Analysing the role of architecture in the lives of people, Simon Unwin had concluded: “Perhaps the curse of architecture is that essentially it is about making frames, but some architects want their work to be the picture”. His conclusion summarises a complex concern that has preoccupied architects and theorists of this century: the increasing disregard for human experience in contemporary architecture and consequently, the reduction of the design process into an extravagant image-making exercise.
One characteristic of this de-sensualisation of architecture is that elements such as light, colour, geometry, and material are reduced to static visual overlays in the design. Little or no thought is given to how these elements relate to human presence and orchestrate people’s experience of the space. At the core, this fragmented approach to designing buildings illustrates an incomplete understanding of the aesthetic act of creation. Jorge Borges beautifully captures this issue by claiming that “Poetry lies in the meeting of the poem and the reader, not in the lines of symbols printed on the pages of a book”. In extending this profound thought to the realm of architecture, we infer that a design guided by abstract static and pictorial elements neglects human perception of space, thereby severely limiting the occupant’s participation in the spatial experience.
Human experience of space is influenced by a multitude of tangible and intangible factors. But at the most basic level, movement through space requires movement through time. Therefore, time, space, and matter converge to form an architectural experience. It is this intrinsic fact that makes time the fourth dimension of space, along with the length, width, and depth of space. In this regard, architecture relates more to film than any other form of art or creation since both film and architecture are meant to be experienced by people over time. The comparison sheds light on architecture as a form of narration, in which progression is signified by the occupant moving through space. Much like film, the architectural narrative is replete with emotions of curiosity, discovery, refuge, secrecy, and exclusion, among others. This temporal quality of architecture and its impact on human experience is well captured in Le Corbusier’s idea of the ‘Architectural Promenade’. His design of the Villa Savoye is primarily dictated by a journey through space in time.
Having explored the nature of architecture as a dynamic experience rather than a static image, we move on to analyse how this experience can be enhanced through the ‘quality of time’. Ancient Greeks delved deep into the concept of time to distinguish between the quantity of time (Chronos) and the quality of time (Kairos). The distinction between the two may be hard to grasp conceptually but is easier to comprehend through personal experience. Chronos is the sequential measurement of time that we are all familiar with, but Kairos pertains to a moment of significance that does not abide by the laws of time. In other words, the human perception of time is entirely dependent on sensory engagement. Elaborating on this, Mette Aamodt defines ‘slow spaces’ as those that foster deep meaningful experiences and engage our senses. She takes on the example of the Grand Central Station in New York, where the interplay of the light, scale, and proportion of the structure yields a place of reflection and refuge. “The clock may not tick slower, but our experience of the place feels as though it has”3. Currently, contemporary architects engaged in curating and designing ‘slow spaces’ are far and few. Works of Alvar Aalto, Peter Zumthor, Glenn Murcutt and Sverre Fehn are a few examples of these spaces.
In approaching perceived time as a modifiable element of architecture, we may bring up a comparison between the dimension of time and that of space. Juhani Pallasmaa brilliantly argues that “Architecture domesticates limitless space and enables us to inhabit it, but it should likewise domesticate endless time and enable us to inhabit the continuum of time”. In a way, we have all experienced captured time when we visit a monument of the past. Ancient temples and cathedrals detain time; “in the greatest of buildings time stands firmly still”4.
By combining lived space with lived time, architecture serves as a datum for human memory: a point of reference for an experience perceived in space and time. In that sense, memory is an apt focal lens through which a study of the intangible factors that affect human perception of space can be easily carried out. Our memories of spaces are inextricably linked to the atmospheres, moods, smells, and sounds associated with them. Peter Zumthor describes his childhood at his aunt’s house as a time when he “experienced architecture without thinking about it”5. His recollection of these memories form stories of architectural experiences: “I remember the sound of gravel under my feet, the soft gleam of the waxed oak staircase. I can hear the heavy front door closing behind me as I walk along the dark corridor and enter the kitchen”.
Zumthor’s memories present examples of architectural experiences that we have all had in our lives, knowingly or unknowingly. They also hint at a possible interaction between human perception of space, memory, and imagination. A perceived attribute of space is instantly captured in our memory and yet, to recall it precisely, requires a lot of imagination. It may not come as a surprise then, that the act of recollection is an excellent but underrated source of inspiration for architects. Memories contribute to our idea of ‘place’. For Zumthor, the memory of his aunt’s kitchen is insolubly linked to his idea of a kitchen and through his work, he attempts to capture the atmosphere that is so deeply imprinted in his memory.
Perhaps then, one could conclude that at the core of resolving the issue of de-sensualised contemporary architecture lies the need for architects to review architectural elements in conjunction with the human condition. In light of this, if time and memory are viewed as instruments that enable us to observe and understand human perception of space, architecture would acquire a new dimension.
- Unwin, S., 2010. Twenty-Five Buildings Every Architect Should Understand.
- Pallasmaa, J., Holl, S. and Gomez, A., 2006. Questions Of Perception.
- Medium. 2020. The Metaphysics Of Time, Space And Architecture. [online] Available at: <https://medium.com/the-slow-space-movement/the-metaphysics-of-time-space-and-architecture-a0e46859ad7>
- Pallasmaa, J., 2012. The Eyes Of The Skin. Chichester: Wiley.
- Zumthor, P., 2017. Thinking Architecture. Basel: Birkhäuser.