On June 24 2020 I took part in the 24H Worldwide Design conversation organised by the Polimi Design Systems community of the Politecnico di Milano. The events was streamed live and 48 guests from across the world were invited to discuss a design related topic in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. I selected TOUCH as my topic of conversation.
Following the COVID19 pandemic, many design paradigms need to be rethought and re‐invented. The POLIMI Design System community of the Politecnico di Milano will launch, on June 24, 2020, a continuous 24‐hour live broadcast, through a schedule that follows the international time zones; this way it will travel around the world, keeping at each session the same moment of the day.
The international network of the POLIMI Design System will be involved, and through teachers, professionals and alumni will start a fast and dynamic discussion dedicated to the culture of the project, oriented towards reflection on design changes after lockdown. Through 30 minutes sessions, the 48 guestswill develop their talks around a term, a keyword they propose, and consider to be significant in defining the design and its changes.
The link between multi-sensory experiences and wellbeing is recognised and has been documented across a broad range of practices, including architecture, interior design, ethnography, anthropology and environmental psychology. Our perception of the world derives from sensory, embodied interactions yet, as vision dominates in Western culture, our relationship with touch is more ambiguous. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, touch, direct skin and body contact, has become problematic, especially in the public realm. Due to obvious health concerns, we have learnt to wash our hands, to protect our face and stringent restrictions have been put in place. People may feel cautious, even concerned, about touching surfaces and others. Touch, which enables us to intimately connect with the world and which until now we took for granted, is now perceived as a risk, impacting on spatial and social encounters. Although this could be perceived as negative, this situation may also provide opportunities to re-think relations between people and environment, to reconsider embodied experience in design by exploring ways for people to retain a sense of tactile connection with the built and social environments. In order to find answers, we need to understand which questions we should ask.
Although I don’t usually consider the senses in isolation, I chose to talk about touch, by which I mean specifically ‘skin and body contact through the act of touching’, because in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, touch is more likely to be perceived as a risk. Surfaces, especially in the public realm, can be perceived as posing significant risks to our physical health. At present, we’re being told not to touch.
In my research and PhD, I use phenomenological maps to represent my experience of environments. The map is a representation of the perceived environmental experience and of the emotins and qualities projected onto the environment.
Drawing on Dretske’s (2003) representational theory of experience, exploring the process of interpretation of the representational vehicle into representational content can help understand what is significant to the individual and convey what is perceived through direct experiences in the present. However, to understand what remains with the individual from the experience and potentially, what can consolidate the emotional connection to place, themapping process turns to the concept of mental images. Cope (2019) provides a useful summary of the distinction between perceptions and mental images. He explains that perceptions are embodied, in the present, they can include abundant details and the subject finds meanings and recognition through direct experiences of the environment. Mental images on the other hand are re-lived in the mind, they are of the past and selective, only retaining information that is significant for the individual. This suggests that significant phenomena can be retained as mental images.
Malnar and Vodvarka (1992, p. 232) draw on the work of Arnheim to explain that “one’s percepts typically concerns the autonomous existence of objects as they form in the mind from many individual impressions, particularly as one approaches or passes through a building. And he notes that our end image of an object (or building, as one sort of object) is thus the result of our spontaneous integration of these multiple visual projection into a total perceptual image. Arnheim theory has three important aspects: first, a comprehensive perceptual image of a building develops as a purely perceptual process; second, this image must incorporate the sensations generated in the viewer by the building as it is experienced sequentially; and third, a building exists both as a spatial event outside the temporal dimension and as an event unfolding. […] The third point is critical in Arnheim’s argument, as it implies several conditions unique to architecture. First, that the viewer’s experience of the building is participatory; second, that the appearance of individual components of the building come from the intended order of view; and third that the order of view makes senses only in terms of the physical structure of the building. It’s enduring nature”
Therefore, unlike architectural floor plans, mental maps are not representations of a unique space but an amalgamation of different situations that occurred over time and from which mental images have been retained, creating a connection between the individual and the environment.
