experiences, including bodily movement and gestures, so there may be opportunities in the future to integrate performance led experimental interventions into my practice.
 Attiwill, S. (2011). Urban and Interior: techniques for an urban interiorist. In R. U. Hinkel, (Ed.), Urban Interior – informal explorations, interventions andoccupations (pp. 12-24). School of Architecture and Desing, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia. Baunach: Spurbuchverlag.
Workshop information: We make sense of the world through our senses. We are sentient beings and that as such, experiences are inevitably multi-sensory. This exploratory workshop invites participants to discover ways to document and map sensory perceptions and learn how designers develop their knowledge of sensing and their sensitivity to the sensory world to perfect sensory intelligent designs.
The movements of the body enable us to engage with the world through a process of intimate connections and interactions with spaces, people and objects. Environmental psychologist James. J. Gibson (198)3) calls it active sensing. Passive sense organs pick up on energy in the environment. Active perceptual systems (Gibson 1966) – visual, haptic, smell/taste, auditory, basic orienting. – seek information in the environment by constantly moving (eyes, head, body). Active sensing occurs in motion.
The workshop begins with a short briefing session in the Lower Street gallery at London College of Communication. Participants are then invited to explore Elephant Park, a nearby green urban space, and bring back their findings to LCC where they are given the opportunity to translate these finding into a sensory map of their experience.
1pm – Welcome and briefing
1:30pm – Sensory walk and documentation
2:30pm – data translation and mapping
You are invited to explore sensory experiences in Elephant Park. In your journey through the park you will stop at six different points, including your start and end point. Each time you stop, mark the point on your map and record your experience using one of the documentation handout provided. Also indicate on the map the proximity of the source of the sensory experience. Using your phone, take photographs, films, sound recordings of your sensory experiences.
You will be assigned a starting point. You goal is to reach a diagonally opposite point of your choice. Allow your sensory curiosity and perceptions to guide you. You don’t need to walk in a straight line. You can move across following a curved or zig-zag path to explore different points of interest in your journey.
We encourage you to be experimental. Don’t just walk on the paths or edges, find interesting places such as placing yourself under a tree or even hugging a tree, lying on the grass or bench, looking up, down, through, into, etc. There’s no right or wrong, only your sensory perceptions as they occur.
In the Event Descriptor, write down adjectives that best represent the qualities of each sensory experience, then draw a shape or a series/cluster of shapes, with textures if relevant, that you associate with the experience. Next write down the name of the colour you associate with the experience. Don’t spend too much time thinking about the experience. Record immediate, visceral impressions as they occur.
We experience a flow of information as we move through the environment. Johnson (2007) calls it a ‘streaming-past’ flow. ‘[…] if you are moving forward in a linear fashion, you experience a visual ‘flow’ that emerges from a horizontal focal point in front of you, expands out from that point and streams towards you, and then envelops and flows past you.’ (Johnson (2007: 50). Not all sensory perceptions flow in the same way. For example, sounds and smells reach us and we move through them.
In the Sensory Flow diagram, place a dot to indicate the characteristic of the sensory experience. Below is an example of what the completed sensory flow diagrams looks like although your template will be different.
Gibson, J. J. (1966) The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Gibson, J. J. (1986) The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Hove: Taylor & Francis Group.
Johnson, M. (2007, 2008 ed.) The Meaning of the Body. Aesthetics of Human Understanding. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press.
The London Open Senses Festival ran from 19-21 May 2017. The first of its kind, first of many I hope, the festival included an rich mix of sensory events and experiences, and a symposium at the University of London. The symposium included many excellent presentations and workshops while the most pertinent to my research was a presentation by architect Juhani Pallasmaa. Titled Landscape of the Senses – Touching the World, the presentation explored the hegemony of vision in our culture and in architecture. The senses are often regarded as independent systems but they are in fact integrated as part of our embodied condition. Philosopher Gaston Bachelard (1958) speaks of the polyphony of the senses. In life, sensory stimuli don’t occur in isolation and embodied sensory experiences are essential to our wellbeing. If we remove ourselves from bodily sensory experiences we live impoverished lives. Therefore, we need an integrated approach in research and design.
Pallasmaa also spoke about the shallow appropriation of the sensory realm in marketing strategies. This sensory manipulation of the senses leads to hyperesthesia (or hyperaesthesia), a condition that involves an abnormal increase in sensitivity to stimuli of the senses. According to Pallasmaa, we are in an era of branded manipulations, of total anesthetisation. The essence of architecture and its social significance are being replaced by a formal aesthetic rhetoric and an uncritical view of digital technologies further detaches us from sensory experiences. Unfortunately, Pallasmaa didn’t have time to elaborate on these statements and explain what he means by the essence of architecture. Further reading into his many books and papers will surely enlighten the topic. However, I agree that many contemporary buildings and urban spaces lack social significance. Does the rise in interest in the senses across so many disciplines points to a societal malaise? Perhaps, as Pallasmaa points out, in a digitally enhance world, people have become starved of meaningful embodied experiences.
