Through the Gap

1  Phenomenology of Architecture

Phenomenology of architecture, a movement that began around 1950, was inspired by the phenomenology of philosophy.

There are many architects and scholars who write about and practice the phenomenology of architecture. According to the books I’ve read, the relationship between phenomenology and architecture is still not fully clear. Even Steven Holl, who is been widely regarded as a phenomenological architect, used to mention that he was not quite sure whether or not his works have a connection with phenomenology. Therefore I do not dare to say I know it or I'm using it. I'm just going to mention what inspired me directly.

Architecture has been dominated by visual aspects for a very long time. Buildings were built based on two-dimensional blueprints, they were known through photographs, and they were taught, compared, and evaluated through images. This is not wrong, but it's not enough. A work of architecture can affect people only through experiences how architecture can respond to sensory experience and how it makes people "feel".

This is related to the hierarchy of senses. From the visual to the tactile is a hierarchy from highest to lowest. A higher sense can transfer more information, but a lower sense relates to deep feelings better.

For example, many people may agree that smell is the strongest sense for capturing the memory. For instance, I can always remember what it smells like when it rains in the countryside. The smell mixed with wet dirt, fresh grass, a few mature grapes, the smoke of firewood, and smoke coming from the consecrated censer, is my precious memory of rainy days at my grandma's house. And that's the best thing in the world to calm me down. It works for me much better than a peaceful temple or quiet hotel room. Whether a space can create specific kinds of feelings or not sometimes depends on elements beyond vision.

The phenomenological method of studying answered some of my questions. I was confused about how can I close the gap between designer\ researcher and the user\ interviewee. Can the users feel what I feel? Can my solution be used in other cities? How to summarize the problems I observed? How to exclude my personality from my research?  Those questions bother me a lot.

But, "back to the things themselves" answered them. For architectural and urban design research, the method includes some essential points: focus on life, try to understand the topic being processed; document and describe the experiences, without presupposing, without explanation or attribution; After catching the characters of objects, use the architectural design method to emphasize them.

The “document and describe”partly inspired me the most. Since phenomenological research focuses on feelings, it doesn't have to be neutral or end up with a clear conclusion. Describing those details, those subtle feelings, and those interactions is a product of understanding the object.

That's why the phenomenology of architecture attracts me.

Now I choose this door as an entry point to put my thoughts into practice. A door with a light boxes attached can encourage people to get involved with, to understand and (to some extent) to control the intimacy-public atmosphere.


2  Natural Light and Artificial Light

Even though other senses play important roles in space and can provide some feelings that vision cannot, I still need to admit that vision is too powerful to ignore. And light can change a space's character immediately. At the same time, during my research, the different character of natural light and artificial light attracted my attention.

There's no doubt that those two kinds of lights can shape a space; they are also usually designed to work together. They can create a space with appropriate illumination and a specific atmosphere. But usually, people treat them only as a supplement to each other, also only focusing only on the atmosphere in one or several moments.

In reality, based on their various character, using the changing interaction between them can create a dynamic atmosphere.


These are my observations:

The difference between artificial light and natural light:

Natural light: First, the earth can have different lives because it gets energy from the sun. Therefore humans have an internal connection with natural light; it means much more than illumination. I am always in a better mood in sunny days. That's hard to explain, but it's real. Second, natural light has regularly-changing directions and dynamics, which are indications of a connection between human and natural space & time. People used to use sunlight and shadows to calculate time. It indicates that people's current existence is just one point, and there is a background or texture. There are other existences in space. There are future and past in time. Third, natural light is very strong in the daytime. It occupies a dominant spot in the environment; usually architecture or another artifact can play only a passive role to accept, filter, obstruct and use it. This relationship also defines people's passive roles in relation to nature.


Artificial light: The most important quality is that artificial light is controllable. People can control everything about it, density, color, direction, shape, temperature, and even risk. (like alpha rays) . It is a good thing since we can do whatever we want. But it is also a bad thing because sometimes people treat it as a common and functional thing and design it or make artificial light choices carelessly. We may feel uncomfortable in a room if the wrong lighting choices are made. If the light is too bright, it may be difficult to focus our attention.


Second, artificial light belongs in low-light spaces more than well-lit spaces, just like it belongs to nighttime more than daytime. When artificial light is used as illumination, it's a supplement of natural light. When artificial light is used to create an atmosphere, it needs a dark background. In other words, artificial light means there is darkness outside.

Third, since artificial light depends on energy offered by people, it can keep working. That a really big difference. It means we can use artificial light to create timeless space. That is a way to separate us from the universe.

Richard Kelly, the famous architectural lighting designer, identified three ways to use artificial light: focal glow, ambient luminescence, and play of brilliants. His projects, including the Kimbell Art Museum and the Seagram Building, demonstrate his thought very well. I found focal glow is the most appropriate one for my project.


3  The atmosphere from Public to Intimate

"A public space may be a gathering spot or part of a neighborhood, downtown, special district, waterfront, or another area within the public realm that helps promote social interaction and a sense of community." This is the description for “public space” from Wikipedia.

However, this definition is described by function, or activity. "a space available for having public activity happen in there", "a space makes people feel it's available for having public activity happen in there " and "a space makes people feel it's a public space", those are different. And my project is going to focus on the third one.

So what's a space with a communed feeling? Open and accessible in the visual and the physical.

The physical part is easy to understand and realize. The visual is more conceptual. Public space should have enough space to allow us to build a comfortable psychological distance. People can feel that it is easy to come, and easy to leave. Just like a park bench, it creates an easy atmosphere to stay, leave, communicate or observe.

Private space is the region surrounding a person that they regard as psychologically theirs. People have this intimate zone all the time. The difference is when they are surrounded by crowds, people have to spend energy to keep their private zone, and when being placed in a comfortable and safe space, they don't need to. Caves, bedrooms, or garrets are common intimate spaces. Some people even enjoy sleeping in coffins.

What makes a space become an intimate space? Being protected, cannot be seen, cannot be heard, and cannot be disturbed. There are two interesting points. First, when we say "cannot be seen", we meat ex-part visual block. Actually, keeping getting information from outside can make people in this space feel safer. Second, "cannot be disturbed" means cannot be disturbed by other persons, but we do not refuse communication with nature. A squirrel stopping by is not disturbing.


4  Movement and Door

When we talk about a tactile experience, a movement experience, and architecture, the door becomes an essential architectural element.

First, a door is a part of vertical envelope enclosure. Compared to the wall, the door is the part of which people have a physical experience.

Open the door. It’s such a simple action that includes many layers of meaning. We have to touch it, push or pull it, feel its texture, know its gravity, and experience passing through it. It contains a tactile feeling, a direct interaction between the human and the building, and a movement with direction.  

Second, the door is an obstruction between the inside and outside, between nature and artificial environments. After we pass through one door, temperature, smell, moisture, and illumination are all changed. Therefore, the door is not only an obstruction between two spaces but also an obstruction between two lasting experiences.



Jing Ye