Skrzypczak / Bodily Movement in Architectural Theory and Its Implications for Spatial Composition

Bodily Movement in Architectural Theory and Its Implications for Spatial Composition

Author: Wiktor Skrzypczak, HCU Hamburg

Supervisor: Matthias Ballestrem, Prof. Dr., HCU Hamburg

Research stage: Final doctoral stage

Category: Paper

This recent theoretical research concludes my PhD, which in itself was practice-based. And what I'm doing now is developing a taxonomy or a map of movement aspects of spatial experience. Before I go on, let me give you some background information on why I'm doing this. My previous practice-based research consisted of movement practices that try to illuminate how can we impact our bodily state, our embodiment and thus change the way we are perceiving and imagining space and maybe even change the way we are designing space. I've conducted a series of smaller and bigger experiments with students, with clients and by myself, which in themselves were mostly self-directing, grounded rather in pragmatic knowledge, than in theoretical knowledge. But at some point, I realized that the possibilites of embodied experimental design are so many that I need more systematic orientation or top-down navigation through these practices, also in order to be able to transfer the knowledge from these experiments to my community of practice and to the scientific community. Briefly, that's the purpose of this theoretical work.

Table 1: Categories of movement analysis.

Table 1: Categories of movement analysis.

At the previous CA2RE I finished my presentation with the sketch of a map that shows the core notions used by space theorists like Vischer, Wölfflin, Bachelard and movement theorists such as Laban, Bartenieff, Bainbridge Cohen and Stark Smith. And I've demonstrated that there are certain notions, which repeat throughout the authors and throughout the disciplines. And what I'm presenting today is the result of the systematic linking of both fields. What you are seeing now (Table 1) is again a table with movement theorists on the right and space theorists on the left, with the core notions that they use and with the many transversal lines which connect these notions. It is a preliminary step toward finding out which transversals are unique. What I'm looking for in this complex map of linked notions are the primal movement aspects of spatial experience and in order to identify them, I analyzed (Table 2) what compositional relations results from each primal movement - because I'm interested in the relevance of the movement for the architectural form and composition and for the act of composing itself. Then, I analyzed what concepts do the authors use when they speak about this movement in abstract terms. I also noted what are the exemplary forms named by the authors, so that this “dry” analysis is more tangible for the readers.

Table 2: Categories of movement analysis.

Table 2: Categories of movement analysis.

Let me give you an overview of the primal movements I identified. These are entropic movements, flowing/floating, condensing/expanding, grounding, balancing, toning, articulating, closing, opening, timing, facing/reaching, wandering/tracing, positioning/occupying and focusing. Now I’ll go again through these primal movements and dwell a bit on the details. Let's start with grounding, which is a very simple of movement. The spatial forms we're dealing with in grounding is, is obviously, the ground and a self-supporting form lying on the ground - that is grounding. This relation between the ground and the structure is already a compositional relation. So, we have upper regions yielding into the lower regions and into the ground and we have the supporting parts underneath. The authors which I sampled used the notions of the centre of mass and its level above the ground in order to describe this spatial phenomenon abstractly. Additionally, they deployed notions of force line, especially, the plumb line - the line which connects the centre of mass of the structure with the centre of the planet.

We could go on now with movements that are more refined like balancing or toning or we could have a glimpse at movements that are more primitive. They are relevant for our taxonomy because they show the continuity of sensing oneself internally and sensing external spatial forms, but I will go through them only very briefly. These are internal movements in general, which are exemplified by the flows of blood circulation, respiration and nutrition. And we perceive them interoceptively as a fluid composition of flows and currents. They have been abstracted in architectural theory, for instance, by Bachelard as the “inner immensity”, as vastness within ourselves. Other primal movement is condensing and expanding against the membrane of the cell, a kind of proto-wall, the primal sense of inside and outside (cf. Bainbridge Cohen). If we go further back, we will see that the sampled authors seek the origins of these movements in entropic movements of matter of physical matter, but we won't dwell on these movements here. Instead, let us go back to more refined and tangible movements.