On the other hand there are interesting new possibilities emerging through technologies. In the morning of the symposium, I visited Thresholds by Matt Collishaw in Somerset House (not part of the festival). Thresholds is an immersive installation that uses the latest VR technology. It reproduces the interior of King Edward’s school in Birmingham to take us back to 1839, to an early exhibition of photography by British scientist William Henry Fox Talbot. As in all VR experiences, I wore a headset but this time, I also had a unit strapped to my back. Initially the experience felt artificial, like being in a game, and intriguing at the same time. As my mind adapted to the environment details emerged and the VR space began to resonate with my senses. I could touch the wood of the photography display cases. Mice occasionally running across the room, insect flying around the chandeliers, and a fire burning in the fireplace, animated the space. I could feel the warmth of the fire but I didn’t have the same confidence moving my hands towards it as I would in real life. Perhaps because I couldn’t see my own hand, only an orange glow. My sense of depth and movement functioned as expected but I still needed time to adapt the the virtual environment. After a while, I could also hear the noise of a crowd coming from outside the room. I believe it was meant to be a riot though I never felt the tension the same situation would cause in reality. This was staged and the experience was short lived (six minutes). Nonetheless, the scenographic use of technology was amazing. It also illustrates possibilities for integrating sensory experiences into a virtual space. The experiment would have failed if it had only focused on the visual. Frieze magazine commented that ‘Collishaw has not recreated an historical experience, but has instead constructed an entirely new one.’ Matt Collishaw is an amazing artists who challenges perceptions and expectations.
The ocular-centric paradigm occupies a prominent place in Pallasmaa’s critique of architecture. He argues that the role of the senses and the impact of the way spaces resonate with our senses is largely overlooked in architectural practices because of the use of an ocular centric language of symbols and images. He is not the only one to expound a a multi-sensory approach to architecture and design. Architect Joy-Monice Malnar and artist Frank Vodvarka (2004) also tell us that ‘sensory data are rarely central to design decisions’ and interior designer Sashi Caan (2011) identified that practice-led research in this area lacks rigour. I also include myself in this school of thought. In my research , I aim to enrich our knowledge of embodied sensory experiences through the study of atmospheric qualities and user relations in spaces, and promote a multi-sensory (integrated) approach to spatial design practices.
Visual culture dominates but vision is a sense of distance. We don’t need to be close to something to see it and this can create a distance between body and space. Pallasmaa may have been thinking about the work of theorist Henry Lefebvre (1974) when he spoke out against the prevailing ocular centric paradigm. In The Production of Space, Lefebvre explains that ‘[the image] detaches the pure form from its impure content – from lived time, everyday time, and from bodies with their opacity and solidity, their warmth, their life and their death’. Lefebvre takes and uncompromising position when he says that ‘[…] the image kills’. I wouldn’t go as far but I agree with Pallasmaa who says that ‘it is […] important to survey critically the role of vision in relation to the other senses in our understanding and practice of the art of architecture’. As Caan explains, ‘[d]esign is the deliberate intervention in our environment to ameliorate the conditions of our existence’. We can’t achieve this if we rely mostly on the visual sense when designing. Therefore, we need to encourage a multi-sensory mind-set in spatial design practices to enrich our experiences of everyday spaces.
Bachelard, G. (1958, 1994 ed.) The Poetics of Space.
Boston: Beacon Press.
Caan, S. (2011) Rethinking Design and Interiors – Human Beings and the Built
Environment. London: Laurence King.
Lefebvre, H. (1974, 1991 ed.) The Production of Space. Oxford, England:Blackwell Publishing.
Malnar, Joy MoniceVodvarka, Frank (2004) Sensory design. Minneapolis,Minn.: University of Minnesota Press.
Pallasmaa, J. (2005) The Eyes of the Skin. Architecture and the Senses. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Umwelten is a site-specific performance at the Royal Academy by Juri Nishi in collaboration with Bitter Suite. Blindfolded I was led into the space of the performance where three performers choreographed their movements with mine and choreographed my movements with theirs as I was led on a sensorial journey through the room. It was the most wonderful experience. At no point did it feel unsafe or awkward. I became completely immersed into the performance and completely relaxed, becoming malleable to the choreography. My Umwelten became a fluid space unconstrained by traditional architectural principles.
The Umwelt, located in the fairly new field of sensory ecology, is a theory developed by ethologist Jacob von Uexküll. The events’ flyer describes sensory ecology as the study of how organisms acquire, process and respond to information from the environment, exchanging materials, energies and sensory information. Von Uexküll studied how animals behave in relation to their environment and theorised that the qualities of an environment are not intrinsic to the environment but depend on the way the mind interprets the world. Therefore, organisms can have different Umwelten even in the same environments. This is an interesting theory because it articulates that qualities in the environment are subject dependent and that the mind and the world are inseparable. The theory of Umwelt recognises the complexity of the phenomenal environment as perceived and interpreted by the subject of perception.