The fluid aesthetic of the map draws on the “stream of consciousness” concept developed by the psychologist William James (Sennet 2019, p. 175). Sennet explains that “[a] stream flows: thinking, feeling, dwelling is never static.” Thus, the stream of consciousness in in constant flux, whether the body is static, as in the context of vantage points, or actually moving through the interior. Philosopher Mark Johnson (2007, p. 50) explains that “if you are moving forward in a linear fashion, you experience a visual “flow” that emerges from a horizontal focal point and streams toward you, and then envelops and flows past you.
Map organisational principles
The organisation of the content and design of the map draws on Kaplan and Kaplan’s (1981) mental map functional properties. They propose that to be useful the construction of the map should follow specific functional properties, described below.
Generality: the map extracts similarities and ignores unique situations in phenomena.
Simplicity: unnecessary information is discarded.
Economy: the map simplifies and codes the information for speedy and reliable access
Essence: critical stereotypical information is retained.
Connectedness: the map uses symbols to identify known points and establish connections for the map to read as continuous.
Directness: experiences are arranged into categories.
Unity: a clear organisation of information against its background.
Cope, W. (2019) Perceptual Images and Mental Images: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Available at: https://www.coursera.org/lecture/multimodal-literacies/11-3-perceptual-images-and-mental-images-H08eo (Accessed: 23 March 2019).
Dretske, F. (2003) ‘Experience as representation’, Philosophical Issues, 13(Philosophy of Mind), pp. 67-82
Johnson, M. (2007) The Meaning of the Body. Aesthetics of Human Understanding. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press.
Kaplan, S. and Kaplan, R. (1981) Cognition and Environment: Functioning in an Uncertain World. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Ulrich’s Books.
Malnar, J. M. and Vodvarka, F. (1992) The Interior Dimension. A Theoretical Approach to Enclosed Space. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Sennett, R. (2019) Building and Dwelling. Ethics for the City. London: Penguin.
This case study is presented as a phenomenological account of first-person embodied experiences of Peter Zumthor’s 2011 Serpentine Pavilion in London. This account was first written in 2011 as a direct experience and revisited as a remembered experience for a number of presentations to undergraduate students and research symposia.
Zumthor is known for his striking
integration of sensory qualities in the design of his buildings (Ursprung 2014) and I had the
opportunity to visit his London Serpentine Pavilion twice. The first time the
weather was bright and relatively sunny while the second time, it was raining
abundantly. The weather is mentioned here because it had a significant impact
on sensory variability in the pavilion due to its design. According to Kellert (2008) sensory variability,
the level of variation in sensory phenomena such as light, sound, touch and
smell in an environment, impacts on human satisfaction and wellbeing and as
such, can impact on people’s ability to develop intimate connections with their
In the first instance, my experience of the corridor as I entered the building was especially powerful. Inside, intimate proportions, the modulated light, the mellow darkness and relative quietness provided a welcome refuge from the vastness and brightness of Hyde Park as well as the noise of traffic nearby. Robinson (2015, p. 57) highlights the significance of surface materials in Zumthor’s pavilion design. She explains how he seduced visitors by coating the burlap walls in black paste to introduce texture and micro-shadows to deepen the darkness of the interior (Figure 1). She doesn’t write about the smell but through my own experience, I know that a faint but comforting smell emanated from the walls. Upon entering the corridor, my body attuned to its environment, ‘[t]here was no need to hurry, no urge to move on’ (2014, p. 39). I felt an embodied connection with the environment. Zumthor had designed the outside of the pavilion as a simple black rectangular box hiding the inside so the experience was serendipitous. By including an opportunity for an unexpected phenomenon with special qualities to occur, Zumthor created a significant and memorable experience whose image still resonates with me today.
