This workshop, also at the 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.
< This is the email information we received prior to the workshop: 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 sense experience. For example, what would it be relevant 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.
This case study advocates a phenomenological approach to site-specific documentation and evaluation, placing human psychological needs and lived experiences at the centre of Spatial Design education. The project, with 2nd year students from the BA (Hons) Spatial Design course at London College of Communication, delineates how primary research methods are introduced as a prelude to sensory driven design iterations. It showcases how a public space became a pedagogic environment for students to bridge the gap between studio practice and lived experiences through active learning. It also underlines how introducing practices informed by academic research enhances the students’ learning experience.
I recently ran a project with the 2nd year BA (Hons) Spatial Design at the London College of Communication (University of the Arts London) where, in collaboration with South West Trains in Wimbledon station, students were asked to re-examine the way people inhabit a transition space.
As part of the project, students were introduced to research methods I had previously developed to facilitate the documentation of atmospheric qualities in spaces, and visualise the intangible world of sensory perceptions and subjective experiences. The objective of my research was to enable designers to conduct sensory driven transformation into a wide range of spaces. The original research was published in a paper called ‘Sensing the Urban Interior’ and presented at the [in]arch conference at Universitas Indonesia in Depok (Jakarta) in 2014.
This project started with a question: How can we regenerate spaces by manipulating their atmospheric qualities?
It explored the sensory relationships between the intimate space of the body and the interior of a transition space, the ubiquitous train station. Every morning, Monday to Friday, our cities experience an influx of people commuting towards their center to work and reversing their journey to go back home in the evening. This creates a social phenomenon whereby the experience many people have of the city’s urban interiors is transient. This experience is also impersonal as the design of the spaces that facilitate this daily commute is often constrained to performing specific functions such as moving people from A to B, with limited opportunities for people to interact with their surroundings and even less so with each other. So the train station is an interior commuters experience and inhabit on a daily basis yet very little of the design takes into account the way the space affects people, psychologically and emotionally. Therefore, the objective of the project is to understand how these environments impact on people’s everyday life by exploring and identifying the processes in which sensory experiences are managed and controlled, in order to develop a human centred phenomenological approach to the design process and in doing so, offer innovative solutions that alter the way people perceive, experience and inhabit these interiors.
So the project invited students to rethink the relationship between body and space in the context of a transition space, provide sensory driven transformations that alter the atmospheric qualities of the interior in a positive way and create a sense of place, thus making the experience of individual and collective journeys a more enjoyable one.
I presented her paper ‘Sensing the Urban Environment’ at the [in]arch 2014 International Conference that took place at Universitas Indonesia, Department of Interior Architecture, Depok (Jakarta) on 10th and 11th September 2014, where I showcased techniques I developed to document sensory experiences in interior environments, to uncover a connection between the way we feel and our sense of belonging by investigating the correlation between the interior’s embodied atmosphere and its perceptual affect on the body. I participated in what was the first conference of its kind in Indonesia and attracted international researchers from South East Asia, the Middle East, the USA, the UK and Europe.
I was able to engage in the many opportunities for discussions amongst conference participants for collaborations at a networking event at the end of the conference to discuss how to take new insights into design research forward including future conferences, disseminations through publications as well as the formation of an international network to include existing and emerging researchers in this new and exciting area of design research on interiority. This marks the start of a new research chapter for me across interior design, spatial design and interior architecture, one that links theory and practice and creates opportunities for the advancement of knowledge in interiority and wellbeing and, in the words of Professor Yandi Andri Yatmo “enrich our practice and pedagogy, experiment with concepts and ideas beyond the existing knowledge, and… establish further network and collaboration beyond the event of this conference.”
Beyond situations that have been experienced, discover situations that have been dreamed” Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (1958: 29)
This project investigates the creation of an immersive experience in the abandoned interior of Poplar Baths, in Poplar, London, positioning the body in terms of sensing and creating through performance in the context and site specificity of selected interior spaces within the building. The techniques draw on the perceptions and emotions generated by the synergy between body and space. This enquiry is grounded in existing theories and research, notably the writings of Maurice Merleau-Ponty on phenomenology, J.J. Gibson on ecology and Paul Ricoeur on memory. The objective is to reposition the site survey as an experiential encounter, embodied by the interior through a fictional narrative and performed by the investigator. Using mapping drawing, scenography and performance the incentive is to reveal sensory perceptions and unique corresponding emotional affect.