Although I was blindfolded, I completely surrendered to the fluid environment created by the performance. I was told it lasted 20 minutes, it felt like barely 10 had passed. At the end of the performance, I was given a pad and pencil to draw my impression of the space as it emerged in my imagination. Still under the spell of the performance I drew a symbolic mental map that illustrates a fluid journey, in parts lacking definition in a space removed from architectural conventions. When the performance ended, I felt very light, almost floating, and this continued for a long time afterwards, until I took the tube to the next event I was attending that day. My London Underground umwelten brought me back to reality.
My Umwelten during the performance
Actual space where the performance took place
Buchanan, B. (2009) Onto-Ethologies. The Animal Environments of Uexkull, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Deleuze.
Albany: State University of New York Press.
von Uexküll, J. (1934, 2010 ed.) A Foray into the World of Animals and
Humans with a Theory of Meaning.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Journey to the Interior
This event is described as ‘a multi-sensory, participatory performance and a feast, inspired by George Bellas Grenough, a geologist and founder of the Geological Society, London as well as Jules Verne’s story the Journey to the Centre of the Earth’.
Artistic Director, Tereza Stehlikova and her team, created an impressive array of sensory experiences around the topics of geology and journey to the centre of the earth. The journey began in Kensal Green cemetery all the way through to the core of the earth, through to carbon art by Mateusz Gidaszewski, sugar metamorphics by Ellie Doney, and ended with an amazing meal designed and prepared to enrich our experience of the themes chosen for this event. The food was intriguing, enticing and delicious. The company was excellent.
I presented this article on 25th November 2016 during a Doctoral Symposium at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris. The paper is in English and the presentation in French except for fieldwork notes (notes de terrain) and original quotes, which remain in English, the language used during the research.
Abstract. Atmosphere, the pervasive yet elusive soft space that resonates with our senses, is known to effect the way we feel about a space, the self and others. Yet, despite its influence on everyday lives, Boch (2014) reminds us that this phenomenon isn’t always consciously recognised and we may not be aware of the positive or negative impact the urban environment has on us. So it becomes pertinent to investigate atmosphere in order to better understand the correspondence between spaces and people. The More London Estates in London, UK, is an example of uncompromising urban design where the spectacle of architecture and the culture of an ideology appear to shape human experiences. It offers a distinctive atmospheric encounter and this project puts forward a set of evaluative fieldwork methods to investigate how design decisions within the site contribute to the formation of atmosphere and underline how atmosphere can effect behaviour. The interest of the fieldwork, situated at the boundaries between spatial and ethnographic practices, lies in its ability to illustrate the elusive, to delineate atmospheric conditions and corresponding behavioural culture.
Thematic This project is driven by a desire to articulate the perceptions of atmospheres, to better understand how the characteristics embodied in a man made environment provide, by design, a stage for multi-sensory experiences that define people’s actions and interactions. It explores methods of documentation that uncover insights into the perceived environment and corresponding behavioural culture. Architect Joy Monice Malnar and artist Frank Vodvarka (2004: 51) explain that we perceive by sensing environmental messages around us. This qualitative information is then filtered through our mind and transformed into mental images. Therefore, we make sense of the world through our senses and, according to Professor of Philosophy Gernot Böhme, atmosphere is thus ’experienced as an emotional effect’ (2014: 46). Architect Peter Zumthor also indicates that the perceptual process is visceral and biological when he tells us that ‘[w]e perceive atmosphere through our emotional sensibility – a form of perception that works incredibly quickly, and which humans evidently need to survive’ (2006: 13). Therefore, the link between atmosphere and the way we feel is potent. According to Architect Juhani Pallasmaa atmosphere has ‘a forceful impact on our emotions and moods’ (2014: 20) and accordingly, corresponding actions. Yet, even though atmosphere permeates the environment, it remains intangible. Architect Rochus Urban Hinkel (2008) speaks of spatial software and Social Anthropologist Tim Ingold (2011: 132, citing Berleant) of a fluid medium. Thus the visceral, emotional and elusive characteristics of atmosphere denote that we don’t always consciously recognise its influence even though it has a profound effect on our lived experiences. It is tempting to say that when enriched, atmosphere fosters well-being, positive interactions and inclusion and that when impoverished, it fosters ill-being, social disconnection and exclusion. However, experiencing atmosphere is far more complex and nuanced that a simple enriched-impoverished duality. According to Philosopher Tonino Griffero, as atmospheric qualities embodied in the environment resonate with our senses, a form of ‘spatialised feeling’ (2010: 6) connects us emotionally to our surroundings. We expose ourselves to the atmosphere and experience the impressions it makes on us. Pallasmaa explains that, when ’[…] we enter a space, the space enters us, and the experience is essentially an exchange and fusion of the object and the subject’ (2014: 20). Böhme also speaks of a ‘co-presence of the subject and object’ (2014:45). Consequently, atmosphere doesn’t just influence the way we feel about a space but also the way we feel about ourselves, and others around us. So developing knowledge of this correlation helps provide new insights into the culture of a place. Experiencing atmosphere is meaningful, potentially transformative and certainly social. Therefore, alongside a spatial analysis, this study uses methods associated with ethnography to facilitate the documentation of atmospheric experiences and explore the correspondence between environment and behaviour.
