• Designing the Experience of Space

    In this installment on our series about the three tenets of good architecture, we illuminate the experience of space and architecture. By focusing on the experience of the space rather than the form or function of the building, we as architects can impact people in profound and meaningful ways. Juhani Pallasmaa writes:

    “When designing physical spaces, we are also designing, or implicitly specifying distinct experiences, emotions and mental states. In fact, as architects we are operating in the human brain and nervous system as much as in the world of matter and physical construction. I dare to make this statement as science has established that environments change our brains, and those changes in turn alter our behavior.” (Pallasmaa, Juhani. “Empathic and Embodied Imagination: Intuiting Experience and Life in Architecture” in Architecture and Empathy.)

    … Environments change our brains, and those changes in turn alter our behavior.

    Rigid and in order: A quintessentially Swiss experience designed by Peter Zumthor. Photo by Jonathan Ducrest

    Phenomenology in architecture

    However, too much of architecture has focused on form-making and too little on the experience of space. In fact, form-making has been the dominant theme of modernism, postmodernism and contemporary theories. This is a very rational, static and abstract notion of architecture that dates back to the renaissance, euclidean geometry and René Descartes’ philosophy of “cogito, ergo sum,” “I think, therefore I am.” Vittorio Gallese says, based on his theory of embodied simulation, that philosophy is incorrect. “More relevant than ‘cogito’ — and here phenomenology got it exactly right — than ‘I think’ is ‘I can.’ The physical object, the outcome of symbolic expression, becomes the mediator of an intersubjective relationship between creator and beholder.” (Gallese, Vittorio. “Architectural Space from Within: The Body, Space and the Brain” in Architecture and Empathy.)

    Gallese references the phenomenologists — both philosophers and architects — that have been studying human consciousness and built space through the context of experience and phenomena since the early 20th century, in direct opposition to Descartes’ philosophy that views the world as sets of objects. Architect and Professor Botond Bognar summarizes phenomenology in architecture as follows:

    “As opposed to traditional Western understanding based on a sharp distinction between person and the world, phenomenology — highly critical of Cartesian dualism in any form — regards subjects and objects in their unity. Phenomenology understands a world wherein people and their environment mutually include and define each other. It focuses upon nature and reality not as an absolutum existing only outside us, but as subject to human scrutiny, interaction, and creative participation.” (Bognar, Botond. “A phenomenological approach to architecture and its teaching in the design studio” in Dwelling, Place and Environment.)

    Slow Space is founded in phenomenology, as is our work at Aamodt / Plumb Architects. We ask ourselves how the spaces we create might make people feel. We ask our clients how they want to feel in their home, their school, their library or their hospital. Let us be aware of how spaces make us feel and teach our clients how to feel space as well. It’s no different than cultivating your taste for wine or fine food. One of the Slow Food Movement’s early objectives was to cultivate an appreciation for the taste of good food. I think we should do the same with great spaces. We should cultivate an appreciation for good buildings. It’s not enough just to look at a beautiful picture. Here is a picture of a beautiful dish from Bon Appetit. It looks delicious. But so does this picture of a Whopper, even though we know it is junk food.

    Let us be aware of how spaces make us feel and teach our clients how to feel space as well.

    How about wine? A photo doesn’t do much for it. It’s all in the taste, in the experience. And wine’s popularity is soaring. Millennials are spending more on wine and restaurants and experiences than consumer goods.

    Zumthor’s thermal baths as paradigm for designing the experience of space

    Peter Zumthor’s thermal baths in Vals, Switzerland, serve as an example for designing the experience of space. We spoke with Swiss-born photographer Jonathan Ducrest, who explored the world-famous building with his camera. See his photography and read the story here.

  • Architecture as Experience: Peter Zumthor’s Thermal Baths

    This article is part of an installment of essays and examples illuminating the essence of good architecture, which, as Slow Space founder Mette Aamodt defines, comprises the three fundamental qualities of empathy, experience and beauty. The exploration of Peter Zumthor’s thermal baths in Vals, Switzerland, represents a paragon of architecture as experience — as an extraordinary sensory experience.

    Photo by Jonathan Ducrest

    Solitude of space

    To share a taste of this experience, we caught up with Swiss photographer Jonathan Ducrest, who explored Peter Zumthor’s thermal baths from a distinctive angle — from behind his sly camera lens — shot without special lighting. Ducrest, who says he’s “not big on taking pictures of people,” also minimally edited the photographs to give a more authentic sense of the place’s raw simplicity. It is the solitude of space that fascinates the photographer.

    Ducrest now calls Los Angeles home. He’d returned home to his native Switzerland for the holidays and decided to take his mother on a spa weekend. “This was my third or forth trip to Vals,” says Ducrest, contemplating how time moves slower in the small mountain village of fewer than one thousand souls in Switzerland’s Graubünden canton. “You just relax, without the everyday stress. You can walk and enjoy nature, and there aren’t a lot of distractions.”

    View into the surrounding landscape of the valley of Vals. Photo by Jonathan Ducrest

    Swiss minimalism

    Zumthor, whose other significant works include the Kunsthaus in Bregenz, Austria, the all-timber Swiss Pavilion for Expo 2000 in Hannover, Germany, and the upcoming expansion of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in the United States, designed the spa building over the canton’s only thermal springs. The hydrotherapy center, commissioned by the village of Vals, was completed in 1996. Zumthor’s rectilinear design contrasts the valley’s traditional vernacular structures and pastoral setting, and was to look as if it pre-dated the luxury hotel complex.

