Visualising the invisible

“A third characteristic of air or water is that it transmits vibrations or pressure waves outward from a mechanical event, a source of sound waves. It thus makes possible hearing what we call the sound; more exactly it permits listening to the vibratory event.” J. J. Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (1986, p.17)

One November morning in 2012 I went to Battersea park to investigate a suitable site for an experiment set by Dusan Decermic, Course Director of the MA Interior Design at the University of Westmister. He called the project ‘Horizon’.

There aren’t many people in the park first thing on a Saturday morning so it’s much more quiet than during the day. As a result I became a lot more conscious and aware of the sounds around me and as the disruptive noise of a plane passing overhead overpowered the pleasant sounds of the birds and the atmosphere of the park, I began to imagine what the site would look like at this very moment should the impact of the vibrations created by the sounds be rendered visible. Could I visualise how the sounds made me feel and how I perceived the changes in the atmosphere of the environment around me?

In order to relate sensory perspective to sound I used a spectrogram of the sound wave as the basis for photographic manipulation of the environment. Sounds are emitted at different frequencies, vibrations travel through the environmental medium and are reflected by its surfaces, creating distortions. It is therefore possible to provide a visual reference of the site as it is disrupted by the sounds passing through its environment like a snapshot capturing distortions in the atmosphere.

The site was chosen for its covered canopy on one side, with the shaded foreground area akin to an interior space, and its distinct lines of sites leading to the ‘outside’ space. The ‘interior’ boundaries are determined by the position of the trees, comparable to columns punctuating the site, as well as the lower elements in the background. The tree in the middle ground also acts as a focal point while the proximity to paths, river and city means that it is receptive to sound disruptions and propagation. Depth perceptions follow the lines of site guiding the gaze from the foreground towards the horizon.

The sound wave and spectrogram illustrate the duration and frequency of an actual recording made on the site. The recording includes the sounds of birds, a plane passing above and the sounds I made while walking through the site and taking photographs. These are referenced by corresponding symbols on both the diagram above and the spectrogram. The sound of the plane is shown in blue and green and it is clear that the sound intensity increases as it passes directly above, into the foreground of the vertical axis, and decreases when it moves away into the background. The sound of the birds is mostly in the middleground due to the position of the trees but it is overpowered by the plane as it passes above. The sounds I make are located in the foreground of the horizontal axis.

Serpentine Gallery pavilion

Every Summer the ground near the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park London is host to a temporary pavilion designed by a different architect each year. This is an opportunity for architects to design unique experiences and I have been a regular visitor for the last few years since I accidentally came across Jean Nouvel’s 2010 pavilion while crossing Hyde Park one evening, as it happened, the day before it was due to close to the public. The pavilion was aptly called ‘The red sun pavilion’. The building metaphorically and literally reflected on its surroundings in a chromatic explosion of reds amongst the green landscape. The intensity was at its most striking on approach when the pavilion suddenly appeared in full view and translucent panels positioned to capture the evening sunlight created an artificially induced sunset, painting the surroundings with splashes of red, transforming the site into a three-dimensional canvas. The result was dynamic and evocative, yet unlike anything usually experienced in the vast expanse of Hyde Park. It’s the memory of the drama of this sudden and unexpected explosion of reds in the glowing light of the sunset set within the intense green surroundings that brings me back each year in anticipation for another unique experience. The element of surprise is actually very important or the emotional impact of the design would be ruined so I try to avoid photographs or articles about the pavilion before going there, which can be quite difficult with so much information reaching us all the time. Even then, the impact is perhaps never quite as intense. Just knowing that there will be a pavilion takes away some of the surprise.