The project relates to the concept of synaesthetic as defined by Dr Rosie Klich from the University of Kent at the symposium on Immersive Theatre Experiences at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University London, London UK in November 2013. The symposium explored examples of immersive theatre practices and reflected on the phenomenon of the ‘immersive event.’ So the project transposes the potential offered by performance immersive practices into the study of an interior, revealing the uniqueness of a situation. It meets some of the exploratory aspirations of another project Ephraim Joris wrote about in his paper ‘The Interior: between research and practice.’ Joris’s students however benefitted from dance training and choreographed their interpretation accordingly while the method here is entirely visceral and considers a more intuitive and spontaneous approach to experiencing an environment. This approach facilitates perceptual and emotional expression by fully engaging the senses with the atmosphere of the interior. ‘We perceive atmosphere through our emotional sensibility – a form of perception that works incredibly quickly, and which we humans evidently need to help us survive. We are capable of immediate appreciation, of a spontaneous emotional response, of rejecting things in a flash.’ (Zumthor, 2006, p. 13)
The site of the performance is a small empty room in the abandoned public baths building Poplar Baths, in Poplar, East London. Poplar Baths was built and opened in 1852. Used as a swimming pool and baths most of the year, it was also transformed into a theatre, dance hall and exhibition hall in winter when the main pool, known as East India Hall, was floored over. It sustained substantial bomb damage during World War II and subsequently remained closed until 1947. Following extensive repairs it reopened to renewed popularity, attracting large numbers of swimmers each year. However lack of funding to carry out structural repairs and the changing nature of the area and leisure occupations meant that the facilities were closed permanently in 1985. The abandoned site slowly fell into disrepair, its original interior crumbling, obliterating the memories of its past. The study focuses on four interconnected areas: the main pool on the ground floor, adjacent corridors, stairs leading to the first floor and a small room on the second floor that looks down onto the street on one side and onto the main pool, now empty, on the other, and although the performance is staged in the second floor room, it is informed by the experiential journey through the building.
Although the interior environment has been neglected for many years and has suffered substantial damage, abandoned fixtures hint at the activities that once took place there and revealed a building once teeming with life with fragments of the elegance and beauty of its original Art Deco style still visible through the decay slowly disintegrating. So from a perceptual perspective, the interior of the building retains a ghostly imprint of its past, which engendered uncanny occurrences of phenomenological imprints of past occupancy, that manifested itself as shifting impressions of fleeting movements and sounds emanating from imagined ghosted silhouettes permeating the layers of time. It was an emotionally moving experience no doubt influenced by my own experiences and memories of such places, both real and narrated, but nonetheless unique to this situation. Professor Robert Tavenor, director of the cities programme at the London School of Economics provides an interesting point of view on this phenomena. ‘Each time a memory is triggered, it is renewed and revised by the new experience, and our sensitivity to buildings becomes an amalgam of recall and reinterpretation. […] A building’s voice can be very potent, but it is ultimately the inner voice you are hearing – your own voice.’ (Cited in Architectural Voices, Littlefield, p.12). So the building may be abandoned but it is still a place of textures and colours, light and shadows, smells, sounds, scale and objects, and the high level of perceptual entropy I felt while I visited the site allowed me to be transported back in time into an imagined environment while being conscious of the present and therefore, feeling the tensions of the duality of time, a constant shift between the past and the present. While exploring the building, I also experienced sound distortions reverberating across the darkness of the corridors and staircases. For a brief moment, I lost sight of the people I was with and could not locate their position with accuracy as the sound they were making reverberated against the tiled surfaces and seemed to come from different directions at once. For a brief moment when time seemed to become suspended, I felt truly lost and apprehension and anxiety took over. The scarred building turned into an unfriendly place. Then suddenly clarity came back, I was back in the present and able to follow the sound and rejoin the others.