    Zumthor’s minimalist, clean-lined design contrasts the valley’s traditional vernacular structures. Photo by Jonathan Ducrest

    “The spa and the hotel itself — it’s like this temple,” reflects Ducrest. “There’s nothing but the water and the stone the architect used.” The cave-like structure comprises 15 units, each five meters high, whose grass-covered concrete roofs don’t join. The slim gaps are filled in with glass. The dark quartzite slabs are quarried locally, and 60,000 one-meter-long stone sections clad the walls in a subtly ordered pattern. “He framed the landscape outside with windows,” the photographer describes. “It’s like you’re watching a painting when you’re relaxing in your chair, and you’re looking out and it’s snowing or the light is changing or there could be a storm outside. You’re becoming more attuned to your surroundings.” The fact that all the stone Zumthor used was brought in from the valley connects visitors even more to the encompassing environment. “Everything comes from there: the waters, the air, the sounds.”

    Everything comes from there: the waters, the air, the sounds.

    Photo by Jonathan Ducrest

    Ducrest has long wanted to photograph the space. But without an official assignment, he needed to be cunning in shooting inside the thermal baths, beginning his day’s work early in the morning, when only hotel guests are allowed in. Having been in the space before, he knew beforehand what he wanted to capture. “I had my camera wrapped in my towel, and my mom was looking out if someone was coming. And I took the pictures in a natural light, there’s no flash,” reveals Ducrest, who intently refrained from retouching the photographs. He wanted to depict the architecture as purely as possible — in the way it was designed. What is more, he says, “The lighting changes throughout the day. If you start incorporating lighting that’s not supposed to be there, it’s going to change the feel of it. I like the fact that I had to deal with those constraints. And I don’t really like having people in my photography.”

    I don’t really like having people in my photography.

    Photo by Jonathan Ducrest

    Photo by Jonathan Ducrest

    Feeling Zumthor

    By design, Zumthor, who received the Pritzker Architecture Prize for his lifework in 2009, pulls the visitor from the arrival and physical transition into bath attire deeper into the spacial experience of the building. A gentle slope leads down to the locker rooms. “You go down this dark tunnel, and you get glimpses of what he wants you to go and explore,” the photographer tells. “As you walk down the hallway, you turn to your left, and there’s this small but very tall opening, and you can see the space below. You see a pool, and you want to go there and see that space. You’re going through a turnstile, and again, you walk this hallway, and there’s water coming out of little water sprouts.” At the end of the hall, the locker rooms lie behind heavy curtains. “You emerge on the other side into the main space, and as you are walking down the staircase, you’re going to see the outdoor pool. You’re going to see a part of the main pool. And you’ll again want to go further and explore.”

    Rigid and in order: Swiss minimalism. Photo by Jonathan Ducrest

    Ducrest’s images are a pictorial reflection on the architect’s intent of creating a physical, mental and spiritual human experience — with the Swiss touch of the internationally renown architect, who was born in Basel in 1943, the son of a master carpenter. “In Switzerland, we like things in order and a little rigid, that’s how we are. That’s still how I am,” Ducrest notes. “When you’re there, it’s always straight lines. It’s hard corners. From the design, you wouldn’t think there is something soft or calming about the space. It’s very rigid and square, and there seems to be no end to this gray stone. But then you add the thermal water elements and the lighting, and it all comes together. Now, it’s a perfect space.”

    The soft element of the thermal water in juxtaposition with the rough stone and the straight-line architecture perfects the experience of the space.

    Also read: “Designing With Empathy” by Mette Aamodt

  • Designing With Empathy

    The Slow Space Movement stands for buildings that are good, clean and fair, but what exactly do we mean by that? This is our inaugural piece in a series of articles exploring this thematic trifecta of what we understand slow space to be, beginning with “good.”

    In our practice at Aamodt / Plumb, we define a good building as a building that holds meaning for the users, brings them joy and connects them to the world, to others or to themselves in some way. A good building does not just satisfy our basic needs but helps us to understand ourselves and our place in the world. It mediates between our being and our environment, providing a filter through which we can see ourselves and the world. It is not a benign shelter, but a lense that we create for experiencing the world and ourselves within it.

    As architects, designing a good building is a hard, if not impossible, task, but one that we choose to strive for every day. One of the ways we can pursue good building is through empathy.

    Feeling what they feel
    Architecture and Empathy

    Architecture and Empathy, 2015. Published by The Tapio Wirkkala-Rut Bryk Foundation.

    Empathy is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and feeling the emotions they feel. According to Juhani Pallasmaa, empathy in architecture is when “The designer places him/herself in the role of the future dweller and tests the validity of the ideas through this imaginative exchange of roles and personalities.” (Pallasmaa, Juhani. “Empathic and Embodied Imagination: Intuiting Experience and Life in Architecture” in Architecture and Empathy.)

    Empathy is one of our basic human traits and one that differentiates us from other species. It evolved to nurture babies outside of the womb, as our upright position forced babies to be born before full gestation. Babies continue to develop through skin to skin contact with their mothers. Without this babies fail to thrive and suffer irreparable physical and psychological damage, and sometimes death. Architect and philosopher Sarah Robinson has argued that the skin is the most fundamental medium of contact with our world.

    Architecture and Empathy

    “Boundaries of skin: John Dewey, Didier Anzieu and Architectural Possibility” in Architecture and Empathy

    “Empathy allows us to connect to the world through our own bodies and in turn, the world opens itself up to us as we feel our way into it. As the mutuality of the mother-baby relationship exemplifies, we dwell in a reciprocating circuit. We are built to be received into a world to which we must connect, into a world that fits us. Empathy is the deep reflexivity at the heart of life.” (Robinson, Sarah. “Boundaries of Skin: John Dewey, Didier Anzieu and Architectural Possibility” in Architecture and Empathy.)

    The leather-clad door handles at the Villa Mairea by Alvar Aalto are an example of how sensitive the architect was in designing the physical point of connection between the user and the building. Instead of leaving the cold metal bare to draw heat away from the body, he wrapped them in leather so the contact would be skin to skin.

