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 emotional 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, the mapping 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, phenomenological 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.
A paper I wrote as an account of a phenomenological experience. It is published in the 2015 Urban + Interior edition of the IDEA journal. Available for download from the IDEA website.
The paper also includes location photographs I took to illustrate the phenomenological journey.
This paper reconsiders a refurbished London street, Bermondsey Street, as an interior where objects of memories are curated into a reconstructed atmosphere of domesticity. The study argues that as our experience of the city becomes increasingly transient, the notion of inhabiting shifts to a wider and more fragmented context, and our ability to integrate with the urban environment becomes eroded. Bermondsey Street, however, presents a distinctive experience where the phenomena of intimacy and familiarity converge across space and time to provide a more stable form of inhabitation. In order to understand how these phenomena occur and how the experience of the urban interior manifests itself in our consciousness, the study follows the Husserlian phenomenological method of intentionality whereby the urban interior of Bermondsey Street becomes the intentional object. It also places the reflective gaze of the phenomenologist in ‘epoché’, a phenomenological method of reduction that suspends normality. In doing so, the phenomenologist is able to access the points of reference that reveal the affective qualities of the intentional object in our consciousness. While the discursive and theoretical content of the study is expressed in the body of text, the phenomenological narrative is bracketed and illustrated as a meditative journey; a recollection of memories of the homely, initiated by the encounter between consciousness and the way the interior animates imagination. Thus, in ‘epoché’, the reflective gaze of the phenomenologist transcends normality to reveal the underlying structure of the phenomena and the intentionality of the subjective experience.
This case study advocates a phenomenological approach to site-specific documentation and evaluation, placing human psychological needs and lived experiences at the centre of Spatial Design education. The project, with 2nd year students from the BA (Hons) Spatial Design course at London College of Communication, delineates how primary research methods are introduced as a prelude to sensory driven design iterations. It showcases how a public space became a pedagogic environment for students to bridge the gap between studio practice and lived experiences through active learning. It also underlines how introducing practices informed by academic research enhances the students’ learning experience.
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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