Peter Zumthor’s Serpentine pavilion

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 surroundings.

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.

Figure 1: surface material and light qualities.

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.

Figure 2: interior and garden at the centre.

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).

Figure 3: interior and garden in the rain.
Figure 4: phenomenological map of first person embodied experiences.

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.

Bibliography

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, 3(5).

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.

Translating touch and sound into sight and taste

Dishes snapshots  In June I attended the Design Research Society Conference in Brighton. Four fantastic days of workshops and talks on design research (of course). Two workshops were especially interesting for me because highly relevant to my research on sensory experiences. This is the first one, the other is available on the next post.

The first workshop, Capturing & Shaping Meaningful Sensory Experiences in the Urban Environment, was run by Dr Jenny Darzentas from University of the Aegean Konstantinopoleus 2 and Dr Lois Frankel from Carlton University and Editor of the Senses and Society journal.

Abstract

DRS Workshop: Capturing & Shaping Meaningful Sensory Experiences in the Urban Environment

We are looking forward to working with you on Monday June 29 when we will explore and reflect on competing multi-sensory stimulations that shape people’s urban experiences intentionally or by accident. After a short introduction to the leaders’ sensory work, small teams of participants will take a sensory journey around the environs of Brighton. During the workshop, teams will map the contexts of their sensory journeys by capturing the sounds, smells and flavours that contribute to their overall sensory encounter. The explorations will emphasize the non-visual sensory modalities of contact (tactile), sound (auditory), and smell (olfactory). Highlights of the workshop include an immersive tasting scenario of each team’s urban flavour compositions and designing multi-modal (multi-sensory) scenarios for balanced urban futures.    We are hoping for nice weather, however please plan for rain and cool offshore breezes. Wear good walking shoes and clothing for the outdoors (rain or shine). Please bring tools for capturing and recording data, (e.g. smartphone, notepad and pen, bags to collect artefacts, etc.). Please let us know when you arrive if you consent to being photographed and/or videotaped. >

The workshop drew parallels with my research practice and I was interested to meet like minded people whose research and practice also incorporated multi-sensory modalities. It began with a short introduction and we were asked to think about the kind of events and qualities we’d be looking for when documenting a specific sensory experience. For example, why we need to investigate and document across touch, sound, smell and visual. This quick fire round was the first level of interaction between participants and a good ice breaking activity.

In the next part of the workshop. participants were paired up and given a map with pre-selected routes highlighted across 5 distinct sections. Kate MacLean, PhD candidate at the RCA (see my next post), worked with me to document touch, haptic perception, across Brighton. She specialises in smells so wanted to do something different and I thought touch was interesting because it usually comes with restrictions.

Map

After a highly enjoyable and fun hour recording haptic perceptions in the streets of Brighton, we came back to the studio where we were paired up again with someone who had selected a different sense. My new partner had been working with sound. Our next task came as a complete surprise. After 15 minutes spent charting the qualities of our respective sensory experiences, their sensory DNA, we were presented with an array of food ingredients for us to use to translate our perceptions into food preparations, food sketches as our hosts called it. We used the taste, textures, colours, chewiness, wetness, dryness of the food to make a 3 course meal based on our sensory experiences of Brighton Seafront (blue route on the map). Our work also incorporated time and memory into the preparations. It was a lot of fun and everyone engaged with the activity with enthusiasm. Each team then presented their compositions, explaining the connection with the sensory journey through the city, while every one tried the dishes to get a taste of other’s experiences.

Diagram

Ready-to-eat

Table-with-all-dishes

Participants were then asked to associate and adjective with each dish. The adjectives facilitated the expression of the qualities of the experiences to come through. A system of coloured dots and stars was also used for each participant to bring their own subjective evaluation into sensory experienced afforded by the dishes. Each coloured dot represented a sense, for example, green for smell, red for visual, blue for sounds and red for touch. We were given two dots of each colour and asked to place them next to the dish we felt had the most connections with the location it represented. We used the stars to mark the dishes we felt gave the closets representation of the sensory experiences depicted through food.

Below are the details of the food composition from my team (touch and sounds, map location 3).

IMG_10811st course – Ground coffee and lime, rub together with finger and taste. This unusual combination of two intense – bitter and acidic – tastes was designed to challenge and be invasive as a representation of the assault of the wind and traffic when turning the corner that connects the city’s interior with the seafront. It seemed to work. People felt the assault and the taste combination was definitely a challenge.