    Embodied simulation

    Recent discoveries in neuroscience have identified exactly how empathy works within our bodies. Mirror neurons in the brain create a mechanism, called embodied simulation, that maps the actions, emotions and sensations of other people onto our brains as if we were experiencing them ourselves. Embodied simulation is not just limited to empathizing with people, it extends to objects and space. MD PhD Vittorio Gallese, who along with his team discovered these mirror neurons, says that “Embodied simulation not only connects us to others, it connects us to our world — a world inhabited by natural and manmade objects … as well as other individuals.” (Gallese, Vittorio. “Architectural Space from Within: The Body, Space and the Brain” in Architecture and Empathy)

    “The notion of empathy recently explored by cognitive neuroscience can reframe the problem of how works of art and architecture are experienced, revitalizing and eventually empirically validating old intuitions about the relationship between body, empathy and aesthetic experience.” (Ibid.)

    Human-centered design

    Empathy is a cornerstone of human-centered design, a buzzword that has been nicely packaged and branded by IDEO, the interdisciplinary design consulting firm.

    “Human-centered design is a creative approach to problem solving and the backbone of our work at IDEO.org. It’s a process that starts with the people you’re designing for and ends with new solutions that are tailor made to suit their needs. Human-centered design is all about building a deep empathy with the people you’re designing for; generating tons of ideas; building a bunch of prototypes; sharing what you’ve made with the people you’re designing for; and eventually putting your innovative new solution out in the world.” (IDEO Design Kit)

    This description is how I always understood architecture, but I am grateful to IDEO for spreading these ideas to the mass market. But why does human-centered design seem so out of fashion inside our industry? What is it in contrast to? It is in contrast to market-driven design, like developers who are often just concerned with maximizing square footage and reducing costs. We are all pretty familiar with these examples.

    Technology-driven design

    Then there is technology-driven design that I will call “tech for tech’s sake.” Quoting a recent opinion piece in The Guardian, “If there’s one thing the technology community loves, it’s an over-engineered solution to a problem that isn’t really a problem. Double points if the root of that problem is: ‘I’m a young man with too much money who needs technology to do for me what my mother no longer will.’ ” (The five most pointless tech solutions to non-problems,” The GuardianAt the top of their list of the most useless tech solutions is the Juicero, a $400, Wi-Fi-enabled machine that squeezes single-purpose pods filled with crushed fruit and vegetables into a glass. This company raised $120 million in venture capital. PS: It turns out, if you just squeeze the pod, the juice will come out ready to drink. No machine needed. (Juicero has suspending the sale of the Juicero Press and Produce Packs in September 2017.)

    Tech as tech can: Render of Zaha Hadid’s design for the headquarters of the Central Bank of Iraq. Photo: Zaha Hadid Architects

    Technology-driven design has dominated architecture for the past 20 years, where the cutting edge has been defined by what wild architectural form could be created by the latest software and material technology. The work of FOA, Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry comes to mind. The green movement has also been swept up in technology-driven design, with everyone searching for the tech equivalent of the silver bullet that will solve our environmental crisis.

    “True sustainability demands more than technological solutions — it must be founded on an understanding of human nature that recognizes, affirms and supports our nascent vulnerability and interdependence.” (Robinson, Sarah. “Boundaries of Skin: John Dewey, Didier Anzieu and Architectural Possibility” in Architecture and Empathy.)

  • Sverre Fehn: Between Earth & Sky

    I have visited Sverre Fehn’s Architecture Museum (National Museum – Architecture) and Grosch Bistro in Oslo many times as a good friend is one of the curators and worked with Fehn on the renovation and addition. The place is calm, soothing, comforting and timeless. There is no wow factor for the architectural tourist other than the sheer contrast of the classical building and the modern pavilion. The cafe feels like it has always been there, and always will. A narrow door leads to the pavilion where you immediately enter the generous, bright, open and protected space. My words can’t do it justice I am afraid, nor will my pictures. Unfortunately, the day of this visit the exhibition on display in the pavilion obscured the experience of the space by putting a massive solid structure in the middle and overlaying drawings and text on the glass walls.

    I wanted to write about this Slow Space because of the wonderful experiences I have had there and the esteem I hold for the late Sverre Fehn and his work. But as I researched this article I discovered that my intuition about Fehn’s work was confirmed by his philosophies and writings that touch on meaning, authenticity, human existence, sensual experience, and the search for place. These are the fundamental principles of Slow Space and Fehn’s work is our guide.

    Existence and Authenticity

    Throughout his career the Norwegian architect Sverre Fehn (1924-2009) sought to understand human existence and define one’s place in this world. With every project he explored different ways of creating “a place to be” (Norwegian: et sted å være) defining, architecturally, “the space between” (Norwegian: mellomrom) the earth and sky.

    “A place to be” can be a philosophical or spiritual place if you are a philosopher or theologian. Fehn was influenced by the Existentialists at the time, who were primarily concerned with concrete human experience and living life authentically, in contrast to the increasing meaningless and absurd world they saw around them. But for Fehn the architect, “a place to be” was a physical space that mediates between the deep earth and the vast sky. It is a space of comfort that can be touched, felt and experienced, built with simple, true means and materials.

    The Space Between

    Working primarily in the open Norwegian landscape, Fehn defined mellomrom architecturally as the space between the roof and the ground planes. The dialectic between these two planes shows up in all of his projects, although the solutions are always different, and the vertical elements of wall and roof are de-emphasized, often to create a greater connection to the landscape. In some cases, the roof form is strong and imposing, providing true shelter from the elements, as in the Glacier Museum in Fjæreland (1991).