A few days later in the studio, the stage was set for a one minute performance of four recurring sequences titled ‘Lost Time’. ‘[…] we do not know, in a phenomenological sense, whether forgetting is only an impediment to evoking and recovering the “lost time”, or whether it results from the unavoidable wearing away “by” time of the traces left in us by past events in the form of original affections.’ (Ricoeur, 2004, 2006 ed., p.30)
One of the elevations of the room was projected onto the wall of the studio and masking tape was used to mark out on the floor the exact boundaries of the interior. Three cameras were running, one for the foreground, one for the middleground and another for the background.In preparation for the performance, I previously mapped the scenography across a series of diagrammatic drawings showing the sequence of movement across the floor space and elevations, bridging the gap between the emotional and the physical, between performance and design drawing. I also included three props. Two of them represented the room in anthropomorphic terms. To represent the room in the present, I used a once beautiful but now damaged 1930’s tailored woman’s suit jacket turned inside out to show its ripped lining. To represent the room in the past, I chose a chair covered with a heavy single white sheet. The third prop was a recording of voices that represented keynote sounds of the people in the present moving across the building.
The performance is inspired by my experience within the entire building and a desire to express this unique and uncanny situation, I chose to perform the feeling of loss, duality and the anxiety emerging from the destructive layers of time felt when I visited the site and the momentary confusion that resulted from the sound of people’s voices reverberating across the building’s surfaces. The room used for the performance becomes the stage, a blank canvas onto which I could project the narrative of the situation. It explores the sensation of being physically, emotionally and psychologically aware of the space both in the present and trough the imprint of its past expressed by fragments of memory still visible amidst the decay. The room, represented by a figure sitting on a chair (waiting), inhabits its former reality, now a world of stillness and silence. As people speak when they enter the room (in the present time), they create vibrations, which produce energy waves that alter the medium, substances and surfaces, not only across the environment but also time. The room can now hear voices and tries to locate the sounds vibrating across the environment but it can’t, and people, in their own reality can see the decay and rubble while never experiencing the environment as it was originally intended. When they leave, all is quiet again and the room goes back to its waiting position.Movement is activated by the emission of sound, an actual recording of people talking as they enter the room taken on site.The movement through the environment is fast but hesitant because it is impossible to locate the source of the sound and also incorporates swift 360˚ turns to change direction and emphasise the feeling of confusion. When the sound stops, the movement slows down and lacks clear direction.
This project focusses on the symbiotic relationship between the building and its past occupants and through mapping and performance, explores the perceptual voice of the interior. It highlights a practice where the insubstantial is captured through performance. The atmospheric stimulation experienced in real time leads to an encounter with a past imprinted into the fabric of the environment. The approach allows the designer to become the environment and in doing so incorporates emotions and the notion of spatial empathy. It also highlights the notions of fragility and ephemerality.
Listening to the perceptual voice of the interior is unusual but this approach is part of a larger body of work that investigates techniques that supports the integration of knowledge of emotions through perceived atmosphere and the senses into the design process, alongside aesthetic and functional concerns. In this case, as a more acute sense of awareness developed, it provided additional layers on information about the layout and materiality of the interior as well as the symbiotic relationship between the environment and past occupants. It is about a creating a situation for a ‘lived experience’ (Merleau-Ponty, 1948, 2004 ed., p.32) rather than recording the space from the point of view of the rationality of a scientific approach.
Acknowledgements: I completed this project as part of my postgraduate thesis development. It was set by Dusan Decermic, Course Director of the MA Interior Design at the University of Westminster, London. The brief specified the location and the creation of mapping drawings and one minute performance on the theme of ‘the waiting room’. The interpretation however was unique to each student.
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Juhani Pallasmaa – Retinal Architecture and the Loss of Plasticity
‘The architecture of our time is turning into the retinal art of the eye. Architecture at large has become an art of the printed image fixed by the hurried eye of the camera. The gaze itself tends to flatten into a picture and lose its plasticity; instead of experiencing our being in the world, we behold it from outside as spectators of images projected on the surface of the retina.’
Unprecedented access to technologies of the visual enables us to capture and reference our environment with exceptional ease. We have become accustomed, even conditioned, to quickly record our surroundings and transform them into ephemeral moments of appropriation. It seems that we require tangible proof of our lives so as not to forget a single moment, a single encounter.
The cult of the image is also actively promoted by the carefully constructed ideals of glossy magazines and coffee table books celebrating architecture and architects. This gives us instant access to archives and desires but what are we losing or gaining in the process? Does the prominent role of the image in Western culture today affect our cultural identity?
