When the social scientist begins to explore the contemporary discourse by focusing on the field of architecture, he is immediately intrigued by its general structure. Architecture is almost always conceived, represented and criticized as an object that is experienced from the outside, a closed, self-sufficient form, a convex entity. Architecture as a concave object that may be penetrated, lived in, used, and the building as an entity that may be experienced from within are generally extraneous, at least in venues such as the leading magazines, that carry the greatest authority as media in which architects and their critics may describe their approaches. Yet sociological, psychological and anthropological research on architecture, not to mention our everyday experiences as the distracted users of spaces, force us to overturn the picture: an architecture is only fully accomplished when it is invaded by life, when it encounters, or clashes with, those for which it is intended; when it demonstrates that it can anticipate and meet needs; when it is prepared to accommodate the unpredictable chaos created by those who pass through it and live in it. As a result, the social sciences applied to architecture are immediately forced to make a first, fundamental distinction between two classes of goals pursued by architectural planning: goals that we may define as “external” when they concern the architectural object as a convex surface, as a form that is experienced from the outside, and “internal” goals when they on the contrary centre on how it is perceived and used when one enters it. It must be pointed out that “entering” is also understood in the more general sense of rendering the relationship with the space dynamic, experiencing all its qualities with one’s body. One therefore enters an architectural structure the moment it ceases to be merely a viewpoint, the moment the body moves and no longer represents the mere support of our eyes, but the articulated and sensible means of our experience of space.
The perceptive involvement in the two modes, internal and external, is radically different. In the former it is the act of looking that determines the experience; it is through the sense of sight that the architecture makes itself manifest, that it exists to us. In the latter the designed space surrounds our body, we are “inside”, and all the senses at our disposal (which are more than the five we usually reckon with!) are involved; the relationship with the architecture becomes intimate, totalizing, a hand-to-hand combat. It comes as no surprise that the mode of this relationship elicits the interest of the social sciences. In fact, it is precisely in this sense that a designed space serves as scenario for the activities of humans: it encourages or inhibits not only behaviours but also attitudes and cognitive styles. It is here that the social responsibility of the architect is greatest.
An experience of the space emerges from this corporeal and cognitive dynamic, from this complex interaction, whose order of complexity exceeds the sum of the single elements that we may retrace analytically. The toolbox of theoretical implements necessary to deal with this complexity is still quite empty; and we have yet to invent a language capable of rendering this complexity. It is no coincidence that it is a field of non-empiric knowledge, as philosophy that temporarily comes to the rescue, with concepts as atmosphere and Stimmung, to which we will return. Architecture as totalizing, corporeal, complex and intangible experience that centres on the subject of the “inside” and on living also applies to industrial spaces. It is possible to speak of an urban inhabitation with regard to industrial buildings, when they are conceived as a part of the city which we experience from the street through the connections it forms with its surroundings, and of a working inhabitation when we look at it from the inside, and the production areas are also conceived as work spaces where Man spends a decisive part of his life. Precisely this second aspect, which is generally treated as marginal in architectural treatises on industrial spaces, has lately become more prominent. Newspapers and television channels keep reporting, every day, on protests against the recession by showing us the faces and bodies of workers who have gone into the streets of the cities and in front of the industrial buildings. These workers of large and small industries are leaving their work environments, leaving “the doors open”, at the same time reminding us to take a look at those work spaces.
This has cast light on the cavity of the industrial space and the need to take care when designing these interiors, to pay attention to the relationships between the organization of the work space and the quality of life in the interior. Many researches have focused on this theme, demonstrating that there is a direct relationship between the characteristics of the workspace, the productivity and the overall satisfaction with the work as such.
However, the researches in question have produced lists of factors, lists created by the researcher to break down the problem, to parameterize it: the combination of characteristics as the quality of the light, the space available to everyone, the colour, the possibility to look outside from a window thus seem to determine the well-being perceived at the workplace. It is undoubtedly a research program that it would be worthwhile to analyse more in depth, but at the same time one gets the feeling that the longer the list, the harder it becomes to efficiently account for the overall perception of living in a space, of the way it offers itself as an opportunity for our experience. We will come back to this towards the end.
Some of the industrial buildings discussed in this issue seem to be aimed, to a marked degree, at dialoguing with their surroundings.
It is a matter of an immediate exchange, which is at the same form and relation, used to bridge the conspicuous gaps typical of industrial blocks. In fact, the functional requirements of industrial typologies generally entail an inert relationship between the building and its surroundings, made of alienation, large closed surfaces, clearly defined and uncrossable limits that mark the end of the city and the beginning of the manufacturing area. Exchanges with the world outside are reduced to a minimum, to observation from afar, and the building isolates itself in a convexity that refuses interaction with the urban dynamics.