2nd course – Banana chip, mascarpone, crushed weetabix to contrast creamy and dry textures. This is a reference to the experience of touching the railing by the seafront where the smooth, almost creamy successive layers of paint contrast with the dry and rough texture of the timber railing (especially on the sea facing side after years of being battered by the wind and rain). We added a hint of cinnamon to add warmth to suggest the warmth of the sun on the skin and raisins to add sweetness and echo the seaside sounds and its associated memories. The contrasts came across clearly.

3rd course – A medley of kiwi, white chocolate button, pieces of strawberry sweets and parsley flakes to bind the flavours as a reference to the sight and sounds of the merry go round by the beach. Not directly related to touch other perhaps than the wind from the sea. This polyphonic sensory experience reconnects us to childhood memories, seaside sounds and associations with sweet tastes/smells, bright colour and fun.  The dish was extremely well received and seemed to fulfil its role connecting people with seaside fun.

What worked well?

The workshop was very well organised and I enjoyed the day. The translation of sensory experiences into taste was very interesting. Partly because taste is often neglected in the built environment (although it is connected to smell) and partly because I found the process enabled me to further explore, evaluate and, very importantly, share the experiences of urban spaces. The process of translation into food brought clarity into my understanding of the sensory experiences and the process of sharing enabled me to evaluate ways to transmit a highly subjective experience to someone else.

What could be improved?

Once the documentation and evaluation had taken place, I would have liked to be able to spend some time with others looking at ways in which this wealth of information could be used post-workshop.

What new insights did I take away from the workshop?

That, to some extent of course, it is possible to share subjective experiences. Enlightening! 

What were the most interesting, challenging, and/or inspiring sensory aspects that I experienced?

I selected touch. It was for me the most challenging sense because it is so often the one sense that comes with many restrictions (can’t touch this or that, can’t walk here or there, touch amongst people is also culturally sensitive…). I enjoyed taking part in the sensory walk but it was challenging to separate one sense from the other and I often felt that other senses affected my ability to sense touch. Bachelard calls this phenomenon ‘the polyphony of the senses'(Gaston Bachelard, cited in Juhani Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin. Architecture and the Senses. (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2005: 41.). For example, when we approached a large fountain on the green, hearing and seeing water fall onto stone gave us some sense of what it would be like to touch the wet stone or stand underneath the water. Lived sensory experiences are mediated by others senses as well as imagination and memories.

Another challenge was that as soon as we try to write down our thoughts on sensory experiences we objectify them and they lose their immediacy. Perhaps the process of translation and association with adjectives further dilutes the sensory experience away from its lived primary form?

Being very familiar with the location was sometimes challenging because I had to be very mindful of expectations and assumptions (based on previous experiences/memories) taking over the lived experience. Saying that, I lived in Brighton for a few years and never did I realise that the railing on the seafront offered such interesting haptic experiences and information about location/environmental conditions. With a focus on touch, I noticed haptic qualities and non-qualities in the environment that I hadn’t seen before.

A highly enjoyable workshop, great facilitators and fantastic co-participants.

Sensing the Urban Interior

I presented her paper  ‘Sensing the Urban Environment’ at the [in]arch 2014 International Conference that took place at Universitas Indonesia, Department of Interior Architecture, Depok (Jakarta) on 10th and 11th September 2014, where I showcased techniques I developed to document sensory experiences in interior environments, to uncover a connection between the way we feel and our sense of belonging by investigating the correlation between the interior’s embodied atmosphere and its perceptual affect on the body. I participated in what was the first conference of its kind in Indonesia and attracted international researchers from South East Asia, the Middle East, the USA, the UK and Europe.

The full paper is available from UAL Research online and from Academia.edu

inarch-poster

I was able to engage in the many opportunities for discussions amongst conference participants for collaborations at a networking event at the end of the conference to discuss how to take new insights into design research forward including future conferences, disseminations through publications as well as the formation of an international network to include existing and emerging researchers in this new and exciting area of design research on interiority. This marks the start of a new research chapter for me across interior design, spatial design and interior architecture, one that links theory and practice and creates opportunities for the advancement of knowledge in interiority and wellbeing and, in the words of Professor Yandi Andri Yatmo “enrich our practice and pedagogy, experiment with concepts and ideas beyond the existing knowledge, and… establish further network and collaboration beyond the event of this conference.”

IMG_0790 IMG_0791

Project Visuals