The development of cultural identity happens over time as a historical set of recollected moments that shape our knowledge, thoughts and behaviour. So memories and the ability to remember are an essential part of not only our past, but also our present and future. As our understanding of architecture becomes increasingly conditioned by the way it is photographed, flat images become abstractions of buildings and we are presented with a series of fragmented views of externalised and idealised versions of our environment. Memory however is dynamic, not a simple storage device. It consists of mental images gathered through experiences. Environments are all encompassing multi-sensorial entities and immersion triggers what Marcel Proust calls ‘involuntary memories’(1), experienced through being, knowledge, matter, identity, time and space.
So the gaze loses its ability to form itself into the environment when, superseded by the eye of the camera, it cannot construct the relationships characterised by the multiplicity of meanings we encounter as we move through our surroundings. When the gaze is confined to flat restricted viewpoints, it cannot be interactive or participatory, nor can it facilitate, in the words of Jean Piaget ‘a gradual construction of meanings essential to our perceptions of our environment’(2). Positioning ourselves behind a camera creates a warped relationship between the body and its surroundings, a loss of direct connection and engagement. We look but we don’t see, we see but we don’t feel. Time accelerates and we are compelled to move quickly to the next subject, emulating what Fredric Jameson calls ‘the frantic economic urgency’(3). So, when experience is reduced to the unfulfilled encounter of the image and impoverished two-dimensional environments, the supremacy of the visual over other sensorial modalities means we are in danger of losing the knowledge that we need to inform awareness. Maurice Merleau-Ponty even suggests we become ‘programmed machines, removed from the open and active form of the sensing body’(4) and therefore it seems that in our postmodernist culture, awareness follows depiction.
The resulting fragmentation of our perceptions leads to both the dispersal and reconfiguration of collective memories resulting in subjective experiences defined by the media, where desires, manufactured with the help of semiotic advertising psychology, replace reality. Bernard Stiegler takes this point even further and expresses his concern about the communality produced by the similarity of images available in the media. He remarks that we ‘come to share an increasingly uniform memory. For example, those who watch the same television news channel every day at the same time become, in effect, the same person.’(5) Transposed into architectural images, this implies that those who repetitively view the same photographs of any given environment, are likely to develop the same perceptions of that environment.
Take Peter Zumthor’s celebrated Thermal Bath Vals in Garubunden, Switzerland. It is entirely designed through careful manipulation of sensory modes. Local materials are used for their relationship with the site and tactile qualities, room plans are labelled by temperature notation and slivers of light and dripping water are introduced to enhance atmospheric conditions. The character of its interior emanates from the considerations of its components as active participants to promote the feeling of wellness and serenity essential to the context of the environment. However most of us only know this building because we have seen carefully executed and selected images, not because we have been there and experienced it for ourselves. Yet many will profess the characteristics of the Thermal Baths with genuine enthusiasm. Although to a certain extent, memories, knowledge and imagination allow us to decode what we see and transpose it to stimulate other senses, we are nonetheless reduced to spectators in the construction of cultural ideals. Our architectural and spatial consciousness and by default our related memories, are defined by images more than by direct experiences. In the words of Susan Sontag ‘photography makes us feel that the world is more available than it really is’(6)
So the commodification of culture, imposed on us by the architecture of the visual and the drive to create striking and desirable images, favours the representation of form over real human enjoyment, and authentic pleasure is removed when architecture is staged to fulfil lifestyle consumer desires. Architecture becomes flat and lifeless, debased by its assimilation into consumer images, removed from human experience. The loss of plasticity, the lack of direct engagement with our environment and the proliferation of superficial encounters bring about an idealised, distorted and subjective view of reality whereby meaning becomes referential to the image rather than deferential to the multiplicity and complexity of the human condition. In other words ‘reality has come to seem more and more what we are shown by the camera.’(7) However, as Yi-Fu Tuan points out ‘what begins as an undifferentiated space becomes a place as we get to know it better and endow it with value’(8) and ‘the more our sense of touch is restricted or neglected, whether social relationships or urban design, the more we diminish our possibilities for aesthetic enjoyment and our sense of connection with the material world.’(9) As a result our cultural identity seems diffused and even confused. Faced with a much more disappointing reality when our expectations are not met, we can become prone to anxiety due to an inability to form meaningful relationships with our environment.
