So often the spaces we create seem to be controlled and shaped by regulations or follow established rules. The challenge is to look beyond these rules, seeking out the physical characteristics of a space that might promote the activities in it, or frame the user in a special way. In seeing space making as not simply regulation compliance we need to create alternative methods to discover how people experience, react to and inhabit what we imagine.
It would be naïve however to think that an architect could possibly meet all the client’s needs in a single move and perhaps that is not necessary, we have to accept we are an adaptable species. What we should strive for is to meet as many of those needs as possible by probing the peripheral subtleties of attachment to place, environmental perception, meaning of space - all important qualities for the client and end user.
Briefing is one such method, essentially a series of questions, it allows us to open up the project and provide an insight into the client and the users with the ultimate intention of creating places that hold strong meaning and value to those who live, work and socialise there. A culture of seeking to be well-informed, which a good briefing process sets in motion, will ultimately result in more inhabitable architecture.
What might such a forensic examination reveal? Two examples in schools we are working on illustrate the potential rewards and contrasts in our experience of inhabiting our buildings.
There is much written about human perception of architectural space but perhaps one of the most emotive descriptions is contained within Peter Zumthor’s essay, ‘A way of looking at things,’ where he describes how his own early memories of his Aunt’s home have stayed with him and evoke his perceptions of what a kitchen is. The fond memories he references are concerned with the atmosphere created by the materiality of the finishes within the space, the furniture, the smells, the light – the way that the space is inhabited. Our work at Glasgow Academy Science and Technology building seeks to evoke such an experiential tactility by asking how should a school building should sound, react, smell, feel, and as it is a science building, consider the science of its making and operation. This heightening of awareness in the user provokes a sense of belonging, engagement and memorability, qualities which at a young age you never forget.
But that is not the only way. Hugo Target in describing the neutral palate of materials for the Fettes Teaching building reflects on the Alison and Peter Smithson 1979 lecture in which they argued for the creation of a background material and spatial template that invited occupancy, stimulated then celebrated signs of ownership by future users. Where as at the Academy there is a conscious effort to engage with the users, stimulate and invite participation with the building, Fettes explores a detached position following the Smithson twin dictum of the detail construction of the building quietly demonstrating its own construction and at the same time framing and welcoming exterior views but crucially supporting an interior indeterminacy, the platform for user contributions.
In the first, user expectations are fully managed and anticipated, in the latter there is an expectation of a user contribution. There are no formal regulations for this way of thinking, but in reflecting on them we engage with the reality of how we inhabit our spaces.