Context The project is set within the public pedestrian areas of the More London Estates located in London Bridge on the south bank of the river Thames. Completed in 2003 this self-contained business development incorporates offices and a few commercial units (figure 1). It’s carefully planned architecture, seemingly claiming its place as an extension of the City of London situated directly opposite across the Thames, makes a powerful statement about London as a thriving international financial centre. Developed in only 5 years, a total conception of spatial unity, it is shielded from empirical change by an environment controlled through design and human monitoring. The site, regularly patrolled by a maintenance team, is immaculate and repairs are carried out immediately. Man made materials dominate. ‘In order to defeat the cyclical times of days, seasons and years, shiny, hard, immutable surfaces are employed to shrug off the effects of weather, dirt and accident’ (Till, 1999: 3). The logic of perfection creates an environment where an appreciation of time and past human occupancy experienced through the weathering and patina of materials is impossible. Thus the estate offers the perfect image aligned to the culture of its high profile tenants. However, ‘the atmosphere of a city is not the same as its image’ (Böhme, 2014: 48), and the site documentation sets out to establish the ecological coherence of the architecture. It raises the following questions. How is atmosphere experienced in this ocular centric paradigm? What is the correlation between atmosphere and behaviour? Is the More London Estate experienced as a space or a place?
Figure 1. Main pedestrian axis cutting through the site
Two key concepts underpin the study. The first structures the taxonomy of the investigation and borrows from principles Zumthor (2006) tells us contribute to the making of atmospheres. They encapsulate: the perceived presence (or body) of the architecture, materials and their relationships, the sound of the architecture, temperature, objects, movement, thresholds, scale and distances, light and shadows. The second relates to Gibson’s (1986) description of the environment where medium, substances and surfaces afford perceptions and animate movement. For instance, air, the medium in which we move allows the transmission of light and vibrations so we can see and hear, as well as chemical diffusions so we can smell. Substances refer to the solid elements such as building materials and the body, while surfaces are the intermediary elements between substances and medium, including the human skin. Accordingly, the mindset created by the notion of the meaningful environment is essential to our understanding of spatio-sensory experiences.
Methods Anthropologist Albert Piette (2009) emphasises a focus on the documentation of lived experiences rather than on epistemological debates. Thus, the research process is inductive, drawing on an interpretative analysis of the documentation to elucidate the interrelationship between the atmosphere of the site and its occupants. The investigation is site specific and its outcome represents an illustration of a social and cultural context not a universal conclusion. Nevertheless, the methods and techniques used are transferrable to other sites of enquiry. Fieldwork follows an auto-ethnographic style methodology influenced by the work of Sarah Pink (2015) on sensory ethnography. The documentation, conducted from the perspective of the active participation of the researcher immersed in the site, places the reflexive sensing body at the centre of the experience and analysis (Pink, 2015: 12). This mode of enquiry was chosen because ‘[a]tmosphere emphasises a sustained being in a situation, rather than a singular moment of perception; atmosphere is always a continuum’ (Pallasmaa, 2014: 20). Thus, the site documentation took place over a period of two months and visits were conducted at different times of the day and week to verify the appropriateness and relevance of the data. Tools and techniques used included: photography, audio and video recordings, mapping drawings, observation and reflective (self-observation) notes. An evaluative visualisation of the data into mapping drawings and diagrams enhanced its legibility and supported the analysis of the site. The following paragraphs, illustrated by visuals of the documentation, summarise observations and underline conclusions drawn from the study.
Observations An initial survey shows that the spatial composition of the estate is structured around an assertive diagonal pedestrian axis cutting through the site. It has a public square at each end, one adjacent to Tooley Street and the other with spectacular views of the river Thames. The main axis affords striking sight lines and the 21st Century architecture of the Shard at one end contrasts sharply with the Victorian architecture of Tower Bridge on the opposite side. There are also two transversal thoroughfares linking the main axis to Tooley Street and the Thames respectively. The immediacy of the experience of being in the environment brings about a feeling of formality and stiffness (figure 2). The atmosphere lacks congeniality and although the location feels safe, a perceptible feeling of distance between people and the site permeates the environment.
Figure 2. The formal environment.
Despite their generous proportions and the provision of furniture, planting and water features, the public squares are under populated in contrast to the density of occupancy in surrounding areas. Few people occupy the site for extended lengths of time; it is mostly used as a thoroughfare. When visualised into a motion sequencer diagram (figure 3), data shows, predictably perhaps, that the density of occupancy is higher during the week than at weekends and fluctuations in density and speed of movement map to office hours. The site is busiest in the morning when people arrive at work, peaks again at lunchtime and again early evening when people go back home. These are also the times when people walk the fastest, with little focused attention given to their surroundings, including others around them.