    But sometimes the roof acts more like the clouds above, filtering light, as in the Nordic Pavilion at the Venice Biennale (1959-1962). Fehn’s Nordic Pavilion is composed of a level ground plane cut into the hillside and a roof composed of two layers of slender concrete beams set at 90 degrees to one another. The only vertical elements are a few existing trees that pierce through the roof structure, let in rain and provide the scale of nature in an urban context. Two walls retain the hill and provide the space for hanging art and the other two are completely open with only massive sliding glass doors.

    Gennaro Postiglione describes the light and atmosphere of the Nordic Pavilion: “Penetrating the double framework of the ceiling beams, the intense light of the lagoon undergoes a magical metamorphosis and is transformed into a gentle homogenous light void of shadows, like Nordic light.” The unique quality of light, along with the deep rectangular plan, create a contemplative space inside the gardens of the Biennale, perfect for the appreciation of art and architecture.

    nordic-pavilion-sverre-fehn-ake-e:son-lindman

    Nordic Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, Photo: Åke E:son Lindman

    Nordic Pavilion for the Venice Biennale

    Nordic Pavilion for the Venice Biennale, Section Drawings by Sverre Fehn

    Introspection

    The National Museum – Architecture in Oslo (2008) is one of Fehn’s last projects. He was commissioned for the restoration of the original bank building (Christian Heinrich Grosch, 1830) as well as the new addition. The vaulted lower level of the original structure is where he placed the lobby, bookstore, Grosch Bistro and entrance to the gallery spaces. The groin vaults in limed plaster contrasted with the red brick floor instantly recall the earth and sky. Walls and ceiling blend together into one continuous soothing ceiling-scape that envelops you in a warm glow of diffused light. The brick floor is the earth underfoot, made of the rough clay and heavily textured compared with the plaster vaults. The only other elements are the oak shelves, tables and chairs that appear to grow out of the earth and provide “a place to be,” to sit and slowly enjoy a chat, a coffee or a meal.

    The pavilion at the museum is entirely new. A delicate shell-shaped concrete roof hovers over the glass wall perimeter held up by four massive pillars. Again the roof is the dominant element and the walls are barely there. But given its urban context Fehn surrounded the pavilion with a second set of concrete walls that edit out any visual noise. This results in an introverted space filled with daylight, views of the sky and momentary glimpses of the surrounding context. The concrete walls extend the space visually further dematerializing the glass walls and providing a calm backdrop for the exhibition.

    SF Oslo Cafe with People_ Mette Aamodt

    Grosch Bistro, Photo: Mette Aamodt

    SF Oslo Pavilion Perimeter_Mette Aamodt

    Pavilion at The National Museum – Architecture, Photo: Mette Aamodt

    Dialogue With Materials

    To find one’s place in the world, according to Fehn, and to be truly present, involves all of your senses in dialogue with the materials around you. Fehn writes, “You converse with material through the pores of your skin, your ears, and your eyes. The dialogue does not stop at the surface, as its scent fills the air. Through touch, you exchange heat and the material gives you an immediate response… Speak to a mountain ledge, and [it gives] sound a mirror. Listen to a snow-covered forest, and it offers the language of silence.” For his projects he used a very limited palette of materials whose properties he knew very well: wood, glass, concrete, brick, plaster and light. His work was rooted in construction and the very practical building techniques of Norway, so all of the materials are used in a very natural form, unadorned and lacking in any detail that was not necessary for construction.

    Slow Modernism

    In Sverre Fehn: Works, Projects, Writing, 1949-1996, Christian Nordberg-Shulz writes about Fehn’s trip to Morocco in 1952 and how this informed Fehn’s understanding of the relationship between space and time. Fehn went to discover new things and found many things he had seen before, things he recognized in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier. Nordberg-Shulz said Fehn discovered the atemporality and anonymity of vernacular architecture; “He discovered that basic architectonic phenomena are timeless.”

    In Fehn’s view, this atemporality characterized the period when people thought the world was flat and ended at the horizon that they could see. When they discovered the world was round, virtually endless, they developed perspective as a means for defining space, as Fehn writes, “to distinguish scientifically between inside and outside,” with a linear and homogenous time marching along beside it.

    According to Nordberg-Shulz, the modernists, inspired by the vernacular, sought to define a new meaning for the “atemporal” in architecture, but one that was more qualitative and involved the interaction of the individual’s heart and mind with the modern world. This suggests an alternate history of the modern movement, or at least part of it, a slower, humanist approach that typically gets drowned out.

    Nordberg-Shulz writes, “It is a misunderstanding to think of the modern movement as one interested exclusively in change; its pioneers were strongly aware of the need for ‘constants,’ or ‘basic principles.’” Indeed, the modern movement has been characterized by its obsession with speed, change and novelty. But as with all histories there are always many versions. The history of Slow Modernism is certainly one worth researching and will be the subject of my upcoming book.

    About Sverre Fehn
    Sverre Fehn

    Sverre Fehn, Photo: Stina Glømmi

    Sverre Fehn (1924 – 2009) was the leading Norwegian architect of his generation.

    In 1952–1953, during travels in Morocco, he discovered some universal spatial principles which were to deeply influence his future work. Later he moved to Paris, where he worked for two years in the studio of Jean Prouvé, and where he knew Le Corbusier. On his return to Norway, in 1954, he opened a studio of his own. In the 1960s he produced two works that have remained highlights in his career: the Nordic Pavilion at the Venice Biennale (1959-62) and the Hedmark Museum in Hamar, Norway (1967–79).

    He taught in Oslo’s School of Architecture as well as at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. His highest international honor came in 1997, when he was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize.

    Bibliography
  • The Dressmaker and The Architect

    Up until the early 20th century when a man or woman of means needed a new suit or dress they would go to a Tailor or Dressmaker.

    They might have had some magazine clippings of what they liked and a vague description of the type of event they would use it for.