The projects selected here, on the contrary, invert the relational curve and allow the life of the city to reach beyond the usual barrier. The surfaces that are thus made permeable and concave give rise to an interaction between exterior and interior; the buildings are not just mere backdrops in the townscape, but spaces that may be explored. This is an important aspect, because by allowing a dialogue with the exterior, the designs prove that also the general image of industrial spaces, and thus the parts of the city on which they are built, is changing. In fact, if the definition of a clear limit between inside and outside is a distinctive trait of industrial buildings, it becomes evident that, in the building designed by Estudio SIC at Armunia, the decision to raise a block from the ground and thus make the basement become the space where the building enters in contact with the surroundings, changes the meaning of the limit and thus the way we see those very surroundings.
Another example, the project by Archea Associati, clearly shows that the enclosure in galvanized iron around some of the blocks of the Perfetti plant seeks to relate to the housing developments in the background, creating a dialogue and allowing a margin of permeability that is form and relation.
Also the arrangement of the plant designed by Batlle & Roig Architects for the Waste Treatment Facility in Spain is aimed at softening the impact on the landscape and at forming a harmonious relationship with the ecosystem. The building dialogues directly with the surrounding hills, defining form and function in the technologies used to cover the roof and define the outer contours of the shell.
In these buildings the relationship with the place centres, above all, on the skin. Linguistic expedients as density, colour, material or attachment to the ground are used with the evident intention of attenuating the isolation and to open up, to create a dialogue.
On the basis of the way these architectures present themselves, the way in which they may be experienced, we can conceive them as cases where the architectural design sees the exterior space as an opportunity, allowing the city around it to play an active role, in such a way that it is no longer merely observation that determines the relationship with the building, but above all the urban inhabited tissue or the landscape that defines the terms of the relationship. These projects’ predilection for a relationship with the exterior articulates the quality and quantity of the possible approaches to the industrial spaces, adding to the obvious “looking from without” other, less customary modalities.
We have to consider intangible aspects if we want a high quality of living. But it takes some reflecting to combine the concrete action of architectural design with the blurred, the ineffable of this ‘being in space’. How can we deal with this conflict, how can we “remain vague but do so in the right way”?
A right way would be to choose the theoretical instruments necessary to make it recognizable, and the words to talk about it. To speak about intangible values one must use a vocabulary for architecture, made of terms that suggest rather than defining. The word “atmosphere”, for instance, connotes a high degree of inexactness, and may be useful to us. Tonino Griffero examines this ineffability in his Atmosferologia, building an itinerary that has the merit of lending substance to a concept that, while being hard to put into focus, is rich in implications that are interesting for architecture. The author uses the word atmosphere to indicate something more than an aesthetic attribute of a space, a relational quality, asserting that “[…] the way the world is to us, or in other words the kind of relationship we have with the world in every single moment and how we feel in it, is something we do not experience objectively but atmospherically” and therefore the personal condition which determines the quality of an architectural structure is closely linked to “a something-more and an I don’t-know-what that is felt by our body in a certain space, but that is never completely retraceable to the actual equipment of that space”.
Also the words used to describe the landscape are chosen among the most evocative ones. The central role that has recently been assumed by the “perception of the populations” in the reflection on the concept of the landscape may be considered as the recognition of a “cavity of the space on a landscape scale” and it has therefore become indispensable to use words adequate to render the idea. Among these, Stimmung is one of the most important; it is used to indicate the intonation of the spirit, the intimate connection with the landscape that is created by contemplating it when one is immersed in it. Stimmung is the sense of the place that relates with human beings, it is the value we attribute to it, it is the union between us, our way to see and the space we have around us. Atmosphere and Stimmung allow us to at least try to express the subtle and intangible sense emanated by the space when it becomes experience of inhabiting. Photography makes it possible to visualize the atmosphere evoked by the space, and in this sense Albano Guatti’s contribution is a way to distinguish between the observation and the experience of an industrial space, between concave space and convex space. In the work of the photographer, especially in the series Industrial still it is the association of humans with empty and rarefied spaces made to produce cyclopean objects that is subject of representation. His images use proportion as criterion to identify a corporeal relationship with out-of-scale atmospheres.
Looking at his photographs, we recognize an indissoluble bond between a feeling and a space. The photographic image is a way to approach a perception, to recreate the general feeling emanating from the space. It is therefore clear that the photographer’s description gives us much more than what he represents, and it may therefore be defined “atmospheric”; the gaze of the artist thus becomes a means for gaining access to the intangible which is perceived in the architecture. The photograph also helps us to recognize an architectural value in the intangible, to remember that it is Man who allows the architecture to reach its fulfilment by living in it.
Leonardo Chiesi teaches Sociology at the Faculty of Architecture, University of Florence. He was visiting scholar at the Department of Architecture, University of California-Berkeley.
He deals with methodology of research and social sciences applied to architectural design, urban planning and landscape. He recently published Retorica nella scienza. Come la scienza costruisce i suoi argomenti (anche) al di là della logica, 2009 and Il doppio spazio dell’architettura. Ricerca sociologica e progettazione, 2011.
Fabio Ciaravella is an artist and architect and he is cofounder of the artists’ collective Studio ++ that has exhibited in Italy and abroad. His research focuses on the contamination between contemporary art and architectural and lanscape design and studies the relationship between public art and new technologies.
He is currently a PhD student in Architecture and Urban Phenomenology at the Faculty of Architecture, University of Matera.