Spatial Perception and Architecture
Perception is what the individual perceives on a unique and subjective basis. I was much more interested in investigating space as an objective reality, exploring its universal properties that could then be exploited in an architectural design process.
The Visual Nature of Space
Experiencing space is a subtle act of the human body and mind. We use our eyes to visually probe a space, making thousands of subconscious computations every second. Wayfinding, orientation, direction, etc. all come from visual clues. The lens of our eye, with a 22mm focal length allows us to experience perspective space in a consistent and readable way. Our neck and eyes move, completing a spherical dome of information surrounding us at any point. But, when a slight change is introduced to this formula we start to question what exactly space is.
For me, this slight change in experiencing space was photography. For a few years I used an adjustable wide angle lens, appreciating the ability to capture as much space as possible. This allowed me to distort space, and experience it in a way that I never had before. But this distortion was an experiential lie. Transitioning back to a fixed 22mm lens, I learned that composition and spatial effects of differential spatial typologies was much more important than the ability to distort space. I felt the need to translate this back into my architecture.
Although I have been designing architectural objects for many years, it is not until I made these observations and conclusions that I can say that I started designing spaces. The paces were largely byproducts of a series of compromised design decisions, creating spaces that often felt like leftovers, rather than being the driver of the design. When considering how we experience each different space early on in the design process. I find I’m able to design spaces that are more pure, intimate, and spatially powerful.
Primacy of Space
Space is self evident, but the way we perceive it is not. Our brain has built in mechanism that allow visual inputs to be recorded and processed, outputting information almost simultaneously that we then act upon. The processing of visual information sometimes triggers cognitive loopholes. These loopholes are known as optical illusions.
The image below is an example of an optical phenomenon called shape constancy. Take your two hands, and hold them out in front of your eye. Move one hand double the distance away from your eye as the second, and make a mental note of their perceived size. Now take your closer hand and measure the farther hand with your index finger and thumb in a sort of pinching motion. Keep this measurement hand where it is, and bring the hand which was farther away back to your eye. Now you will realize that your brain allowed you to perceive both hands at almost the same size, irrespective of their distance away from your eye. This is the result of memorizing sizes of known objects, and not a spatial effect. There are numerous examples of optical illusions, but they do not deal with the true nature of space. Illusions trick our brain’s visual mechanics, and have limiting relevance on three dimensional spatial effects.
Most importantly I would look at euclidean geometry, rectilinear shapes, three dimensional geometry, and space and objects as being real. My intent was not to question the existential nature of space, but rather to investigate the way that physical spaces affect us as conscious beings. This is the true nature of space, the primacy of space.
While conducting my research on the various topics of interest, most writing made a series of basic conclusions, which was then built upon to make further and more substantial claims. First, was that past generations represent how they think about space through images, and that visual art represented the spatial values of each culture. I would argue that by looking exclusively at images, one can not fully understand a culture’s understanding of spatiality. An example of where this was not true was in ancient Greece, whose architecture was much more spatially refined than their art from the same period. A second common assumption discovered in my readings is that our development to read space is directional, and that Greek thinking would not have emerged without Egyptian. Lars Macussen goes as far as to say that, “if a Renaissance image had popped up among the Ancient Egyptians, they would not have been capable of seeing it as spatial in the same way”. This conclusion also has its problems, as there is an abundance of new research that has been produced in the last decade that suggests there is an objective aspect to our spatial perception that is universal to all people. Another type of increasing complexity in spatial representation are the medium and techniques we use to represent space.
Historical Spatial Development
The rows below move from left to right in chronological development. The columns, from top to bottom represent geometric knowledge, bodily orientation in space and the built environment of each culture. Starting with pre-civilization, one can observe that the concept of geometry was undeveloped. Their geometric knowledge, migration through space, and method of dwelling was almost exclusively influenced by nature and movement. Next comes the development of calendar and circular cultures. The ability to trace simple shapes in sand gave the first signs of geometrical hierarchy, and their observance of the cosmos allowed them to begin forecasting the rising of the sun, seasons, and astronomical events. A defining parameter was the worship of the world axis. This coincided with the ability to live in larger settlements and organize themselves in a system of grouped circular structures.
Next, comes the Egyptian's elementary arithmetic and more complex geometric typologies. Almost simultaneously arose the ability to work in stone and build more complex structures, oriented loosely on perpendicular axes. This contrasts the system of the Greeks, who saw each object as a representation of beauty and perfection, inherited by an order deriving from the heavens and Gods. Each object, especially temples, were placed so that they could be experienced as delimited, plastic objects in space. The Romans had a more elaborate social-caste system. To organize their society, their architectural typologies were rigidly organized by axiality. A soldier could enter any Roman encampment and know where to find each programmatic function. The spatial organization of the Renaissance can be characterized by the discovery of perspective, creation of objects in space, and predefined dramatic views.
Postmodern vs Contemporary
Deconstructivism is a linguistic movements of the middle to late twentieth century that focused on the primacy of language. Essentially, the deconstructivist believed that an individual's perception was predetermined by their thoughts, knowledge, and cultural background. Classifications became the defining factor of perception, with some even denying the possibility of visual imagination altogether. This linguistic movement became the basis for Postmodern architecture, as it also adopted the viewpoint that language and therefore symbolism were essential building blocks of architecture.
