The perception of space in Architecture. (1/4)

Part 1 of 4 : Introduction

My goal here is neither to build an architectural theory, as many authors have tried without successfully finding a unified one, nor to reduce architecture to mere spatial experimentation. I will instead attempt to unveil the codes that are specific to architectural space, as well as the methods used by architects to design meaningful spaces. From there we will have a better idea on how to use architecture to enhance knowledge construction via hybrid environments.

In Western culture, we had to wait until the emergence of Einstein’s theory of relativity, in order to scientifically reach the conclusion that “Time and space are inextricably connected through the speed of light within a quadri-dimensional space-time (Plank). Space is generally considered as infinite.” This definition lacks clarity from an architectural point of view because it refers to a dimension of reality beyond our tridimensional experience of reality to which Newtonian laws apply. Let’s grasp this from a more philosophical point of view. The encyclopedia reminds us that, “to Democritus, space is an empty receptacle; to Aristotle, it is the boundary surrounding total beings; to Leibniz, space is not something that exists of its own, but rather a representation of the order reigning amongst co-existing units.” [Encyclopedia Universalis] E. Kant leads us to the next important step, since to him space and time are a priori conditions of perception, given before we can even experiment with them. Thus, he defines space as a “system of laws governing the juxtaposition of things related to figures, sizes and distances, allowing us to perceive them“. By studying the above definitions, we understand that it is a person (Aristotle’s “total being,” Leibniz’s “units,” while Kant speaks of perceptions) who perceives space and represents it through different elements (“figures, sizes and distances”).

Different fields of study give us different definitions for space. Euclidian geometry describes a very different space than non-Euclidian geometry does. Indeed, a curved space is very much different than an n-dimensional space. Topology is another very interesting way of describing our environment. Therefore, this very much polysemic concept of space can be used to describe a variety of concepts. Each field of research, each art, each culture, each individual determines his own space. The perception of space is a function of the human body. Space is the result of the representation that an individual or a group of individuals have created. As the concept of space is tied to conventions and codes that allow a group of people – who possess the decoding key – to inhabit the same shared space, our goal is to unveil these codes.

Despite this quite vague concept of space we will now concentrate on the architectural space, its perceptual properties and its meaningful codes. In order to comprehend how architecture’s impact on people, we must first understand how we perceive architecture.

As a starting point we will use the comparison suggested by Jean Piaget [1926], between the ontogenesis of logical structures in children and the genesis of mathematical concepts. Following those observations we will define the processes by which we create representations of our environment since our birth. Through this evolution appeared five fractal stages that help us to comprehend our surrounding.  We will use a fractal approach – each stage of resolution includes the previous ones, the part is contained within the whole and the whole within the part – to briefly explore those five stages: from form to object, internal space and perceptions, organization of spaces, external space and urban space.

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