If we consider a structure that is grounding, with the increase of its height it will begin to balance in order not to fall. Some authors relate the movement of balancing to symmetric forms, respectively to asymmetric forms, both of which are a result of a compositional relation of counterparts compensating each other's weight. This phenomenon has been theorised through the notions of the standpoint, the vertical midline and the dimension of height. It is because, only a balanced body, or composition, is able to maintain its vertical midline and avoid falling beyond its standpoint.

Then we have the primal movement of tonig. Toning is connected to the analytic notions of force and its quantity and to the bodily tone and it establishes the compositional relationship of elements aligning to the force lines or elements being free from the force lines. An example could be a structure specialized in supporting other structures where the direction of the force lines shapes the form as is the case of Gothic arch.

Then we have the movement of articulating, which is described as the dissociation of independent members from the undifferentiated mass. While through toning the form differentiates its materials, through articulating it differentiates itself into members and sections. Accordingly, the compositional relation is the relation between the parts as well as the way how they connect with each other, how they develop joints. We are speaking here also about the degree to which they are able to dissociate from the mass, the degree to which they are optimized in their quantity.

The next primal movement could be closing - a movement which is very often attributed to a corner of two walls, a simple refuge that emerges from the compositional relation of the perimeter circumscribing the void. The sampled authors use the notions of enclosure, free space and width dimension to analyze this phenomenon.

Then we have the primal movement of opening which is not as much the opposite of closing but rather a spatial phenomenon directed toward the outdoors, the ecological images. The compositional relationship which establishes this phenomenon is the degree to which the Self interchanges with the World or with the Other or the degree to which the Self separates from them. Inevitably, the analytic concepts of Self and Other have been complemented by the majority of sampled authors with the concept of empathy.

Then, the next primal movement which I identified is facing/reaching. It's realized through the compositional relation of orienting oneself towards things and seizing them and it has been theorised through the concepts of spatial directions, the frontal direction being one of them, as well as the concept of kinesphere, a multidirectional space defined through the extent of one’s limbs. Exemplary forms which result from this primal movement are the ergonomic forms of furnishings, handles, belongings, as much as the the facade.

The primal movement of wandering/tracing is basically unconstrained locomotion. On a small scale, it establishes inhabitable living space, as opposed to spaces that confine our movements. On a bigger scale, it produces the path. It has been theorised through the concepts of depth dimension, and trace left by the subject moving through the layers of foregrounds and backgrounds. Accordingly, we are dealing here with compositional relations of confluencing, diverging and intersecting traces which as well as overlapping and succeeding depth layers.

The next primal movement, which also relates to the frontal direction is positioning oneself and thus occupying the space. It is exemplified by a home, a tomb, an obelisk and it establishes the compositional relation of the object that emanates or hosts human presence. It’s the abstract notions of presence and habitat that have been used to theorize the phenomenon of positioning and occupying.

Finally, the last primal movement, which I identified among the sampled authors, is the movement of focusing/attending. And although in itself it's rather a movement of attention than a physical movement, it also includes the subtle physical movement of sensory organs. It has been theorized, among others, through the notions of focus and periphery and it creates the compositional relations such as emphasising a single element among many, or, conversely, holistically relating everything to everything, each part to each part. The exemplary forms are an eye-catcher, a vista, or the unified feeling of the room - its atmosphere.

Thank you for your patience. With these fourteen or so primal movements, I hope to have covered the multitude of ways through which the architectural space has been theorized through the lens of the moving body. I admit that such a taxonomy might be misused as a normative tool that constrains the possibilities of the creative embodied practice, be it design practice or movement practice. However, I'm convinced that such a taxonomy might help practitioners to be more precise and explicit about what they are doing, to easily demonstrate how their practice navigates through the routes of the established knowledge and how it leaves these routes and explores the indefinite possibilities of “what a body can do” to speak with Spatz and thus creates original knowledge.