Background

The idea that spaces and their form affect people seems an obvious statement to make especially by an architect, who’s primary role – one imagines – is to provide spaces for people. But over the last few years there has been surprisingly little discourse on this subject, and anything that has been articulated has been largely fragmentary. Architecture seems to be losing sight of those difficult to quantify social, societal, experiential and even human implications of its production.

The title of this project is a work-in-progress term derived from the notion of concrete as ‘existing in reality or in actual experience’ and ‘capable of being perceived by the senses’ and the abbreviation ‘geometries’ acting as a surrogate for architectural form or figure. Concrete Geometries is interested in the particular and immediate, and with actual use or practice. It shares concepts with Concrete Science (such as the focus on concrete things instead of abstract laws), Concrete Poetry (with its emphasis on the visual form of things as producing meaning), Concrete Music (the idea of ‘live’ material) and Concrete Art (in particular its rejection of representation).

The work started with a series of questions, structuring the research into thematic areas which were adjusted and qualified throughout the project. The base assumption was simple and affirmative: architectural form has a direct impact onto people’s behaviour such as . . .

… supporting or subverting space perception and orientation. The perception of depth, direction, volume, shapes, contours, figure/ground, angle relationships, symmetries etc, plays an important part in navigation, identification and orientation processes.

… stimulating psychological or behavioural responses in a viewer/user through particular aesthetic or sensory experiences. These experiences might include different scales (from individual to collective) and can be interpreted as a type of engagement.

… supporting or preventing, propping or triggering individual or collective acts of inhabitation, appropriation, use and other types of direct engagement allowing social situations to unfold, both planned and unplanned. The accurate dimensioning of the space in relation to the human body and the specific social situation are critical, the social act itself, however, completely unpredictable.

… representing specific social cultures and as such delineating or breaking down boundaries and hierarchies. A space or architectural form might be read as embracing or expelling, inviting or excluding, assembling, distributing or dividing.

In short, through this research, we started to link the question of architectural form to forms of appropriation, searching for an explicit relational potential in architecture.

But how can architectural form be thought of as in relation? How to make connections between ‘the lived and the built’ (Shonfield) or ‘anthropological space’ and ‘geometrical space’ (Merleau Ponty), between a defined form/figure and the dynamics of social and perceptional space, this ever-evolving field of activity, inhabitation and experience?

Participating architect Matthias Ballestrem draws on Walter Benjamin, who identifies two ways of appropriating architecture: firstly, through use and habit, and secondly, through visual contemplation.

From the beginning the project was split into two interconnecting realms: A. Geometry and Perception and B. Geometry and Social Processes. These were then further divided into the thematic fields touched on above. Any of these divisions are of course totally artificial and rarely exist in reality.

At the core of this enquiry stands the user/viewer in his dual role: as someone who on the one hand is directly and physically engaged with a built reality through acts of appropriation and use: and on the other as someone who receives, perceives and contemplates – a more removed yet equally engaged relationship.

Recent art practices have managed to involve the user/viewer into their production in ways worth noting. Relational art or ‘relational aesthetics’ experiments with the lasting construction of social processes and sociabilities. Other more visual movements within the art scene are working with the sense perception of art as a collective experience with an implied social dimension.

One of the aims of this project from the very beginning was to expose these different professional practices to each other and allow cross-fertilisation. The projects presented here were collated through an open interdisciplinary call, a highly unpredictable process able to connect knowledge and people beyond one’s well-guarded domain and in the process contained a substantial element of risk – and one worth taking we felt. The selection presented here provides a cross-section through current art, architecture and design practice preoccupied with relational spatial production.

Projects in the first category play with the perception of the viewer: they range from being perceptually manipulating (Tekuto choreography of the viewer’s gaze, Rusche initiating the viewer to move) to sensually engaging (Span’s erotic and Hofmann’s fantastical spaces, Hutton/Blackwell’s simple shift that changes a visual relationship into an sensual one). Sharing the belief that spaces are only complete when consumed by a viewer, these projects understand perception as an active form of engagement with a social dimension.

Projects in the second category work with socio-spatial forms and the relationships they produce: from social experiments (Cottell, Studio Vermijs) to the generation of social encounters and sociabilities (BARarchitekten, Schiemenz), from social contracts and commentaries (Brandlhuber’s built contract and SMAQs reworking of an iconic ideal) to direct and simple social support (Wittenberg). These projects prove the power of spatial form and its direct consequences on how we live together.

Throughout the research we have been looking for affirmative practice-based approaches rather than critiques. The selection of projects presented here is in no way conclusive, but opens up a debate around the social and experiential values of spatial form – their relational potential – an enquiry that is to be continued.