Figure 3. Inspired by the graphic interface of a music equalizer, the Motion Sequencer diagram is designed to show the levels of occupancy and velocity through the site’s main axis over a period of 24 hours (in this section, between 5am and 2pm). The higher the curve, the higher the levels of occupancy. Red shows high levels of velocity, orange medium and green low. The top curve represents weekdays and the bottom one weekends.
Most activities recorded through observations – people walking fast, smoking, chatting on their phone, talking to friends – are common to many other urban locations. Context however adds a layer of interest. It isn’t so much what people do but how they do it. In this instance, most activities are performed while walking when people appear absorbed into, and even protective of, the micro-scale of their immediate surroundings. This behaviour denotes a degree of familiarity with the site that marks people as either seasoned Londoners or office workers from the estate but could it also be linked to the scale and materiality of the environment? By contrast, visitors and tourists distinguish themselves by walking at a more leisurely pace and through a higher level of attention directed towards the macro scale of the architecture. By the third visit, perceptual distinctiveness between different parts of the site revealed themselves and accordingly, it was divided it into five areas, based on three criteria: the degree of enclosure, perceptual thresholds (such as transitions from light to dark) and the primary activity afforded by the environment (whether it is considered a square or a street). Dividing the site into sections brought clarity to the process of documentation and facilitated the evaluation of similarities and differences between its constituent parts. The documentation was structured as a sensory journey and recorded personal spatio-sensory experiences, annotating immediate impressions as they occurred while moving through the site. The sensory journey data was organised using Gibson’s (1966) classification of perceptual systems (visual, haptic, taste-smell, auditory, basic orienting) and Marina Panos’s sensory chart (in Malnar and Vodvarka, 204: 281). It was essential for the researcher to move through the site while carrying out the documentation. Gibson (1983: 66) explains, ‘a point of observation is never stationary, except in a limiting case. Observers move about in the environment, and observation is typically from a moving position.’ Atmosphere is temporal and dynamic, and as we move through the environment, our perceptions adjust to new conditions. Thus the researcher’s grasp of atmosphere occurs in motion, through a gradual perception of stimuli.
Visual representations help synthesise the evaluation of the data collected during the sensory journey. A map (figure 4) provides a visual reference of atmospheric qualities across the site and a sensory flow diagram (figure 5), inspired by Malnar and Vodvarka’s Sensory Slider (2004: 248), highlights levels of intensity across perceptual systems.
Figure 4. An illustration of atmospheric qualities recorded within the site during the Sensory Journey. The drawing shows an overlay of two isometric plan view of the pedestrian areas. The information depicted references Gibson’s (1966) perceptual systems: visual, auditory, smell/taste, haptic/temperature and basic orienting.
Figure 5. The Sensory Flow diagram shows levels of intensity of perceived sensory stimuli across the five areas identified within the site. The curves reveal similarities and differences between each area more easily than text would allow.
Atmosphere Adjacent to a busy main road, the public square near Tooley Street is noisy. However, once inside the site, the combined height and mass of the buildings creates a protected environment. The sounds of footsteps and conversations reverberating across hard surfaces envelop the body and reduce the auditive scale. As the site widens on its Thames side, the auditive scale increases when it becomes connected to the visual depth afforded by the view over the Thames. Although the mass of the buildings protects people from unwanted noise, it also blocks sunlight and at its core, the site remains devoid of sunlight for most of the day, especially in the winter months. Combined with the strong winds channelled from the Thames through the main axis and the cool tones of the glass and metal surfaces, the environment feels cold, even on a sunny day. Temperature also impacts on other haptic perceptions and this feeling is exacerbated when grey metal meets grey sky, which in London is often. Limited use of textures, large expanses of glass and metal, surfaces that are hard and cold to the touch, reflect people away rather than invite them in. The transversal spaces are mostly deserted despite offering protection from the wind. One has a sunny disposition but seating is uncomfortable and the atmosphere is dominated by the repetitive rhythm of an authoritative metal pattern. The other is dark and mostly featureless, yet offers enticing vistas across the Thames. However, low level of details across large vertical areas give the location a desolate feel. Seating is also uncomfortable and overlooked by diners in a restaurant nearby, while, at the time of the study, an unpleasant smell of cooking oil permeated the environment around meal times. The resulting atmosphere channels people through the site in a continuous flow and rhythm of linear motion.