The corridor entirely surrounded the interior and the thresholds, from the outside into the corridor and from the corridor into the core of the interior, were cleverly staggered. This design feature protected the intimacy of the interior by providing a refuge from the more chaotic reality of the outside world. Covatta (2017) equates this form of intimacy to mental wellness and the interior, a simple cloister-like space with a rectangular garden of wild flowers as a central focal point, did present a peaceful and restful outlook. The experience was pleasant. The edges of the space were lined with benches integrated into the architecture, as well as tables and chairs inviting people to pause. Tuan (1977, p. 138) identifies pause as one of the conditions necessary for individuals to experience a sense of place. He writes that ‘[p]lace is a pause in movement. Animals, including human beings, pause at a locality because it satisfies certain biological needs. The pause makes it possible for a locality to become a centre of felt values.’ The ability to pause can thus be an opportunity for individuals to attune to their surroundings.
Beyond the biological need to rest, people tend to prefer secure and protected settings (Kellert et al. 2008, p. 13) and the recessed sitting area nested against the wall and protected by a short overhanging roof presented a nested opportunity for private positions from which to enjoy the garden. Bachelard (1958) relates the nest to the concept of inhabiting, linking the ability to withdraw into one’s intimate territory to pleasure, while Nakamura (2010) adds sensory precision to the concept of pleasure by explaining that, due to their intimate size, nests minimise distances and maximise opportunities for bodily contact with space through an active relationship between the structure of the space and the body.
Aside from its role as a natural focal point, the variety of plants, their colours and complexity of details contrasted with the simplicity of the architectural forms and materiality. This complexity also contrasted with the view to the sky above. Although the design of the pavilion eliminated all connections to the outside and people could seek protection under the overhanging roof, the garden remained open to the sky with the top of the trees in the park still visible. This feature provided a distinctive and enticing, even poetic, mental connection to the outside.
The edges of the space were busy, occupied by people, adults and children sitting on the furniture provided, some chatting, some eating, a few people reading, some simply resting while others strolled around the garden. All seemingly relaxed and enjoying the space (Figure 2). Following the more contemplative experience of the corridor I began to attune to the more convivial mood of the garden. Mallgrave (2015, p. 6) explains that the recently discovered mirror mechanism underpins human empathy and is the reason why we can easily share emotions with others. As such, the sight of people relaxing can have a positive effect on the mood of others as it did on mine.
During the second visit, the interior of the pavilion was almost empty and thus quieter because it was raining. While previously people dominated the experience of the space, this time I became immersed into the experience of the Summer rain falling onto the garden through the open roof, watching, listening to, touching and even smelling its humidity. Drops of water fell heavily onto the edges of the metal tables, creating a rhythmic sound pattern and visual liquid explosions (Figure 3). Even though it was raining, the overhanging roof offered protection and the experience was comfortable and relaxing. With little disruption, my mood was contemplative. During the previous visit, my body had attuned to the environment in the corridor however, while previously it felt like a sudden unexpected force, this time it occurred more gradually, as if my body was slowly easing into the atmosphere of the space. I tried to capture these experiences in a phenomenological map (Figure 4).
Even though the pavilion was temporary its design as a refuge, the choice of materials, the garden, the visual connection to the park and the thoughtful integration of natural elements, grounded the interior and gave it a natural relational presence. It felt authentic. Interior designer Mary-Anne Beecher (2008) expresses a link between authenticity and atmosphere. She argues that for a place to cultivate atmosphere, the setting requires an authentic and meaningful contextual grounding. Moreover, despite knowing that it was a temporary space, the environment also exuded continuity, projecting a temporal connection between past, present and future. Till (2013: 95) refers to it as ‘thick time’, when ‘[in] its connectedness, time places architecture in a dynamic continuity, aware of the past, projecting into the future.’ In this instance, a sense of continuity emerged from the surface materials such as the worn patina of the burlap walls and aged timber whose slight imperfections could be imagined as a reference to past occupancy, while the cloister like design also seemed to reference a historical architectural context. Although the black box of the exterior felt incongruous in Hyde Park, once inside, it felt that the interior had always been there.