Science fiction cinema and writers have also expressed their unease at the potential the image for manipulation. For example, Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner is based on the impossible task of its main character figuring out whether his memories are real or implanted and his only link with his real or imagined past are photographs. Phillip K. Dick’s protagonist in ‘We can remember it for you wholesale’ merges reality and fantasies by selecting both factual and false memories, which are then further woven into his identity with the addition of images in the form of films and postcards as proof of his voyage to Mars. The alteration of photographs is today common practice, but unless someone remembers, are we not in danger of altering our collective memories by re-visualising history?
So is there nothing to be gained from images of our environment? Pierre Nora speaks of ‘lieux de mémoire’ (spaces or realm of memory), connecting the driving force behind the image with ‘the rise of the visual narrative in contemporary culture’(10) . Despite its experiential limitations and the danger of distortion in our cultural identity and history, photography enables us to preserve an archived version of past architecture displaced by urban development that regularly obliterates many areas of our cities. It provides us with a unique means to construct our own personal architectural mementos and in effect, curate our memories of places we have been to. It also offers us an opportunity to re-discover our environment by framing its components in ways that remove the surrounding visual clutter. The act of reinterpretation helps us stop and reflect. Although the image does produce a two-dimensional encounter, it also makes the invisible visible by helping move our gaze beyond the foreground and adjusting our environment to reveal previously unnoticed vistas, elements and details.
We often take our environment for granted yet our daily interactions are complex and dynamic. We are confronted with social constructs, historical products, personal emotions, memories and imagination. So, while spaces are constantly evolving and re-made, it is our memory, the way we retain information, that really creates the mental space each of us possess of individual or shared experiences. I agree that we need to immerse ourselves in our environments to fully experience them, but I also believe there is a place in our culture for images that are not about revealing all, but surprise and offer constituents of moments fixed in time, yet always evolving because they are alive with personal sensorial connotations; they are windows onto past experiences, unlocking hidden meanings to create alternative memories beyond the original moment in space and time. At a personal level, photographs trigger not only visual but also sensorial and emotional recalls beyond the limitations of time, whereby captured moments become permanent ones that we can revisit at will and public spaces become private memories.
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“Beyond situations that have been experienced, discover situations that have been dreamed”
Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (1958, p.29)
Perceptual Motion is a short animated film created using a range of time based media techniques. The narrative highlights the link between consciousness and environmental conditions. A suitcase acts as a metaphor for the container of our emotions and a praxinoscope symbolises their dynamic and somewhat unpredictable nature, taking the protagonist from one mental space to another through a door that opens and closes as the praxinoscope rotates. The film expresses the idea that changes in our environment can suddenly alter our perceptions and the way we feel. It also reveals different environmental narratives, one positive and tranquil and the other negative and despondent, articulating the concept of a perceptual evolutionary state linked to motion and its relationship with time. The animation expresses in our inability to fully control mental space, a step towards the recognition of the complexity of emotions.
Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined. Royal Academy publication catalogue of the exhibition, 2014.
Jay Merrick ‘Doors of Perceptions’ Royal Academy of Arts magazine. No. 121, Winter 2013, p. 34 to 43.
“Without the senses we would have no true idea of space and without writing we would have only a partial record of how individuals experience their own place in the world.” Diana Fuss, The Sense of and Interior: Four Writers and the Rooms That Shaped Them, 2004
Sensing spaces: Architecture Reimagined at the Royal Academy in London set out to reframe the context of architectural exhibition, moving away from a typical display of drawings and model towards a much more immersive experience. Its curator, Claire Goodwin, and the 7 architectural practices invited to contribute, invite us on a unique sensory journey across a series of pavilions that dramatically transform the interior of the galleries. The architects are all from outside the UK and include Kengo Kuma based in Tokyo (with another office in Paris), Grafton Architects based in Dublin, Li Xiaodong based in Beijing, Pezo von Ellrichshausen based in Concepion Chile, Diébédo Francis Kéré based in Berlin and Alvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura based in Porto.
The pavilions are designed to challenge our expectations of space and the way we feel about our surroundings. Their scale promote direct engagement and experience through our bodies and senses. For once, in a gallery, we are invited to interact with the exhibits without restrain.
