composing the experience of space

(Originally Published in E-MAIL MAGAZINE ISSUE #3)

By Ingeborg Stavdal

Architecture is not a wall with doors, nor is it a roof, a column, a beam, or a facade. It is rather the space created by a composition of these different components. It can be defined as a product of an idea which is further executed and materialized, interfering with our natural surroundings, a manipulation of already existing space.

Do you remember the last time you entered a cathedral/church room? The passage into darkness, and light streaming in from stained glass windows? The dramatic drop in temperature? The cold, hard stone floors? The murmurs of other visitors echoing, the acoustic of the choir song? Being a small human being, inside an enormous space?

Our experience of space is not strictly visual but stimulates all our senses. Depending on our imagination, feelings and state of mind, it is definitely subjective. One could argue that ‘successful’ architecture allows this individual experience of a space to harmonize with the ‘already’ intended ‘purpose’/’function’ of the space.

The Jewish Museum in Berlin by architect Daniel Libeskind consists of three rooms which are all very particular in how they almost insistently, create an accentuated experience of space. This is how I would describe it:

One of the rooms is dominated by a corner of a very acute angle. Upon entering the room, you are led towards and ‘into’ this corner, which is so dark you can not spot the actual peak of it. Completely cast in shadows, you are enclosed by darkness the further in you go. The increasing feeling of disquiet makes you tilt your head up towards the ceiling, and far above your head is a small gleam of light emerging. The experience of the space is so overwhelming, you do not stay there lingering/escape quickly.

If you have never visited this room yourself, your experience of that space will now be influenced by the verbal narration of the space. It is nevertheless my personal experience, and therefore demonstrates how the medium and composition of details can direct the experience of space of someone else.

What happens to our experience of space, when communicated through the two-dimensionality of a photograph? The process of replicating a three-dimensional space within a two-dimensional photograph means to emphasize our vision, detaching the remaining senses, stimulating our imagination in a different way. A photograph of a space is a product of a series of conscious and subconscious choices (made by the photographer), such as the following:

  • viewpoint, perspective: From the eye level, one can easier to imagine a space as a human being would. The more one divert from this, the more one is probable to divert from the spatial experience intended by the architect of the space.

  • composition of colour, pattern, symmetry, surface, light and shadow: As with any visual aesthetic product, the composition of different elements creates different ‘expressions’.

  • people or objects: People ‘doing stuff’/’using’ the space in a certain way, or associative objects can direct our imagination in different directions.

The two-dimensional extraction process of a photograph can accentuate, and produce a multitude of different experiences of the same space, depending on the composition of the photograph.

A large amount of our spatial experiences in our lives are created from photographs. We do in fact depend on photographs to represent the spaces that are inaccessible to us. The photographing of spaces grants anyone architectural powers, becoming the architect of the experience of space.

A photograph can aestheticize spaces that are often regarded as ‘ugly’ (“Seeing the beauty in ugly!”). A photograph can convey spatial experiences divergent from experiences in the actual space. A photograph can create an experience of space from spaces that do not exist, (but when does a space really exist?!).

When the visual sense is isolated, the potent interplay between smell, sound, touch, (and taste!) is lost. The feelings and sensory experiences from a particular space can be communicated, and also enhanced, but a photograph can never replicate space.

Contrary to nature, the architecture and the photograph are in essence compositions of thoughts and ideas, created to evoke something in us.