Bachelard, G. (1958) The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press.
Beecher, M. A. (2008) ‘Regionalism and the
Room of John Yeon’s Watzek House.’, Interior
Atmospheres. Architectural Design., pp. 54-59.
Covatta, A. (2017) ‘Density and Intimacy in
Public Space. A case study of Jimbocho, Tokyo’s book town.’, Journal of Urban Design and Mental Health,
Kellert, S. R., Heerwagen, J. H. and Mador,
M. L. (eds.) (2008) Biophilic Design. The
Theory, Science, and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life. Hoboken, New
Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.
Mallgrave, H. F. (2015) Architecture and Empathy. Espoo,
Finland: Tapio Wikkala-Rut Bryk Foundation.
Nakamura, H. (2010) Microscopic Designing Methodology. Tokyo: Japan: INAX Publishing.
Robinson, S. (2015) ‘Boundaries of Skin:
John Dewey, Didier Anzieu and Architectural Possibility’, in Tidwell, P. (ed.) Architecture and Empathy. Espoo,
Finland: Tapio Wirkkala-Rut Bryk Foundation.
Till, J. (2013) Architecture Depends. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England:
The MIT Press.
Tuan, Y. F. (1977) Space and Place. The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis and
London: University of Minnesota Press.
Ursprung, P. (2014) ‘Presence: The Light
Touch of Architecture.’, in Wilson, V. & Neville, T. (eds.) Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined.
London: royal Academy of Arts.
I recently wrote an article for RocaGallery an online magazine on architecture and design.
“In his book The Emergence of the Interior: Architecture, Modernity, Domesticity, Charles Rice draws on the writings of Walter Benjamin to express the notion of experiential duality. He explains that there are two types of experiences: long experiences and instantaneous experiences.”
I presented this article on 25th November 2016 during a Doctoral Symposium at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris. The paper is in English and the presentation in French except for fieldwork notes (notes de terrain) and original quotes, which remain in English, the language used during the research.
Abstract. Atmosphere, the pervasive yet elusive soft space that resonates with our senses, is known to effect the way we feel about a space, the self and others. Yet, despite its influence on everyday lives, Boch (2014) reminds us that this phenomenon isn’t always consciously recognised and we may not be aware of the positive or negative impact the urban environment has on us. So it becomes pertinent to investigate atmosphere in order to better understand the correspondence between spaces and people. The More London Estates in London, UK, is an example of uncompromising urban design where the spectacle of architecture and the culture of an ideology appear to shape human experiences. It offers a distinctive atmospheric encounter and this project puts forward a set of evaluative fieldwork methods to investigate how design decisions within the site contribute to the formation of atmosphere and underline how atmosphere can effect behaviour. The interest of the fieldwork, situated at the boundaries between spatial and ethnographic practices, lies in its ability to illustrate the elusive, to delineate atmospheric conditions and corresponding behavioural culture.