    The dressmaker would take their measurements and send them on their way.

    Later he or she would do some sketches of the design to show to the clients and if they approved she would make the garment.

    One hundred years later, fashion has moved on but architecture is still trying to practice in exactly this same way. The Dressmaker is out of business but the Architect still fights for the few small commissions that remain.

    The Architect of today practices just like the Dressmaker of 100 years ago.

    Ready-to-wear fashion has revolutionized that industry sacrificing quality for quantity. And it has created some significant human and environmental issues in the process. Labor conditions for textile workers, environmental pollution from pesticides used in cotton production and the waste of poor-quality Fast Fashion are but a few examples.

    Move-in-ready spec homes constitute more than 98% of new home starts each year, again sacrificing quality for quantity. McMansions are 50% bigger than the average home for the same sized family 50 years earlier. They are built quickly, with poor quality materials that do not hold up and the residential building industry is notorious for wage theft and exploitation of illegal workers.

    McMansions are the Fast Fashion of the building industry.

    Fast Fashion and Junkspace, the term we use for spec houses, strip malls, etc., have as much in common as the Dressmaker and the Architect, however the Architect is not out of business yet. Hundreds of young architects graduate from school every year and they are passionate, motivated and creative. If only they recognized the precarious state of the profession and banded together to forge a new future that created buildings that were good, clean and fair for all. That is the mission of the Slow Space Movement.

  • Junkspace and the Death of Architecture: Slow Space Finds its Nemesis

    “Junkspace” is a rambling, brilliant lamentation on the death of architecture by one who actively participated in its demise. It was a scathing critique at the time it was first published, but now 16 years later, it can only be seen as a prophecy. A siren call fully actualized.

    The essay “Junkspace” by Rem Koolhaas first appeared in The Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping (2001). It was reissued along with an introduction and essay entitled “Running Room” by Hal Foster in 2013.

    Surprisingly little has been written about “Junkspace” and I believe that is a reflection on the discipline of architecture rather than on the importance of the essay.

    Koolhaas was far ahead of his time when he wrote this in 2001. What should have been a wake up call has merely languished. I myself was at the GSD then and had no awareness of what Koolhaas was doing or thinking. Nor can I recognize any shift in OMA’s work that might be attributed to this.

    I stumbled upon the essay last year when I was doing my own research. The title alone spoke to me and I found the concept of Junkspace to be the perfect villain and counterpoint for Slow Space. The essay by Koolhaas should be read in it entirety as it can be interpreted in many different ways. Here is a link to do that. Below is a series of excerpts from the text alternated with my own comments.

     

    The End of Architecture

     

    “It was a mistake to invent modern architecture for the 20th century. Architecture disappeared in the 20th century.”

    Why? Because we lost our ability to appreciate, experience and therefore design space.

    “As if space itself is invisible, all theory for the production of space is based on an obsessive preoccupation with its opposite: substance and objects, i.e., architecture. Architects could never explain space; Junkspace is our punishment for their mystifications.”

    It is the resultant of the image-driven obsession with form.

    “Junkspace is the body double of space, a territory of impaired vision, limited expectation, reduced earnestness.”

    The junk food of architecture, Junkspace is the McMansions, the shopping malls and casinos that are bloated on fillers and chemicals.

    “Because it cannot be grasped, Junkspace cannot be remembered. It is flamboyant yet unmemorable.”

    Initially exciting but quickly leaves you feeling empty, lost and detached.

    “Junkspace is overripe and undernourishing at the same time.”

    And will ultimately make you sick.

     

    Starchitecture

     

    “Junkspace is post-existential; it makes you uncertain where you are, obscures where you go, undoes where you were.”

    We are distracted from the essential questions of life – who are you? what is the meaning of life? – by busyness, overstimulation, visual and audible noise.

    “(Note to architects: you thought that you could ignore Junkspace, visit it surreptitiously, treat it with condescending contempt or enjoy it vicariously… because you could not understand it, you’ve thrown away the keys…. But now your own architecture is infected, has become equally smooth, all-inclusive, continuous, warped, busy, atrium-ridden….) JunkSignature™ is the new architecture: the former megalomania of a profession contracted to manageable size.”

    Junkspace is the dominant paradigm and architects, without protest or criticality, have succumbed.

    “A shortage of masters has not stopped a proliferation of masterpieces. ‘Masterpiece’ has become a definitive sanction, a semantic space that saves the object from criticism, leaves its qualities unproven, its performance untested, its motives unquestioned. Masterpiece is no longer an inexplicable fluke, a roll of the dice, but a consistent typology: its mission to intimidate, most of its exterior surfaces bent, huge percentages of its square footage dysfunctional, its centrifugal components barely held together by the pull of the atrium.”

    The avant-garde and cutting edge have become so commonplace. Every day a new iconic building replaces the last in the world lexicon of #architectureporn. Novelty feeds consumption and wastes our resources.

    “Junkspace is a look-no-hands world….”

    Stunts. Gimmicks. Turning Tricks.

     

    Neoliberalism, Consumption and Entertainment

     

    “Junkspace happens spontaneously through natural corporate exuberance – the unfettered play of the market – or is generated through the combined actions of temporary ‘czars’ with long records of three-dimensional philanthropy.”

    Speculation and development provide the world with what people think they want and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    “Junkspace is political: it depends on the central removal of the critical faculty in the name of comfort and pleasure.”

    Neoliberalism feeds Junkspace’s growth and power as it spreads across the globe.

    “The chosen theater of megalomania – the dictatorial – is no longer politics, but entertainment. Through Junkspace, entertainment organizes hermetic regimes of ultimate exclusion and concentration: concentration gambling, concentration golf, concentration convention, concentration movie, concentration culture, concentration holiday.”

