Following a successful talk on Spatial Experience at the Royal College of Art in 2013, I was invited again to share my research interests in this area and this time it was filmed!
I introduced RCA students to environmental perceptions in 3 stages: the scale of perceptions, background knowledge, tools and methodologies. Although the RCA doesn’t have any courses on spatial design or architecture, many students work on project that introduce a level of interaction between people and space. It’s great to be able to contribute and some students are very keen as I found out after the talk and from the emails I received.
SPATIAL EXPERIENCE – An insight into environmental perceptions
The lecture proposes that life itself is a performance and considers the notion of space not simply as a physical entity but as an event. Starting with observations on identity, cultural ideologies and communication, the proposal unfolds to provide an insight into environmental perceptions and atmospheric qualities, and includes examples of experimental projects designed to develop environmental awareness and knowledge of spatial experiences.
This project is part of a case study of Medicine Now, a permanent exhibition on Biomedical science at the Wellcome Collection in Euston, London. The Wellcome Collection positions itself as a direct competitor to the Tate or the V&A so the objective of the study was to ascertain how this exhibition measures as a cultural and learning space.
This isn’t an exhibition where objects and artefacts are simply displayed on plinths and on the wall. It is carefully curated, designed and constructed to stage a particular kind of atmosphere. One that is reminiscent of a science lab but with enough warmth to feel inviting and comfortable. A unique characteristic of the exhibition is the incorporation of specially commissioned works of Art to explore and express ideas about science in a way that is accessible and memorable. I therefore chose to construct the case study as an exhibition staged in 4 acts:
Act 1: The Stage
Act 2: The Script
Act 3: Set Design
Act 4: The Play.
While act 1 to 3 were documented in a written format (see above), Act 4 is in fact a short film that explores a visitor’s experience of the gallery and its content, based on personal interpretations and an evaluation of environmental conditions using a sensory chart (image below) created by Joy Monice Malnar and Frank Vodvarka (Malnar, J. M. & Vodvarka, F. (2004). Sensory Design. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. p.248).
This is a quote from Leon Van Schaik taken from his book ‘Spatial Intelligence’. ‘We need historians, novelists or film makers to bring the spaces of the past to life in the light of the mental space of those who commissioned, designed and made them.’ (2008, p.16) In this film though, it’s not the mental space of the designers I wish to express but that of a visitor.
The film is called ‘X & Y’ after the X and Y chromosomes as the Wellcome Trust was instrumental to the development of the Human Genome Project. It explores the concept of scale initiated by the microscopic world of genomes encoded in our DNA and expresses how from this tiny world we discover something bigger than ourselves. The protagonist, a drop of blood, takes us on a journey from the micro to the macro, providing an insight into who we are and how we perceive the world around us. The film is set within a red and white environment as a direct reference to the design of the exhibition, while quadratic forms represent the scientific quest to rationalise the unknown.
The scenography of the film functions as a form of exhibition review and differs from traditional written accounts. Expressed in a media not usually used for this purpose by spatial designers, the review becomes perceptual and is able to take us on a journey beyond the limits of the exhibition space, into the mind of visitors, offering an insight into the effect of the exhibition content on their perceptions. Although this is of course a personal interpretation and therefore, bound to some degree of subjectivity, the method used encourages a move beyond the descriptive and analytical towards the reflective and responsive.
I discovered Olafur Eliasson’s work when I went to Tate Modern to see the Weather project. It was such an amazing and unforgetable experience. In this video he very eloquently explores the ideas behind some of his projects.
Between 2010 and 2013 Tate Britain underwent an extensive refurbishment programme, under the direction of the London-based practice Caruso St John, ‘to improve the architectural quality and coherence of the building‘1. The work includes the interior remodelling of the original Sidney Smith 1893 Rotunda, where a new staircase provides a striking transition towards the galleries and the lower level. While being explicitly contemporary the staircase also seamlessly integrates with the existing site in a masterpiece of environmental sensibility (the word environmental being used here in reference to the writings of J.J. Gibson and Peter Zumthor).