Thematic This project is driven by a desire to articulate the perceptions of atmospheres, to better understand how the characteristics embodied in a man made environment provide, by design, a stage for multi-sensory experiences that define people’s actions and interactions. It explores methods of documentation that uncover insights into the perceived environment and corresponding behavioural culture. Architect Joy Monice Malnar and artist Frank Vodvarka (2004: 51) explain that we perceive by sensing environmental messages around us. This qualitative information is then filtered through our mind and transformed into mental images. Therefore, we make sense of the world through our senses and, according to Professor of Philosophy Gernot Böhme, atmosphere is thus ’experienced as an emotional effect’ (2014: 46). Architect Peter Zumthor also indicates that the perceptual process is visceral and biological when he tells us that ‘[w]e perceive atmosphere through our emotional sensibility – a form of perception that works incredibly quickly, and which humans evidently need to survive’ (2006: 13). Therefore, the link between atmosphere and the way we feel is potent. According to Architect Juhani Pallasmaa atmosphere has ‘a forceful impact on our emotions and moods’ (2014: 20) and accordingly, corresponding actions. Yet, even though atmosphere permeates the environment, it remains intangible. Architect Rochus Urban Hinkel (2008) speaks of spatial software and Social Anthropologist Tim Ingold (2011: 132, citing Berleant) of a fluid medium. Thus the visceral, emotional and elusive characteristics of atmosphere denote that we don’t always consciously recognise its influence even though it has a profound effect on our lived experiences. It is tempting to say that when enriched, atmosphere fosters well-being, positive interactions and inclusion and that when impoverished, it fosters ill-being, social disconnection and exclusion. However, experiencing atmosphere is far more complex and nuanced that a simple enriched-impoverished duality. According to Philosopher Tonino Griffero, as atmospheric qualities embodied in the environment resonate with our senses, a form of ‘spatialised feeling’ (2010: 6) connects us emotionally to our surroundings. We expose ourselves to the atmosphere and experience the impressions it makes on us. Pallasmaa explains that, when ’[…] we enter a space, the space enters us, and the experience is essentially an exchange and fusion of the object and the subject’ (2014: 20). Böhme also speaks of a ‘co-presence of the subject and object’ (2014:45). Consequently, atmosphere doesn’t just influence the way we feel about a space but also the way we feel about ourselves, and others around us. So developing knowledge of this correlation helps provide new insights into the culture of a place. Experiencing atmosphere is meaningful, potentially transformative and certainly social. Therefore, alongside a spatial analysis, this study uses methods associated with ethnography to facilitate the documentation of atmospheric experiences and explore the correspondence between environment and behaviour.
Context The project is set within the public pedestrian areas of the More London Estates located in London Bridge on the south bank of the river Thames. Completed in 2003 this self-contained business development incorporates offices and a few commercial units (figure 1). It’s carefully planned architecture, seemingly claiming its place as an extension of the City of London situated directly opposite across the Thames, makes a powerful statement about London as a thriving international financial centre. Developed in only 5 years, a total conception of spatial unity, it is shielded from empirical change by an environment controlled through design and human monitoring. The site, regularly patrolled by a maintenance team, is immaculate and repairs are carried out immediately. Man made materials dominate. ‘In order to defeat the cyclical times of days, seasons and years, shiny, hard, immutable surfaces are employed to shrug off the effects of weather, dirt and accident’ (Till, 1999: 3). The logic of perfection creates an environment where an appreciation of time and past human occupancy experienced through the weathering and patina of materials is impossible. Thus the estate offers the perfect image aligned to the culture of its high profile tenants. However, ‘the atmosphere of a city is not the same as its image’ (Böhme, 2014: 48), and the site documentation sets out to establish the ecological coherence of the architecture. It raises the following questions. How is atmosphere experienced in this ocular centric paradigm? What is the correlation between atmosphere and behaviour? Is the More London Estate experienced as a space or a place?
Figure 1. Main pedestrian axis cutting through the site
Two key concepts underpin the study. The first structures the taxonomy of the investigation and borrows from principles Zumthor (2006) tells us contribute to the making of atmospheres. They encapsulate: the perceived presence (or body) of the architecture, materials and their relationships, the sound of the architecture, temperature, objects, movement, thresholds, scale and distances, light and shadows. The second relates to Gibson’s (1986) description of the environment where medium, substances and surfaces afford perceptions and animate movement. For instance, air, the medium in which we move allows the transmission of light and vibrations so we can see and hear, as well as chemical diffusions so we can smell. Substances refer to the solid elements such as building materials and the body, while surfaces are the intermediary elements between substances and medium, including the human skin. Accordingly, the mindset created by the notion of the meaningful environment is essential to our understanding of spatio-sensory experiences.
