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Tuesday 24 May 2011

Spatial Form in Social and Aesthetic Processes: Concrete Geometries, AA, London.

Review by Nathan Breeze

Concrete Geometries is an ongoing research initiative at the Architectural Association directed by Marianne Mueller and Olaf Kneer. Derived from ‘Concrete’ referring actual, non-abstract experience and ‘Geometries’ referring to spatial form, it is an investigation into the relationship between spatial geometry and social practice. In short, the research poses the fundamental question that drives architectural practice; how can the design of the built environment affect human behaviour and processes?

Over the past 18 months the initiative has collected a diverse range of completed work from all over the world that critically explores this immediate relationship. Those selected range from the photographing of people maintaining personal space in Canary Wharf to imaginative interventions encouraging interaction in a school in Berlin. The selected work is currently on display in the Front Members’ Room at the AA, which features a site-specific installation by the artist Fran Cottell (whose work is also displayed). A raised platform cleverly allows for a variety of conditions for social interaction; terraced seating, narrow passing spaces and more generous spaces to consider the work.

In the attempt to structure the wide variety of submissions, the curators have divided the research into four categories; Perception and Cognition, Social Contracts, Sensory Engagement and Relational Space. Walking around the exhibition I found that the most interesting and convincing projects showed images of people interacting with the designed space. Of particular note is Dymaxian Sleep; a garden designed in Quebec by Jane Hutton and Adrian Blackwell. A mesh hammock-like structure allows the visitors to sit above the aromatic plants, shifting the ocular centric experience of being in a garden to one dominated by the smell of the plants as well as new social conventions.

For me, I would have liked to have seen more variety in the way the projects were represented. Architects and designers often fall into the trap of prescriptively describing how people will use the space as the result of a series of theoretically informed moves they have made. In particular I feel film could have been used to present a more convincing, ‘concrete’ documentation of the projects; bringing in the enriching dimensions of time, sound, movement and atmosphere. Nevertheless it is a very promising start which, as the directors mention, aims to open up previously absent debate; allowing for the cross fertilisation of new ideas; both anthropological and spatial.

In addition to Fran Cottel’s site-specific installation, a further case study for Relational Space could be found in the design and the layout of the school itself. It’s grand yet domestic character and circulation patterns linked by a bar and central terrace, create (as was the case on the warm opening evening) a rich variety of intimate and public, formal and informal social spaces.

It is no surprise that it is at the AA where these questions are being posed and relationships investigated. With a list of past students including now internationally recognised architects Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas and David Chipperfield, the AA has consistently been at the forefront of pioneering Architectural Research. I look forward to the next stage of the investigation.

Concrete Geometries will be exhibited in the Front Members Room at the Architectural Association School of Architecture until 28th May. More information: www.concrete-geometries.net

Room Drawing Installation - Christine Rusche, Germany
Transforming existing spaces with graphic means
Credit: © Christine Rusche

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