As Ellis Woodman comments in his article for the Daily Telegraph:
‘faced with the challenge of adding to this kind of rich historic setting most contemporary architects default to one of two responses: either to copy the existing architectural language or to counterpoint it with an intervention of markedly contrasting character. Caruso St John has taken a third path. Masterfully assembled in
terrazzo-like concrete and polished stainless steel, their stair is clearly no product of the 1890s but neither is it an exercise in ubiquitous 21st century minimalism.’2
Although I was familiar with the work of Caruso St John, I recently developed a deeper interest in their practice after reading Adam Caruso’s ‘The Feeling of Things’, a series of collected essays written by Adam Caruso and Peter St John published in 2008. I find this book highly inspiring and in some ways also reassuring since Adam Caruso expresses views on contemporary architecture rooted in situations, experiences, influences, emotions and expectations, not the corporate architecture based on cloned business models that is unfortunately overtaking central London, creating social and cultural non-places. In order to further clarify his position, Caruso refers to T.S. Eliot outlook on Modernism and explains that:
‘in his essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ Eliot supports the fundamental importance of cultural continuity in the production of new work, and warns that without engaging with the historical breadth of a discipline the artist is destined to make work that is superficial and without significance to the present.’ He continues by adding that ‘the importance of traditions and histories has now been made even more complex in a heterogeneous and multi-cultural world.’3
The new Rotunda staircase clearly illustrates this perspective on architecture. The Rotunda area is situated near the river side entrance of the building, which is accessed from the street via an imposing staircase and classical portico supported by Corinthian columns. Once inside the building, crossing the formal rectangular entrance hall, the elegant curves of the Rotunda’s dome and staircase progressively emerge beyond yet another transition space of deep arches and Ionic columns. The change in the body of architecture from linear to curved is deliberately emphasised by the perceived narrowness of the passage between the entrance hall and the Rotunda. In the same way, this spatial device also serves to enhance the feeling of light and brightness experienced in the Rotunda as one emerges from the relative darkness of the arch.
The main material used for the staircase is a creamy terrazzo like concrete, beautifully polished with soft edges underlined by rhythmic black pattern inserts and complemented by a polished stainless steel handrail with glass side panels. Rather than hiding the joints between materials, they are elegantly integrated into the design, their reflective steel lines contrasting against the smooth polished concrete. I actually felt a hint of Art-Deco may have inspired the composition of forms, patterns and detailing but the materials, which also include transparent acrylic details, are unmistakably contemporary. So this new addition is undoubtedly of its time and yet also timeless, as if it’s always been there, and the exquisite quality of the design and craftsmanship elegantly lend visual and tactile comfort to the interior. Because it fully engages with the historical breadth of the location, it has depth and significance. The new stands out in its own right but in harmony with the historical context.
Despite its predominant presence as a space within the building, the Rotunda is essentially a transition space between the entrance hall and the galleries as well as now, between the ground floor and the lower ground floor. So the staircase naturally follows the curve of the interior creating a holistic horizontal and vertical flow through the space. It is beautifully illuminated by the dome glass ceiling and the contrasting darkness of the lower level is moderated by the soft line of the steps only betrayed by the hardness of the material underfoot. The parapet is thick, suggesting strength, yet its solidity is toned down by a repetition of the floor pattern carved into the polished concrete with transparent acrylic highlights. For those ascending the stairs, the view is layered through the folds of the curves and accentuated by a gradation from dark to light, revealing part of the original building and dome but not all, a pattern of visual layering that unfolds as people move up the stairs.
Visible signs are not required to indicate what is below. The sharp sound of cutlery and smell of freshly cooked food emanating for the cafe speaks for itself. Background sounds in the Rotunda tend to be restrained as dictated by most cultural spaces codes of behaviour but keynote sounds can be fairly loud, as they reverberate against the hard surfaces of the interior, although somehow not as intrusive and echoey as they are in the entrance hall nearby. Perhaps this perceived difference is made possible by the softer aspects of the Rotunda and staircase.
The new staircase has made the lower ground floor much more easily accessible from the main entrance and in doing so provides coherence to the building as a whole. While previously the Museum was experienced as two distinctive parts, it is now connected in a way that enhances the legibility of the navigation. The tapping of footsteps on the stairs also adds a new dimension to the environment and while the elegance and subdued richness of the design fully respects the integrity of the original interior it also provides a timeless atmospheric addition to the Museum.