Peter Zumthor’s 2011 pavilion was completely different, one that celebrated our senses in a more contemplative way. On approach, a simple black volumes giving nothing away but with contrasting curved paths inviting a gentle meandering towards its interior. The sudden change in atmospheric conditions once going through the threshold was however remarkable. The contrast between the brightness of the light in the park, the cool tones of its environment and that of the soft light and warm tones of the interior created an instant shift in perceptions. The mind felt immediately more calm, rested. The sounds from the park became distant and I became wrapped in the silence of the corridor like space. The rough concrete of the path was replaced by dark wood and a subtle sweet and pleasant smell emanated from the surfaces around me. I expect that the corridor like space that surrounded the main interior acted as a transition, a threshold, that prepared people for the main interior. Inside was a rectangular space with a sitting area around central a garden so people were invited to enjoy the spectacle of nature within architecture, mentally far removed from external concerns. The area above the garden was opened to the sky and although when I went it was a bright sunny day, I decided to go back next time it rained to experience the effect of the summer rain within the interior. I wasn’t disappointed. Like the contrast created on entry with the enigmatic low light and subtle scent, the effect of the rain falling through the centre of the space was extraordinary in the strength of its simplicity. These two moments are what I took away with me from this experience and although this is the only building by Peter Zumthor I have had the opportunity to visit, I was totally won over by his amazing ability to create atmospheres, his thoughtful choreography of perceptual and sensorial relationships. I since discovered that in 2003 he gave a lecture on atmospheres, published in a book of the same name. In it he says that ‘quality architecture to me is when a building manages to move me’ and this is exactly what happened to me when I experienced his pavilion.

The 2012 pavilion was designed by the Swiss architects Jacques Herzog & Pierre de Meuron in collaboration with the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Conceptually it was brilliant. The architects excavated about 5 feet into the soil of the park until they reached groundwater. There they dug a hole to act as a well to collect the rain that falls into the area, thus incorporating the water underneath the soil into the pavilion. They also uncovered the remains of former foundations from previous pavilions and instead of obliterating them, they carefully identified and recorded these physical remains to incorporate them into the footprint of the design, reconstructing their forms to various heights, forming convoluted horizontal lines and creating what they called ‘the serendipitous gift of a distinctive landscape’. This landscape could only be appreciated from inside the pavilion although its programmatic drawings were on display in the Serpentine gallery nearby. The entire space was covered with a metal flat roof with a thin layer of water reflecting the sky and trees of the surrounding park. The water could apparently be drained from the roof to become a platform or stage for events. Inside the 3D landscape was entirely covered in cork (including mushroom/champagne cork shaped seats), which to me, from a distance, looked like concrete. Unlike concrete however, this material was warm to the touch and I expect it was chosen for its haptic qualities. As I said, conceptually brilliant and from the photographs I saw, unfortunately I wasn’t able to see it when it was dark, it looked striking at night (although carefully framed and edited photographs cannot replace real experiences). So why didn’t I enjoy being there? The day time atmosphere of the interior didn’t work for me. I perceived a coldness and dampness that didn’t exist because being inside the space gave me a similar feeling as that of being in a basement, like the cellars I remember from the old French houses of my childhood. Although it clearly wasn’t and I was warm, I couldn’t help feeling uncomfortable. The roof was fairly low and the light didn’t penetrate the core of the interior space, which was quite dark and made the cork look slightly grey. The feeling was intensified by the lonely utilitarian lights fixed to the ceiling. The contrast between the bright exterior and dark centre was theoretically interesting but like most people who were there that day I chose to stay on the edges of the space. I expect that in a very hot country it would be a completely different experience, whereby this cool environment covered in refreshing water would then be a welcome haven from the heat. I don’t have any photographs but bustler has excellent ones.

The Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto designed the 2013 pavilion. A clever work of strength and lightness, simplicity in complexity. The structure appears to follow the basic architectural principles of point, line, plane and volume. Simple metal bars are connected together to create cartesian cubic forms however, their irregular growth and lack of symmetry lend the space its organic character. So the architects invited us to explore and meander through the pavilion, creating different levels where people could climb to. The core of the interior remained free of obstructions to accommodate a cafe with a much more traditional table and chairs sitting area, which I thought was a shame and took away some of the immersive proposition of the design but then also brought with it an atmosphere of conviviality. The design of the steps was very clever. It was obvious that the architect wanted them to blend as much as possible with the rest of the structure so their construction used the exact same metal bars. However, instead of the cubes being hollow, these were covered with glass and a very subtle pattern in the same white as the bars. To make it even more interesting, most of the stepped areas were actually platforms of varying sizes so nothing in this space was predictable, each part offered a coherent yet different experience so it was not really possible to define its layout with a clear mental map as we often expect in contemporary buildings and I think that was perhaps the point Sou Fujimoto was trying to get to. Despite is chaotic appearance the atmosphere is tranquil as people are forced to let go of their preconceptions and expectations. It’s a completely new experience and one that people seemed to embrace with the curiosity and enthusiasm often seen in children but less so in adults.

