“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).
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.