    The King of Junkspace controls all of these kingdoms – casinos, golf courses, hotels and resorts – and has used entertainment as a means of wielding political force. In 2017, Koolhaas’s architectural lamentation has become a prophecy of the rise of Donald Trump.

  • The Metaphysics of Time, Space, Spacetime and Slow Space

    Time, space and matter can fuse together in great architecture to allow for deep human experiences. In fact, time can literally and perceptually slow down under the right spatial conditions and this may provide an antidote to our instantaneous, speed-driven contemporary lives. 

    Acceleration

     

    Society has been evolving rapidly over the last 200 years with the pace growing exponentially. In the Industrial Revolution machines were invented to help us produce food and clothing more quickly to meet the needs of a growing population. Trains were invented to haul the large quantities of raw materials. Steel was produced to build bigger buildings to house the machines. Mechanical technology helped people overcome their inherent slowness and the speed was exhilarating. Machines got faster. Cars replaced horses and planes replaced boats and trains. Production of real goods became efficient, profitable and affordable. In Architecture the Modern Movement rejected handcraft, called houses “machines for living” and encouraged the use of industrial, ready-made products.

    Mechanical technology helped people overcome their inherent slowness and the speed was exhilarating.

    The Digital Revolution of the 20th century allowed us to move information instantaneously. Faster processing allowed for faster machines. Synthetic materials filled the gap in raw materials. Production became faster and cheaper, and market-driven policies encouraged consumption. Architecture continued its love-affair with technology. Computer-aided design, manufacturing and fabrication allowed architecture to overcome its inherent slowness and the speed was exhilarating. Computers replaced hand-drafting, digital models replaced physical models, and complex geometries, new forms and photorealistic 3D images were all suddenly possible. A prolific era of image-making and rapid building created “Starchitects” whose iconic buildings were consumed worldwide in magazines and social media.

    The scarcity that exists today is time.

    But maybe we have topped out? The flow of information is instantaneous. The market is glutted with products and we have reachedpeak stuff,” according to the CEO of IKEA. We are running out of natural resources. And everybody is stressed out. We have invented all of these time-saving technologies but we feel like we have less time than ever.  The scarcity that exists today in the developed world is not food, clothing or shelter, it is time.

     

    Kairos – Quality Time Helps Us Feel Human

     

    Time is necessary for those fundamentally human aspects of life – love, connection, meaning, inspiration, awe, wonder. Things like creativity, art and intimacy cannot be done faster without paying a steep price. Carl Honoré, author of In Praise of Slowness, writes, “All the things that bind us together and make life worth living – community, family, friendship – thrive on the one thing we never have enough of: time.”

    But not all time is the same. Actually the Ancient Greeks had two different conceptions of time – chronos and kairos. Chronos refers to chronological or sequential time. Kairos refers to a moment of indeterminate length in which an event of significance happens. A good analogy for this is when the ball drops in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Counting down – 10, 9, 8 –  is chronos time – it is specific and measurable. But when the ball gets to zero time switches to kairos. We cheer, toast, kiss one another and celebrate. No one is counting anymore. We are just living in the moment and enjoying the experience of being together.

    Kairos also has a spatial element. For Aristotle, kairos was the time and space context for his proof to be delivered.  The Ancient Incas regarded time and space as a single concept. The Japanese concept of “ma” also relates time and space. Gunther Nitschke defines ma as “place,” in the following way, “place is the product of lived space and lived time, a reflection of our states of mind and heart.” “The dual relation of ma to space and time is not simply semantic. It reflects the fact that all experience of space is a time-structured process, and all experience of time is a space-structured process.” Furthermore Nitschke points out that the characters for time 時間 (literally: time-place) “is expressed in Japanese as “space in flow,” making time a dimension of space. Indeed, time is essential to human experience of place.” For more see this post.

    “All experience of space is a time-structured process, and all experience of time is a space-structured process.”

    These traditional notions of time and space contrasted with the Western definitions that were based on an assumption of universal time and three-dimensional Euclidean geometry. In this understanding space is considered a static backdrop for things happening in time. But in the early 20th century Einstein proved the Ancient Greeks, Incas and Japanese were right.

     

    Spacetime

     

    In 1905 Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity showed how measurements of space and time varied for observers in different reference frames and that time did in fact move slower under certain conditions. Special Relativity replaced the conventional notion of absolute time with the notion of a time that is dependent on reference frame and spatial position. Time is the fourth dimension of space. This continuum of time and space became known as “spacetime.” In modern physics things that happen in spacetime are called “events” with both spatial and durational qualities. This discovery was so revolutionary that the discipline of Architecture has still not figured out how to adapt this theory more than 100 years after it was proven.

    Time is the fourth dimension of space.

    Architecture has relied on Euclidean geometry and Cartesian coordinates since the beginning of its written history. It provides a fairly straightforward and static means of understanding space. It was measurable and finite. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is anything but. Everything is relative, mutable, experiential.

    There have been some attempts. Sigfried Gideon in his book Space, Time and Architecture introduced the idea in 1941, but no one picked it up. Kinetic architecture tries to address the dimension of time in a literal way. The work of Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry employ some of the new geometry but are physically and experientially static. More recently, Art Theory has explored slowness as a condition of contemporaneity as in Lutz Koepnick’s analysis On Slowness: Toward an Aesthetic of the Contemporary.

    Phenomenologists, like Architect and Philosopher Juhani Pallasmaa, have for some time understood the relationship between time and space and how they can fuse to create powerful architectural experiences. Phenomenology in Architecture is the philosophical study of the experience of built space, in contrast to the Cartesian method of analyzing the world as objects and sets of objects acting and reacting to one another, like Starchitecture.

