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Space - Representing the Unseen

Part 1 Dissertation 1999
Alex Allain
London Metropolitan University London UK
This dissertation arose from the Poetry and Architecture course I took in the 4th year. I had been thinking about architectural representation in the form of words, how writing can evoke the experience of being in a place so much more powerfully than a visual representation. I felt that this dissertation would offer me an opportunity to explore some of the ideas that had been troubling me about architectural representation, and which was brought to a head at the Tadao Ando exhibition - the disparity between our experience of space and how we represent it. Tschumi recognises this disparity and calls it the ‘Pyramid’ - the architect’s ideas, and the ‘Labyrinth’ - the partial view of the user. There is an assumption that the aesthetics of the drawing will be found in the building. Even CAD fly-throughs, which appear to bring us closer to the reality fail to convey the nuances of the other senses. Designers in Las Vegas are aware of space as an experience, and seek to control temperature, precipitation and even time. Space comprises soundscape and smellscape too, but architects seldom demonstrate this.

How do we conceive of space? The way that we cognitively map places does not resemble the specific ‘locative’ map of the cartographer and by analogy the architect’s drawing. Research into how the blind perceive space suggests that the distinction between the senses is blurred. We are born synaesthetic and gradually learn to separate sensory input. Spatial understanding derives primarily from movement, gravity and centrifugal forces, not visual cues. Aesthetic experiences are never free from the associations of their context.

Intuitive interpretations of my interview with a blind woman are corroborated by the findings of scientific research on such human capacities as “obstacle sense” and "skin sense”. Congenitally blind children are able to draw space in a way that is clear to those with sight. These tactile drawings may offer a way of showing architectural ideas to the blind.

Ultimately, I conclude that designers should consider space as a continuous total sensory experience, and therefore find ways to represent it as such.

Alex Allain

I value this dissertation about how a blind person experiences architecture for its independence, for striding boldly into uncharted territory. Alex Allain begins with quandaries of representation in his own experience: as a beginner looking at magazines in his local library he tries to relate plans to photographs of buildings; as an architecture student he meets the same puzzles over again in a stylish exhibition. This is almost the last we hear of the writer as subject, but we have already seen that the inquiry springs from deep in his experience of the world. From this point on he objectifies in a really exceptional way his misgivings about how architecture is conventionally seen, shown and as a consequence, practised. The implications for practice raised by this work are momentous.

All of us have read laments about the narrowness of architectural representation; this student has gone out and done something about it. Before I read the essay, I thought he had chosen a circuitous route to the goal. The blind response to buildings seemed a non-subject, and raised the spectre of pseudo scientific measurement of that which cannot be measured. But the result is wonderfully fresh, jargon-free and sympathetic. He takes a conversation (‘interview’) between a blind and an unblind person, with a partly blind person looking on and occasionally contributing, and he uses this to widen our perception in surprising ways. I will never forget Louise’s enthusiasm for first floor flats or her surprising dislike of the Festival Hall, whose spaces she perceives through noise and movement, or her description of passing through certain doorways.

There is a challenge here to accommodate other senses than vision which cannot be entirely taken up in the work itself; Alex Allain has engineered us into position at a door I for one am keen to enter. Incidentally, it is one of the few dissertations I have read which left me wanting more. So many tantalising formulations, so many subjects briefly raised which could become inquiries in themselves. His work has a very special combination of qualities--it is both unconventional and truly humane.

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