Methods Anthropologist Albert Piette (2009) emphasises a focus on the documentation of lived experiences rather than on epistemological debates. Thus, the research process is inductive, drawing on an interpretative analysis of the documentation to elucidate the interrelationship between the atmosphere of the site and its occupants. The investigation is site specific and its outcome represents an illustration of a social and cultural context not a universal conclusion. Nevertheless, the methods and techniques used are transferrable to other sites of enquiry. Fieldwork follows an auto-ethnographic style methodology influenced by the work of Sarah Pink (2015) on sensory ethnography. The documentation, conducted from the perspective of the active participation of the researcher immersed in the site, places the reflexive sensing body at the centre of the experience and analysis (Pink, 2015: 12). This mode of enquiry was chosen because ‘[a]tmosphere emphasises a sustained being in a situation, rather than a singular moment of perception; atmosphere is always a continuum’ (Pallasmaa, 2014: 20). Thus, the site documentation took place over a period of two months and visits were conducted at different times of the day and week to verify the appropriateness and relevance of the data. Tools and techniques used included: photography, audio and video recordings, mapping drawings, observation and reflective (self-observation) notes. An evaluative visualisation of the data into mapping drawings and diagrams enhanced its legibility and supported the analysis of the site. The following paragraphs, illustrated by visuals of the documentation, summarise observations and underline conclusions drawn from the study.
Observations An initial survey shows that the spatial composition of the estate is structured around an assertive diagonal pedestrian axis cutting through the site. It has a public square at each end, one adjacent to Tooley Street and the other with spectacular views of the river Thames. The main axis affords striking sight lines and the 21st Century architecture of the Shard at one end contrasts sharply with the Victorian architecture of Tower Bridge on the opposite side. There are also two transversal thoroughfares linking the main axis to Tooley Street and the Thames respectively. The immediacy of the experience of being in the environment brings about a feeling of formality and stiffness (figure 2). The atmosphere lacks congeniality and although the location feels safe, a perceptible feeling of distance between people and the site permeates the environment.
Figure 2. The formal environment.
Despite their generous proportions and the provision of furniture, planting and water features, the public squares are under populated in contrast to the density of occupancy in surrounding areas. Few people occupy the site for extended lengths of time; it is mostly used as a thoroughfare. When visualised into a motion sequencer diagram (figure 3), data shows, predictably perhaps, that the density of occupancy is higher during the week than at weekends and fluctuations in density and speed of movement map to office hours. The site is busiest in the morning when people arrive at work, peaks again at lunchtime and again early evening when people go back home. These are also the times when people walk the fastest, with little focused attention given to their surroundings, including others around them.
Figure 3. Inspired by the graphic interface of a music equalizer, the Motion Sequencer diagram is designed to show the levels of occupancy and velocity through the site’s main axis over a period of 24 hours (in this section, between 5am and 2pm). The higher the curve, the higher the levels of occupancy. Red shows high levels of velocity, orange medium and green low. The top curve represents weekdays and the bottom one weekends.
Most activities recorded through observations – people walking fast, smoking, chatting on their phone, talking to friends – are common to many other urban locations. Context however adds a layer of interest. It isn’t so much what people do but how they do it. In this instance, most activities are performed while walking when people appear absorbed into, and even protective of, the micro-scale of their immediate surroundings. This behaviour denotes a degree of familiarity with the site that marks people as either seasoned Londoners or office workers from the estate but could it also be linked to the scale and materiality of the environment? By contrast, visitors and tourists distinguish themselves by walking at a more leisurely pace and through a higher level of attention directed towards the macro scale of the architecture. By the third visit, perceptual distinctiveness between different parts of the site revealed themselves and accordingly, it was divided it into five areas, based on three criteria: the degree of enclosure, perceptual thresholds (such as transitions from light to dark) and the primary activity afforded by the environment (whether it is considered a square or a street). Dividing the site into sections brought clarity to the process of documentation and facilitated the evaluation of similarities and differences between its constituent parts. The documentation was structured as a sensory journey and recorded personal spatio-sensory experiences, annotating immediate impressions as they occurred while moving through the site. The sensory journey data was organised using Gibson’s (1966) classification of perceptual systems (visual, haptic, taste-smell, auditory, basic orienting) and Marina Panos’s sensory chart (in Malnar and Vodvarka, 204: 281). It was essential for the researcher to move through the site while carrying out the documentation. Gibson (1983: 66) explains, ‘a point of observation is never stationary, except in a limiting case. Observers move about in the environment, and observation is typically from a moving position.’ Atmosphere is temporal and dynamic, and as we move through the environment, our perceptions adjust to new conditions. Thus the researcher’s grasp of atmosphere occurs in motion, through a gradual perception of stimuli.