    In his book, The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses, first published in 1996, Juhani Pallasmaa writes,

    “The incredible acceleration of speed during the last century has collapsed time into the flat screen of the present, upon which the simultaneity of the world is projected. As time looses its duration, and its echo in the primordial past, man loses his sense of self as a historical being, and is threatened by the ‘terror of time’. Architecture emancipates us from the embrace of the present and allows us to experience the slow, healing flow of time. […] The time of architecture is a detained time; in the greatest of buildings time stands firmly still. […] Time and space are eternally locked into each other in the silent spaces […]; matter, space and time fuse into one singular elemental experience, the sense of being.”

    Slow Space – Creating the Conditions for Deep Experiences

     

    The ideal conditions for slowing down, reflecting, be present and engaging our senses is in nature. And that is why so many people find nature rejuvenating. But great examples also exist in the built environment. One example is Grand Central Station in New York. Even though it was built for busy commuters when you enter the grand hall you can’t help but slow down (and maybe that is the point.) And if it is your first visit you have probably stopped in your tracks. The scale, proportion and light are comforting and awe-inspiring. In fact you will often see people just sitting on the floor in the middle of the space just to experience it.

    Slow Space to describe a carefully crafted physical space that creates the right atmosphere and conditions for slowing time and fostering deep meaningful experiences.

    We imagine the term Slow Space to describe a carefully crafted physical space that creates the right atmosphere and conditions for slowing time and fostering deep meaningful experiences. Slow Space can foster kairos, quality time, and provide the time and space for refuge in our busy lives. The clock may or may not literally beat slower but our experience of the place will be as if it had.

    Again Pallasmaa writes,

    “In memorable experiences of architecture, space, matter and time fuse into one singular dimension, into the basic substance of being, that penetrates our consciousness. We identify ourselves with this space, this place, this moment, and these dimensions become ingredients of our very existence. Architecture is the art of reconciliation between ourselves and the world, and this mediation takes place through the senses.”

    Architects used to know how to design Slow Space, and a few still do. Builders used to be able to build Slow Space, and a few still can. Our favorite architects from the past designed Slow Space – Frank Lloyd Wright and Alvar Aalto. And today the architects designing Slow Space are Peter Zumthor, Glenn Murcutt and a few others.

    But most of what we have around us is “junkspace” – bad buildings that are ugly, poorly designed, and unpleasant to be in, composed of cheap toxic materials that make people and the planet sick, and built by unskilled workers that are exploited, enslaved and endangered on the job. Starchitect Rem Koolhaas coined the term “junkspace” in 2001 in his ranting essay against shopping malls, casinos and suburban sprawl. In our opinion even much of the Starchitecture is junkspace because it is image-driven, trendy and poorly built.

    Slow Space is an ideal that we strive for in our work. At Aamodt / Plumb Architects we have our own SLOW Principles. They are (S)pace Not Form, (L)ess But Better, (O)ffer Empathy, and (W)holistic Thinking. Space Not Form means  focusing on the design and experience of space not formal object buildings to be admired from a distance. Less But Better means focusing on quality over quantity. Offer Empathy means human-centered design and fair labor practices. Wholistic Thinking means focusing on the whole and its impact on people and the planet.

    Slow Space and these SLOW principles are something we would like to see much more of in the world and we would like to inspire others to pursue them in their own ways. We can only do so much in our small practice but I know there are many architects out there that believe in these core values as well and are working toward a more positive built environment.

     

    Slow Space Movement – Expanding Our Impact

     

    We spend 90% of our lives indoors so the impact our field can have on people’s lives is enormous. That is why we have started the Slow Space Movement. Like Slow Food for the built environment, the Slow Space Movement hopes to create positive change in design and construction to benefit all people. Slow Space combines Slow Architecture and Slow Building into one movement for the entire AEC industry.

    The Slow Space Movement has three broad pillars that define it – Good, Clean and Fair. For a building to be Good it must beautiful, human-centered, and last 100 years. For it to be Clean it must be healthy for people and the planet. To be Fair its supply chain must be fair trade and workers must have fair labor.  

    All of these pillars are severely lacking in architecture, design and construction and the opportunities for improvement are enormous. Any effort to move the needle in just one of these areas will have a profoundly positive impact on people’s lives.

    You do not have to be designing hospitals in Africa to have an ethical practice. We all know how much our work impacts people’s lives. But our reach is getting smaller and smaller and market pressures are making it almost impossible to design and build high quality buildings. The media is peddling all these sexy images (#architectureporn) making architecture a commodity. A whole generation of young architects have no idea about scale and proportion. But there is power in numbers and it has never been easier to build a virtual community. Right now that is what we are trying to do. Initiate the conversation, band together, educate the public and eventually move the needle.

    The media is just peddling #architectureporn.

    This is a long-term project. Slow Food has been very successful in changing minds and attitudes about food. The fact the Whole Foods, craft beers and artisanal cheese is everywhere is a testament to that movement. But they started in 1986 – 30 years ago. But Architecture is slow so a slow movement is fitting. We have a lot of minds to change. And we need to get started.

  • Built with Blood – Labor Exploitation in US Construction

    I am Mette Aamodt. I’m an architect and founder of slowspace.org, which is basically a community of architects, designers, builders, artisans, activists, and lots of other people who care about our built environment. Together with my partner Andrew Plumb, we are starting a movement and we call it Slow Space. It is slow food for the built environment, and we have a manifesto. “Our world is covered in junk space: bad buildings that are ugly, poorly designed, and unpleasant to be in, composed of cheap toxic materials that make you and the planet sick, and built by unskilled workers that are exploited, enslaved and endangered on the job. Every day more of these buildings go up, but we say, ‘Enough is enough.’ The Slow Space Movement aims to end the mindless proliferation of junk space, to educate the public on the physical and psychological dangers and to inspire architects, designers, builders and artisans to stand up for buildings that are good, clean and fair.”