Nevertheless, the idiosyncrasies of human behaviour cannot be entirely restrained and although appropriation is rare, it sometimes occurs in spite of the efforts of the maintenance team to keep an orderly environment. It transpires that a water feature provides the ideal site for acrobatic roller blading once candle wax has been surreptitiously applied to its long edge. Other forms of appropriation include a family using part of the site as an impromptu living room (figure 6) and children playing with one of the design features, a thin hollow of water cutting through the length the main axis. Such ephemeral moments temporarily shift atmospheric conditions. In the first instance, a small crowd of onlookers gathered to watch the spectacle and the mood became more relaxed and convivial. In the second and third examples, the intimacy of the situations simply softened the atmosphere. The site also integrates interesting reflections into its design. Although this appears largely unnoticed by most people who tend to look straight ahead, towards the ground or at their phone, looking up exposes a view of clouds moving across the glass panels of the buildings. The organic textures and reflected motion of the clouds across the smooth glass surfaces alleviate the feeling of rigidity embodied by the perfect man-made material even though these glimpsed natural qualities have to compete with the sharp soaring edges of the buildings. At ground level, the intensity of visual stimuli is enriched in parts by reflections across the numerous glass panels of the facades and by mirrored views of some of London’s landmarks, notably the Tower of London, Tower bridge and City Hall. Together, these embellishments could provide grounds for poetics and human narratives as they permeate the atmosphere.
Figure 6. Spatial appropriation. A family brings a sense of domesticity to the site.
Conclusion The meanings embodied by the architecture of the More London Estates express a highly rational intent. The site functions extremely well and is accessible, creating a convenient link between Tooley Street and the River Thames. Its powerful architecture and spatial composition display high levels of legibility. The high calibre of the architecture is undeniable. Even so, the investigation reveals an atmosphere programmed towards the production of an image, a man made representation of an ideology though not an ideology made for man’s sensuous spirit. The uncompromisingly Cartesian architecture, with sharp edges and hard reflective surfaces, and a forceful identity resulting from the repetition of form, materials and patterns, create a geometry that dominates the body. The diagonal forces that constrain the ground intensify the perception of perspective, which, further emphasised by the monumental scale of the buildings, suggests masculine strength. The spatial composition, including furniture and landscaping, is ordered, organised into small areas and the rigidity of the layout offers little opportunities for meandering or serendipity. The site is designed to control movement and condition behaviour to predetermined activities, resulting in low levels of interactions and little scope for alternatives. It is a ‘[p]erspectival space [that] leaves us as outside observers’ (Pallsamaa, 2014: 38), a low affordance environment. In his theory of affordances Gibson explains that ‘[t]he perceiving of an affordance […] is a process of perceiving a value-rich ecological object’ (1986: 140). So affordances relate to the values and meanings embodied by the site and how they inform people’s actions. Consequently, in spite of a few poetic encounters, the dominant forces, embodied by a design conceived independently from the body and where intimacy is ruled out, foster an atmosphere whose divisive effect reduces opportunities for thriving social interactions. The atmosphere is, by design, assertive and powerful, and the behaviour thus becomes regulated by efficiency and transience. The culture engendered by the atmosphere minimises opportunities for human interaction. It is then possible to determine whether the location is perceived as a space or a place. According to Geographer Yi-Fu Tuan ‘[s]pace is transformed into place when it acquires definition and meaning’, through experience. Sociologist E. V. Walter takes the notion of experience even further by making places ‘the locations of experience and as such evoke and organise memories, images, sentiments and meaning’ (In Malnar and Vodvarka, 2004: 233). Thus, in order to become a place, the estate needs to embody qualities that are dependent on its occupants’ actions and emotions. However, the outcome of this study shows that, aside from a few poetics and instances of appropriation by individuals, the atmosphere of the estate doesn’t foster such intimate relations and as such, this low affordance environment cannot truly be experienced as a place.
Böhme, C. (2014) Urban Atmospheres: Charting New Directions for Architecture and Urban Planning. In: Architectural Atmospheres – On the Experience and Politics of Architecture Basel: Birkhäuser, 2014, pp. 42-59.
Borch, C. ed. (2014) Why Atmospheres? In: Architectural Atmospheres – On the Experience and Politics of Architecture Basel: Birkhäuser, 2014, pp. 7-17.
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Griffero, T. (2010) Atmospheres: Aesthetics of Emotional Spaces. Farnham, UK; Burlington, USA: Ashgate Publishing.
Hinkel, R. U. (2008) Spatial Hardware and Software. In: Architectural Design, Vol. 78 No. 3, May/June 2008, pp. 82-87.
Ingold, T. (2011) Being Alive. Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description. London; New York: Routlegde.
Malnar, J. M. & Vodvarka, F. (2004) Sensory Design Mineapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Pallasmaa, J. (2011) An Architecture of the Seven Senses In: Weinthal, L. ed. Toward a New Interior. An Anthology of Interior Design Theory New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2011, pp. 40-49.
Pallasmaa, J. (2014) Space, Place and Atmosphere: Peripheral Perception and Existential Experience. In: In: Architectural Atmospheres – On the Experience and Politics of Architecture Basel: Birkhäuser, 2014, pp. 18-41
A workshop facilitated by Graham Barton from UAL Academic Support. Using the LEGO Serious Play method, participants were asked to construct and visualise the answer to a series of questions about their practice, research and PhD, and then explain their position to others around the table. A fun and instructive way to share experiences, discuss issues and expectations.