Visual representations help synthesise the evaluation of the data collected during the sensory journey. A map (figure 4) provides a visual reference of atmospheric qualities across the site and a sensory flow diagram (figure 5), inspired by Malnar and Vodvarka’s Sensory Slider (2004: 248), highlights levels of intensity across perceptual systems.
Figure 4. An illustration of atmospheric qualities recorded within the site during the Sensory Journey. The drawing shows an overlay of two isometric plan view of the pedestrian areas. The information depicted references Gibson’s (1966) perceptual systems: visual, auditory, smell/taste, haptic/temperature and basic orienting.
Figure 5. The Sensory Flow diagram shows levels of intensity of perceived sensory stimuli across the five areas identified within the site. The curves reveal similarities and differences between each area more easily than text would allow.
Atmosphere Adjacent to a busy main road, the public square near Tooley Street is noisy. However, once inside the site, the combined height and mass of the buildings creates a protected environment. The sounds of footsteps and conversations reverberating across hard surfaces envelop the body and reduce the auditive scale. As the site widens on its Thames side, the auditive scale increases when it becomes connected to the visual depth afforded by the view over the Thames. Although the mass of the buildings protects people from unwanted noise, it also blocks sunlight and at its core, the site remains devoid of sunlight for most of the day, especially in the winter months. Combined with the strong winds channelled from the Thames through the main axis and the cool tones of the glass and metal surfaces, the environment feels cold, even on a sunny day. Temperature also impacts on other haptic perceptions and this feeling is exacerbated when grey metal meets grey sky, which in London is often. Limited use of textures, large expanses of glass and metal, surfaces that are hard and cold to the touch, reflect people away rather than invite them in. The transversal spaces are mostly deserted despite offering protection from the wind. One has a sunny disposition but seating is uncomfortable and the atmosphere is dominated by the repetitive rhythm of an authoritative metal pattern. The other is dark and mostly featureless, yet offers enticing vistas across the Thames. However, low level of details across large vertical areas give the location a desolate feel. Seating is also uncomfortable and overlooked by diners in a restaurant nearby, while, at the time of the study, an unpleasant smell of cooking oil permeated the environment around meal times. The resulting atmosphere channels people through the site in a continuous flow and rhythm of linear motion.
Nevertheless, the idiosyncrasies of human behaviour cannot be entirely restrained and although appropriation is rare, it sometimes occurs in spite of the efforts of the maintenance team to keep an orderly environment. It transpires that a water feature provides the ideal site for acrobatic roller blading once candle wax has been surreptitiously applied to its long edge. Other forms of appropriation include a family using part of the site as an impromptu living room (figure 6) and children playing with one of the design features, a thin hollow of water cutting through the length the main axis. Such ephemeral moments temporarily shift atmospheric conditions. In the first instance, a small crowd of onlookers gathered to watch the spectacle and the mood became more relaxed and convivial. In the second and third examples, the intimacy of the situations simply softened the atmosphere. The site also integrates interesting reflections into its design. Although this appears largely unnoticed by most people who tend to look straight ahead, towards the ground or at their phone, looking up exposes a view of clouds moving across the glass panels of the buildings. The organic textures and reflected motion of the clouds across the smooth glass surfaces alleviate the feeling of rigidity embodied by the perfect man-made material even though these glimpsed natural qualities have to compete with the sharp soaring edges of the buildings. At ground level, the intensity of visual stimuli is enriched in parts by reflections across the numerous glass panels of the facades and by mirrored views of some of London’s landmarks, notably the Tower of London, Tower bridge and City Hall. Together, these embellishments could provide grounds for poetics and human narratives as they permeate the atmosphere.