1. The Millbank Project
Available at <http://www.tate.org.uk/about/projects/millbank-project> [Accessed 23rd February 2014]
2. Woodman E (2013). Tate Britain reopening: despite 'invasive surgery', Tate Britain has never looked better Daily Telegraph 18th November 2013
Available at <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-reviews/10456661/Tate-Britain-reopening-despite-invasive-surgery-Tate-Britain-has-never-looked-better.html> [Accessed 23rd February 2014]
3. Caruso A. (2008) The Feeling of Things Ediciones Poligrafa: Barcelona
I recently discovered the International Ambiances Network who held their 2013 conference ‘ambiances in translation’ in London. Unfortunately I missed it but the recordings of the conference are available on their website. Information and recordings on other conferences are also available from the same site making it a fantastic resource for the study of the research field in architectural and urban ambiances.
There is also a an international journal of sensory environments and urban spaces called ambiances. A fantastic resource dedicated to the sensory domain, questioning and researching the ambiance of lived spaces and their multi-sensory characteristics, sound, light, touch, smell, temperature, etc.
In each episode of ‘The Design Dimension’ charts a different aspect of our relationship to design – desire, damage, choice and, finally, truth. Desire explores sensory aspects of our environments, notably its olfactive characteristics.
In cinematic storytelling the camera moves along the coordinates of our environment with X as the horizontal axis, Y as the vertical axis and Z representing the depth. The Z axis is effectively an imaginary line that runs from the foreground to the background. In cinematic terms, it is connected to the depth of field as it carries the illusion of depth. So in order to focus our attention and control perceptions, even emotions, cinematic storytelling manipulates axis and the three planes of pictorial composition: foreground, middleground and background (FG, MG, BG). In pictorial composition, FG is the composition of the visual plane closest to the viewer, BG is the visual plane furthest from the viewer and therefore MG is the plane located between the FG and BG.
In our surroundings however we don’t experience FG, MG and BG as two-dimensional planes but within a three-dimensional environment. Depth is essential to our perceptions. So much so that in his book ‘The Sense of Space’ David Morris immediately tells us on page 1 that ‘depth is what gives bodies volume in the first place, it is what makes situations possible. As Edward Casey puts it, following Merleau-Ponty, depth should really be called the “first dimensions’ rather than the “third”; that is depth is the most primordial dimension, not a ‘bonus’ added to the other two.’ (2004: 1)
Peripheral vision also plays an important role in spatial immersion. It enables us to capture and evaluate the multiplicity of meanings experienced as we move through space. So the three layers of perception established by the FG, MG and BG in any given environment are not constant. As we move though it MG becomes FG and in turn what was initially BG becomes MG and the perceptual formation of a new BG has occurred beyond the original boundaries. Unlike cinematography, it’s not the camera that changes the focus but we do, as we move.
It is a process of transformation and development that enables spatial designers to influence the relationship of the body with its environment. The language of architecture and interior design utilises a terminology that references the layers of perception in FG, MG and BG – focal point, lines of sight, areas of interest, rhythm, axis, vistas, to name but a few. Immersive design is therefore the careful manipulation of FG, MG and BG and the sequencing of events that occur as we progress through our surroundings.
Morris, M. (2004) The Sense of Space State University of New York Press: New York
The page below are extracts from a 2012 project ‘The Culture of Architecture. 3 buildings, 3 periods, 3 ideologies.’ The research and analysis was compiled into a book written for the Making Interior Space journal on the MA Interior Design at the University of Westminster. A pdf copy of the book is available from academia.eu
“Only rarely does a psycho-analyst feels impelled to engage in aesthetics investigations, even when aesthetics is not restricted to the theory of beauty, but described as relating to the qualities of our feeling. He works in other strata of the psyche and has little to do with the emotional impulses that provide the usual subject matter of aesthetics, impulses that are restrained, inhibited in their aims and dependent on numerous attendant circumstances. Yet now and then it happens that he has to take an interest in a particular area of aesthetics, and then it is usually a marginal one that has been neglected in the specialist literature. One such is the ‘uncanny’. There is no doubt that it belongs to the realm of the frightening, of what evokes fear and dread. It is equally beyond doubt that the word is not always used in a clearly definable sense, and so it commonly merges with what arouses fear in general. Yet one may presume that there exists a specific affective nucleus, which justifies the use of a special conceptual term. One would like to know the nature of this common nucleus, which allows us to distinguish the ‘uncanny’ within the field of the frightening.” Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny p.123 para 1 & 2, Penguin 2003
This project, called ‘Adjusted Views’, was set by Dusan Decermic, Course Director of the MA Interior Design at the University of Westminster. These are extracts from the brief: ‘for this project you are asked to select a space in the existing building. It is intended that you disregard small cell like rooms and choose a larger space for your project.’ ‘Rather than focusing on movement this project is concerned with formal, static relationships and the gaze of the viewer.’