Above: Why take a PhD
Above: the relationship between research and practice
Residual Ambiances – An Illustration of Urban Heritage as a Sentient Experience
at: Ambiances, tomorrow, 3rd International Congress on Ambiances Volos, Greece: 21 – 24 September 2016
This paper is based on a project I carried out while a student on the MA Interior Design at the University of Westminster and the site visit this account relates to was initiated by the Course Leader, Dusan Decermic, whose inspiring vision, constructive comments and persistence gave me the confidence and commitment to push the boundaries of my knowledge and abilities.
Abstract. Our urban heritage incorporates many instances of abandoned buildings awaiting rescue, where residual fragments of past occupancies provide a stage for an immersive journey into the ambiance of the interior across past and present thresholds. Accordingly, this project illustrates a unique perceptual encounter between the abandoned interior of Poplar Baths in London and the author, while subsequently, the emotive affect of the sentient experience is synthesised into a performed scenographic narrative. The interest of the project lies in its ability to articulate how sentient experiences activate a deep empathetic connection between body and space in the context of urban heritage.
I worked with 3 other people (from Spain and Denmark) documenting route 5. Each of us had a specific role and mine was the cartographer. A fun and enjoyable experience, a great way to get to know people and a city.
Above: Map showing all routes. The black lines show pre-selected routes and the red ones the paths taken by the research teams. The objective was to remains as close as possible to the pre-selected route.
A paper I wrote as an account of a phenomenological experience. It is published in the 2015 Urban + Interior edition of the IDEA journal. Available for download from the IDEA website.
The paper also includes location photographs I took to illustrate the phenomenological journey.
This paper reconsiders a refurbished London street, Bermondsey Street, as an interior where objects of memories are curated into a reconstructed atmosphere of domesticity. The study argues that as our experience of the city becomes increasingly transient, the notion of inhabiting shifts to a wider and more fragmented context, and our ability to integrate with the urban environment becomes eroded. Bermondsey Street, however, presents a distinctive experience where the phenomena of intimacy and familiarity converge across space and time to provide a more stable form of inhabitation. In order to understand how these phenomena occur and how the experience of the urban interior manifests itself in our consciousness, the study follows the Husserlian phenomenological method of intentionality whereby the urban interior of Bermondsey Street becomes the intentional object. It also places the reflective gaze of the phenomenologist in ‘epoché’, a phenomenological method of reduction that suspends normality. In doing so, the phenomenologist is able to access the points of reference that reveal the affective qualities of the intentional object in our consciousness. While the discursive and theoretical content of the study is expressed in the body of text, the phenomenological narrative is bracketed and illustrated as a meditative journey; a recollection of memories of the homely, initiated by the encounter between consciousness and the way the interior animates imagination. Thus, in ‘epoché’, the reflective gaze of the phenomenologist transcends normality to reveal the underlying structure of the phenomena and the intentionality of the subjective experience.
This workshop, also at the 2016 Design Research Society conference, was in part organised by Kate McLean, PhD candidate at the RCA (there were 3 activities, each organised by a different person). Kate’s fantastic work focuses on mapping our sensory experiences of smell. I highly recommend a lengthy visit to her website Sensory Maps.
Below: Smellwalk Brighton workshop instructions and my worksheet.I hope the handwriting is legible enough. I was writing while walking. Kate also introduced the workshop with an excellent talk on the characteristics of the sense of smell.
In June I attended the Design Research Society Conference in Brighton. Four fantastic days of workshops and talks on design research (of course). Two workshops were especially interesting for me because highly relevant to my research on sensory experiences. This is the first one, the other is available on the next post.
DRS Workshop: Capturing & Shaping Meaningful Sensory Experiences in the Urban Environment
We are looking forward to working with you on Monday June 29 when we will explore and reflect on competing multi-sensory stimulations that shape people’s urban experiences intentionally or by accident. After a short introduction to the leaders’ sensory work, small teams of participants will take a sensory journey around the environs of Brighton. During the workshop, teams will map the contexts of their sensory journeys by capturing the sounds, smells and flavours that contribute to their overall sensory encounter. The explorations will emphasize the non-visual sensory modalities of contact (tactile), sound (auditory), and smell (olfactory). Highlights of the workshop include an immersive tasting scenario of each team’s urban flavour compositions and designing multi-modal (multi-sensory) scenarios for balanced urban futures. We are hoping for nice weather, however please plan for rain and cool offshore breezes. Wear good walking shoes and clothing for the outdoors (rain or shine). Please bring tools for capturing and recording data, (e.g. smartphone, notepad and pen, bags to collect artefacts, etc.). Please let us know when you arrive if you consent to being photographed and/or videotaped. >
The workshop drew parallels with my research practice and I was interested to meet like minded people whose research and practice also incorporated multi-sensory modalities. It began with a short introduction and we were asked to think about the kind of events and qualities we’d be looking for when documenting a specific sensory experience. For example, why we need to investigate and document across touch, sound, smell and visual. This quick fire round was the first level of interaction between participants and a good ice breaking activity.