I visited the site during the day but I came across a video, which shows a completely different kind of experience. The space is transformed by the sharp contrast between light and dark, creating a powerful atmosphere that electrifies the senses.

Anthony Gormley ‘Model’

Perceptual system data recording

Anthony Gormley ‘Model’ White Cube Gallery, Bermondsey, London. 02/01/13

Study based on J. J. Gibson perceptual system and Joyce Malmar and Frank Vodvarka ‘Sensory Design’

Model-exterior Model-interior1 Model-interior2

Duration of the visit: 45 minutes in the main installation’s gallery space

Chart completed: after an initial familiarisation with the environment (2nd visit) √

Participation: Active √

Visual system: the rust coloured surfaces of the installation and soft grey and white of the gallery creates a contrast of warm against cool and intense against dull. The visible patterns and soldering joints on the sculpture hint at the construction method leaving a memory trace of when the installation was assembled. The scale of the oversize exterior matches that of the gallery that contains the work but contrasts sharply with the intimacy of the interior chambers. The changes of light levels from very bright on the outside to semi-darkness or complete darkness on the inside reinforce the sense of mystery and anticipation I felt when walking across the threshold of the installation. It’s not possible to get a complete view of the installation on the outside because of its size. It almost covers the entire length of the gallery, leaving only a narrow passage between the surface of the installation and the back wall of the gallery. As a result it is difficult to get a sense of the work as a whole and its depiction of the body. I had to concentrate to identify body parts. A superficial evaluation resulted in seeing only cubic containers assembled together in a seemingly random manner. However the narrow passage at the back creates a sense of anticipation and mystery about the other side which is only revealed upon crossing the passage and stepping back from the work. The same material used throughout forces me to focus on surfaces, form and void.

Auditory system: the light and dull tone of the sound vibrations in the very large room of the gallery contrast sharply with the deep, intense and loud tone experienced inside the installation. The contrast is especially strong on the threshold, when coming out of the echoic enclosed space feels almost soothing. Inside, variations in tone and intensity occur depending on the size and shape of the chamber, the smaller the space the deeper the sound, as well as on the material used in contact with the metal. Hitting the metal with a hard object such as the heels of my shoes creates vibrations that travel through the metal surfaces and resonate inside the structure. Voices also reverberate against the solid surfaces. It is therefore difficult to pin point the source of a sound with accuracy.

Taste-Smell system: neutral, similar to the rest of the gallery.

Basic-Orienting system: navigation occurs as a continuous run around the sculpture with only two openings and only one of them being an actual entrance. The entrance and the exit are the same so I had to walk back where I came from, forcing me to re-experience the event. Little is revealed about the circulation and the entrance remained hidden until I arrived almost directly in front of it. No information was given to help locate the entrance to the installation upon entering the gallery so I had to make a decision whether to go right or left. I chose right, which impacted on my experience of the event because I’d almost been around the entire model before I found the entrance while those who chose left found it sooner before they could see the other side. This means entering the sculpture with a clear mental picture of the outside (right) or only a limited one (left). Inside with no variations in materials, form, scale and light from openings are the main visual cue to aid orientation. A few symbols left from when the sheets of steel were in storage could provide visual cues akin to a basic form of signage although the installation is small enough to learn its layout fairly quickly.

Haptic system: the hard solid steel didn’t feel cold because it looked warm and because the temperature of the gallery was controlled to be neutral. It was fairly smooth with only a little texture. The metal felt heavier when I touched it than when I looked at it, possibly due to my own expectation about the material and also because the scale of the installation is broken down into smaller cubes. Next to the metal, the polished concrete floor appears softer than it actually is. Kinaesthesia: The spacious exterior allows for unconstrained movement. The interior is a continuous run of chambers of various scale and light levels. As a result I became hesitant, slightly disorientated and forced to slow down in places, even bend down where the height was reduced to a minimum.

Temperature & Humidity: neutral. Controlled independently by the gallery.

Time Perception: I didn’t think about time while exploring the sculpture. The focus is on discovery and navigation and because the mind is busy mapping he environment time seems to stand still.