    In today’s video, I’m going to talk about the issue of fairness in the construction industry and I’m going to tell you the story of Luis. This is a true story. It was reported in The Boston Globe by Beth Healy and Meg Woolhouse in September, 2016. Okay, Luis was a 15 year old boy originally from Ecuador and living in Brockton, Massachusetts, attending high school there. One summer a couple of years ago, he took a summer job for a roofing company to make some extra money for his family. The job was in Maine. He was working on a house in Portland helping to fasten roofing shingles.

    One day he fell, and he tumbled down two stories and he severely shattered his leg. His employer did not call an ambulance. Instead, a coworker transported him 75 miles across state lines in the back of an old construction van to a Massachusetts hospital where he received emergency care. Luis was in severe pain. I don’t know how long it took them to get back to Massachusetts, but 75 miles in traffic takes a long time in these parts. He said, “I couldn’t breathe, much less talk. It’s pain you don’t forget.” The general contractor on the job said it wasn’t his responsibility because Luis was being paid by a subcontractor by the name of Force Construction. The JC had run regular background checks on Force and had confirmed at the time that they hired him that they had liability insurance and Workers’ Comp.

    Luis was actually being paid by another subcontractor called Twin Pines Construction and this was a company owned by the same person that owned Force. His name was Fernandes. That summer, Fernandes had let his Workers’ Comp policy lapse a month before Luis fell off the roof. This was not an isolated incident, by the way on the jobs of Fernandes and his companies. He and his companies have been cited for more than 100 violations and have racked up $1.5 million in fines from OSHA. Luis did eventually receive the medical care that he needed. He was transferred to Boston Children’s Hospital and a rod was surgically placed in his femur. A workers’ advocate helped him navigate all of his medical appointments and paperwork, and a Medford lawyer helped him to sort through the tree of subcontractors until they finally found one who had insurance to cover him.

    Luis is one of thousands of people, many undocumented, many children, who fill the need for cheap labor in Boston’s booming construction industry. They hold slabs of sheetrock and climb rooftops and dusty scaffolds, doing often dangerous work for contractors looking for cheap labor. They’re not on the books. They’re paid illegally in cash and for much less than the prevailing wage. The workers advocate who helped Luis said this is not about catching a few bad apples. We have evolved a system for providing subsidized labor to build our houses and it’s based on the vulnerability of the workforce.

    Luckily, at least in the US, we have laws aimed at preventing this type of thing, but enforcement is difficult and there are many ways to get around it. For example, many contractors would prefer to just pay the fines rather than to change their ways. Everyone complains about the cost of construction, but actually the true cost is not even being counted. If you take the example of Luis, his suffering subsidized the cost of the roofing job on that project.

    Many prefer to look the other way and I’ve been guilty of that in the past, but this is an issue we want to bring into the light. If you care about these issues, if this is something that’s important to you, that you’re interested in, and you care about good, clean and fair buildings for all, then please join us by subscribing to our mailing list at slowspace.org and/or liking us on our Facebook page. That’s facebook.com/slowspacemovement. Thank you. I look forward to seeing you there.

  • Slow Space Manifesto

    Say No To Junkspace.

    Say Yes To Good, Clean, Fair Buildings For All.

    #slowspace

     

    Our world is covered in junkspace* – bad buildings that are ugly, poorly designed, and unpleasant to be in, composed of cheap toxic materials that make you and the planet sick, and built by unskilled workers that are exploited, enslaved and endangered on the job. Every day more of these buildings go up, but we say enough! The Slow Space Movement aims to end the mindless proliferation of junkspace, to educate the public on its physical and psychological dangers and to inspire architects, designers, builders and artisans to stand up for buildings that are good, clean and fair for all.
    *junkspace credit: Rem Koolhaas, 2001

  • Killing Time in Japanese Space

    Benjamin Franklin would never know how significant his little phrase “Time is money” would come to be in the American psyche. This turn-of-phrase rolls off the tongue every time we need a justification for why we are trying to hurry up. But this is not a universal truth. It turns out it is a very American idea that, according to Gunther Nitschke, is based in geography.

    In “Time is Money – Space is Money” published in 1993 Nitschke, the German architect and planner, compares how the time deficit in the US and the space deficit in Japan have affected the design logic of each country. There are numerous lessons from Japan that are applicable to urban living all over the world as well as for our investigation of Slow Space.

    Time is gained by ‘killing’ (compressing) space.

    He reasons that time is more valuable in a large country with relatively few people, like the US. “America has always had sufficient space. The result has been an appreciation of, if not an obsession with time. ‘Wasting time’ is only possible in the context of a continual goal-oriented rat race. Thus, America’s greatest contributions of human ingenuity have been in the realm of time problems – the speed of and accommodation for movement of objects, people and information.” He goes on to say “America’s ‘places’ are far from each other. Since one is compelled to ‘waste’ time moving from A to B, one tries to shorten the lapses of ’empty’ time by compressing experiential space through speed and ease of movement. Time is gained by ‘killing’ (compressing) space.”

    Space is created by ‘killing’ (slowing down) time.

    On the flip side, space is most appreciated by people in a small country with a large population. “Throughout its history Japan has had too little space. The result is a reflex to use space intensively, filling and refilling it. Accordingly, Japan’s greatest contributions of human ingenuity have been in the field of space problems – the terracing of mountains for rice paddies or dwellings, the packing of people in ‘capsule’ housing.” Therefore, “Since Japanese ‘places’ tend to be very close to each other, the tendency is to expand space by increasing experiential time through the reduction of speed and the obstruction of movement. Space is created by ‘killing’ (slowing down) time.”

    For more on the metaphysics of space and time read this post.

    Image: “Japanese traditional style house design” (CC BY 2.0) by TANAKA Juuyoh (田中十洋)