The contemporary or orthodox view, taken by philosophers and psychologists in the past two decades, is that perception and language are not the same thing, and perception or conceptualization does not occur instantaneously. Rather, people first perceive, then we think, and thirdly we conceptualize or express thoughts. The distinction between these two methods of perceiving space is important. The architectural postmodernists used symbolism to give meaning to their architectural concepts. If one accepts the contemporary view, one can deduce that language-based architecture was an intellectual exercise in building a series of symbolic objects. The problem is that this symbolism could not be universally read, and the architecture offered little in terms of objective spatial qualities. The contemporary view allows for the design and experience of space without needing stories and symbolism. Without needing an allegory, the power and primacy of space becomes much more important. This creates the scenario where architects do not need to reference something outside of architecture. Architecture can then be made up of simple, proto architectural elements.
Importance of Scale
The perception of space, although mostly visual, is largely based on our relationship with scale. Our sense of scale is complemented by bodily sense, primarily through haptic feedback. According to the theories Alois Regel (1858–1905) and his Aesthetic Model, there are three main scales that we experience space; near, middle and far range.
- small/near: at this scale we are able to best understand complex curvilinear geometry. When we can take in the entire object, grasp it, rotate it, etc then we are able to build a mental map of the object and understand it much easier than if we experience only individual pieces at a time
- medium/middle: here we experience a portion of an object a time.Texture and clarity are important if the intent is for the user to understand the spaces or architecture as a whole. Curvilinear forms cease to be effective, because they go beyond the scale of the human body, and we can not form a mental map their entirety. Shading and contrast becomes important when understanding objects in a space at a distance.
- large /far: when experiencing architectural objects from a large distance, the ability for tactile understanding fades out. Simple forms and colour are most important. We lack the optical dexterity to interpret complex forms, and therefore high contrast forms or materials are important.
Spatial vs Visual
How we experience space is largely determined by our biopsychology. In 2014 research from Edvard and May-Britt Moser won the Nobel Prize for Physiology and medicine. They discovered a series of geometric grid-like cells inside the brain of rat, in an area known as the entorhinal cortex. These cells, which are also present in the human brain, function much like a GPS system, allowing us to spatially map and navigate space in an objective way. By using acceleration, movement and speed, our brain records how we move through space. This means that for each spatial situation, there is an objective recording and reading occurring within our brains. We are able to dimensionally map rough floor plans and sectional relationships within our brain, using spatial information written by our internal GPS.
Supplementing the spatial recording in the entorhinal cortex is a recording of visual properties in the hippocampus. This deal withs recording colours, textures and recalling memories that have occurred in visually similar spaces. A complex series of information exchange occurs between these two distinct portions of our brain, allowing us to write, recall and place memories. This duality help explains why memory is so closely tied to place.
The discovery of the entorhinal cortex disproves the linguistic theory of deconstructivism. If every person has the ability to write spatial memories, then it is not our language or culture that dictates how we react to a space, but rather a combination of objective human nature and hyper-individualistic responses. The spatiality of various architectural typologies are powerful not because of their cultural meaning but in the way that they are able to affect the biopsychology of an individual in a particular moment and time in their life.
Symmetrical spaces create the effect of monumentality. The perfect reflection of one space along an axis creates a subservient role for the user. Asymmetrical spaces are less monumental by their very nature, as they allow for more variation and dynamicism and do not have such a rigid hierarchy.
The spatial effects of scale differ as to whether it is the absolute scale of an object or space or relative to that of another. Absolute scale is best used when the user can experience a large object and slowly approach it, fully understanding its vastness. Variations in scale are best used in section. Entering narrow passageways before being led into an expansive void is a compelling spatial effect.
The spatial effect of bearing and being borne is especially effective because it is universal. It is a common to all cultures and all architectural movements. The very essence of architecture or building is the constant fight against gravity, the suspending of an object off of the ground. The more reduced this structural relationship is, the more elementary it becomes.
Porosity is the measure of voids within a solid. It exists purely in three dimensions and is spatially significant because it creates spaces that are varied and interconnected. It blurs the hard boundaries between space and architectural elements. Porous objects are varied in their scale and composition, characteristics that put the user in the forefront of the space or object.
“I do not claim to know what space is. The longer I think about it, zhe more mysterious it becomes. About one thing, however, I am sure: when we, as architects are concerned with space, we are contending with but a tiny part of the infinity that surrounds the earth and yet each and every building marks a unique place in that infinity”. — Peter Zumthor
There are numerous spatial effects that have been used compelling throughout the history of architecture. It is our role as architects to evaluate each project, site, client and function with careful consideration and to decide which types of spaces we want to create. We should never forget that the vessels we are designing are there to contain space and that powerful spaces have a primacy that goes far beyond that of provocative shapes. Architecture is one of the only professions that create space and we should embrace the opportunity to better understand the spatial qualities we are designing. By doing so, architects have the chance to reposition the value of our role in the process of conceptualizing, designing and building an architectural object.
Thanks for reading! :)
- Graphics inspired from Plate 4.1: The historical phenomenology of space. The Architecture of Space, pg 86–87
- Information based on the readings from Visuality for Architects
- Derived from Marcussen's Deleuzean translations, Chapter 15 — Differnce and Repetition
- Information based on the research by Doctor Edvard and May-Britt Moser
- Quote from Thinking Architecture, pg 22
- Information based on the readings from Filling the Void with Space