Figure 6. Spatial appropriation. A family brings a sense of domesticity to the site.
Conclusion The meanings embodied by the architecture of the More London Estates express a highly rational intent. The site functions extremely well and is accessible, creating a convenient link between Tooley Street and the River Thames. Its powerful architecture and spatial composition display high levels of legibility. The high calibre of the architecture is undeniable. Even so, the investigation reveals an atmosphere programmed towards the production of an image, a man made representation of an ideology though not an ideology made for man’s sensuous spirit. The uncompromisingly Cartesian architecture, with sharp edges and hard reflective surfaces, and a forceful identity resulting from the repetition of form, materials and patterns, create a geometry that dominates the body. The diagonal forces that constrain the ground intensify the perception of perspective, which, further emphasised by the monumental scale of the buildings, suggests masculine strength. The spatial composition, including furniture and landscaping, is ordered, organised into small areas and the rigidity of the layout offers little opportunities for meandering or serendipity. The site is designed to control movement and condition behaviour to predetermined activities, resulting in low levels of interactions and little scope for alternatives. It is a ‘[p]erspectival space [that] leaves us as outside observers’ (Pallsamaa, 2014: 38), a low affordance environment. In his theory of affordances Gibson explains that ‘[t]he perceiving of an affordance […] is a process of perceiving a value-rich ecological object’ (1986: 140). So affordances relate to the values and meanings embodied by the site and how they inform people’s actions. Consequently, in spite of a few poetic encounters, the dominant forces, embodied by a design conceived independently from the body and where intimacy is ruled out, foster an atmosphere whose divisive effect reduces opportunities for thriving social interactions. The atmosphere is, by design, assertive and powerful, and the behaviour thus becomes regulated by efficiency and transience. The culture engendered by the atmosphere minimises opportunities for human interaction. It is then possible to determine whether the location is perceived as a space or a place. According to Geographer Yi-Fu Tuan ‘[s]pace is transformed into place when it acquires definition and meaning’, through experience. Sociologist E. V. Walter takes the notion of experience even further by making places ‘the locations of experience and as such evoke and organise memories, images, sentiments and meaning’ (In Malnar and Vodvarka, 2004: 233). Thus, in order to become a place, the estate needs to embody qualities that are dependent on its occupants’ actions and emotions. However, the outcome of this study shows that, aside from a few poetics and instances of appropriation by individuals, the atmosphere of the estate doesn’t foster such intimate relations and as such, this low affordance environment cannot truly be experienced as a place.
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Residual Ambiances – An Illustration of Urban Heritage as a Sentient Experience
at: Ambiances, tomorrow, 3rd International Congress on Ambiances Volos, Greece: 21 – 24 September 2016
This paper is based on a project I carried out while a student on the MA Interior Design at the University of Westminster and the site visit this account relates to was initiated by the Course Leader, Dusan Decermic, whose inspiring vision, constructive comments and persistence gave me the confidence and commitment to push the boundaries of my knowledge and abilities.
Abstract. Our urban heritage incorporates many instances of abandoned buildings awaiting rescue, where residual fragments of past occupancies provide a stage for an immersive journey into the ambiance of the interior across past and present thresholds. Accordingly, this project illustrates a unique perceptual encounter between the abandoned interior of Poplar Baths in London and the author, while subsequently, the emotive affect of the sentient experience is synthesised into a performed scenographic narrative. The interest of the project lies in its ability to articulate how sentient experiences activate a deep empathetic connection between body and space in the context of urban heritage.
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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