I recently had the chance to visit an exhibition of architects’ studies of space: Architects Build Small Spaces, at the Victoria and Albert museum.
Beetle’s House was definitely my favourite designed/built space, located as it was as a perfect shelter planted in the surroundings, while the Studio Mumbai Architects group had a fantastic plaster-cast reconstruction of an ad hoc dwelling between buildings.
I was also impressed with the accompanying essay for the exhibition: it covered some themes and theorists I have looked at myself, and am keen on – namely Heidegger, Pallasmaa, and Bachelard – and offered new names Iona and Peter Opie who explore our “inherent aptitude for navigating space through a playful sense of naivité”.
“[Steen Eiler] Rasmussen felt passionately that architecture had the ability to awaken in us a sense of instinct, discovery and play. He observed the innate desire of children to seek spaces for shelter and refuge – territory that they would inhabit by modifying areas of domestic space (perhaps creating ‘dens’ behind the family sofa) or by carving out interventions in the natural landscape – creating a hidden nook inside a dense bush, or digging a recess in a riverbank.”
“I see the task of architecture as the defense of the authenticity of human experience. Juhani Pallasmaa, Encounters (2000)”
“The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard once observed that ‘like a forgotten fire, a childhood can always flare up again within us.’ In his 1958 book The Poetics of Space Bachelard examined childhood explorations of architectural environments and the ‘child-like’ attitudes to personal domains that we exhibit in adulthood:”
“The consciousness of being at peace in one’s corner produces a sense of immobility… an imaginary room rises up around our bodies … already, the shadows are walls, a piece of furniture constitutes a barrier, hangings are a roof.”
“We might read these buildings with reference to the work of folklorists Iona and Peter Opie, whose ground-breaking 1960s studies of children’s street culture suggested that there exists in all of us an iunherent aptitude for navigating space through a playful sense of naivieté, while at the same time being quipped with an acute sense of ‘self’ within the environment.”
“Architectural exhibitions may ‘explain’ buildings through drawings, models, photographs, even film, but this is often necessarily in the absence of the building itself. As a result, the audience are denied the chance to inhabit the space of the exhibited architecture. The intention of this exhibition is to offer people the opportunity to understand the design strategy behind a building while also physically accessing the structure itself.”
“Architecture as Image”
“In a recent compilation of essays entitled ‘Unified Design’, Paul Brislin notes the harmful effects of our obsession with the architectural ;icon; and the promotion of image over substance and meaning – something Brislin identifies as a worrying trend in contemporary architecture. Certainly, the recent acceleration of building activity in China and the United Arab Emirates – as well as in Britain – has thrown up a number of examples that might be argued to demonstrate a lack of sensitivity to space, location and material.
In his Essay ‘The Age of the World Picture’ Heidegger observed that the dominance of sight above all other senses has led to the ‘eye’ becoming more narcissistic, describing how the all-dominating eye has imposed such an influence on certain fields of cultural production that it seems to have weakened our capacity for empathy, compassion and participation in the world around us. Echoing these thoughts, Pallasmaa has raised his own concerns about our visually dominated world, campaigning passionately for an ‘architecture of the senses’, and identifying a trend towards what he describes as ‘retinal architecture’ – an observation that architecture has become ‘the art of the printed image, fixed by the hurried eye of the camera’. One could argue that the growing prominence of the ‘image’ within twentieth-century and contemporary architectural criticism – the dominance of the façade and the external projection – runs the risk of starving architectural debate of a sustained discussion of narrative space, and the impact of materials and texture on our experience of the built environment.”