Working with the image of an abandoned swimming pool, I chose to alter the atmosphere of the place by introducing elements that change the viewer’s perceptions of the foreground, middleground and background. I chose this photograph taken during a site visit because this isn’t an ordinary room but the remains of a swimming pool so its sunken aspect is unusual. It’s scale is also very large and there’s a strong light coming from the left while the arches at the top echo a former splendour despite the damage and decay. In reality, the space has already been noticeably adjusted over the years when the water was removed and subsequent decay allowed to set in. It appears that a new opening was also created in the background.
In the new image, the gaze of the viewer is constantly shifting and the relationship between foreground, middleground and background is unstable yet clearly defined along an invisible line, drawing the gaze from the butterfly outside the frame towards infinity (and back). So the gaze is not the act of looking itself but the viewing relationship characterised by this staged set of new circumstances. Time appears suspended and the allegory of renewal is expressed by the symbolism of the butterfly. The richly dressed banquet table contrasts with the decayed room and also implies invisible bodies. Not knowing where the occupants are, who they are or what happened to them brings ambiguity to the scene.
The image is framed as where 2 others (The Waiting Room and Horizon) and mounted on he wall of an abandoned house in central London alongside the costume used for the waiting room performance. This set the stage for a reading of an essay ‘Substitute Memories’, on the way photography has altered our perceptions of architectural spaces and consequently our collective memories. The gloomy light of the winter afternoon and dilapidated room added drama to the performance.
I recently attended a talk called ‘Labyrinthine Memories’ by the Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota at the Japan Foundation in London. She talked about how and why her work developped into the kind of installations she is making today and most importantly she shared with us intimate thought processes that explain how her creative work is irrevocably woven into her life. It was really a most fascinating account and so it was with great anticipation that I made my way to Eastbourne to the Towner Gallery where her installation called ‘other side’ is currently on show.
At first site, the scale and the apparent complexity of the piece are almost overwhelming. The installation fills the entire gallery space with five doors whose solidity contrasts sharply with the ethereal woven thread structure around them. Each door is an invitation to enter another world and each, upon opening or closing, produces its own unique sound coming from appropriately tuned squeaky hinges. The sound emphasises an atmosphere of the mysterious, uncanny, eerie or magical experienced as the door opens and the threshold is crossed. Most doors are salvaged and obviously used, even damaged in places, so they also imbue the place with their own memories and one of them, with yellow brown flaking paint, is especially evocative. The door isn’t simply a mechanical mean to enter into the other side as the choice of door directly affects the experience and resulting sensations.
Inside, the woven mesh of thread curves to fully envelop you, giving out an impression of strengths and fragility at the same time. Some areas are more dense than others and despite the slightly distracting fire exit sign in the background, the enigmatic beauty of the interior makes you feel completely removed from reality. Bright white lights hang to an almost blinding rhythm while in direct focus appear to diffuse the black thread around them into an almost white transparency. They also disperse shadows across the entire gallery surfaces further enhancing the feeling of immersion.
During her talk at the Japan Foundation the artist explained that she doesn’t usually produces preliminary drawings but works directly from her mind where her work gradually evolves as it comes to life. This is how, through her quiet determination and clarity, Chiharu Shiota invites the viewer to become part of her work. As David Elliott, who wrote the text for the exhibition catalogue, reflects ‘doors open onto five different, dimly lit spaces in a kafkaesque architecture of shadow and light where visitors are invited to project their own memories, hopes or fears. Each threshold defines a different character or sense of possibility; the yarn becomes a semi-transparent membrane between the fantastic and the real.’
“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.