According to Kate Goodwin, the exhibition questions the boundaries between art and architectural human qualities of space and the role buildings play in shaping our lives. It attempts to bring people closer to an architectural experience and sits at the opposite spectrum of the often necessary practical and rational responses to briefs. So the primary consideration here is to stimulate senses and provide an experience.
In this exhibition, we also become active participants. Very quickly, it became clear that these pavilions only really came to life when people interacted with them. Without human interaction and interventions, they run the risk of being merely a series of giant models in a gallery context. With human interaction they become places of exploration, investigation, learning, play, contemplation, discoveries and surprises activated as we move through their interior. “Being physically, emotionally and psychologically aware of the spaces that surround us and of our places within them could be described as having a sense of presence” (Kate Goodwin). The gallery setting promotes a state of mindfulness not often afforded in the environments we encounter on a daily basis. By isolating the pavilions from encroaching stimuli, it allows us to fully immerse ourselves in their respective environments.
We do however live in an age of visual culture and I couldn’t help noticing that a great deal of people were busying themselves with taking photographs and thus experiencing the three-dimensional pavilion through the two-dimensional screen of their touch phones, perhaps missing out on opportunities to feel with their entire being. The curatorial team actually ensured very little of the pavilions themselves was revealed so as not to affect people’s expectations prior to visiting the exhibition.
The exhibition is curated around the interaction between three factors: the nature of physical spaces, our perceptions of them and their evocative power. Architects were selected because their work addresses human and emotional needs and their buildings thoughtfully integrated within the context of the location. In this case, the location is the 19th Century neoclassical galleries designed by Sydney Smirke. So the architects were given an open brief to explore the potential of architecture, its relevance to people and the connections it evokes as well as how one might convey these using architecture constructions within the traditional spaces of the Royal Academy. So the pavilions don’t sit incongruously in the context galleries but create a deliberate dialogue between the existing and the new. Kate Goodwin likens the exhibition to a city ‘”which gains its vitality and character from the ensemble as much as from its individual elements.”
This ground breaking exhibition is to be experienced in the spirit of enquiry not as an attempt to provide finite answers. The sensory relationships between people and their surroundings is too rich and complex to be constrained across a series of universal principles. Any attempt to do this would, in my opinion, create a sterile atmosphere and destroy the poetics of spatial experiences. Instead the exhibition invites a greater appreciation of the spaces we occupy and encourages us to ‘feel’ our environments. Then perhaps we will become a little more demanding in our surroundings and expect more from the built environment. As Winston Churchill once said “first we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.”
I very much enjoyed this innovative exhibition, so much so that I went three times. However, the first moments of discovery were the most intense and the most visceral experiences. Afterwards, cognition took over to a certain degree as familiarity steeped in. However, as the pavilions became part of my memory, I also began to consciously notice details that I hadn’t seen before and, the conditions of some of the pavilions isn’t constant. For example, Diébédo Francis Kéré uses colourful straws that people inserts into the pure white surfaces of the pavilion, their actions (and creativity) constantly transforming the space. I first saw it on the day the exhibition opened and it was a real surprise to see how it had changed a few weeks later. In this case, a highly uplifting experience.
All pavilions offered unique experiences, from the smooth cool haptic qualities of Alvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura to the heightened vistas of Pezo von Ellrichshausen and the playful situations of Diébédo Francis Kéré, they all strive to allow us to explore our surroundings from a fresh perspective. For me however, the works of Kengo Kuma, Li Xiaodong and Grafton Architects stood out. This is were I felt the most acute sense of presence and personal engagement and were the environment resonated the most with my senses.
Kengo Kuma brings harmony, elegant simplicity and weightless sensitivity into the gallery space. The choice of material, bamboo sticks whittled down to a four millimetre diameter, is significant. Kuma speaks of weak architecture, not one that imposes itself on people but one that encourages a symbiotic relationship between the space and people. The bamboo sticks retain their strength and flexibility. The balance between the parts and the totality is exquisite, light and delicate but strong, and in the words of Kuma himself, “the richness of the pause enhances our awareness of the immaterial”. It is in my opinion, the most poetic response to the brief. The atmosphere envelops you into a contemplative ritualistic mood. It’s almost as if I could feel a sense of silence while the undulating bamboo structure introduces a sensation of gentle movement.