In the next part of the workshop. participants were paired up and given a map with pre-selected routes highlighted across 5 distinct sections. Kate MacLean, PhD candidate at the RCA (see my next post), worked with me to document touch, haptic perception, across Brighton. She specialises in smells so wanted to do something different and I thought touch was interesting because it usually comes with restrictions.
After a highly enjoyable and fun hour recording haptic perceptions in the streets of Brighton, we came back to the studio where we were paired up again with someone who had selected a different sense. My new partner had been working with sound. Our next task came as a complete surprise. After 15 minutes spent charting the qualities of our respective sensory experiences, their sensory DNA, we were presented with an array of food ingredients for us to use to translate our perceptions into food preparations, food sketches as our hosts called it. We used the taste, textures, colours, chewiness, wetness, dryness of the food to make a 3 course meal based on our sensory experiences of Brighton Seafront (blue route on the map). Our work also incorporated time and memory into the preparations. It was a lot of fun and everyone engaged with the activity with enthusiasm. Each team then presented their compositions, explaining the connection with the sensory journey through the city, while every one tried the dishes to get a taste of other’s experiences.
Participants were then asked to associate and adjective with each dish. The adjectives facilitated the expression of the qualities of the experiences to come through. A system of coloured dots and stars was also used for each participant to bring their own subjective evaluation into sensory experienced afforded by the dishes. Each coloured dot represented a sense, for example, green for smell, red for visual, blue for sounds and red for touch. We were given two dots of each colour and asked to place them next to the dish we felt had the most connections with the location it represented. We used the stars to mark the dishes we felt gave the closets representation of the sensory experiences depicted through food.
Below are the details of the food composition from my team (touch and sounds, map location 3).
1st course – Ground coffee and lime, rub together with finger and taste. This unusual combination of two intense – bitter and acidic – tastes was designed to challenge and be invasive as a representation of the assault of the wind and traffic when turning the corner that connects the city’s interior with the seafront. It seemed to work. People felt the assault and the taste combination was definitely a challenge.
2nd course – Banana chip, mascarpone, crushed weetabix to contrast creamy and dry textures. This is a reference to the experience of touching the railing by the seafront where the smooth, almost creamy successive layers of paint contrast with the dry and rough texture of the timber railing (especially on the sea facing side after years of being battered by the wind and rain). We added a hint of cinnamon to add warmth to suggest the warmth of the sun on the skin and raisins to add sweetness and echo the seaside sounds and its associated memories. The contrasts came across clearly.
3rd course – A medley of kiwi, white chocolate button, pieces of strawberry sweets and parsley flakes to bind the flavours as a reference to the sight and sounds of the merry go round by the beach. Not directly related to touch other perhaps than the wind from the sea. This polyphonic sensory experience reconnects us to childhood memories, seaside sounds and associations with sweet tastes/smells, bright colour and fun. The dish was extremely well received and seemed to fulfil its role connecting people with seaside fun.
What worked well?
The workshop was very well organised and I enjoyed the day. The translation of sensory experiences into taste was very interesting. Partly because taste is often neglected in the built environment (although it is connected to smell) and partly because I found the process enabled me to further explore, evaluate and, very importantly, share the experiences of urban spaces. The process of translation into food brought clarity into my understanding of the sensory experiences and the process of sharing enabled me to evaluate ways to transmit a highly subjective experience to someone else.
What could be improved?
Once the documentation and evaluation had taken place, I would have liked to be able to spend some time with others looking at ways in which this wealth of information could be used post-workshop.
What new insights did I take away from the workshop?
That, to some extent of course, it is possible to share subjective experiences. Enlightening!
What were the most interesting, challenging, and/or inspiring sensory aspects that I experienced?
I selected touch. It was for me the most challenging sense because it is so often the one sense that comes with many restrictions (can’t touch this or that, can’t walk here or there, touch amongst people is also culturally sensitive…). I enjoyed taking part in the sensory walk but it was challenging to separate one sense from the other and I often felt that other senses affected my ability to sense touch. Bachelard calls this phenomenon ‘the polyphony of the senses'(Gaston Bachelard, cited in Juhani Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin. Architecture and the Senses. (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2005: 41.). For example, when we approached a large fountain on the green, hearing and seeing water fall onto stone gave us some sense of what it would be like to touch the wet stone or stand underneath the water. Lived sensory experiences are mediated by others senses as well as imagination and memories.
Another challenge was that as soon as we try to write down our thoughts on sensory experiences we objectify them and they lose their immediacy. Perhaps the process of translation and association with adjectives further dilutes the sensory experience away from its lived primary form?
Being very familiar with the location was sometimes challenging because I had to be very mindful of expectations and assumptions (based on previous experiences/memories) taking over the lived experience. Saying that, I lived in Brighton for a few years and never did I realise that the railing on the seafront offered such interesting haptic experiences and information about location/environmental conditions. With a focus on touch, I noticed haptic qualities and non-qualities in the environment that I hadn’t seen before.
A highly enjoyable workshop, great facilitators and fantastic co-participants.