Kuma also infuses the gallery spaces with aromas. Smell, he explains, requires more effort, more concentration than anything visual. The first room contains the pavilion of the ‘architecture of reality’ or ‘architecture of the father’ and is infused with the scent of Hinoki, a Japanese Cypress. The installation is designed for people to walk around it. The second room contains the pavilion of the ‘architecture of void’ or ‘architecture of the mother’, which is infused with the scent of tatami. As you would expect from a ‘mother’, the installation surounds and envelops visitors. Both aromas are memories from Kuma’s childhood, not ours. I had never experienced the smell of Hinoki or tatami before and I actually found the smell of tatami very unusual. So in this context, the inclusion of scents challenges our perceptions even further because they don’t provide any known points of reference.
The design of Kengo Kuma’s installation originated form a single question: ‘how can a minimum of material induce a maximum effect on the body?.’ He continues by saying that ‘we are aiming to create an architecture of experience that dissolves the boundaries between the material and the immaterial’, which seems to me exactly what he has achieved with his installation for the Royal Academy.
Li Xiaodong chose to present us with an environment designed for exploration and discoveries. There are many surprises in his pavilion. The journey starts with roughly cut strips of fabric hanging at the threshold and only partially divulging what lies behind. The transition between the previous gallery and Li Xiaodong’s pavilion is striking. Opening the ‘curtain’ reveals a brightly lit white floor of molten aspect reminiscent of snow and walls made of humble wooden sticks, a very unusual material in architecture, one that the architect has previously used in a project and taken from local resources. In the words of the architect, “metaphorically, visitors are walking through a forest in the snow at night and the forest is represented by a maze of corridors”.
The wooden sticks invite touch but the narrow gaps between them also reveal fleeting impressions of people moving on the other side, as shadowy figures moving through the forest. The pavilion is designed for visitors to experience a series of spaces rather than one homogeneous volume. It is a journey of discovery, punctuated by niches that create surprises as well as perhaps symbolise shelters in the forest, alternative spaces to hide.
The maze leads to a large space filled with stones and a wall to wall mirror on one side. It is suppose to represent a zen garden, clear-sightedness and inspiration, so I’m not sure that the architects intended for us to walk on the stones and make as much noise as possible as many people did. The stones seemed fairly big for a zen garden so I don’t know how obvious it was as most people didn’t remain on the viewing platform.
This pavilion introduces many sensory experiences (some perhaps unintentional as the exaggerated sound of footsteps on the stones), the sticks are not only tactile but their repetition also brings rhythm to the spaces while the hidden niches offer comfort. Its exploratory nature provides a series of spatial relationships and we are very conscious of our own presence within the pavilion. For Li Xiadong, the difference between the real and the conceptual is the difference between ‘being present in a space, where you are absorbed within it, and looking at images of a space, where the mind is detached.’
Grafton Architects’s contribution to the exhibition is entirely different. Their central concern is both ‘ the aesthetics and structural qualities of materials so they manipulate surface, weight and texture as well as light and shadow’. They filled the upper layers of two galleries with large concrete volumes, one a space of light and the other a space of shadows. Yet despite the materiality of the installation, the space is light and inviting while at the same time able to convey a sense of gravity.
Despite its scale, the spaces still conveyed a senses of intimacy through stillness, proportions and order. Visitors are invited to sit down and absorb the subtle changes in light and shadows. In the exhibition catalogue, the architects refer to David Leatherbarrow’s writings on architectural phenomenology. “He talks about shadow and light and how the production of shadow was once described as the origin of architecture.” Reading this made me want to revisit Junichiro Tanizaki’s seminal book ‘In praise of the shadows.’
So the installation celebrates the spacious volumes of the galley and Grafton Architects explains that they provide a contrast between the existing classical plan and the free plan of inserted environment. So in this case the spatial experience is described not with words but light.
This event considered how we use writing to help us understand architecture and communicate our experience of it. Speakers include Professor Adrian Forty (The Bartlett) and Dr. Kester Rattenbury (University of Westminster). Chaired by Professor Dr. Philip Ursprung (ETH Zürich).