Is the human interaction and relationship with a space compromised by modern architecture?
In this essay I will discuss the effect that manipulation and design of a space can affect its inhabitants. Modern architectural designs, intended for the use of people, should be more than sculptures to photograph or aesthetically pleasing shelters to fill. A style of spacial design where form and aesthetics are put over function and comfort proves to be problematic when dealing with a space which has not been created with the building and its effect on its occupants, as a holistic entity. Lao Tzu (C.550 B.C) wrote that “we make doors and windows for a room; But it is these empty spaces that make the room habitable. Thus while the tangible has advantages; it is the intangible that makes it useful” when explaining the complexity of the intangible effects that space has on the occupant. This is helpful in aiding one in understanding that assertive criticisms or statements of an experience is vastly complex.
Many critics recognise that prioritising form over function results in a compromised experience for anyone inhabiting a space- due to a focus on the user being overlooked. A key example of such a building which appears to have been designed with a lack of concern for the user is Zaha Hadid’s addition to the Puerta America Madrid Hotel, in Spain. This building is widely deemed as successful in its innovative approach of collaborative design, featuring 12 floors designed by various designers and architects. The impressive curvature of the interiors and glistening surface finishes do not fall short of what is expected from such successful designers. However, the faults in the function appear to dull the glistening aesthetic value. In an article featuring musician Moby, criticisms about his stay in the aforementioned space are made clear through the reoccurring theme of it being “the least comfortable space he has ever inhabited” (Dezeen, Anna Winston 20/09/2016). Here, the importance of a creation of atmosphere is as important as the physical features of the space- two aspects which I understand to work collaboratively towards a building’s success. Through criticising his stay in the designer’s creation, one can understand that Moby was conveying that, as a technical structure, the space failed in its ability to act as an aid of convenience to the user. This is something that I deem as signifying the lack of success in Hadid’s design because, architectural design for a purpose such as this hotel has, should be in effort to support the user. Whilst any design of a space should have considered artistry and aesthetic strengths, when the comfort of the user is compromised, the possibility of an interaction with the inhabitants, and the building, are lost.
One can argue that Hadid’s building should be appreciated for their sculptural qualities, however, for a space as ‘occupant focussed’ as a hotel, these designs do as much as deter a positive attitude towards them. Moby continues by voicing that “comfort isn’t always photogenic” (Dezeen, Anna Winston 20/09/2016), highlighting the fact that Hadid’s design fails to induce a positive response beyond its aesthetic merit. Here, it is made evident that designs such as this, are failing to evoke a relationship with the user, whilst excelling in external, visual success- compromising the human interaction that a creator of such spaces should aim to produce.
There are many spaces which are created with the sole purpose of having a direct effect and impact on the users. Such as the Hazelwood School, Glasgow, which is created for children with duo sensory impairments in which they can navigate the building via the sense of touch. Here, consideration into the functionality of a building, with educational aspects to aid the users, is the main focus. Aesthetics and finishes are not of importance and instead, textures, angles and fluid line are what give the space it’s functional qualities. While it may seem that Hadid’s hotel designs and spaces such as the Hazelwood school are incompatible, the intention that both have, to create an effective and beneficial space for the user, are the same. The stark contrast of Hadid’s focus on aesthetics, when the building in Glasgow has no need for any aesthetic or visual qualities, brings one’s awareness to the different ways in which a positive attitude can be created for the user and the space that they inhabit. By the Hazelwood School being built for the users to physically touch each wall in order to gain access to their location evokes a significant bond which I recognise to be vital in designing a successful space. In an essay discussing architecture and human behaviour, environment behaviour professor Gary T Moore stated that architecture’s purpose is to “make people feel more alive, more human, more fulfilled” (Architecture and the human behaviour: the place of environment-behaviour studies in architecture). With this is mind, one can criticise Hadid’s hotel design which “photographs nicely but wasn’t designed for humans” (Moby, Anna Winston, Dezeen, 20/09/2016) by limiting a feeling of fulfillment, by compromising comfort for surface finish.
Above image showing concept designs for Zaha Hadid’s hotel rooms for the Puerta America Madrid Hotel.
In contrast to the Puerta America Madrid Hotel, one can find fault with the evident style that the space was being designed for an aesthetic advantage, a style of architecture which I recognise to be more focussed on the users is the expressive style of brutalist architecture. Initially recognisable by the unfinished, unpolished forms of buildings, brutalist architecture. Built largely out of concrete and other abundant materials, spaces following such a design are unapologetic in form and functional in nature. The building which I will discuss is The Barbican, in London. This communal space which features a mixture of residential, retail and communal areas. Often criticised for it’s “ugly dystopian soullessness” (Jessica Mairs, Dezeen, 8/04/2016) brutalist design is easily shunned when crediting successful spaces and buildings. This is something which I will seek to show in a different light, by acknowledging the strengths of the Barbican building and the relationship that it has the potential to evoke with those inhabiting it.
The architects: Peter Chamberlin, Geoffry Powell and Christoph Bon, all worked collaboratively in designing the Barbican with a conscious intention for pedestrians to have an equal priority as cars, in the space.
Image showing the inviting additions to the spaces which recognise the importance of an aesthetically pleasing and comfortable environment for those involved in it- giving the users equal importance as the space itself.
The vast scale of the building allows for a broad range of facilities within the vicinity. The Barbican space, when compared to a more streamlined modern design, such as the aforementioned hotel, appears to be most appealing and inviting to a user due to its strength and blatant form. With overly softened edges and no surface left unpolished, structures and spaces begin to feel uninviting when one fears that any contact with a surface will lead the whole surroundings to shatter.
When observing the floor plan for a typical living space in this brutalist structure, one can compare the intuitive and supportive nature of the Barbican flats, in comparison to that of Hadid’s hotel room design which can be criticised as working against the user and instead, for the observer. A keen eye and evident understanding is expressed by Hadid when creating such spaces, due to the complexity of forms. These forms, however, are what distance the user from gaining a relationship with the space, as they are othered by their surroundings, due to the uninviting discomfort of the rooms. Once again, considering the ‘people-based’ focus that brutalist architecture has adopted, whilst seemingly opposing the stereotypical aesthetic strengths of more modern designs, a far more forgiving attitude is that of the user.
Initially studying the living spaces of the barbican, one can criticise the format of the spaces as being that of a template design, unimaginative in their shape. Here, a critic is closing their eyes to the potential that each aspect allows the user- giving a framework for building a relationship with the space itself. The spaces are not informing the user of how it should look, and instead, the architects of the Barbican have given the inhabitants the opportunity to work collaboratively to feel comfortable, instead of on edge, as critics have posited about Hadid’s Puerta America Madrid Hotel. A flow of people, interacting with their spaces is what Barbican architect, Peter Chamberlin explained to be the main focus of creating the collection of spaces. (Brutalist buildings, Dezeen, Olivia Mull, 6/10/2014) From analysing the architect’s work, one can observe that the lack of fragility and assertive use of shapes is what gives the building its distinctive appeal, in both its interior and exterior qualities. Not like a blank canvas, which one is too scared to tarnish, not like an over measured, under seasoned space which is too uncomfortable to inhabit- the Barbican finds the balance of convenience and stylistic grace which leads to its success in forming a relationship with those who interact with it.
Moby’s outspoken criticism of one of Hadid’s many infamous designs, stating that his residency in the space was “less comfortable than a dumpster” (Article about Zaha Hadid and The Tate, Trudie Carter, 24/09/2016)
In conclusion, when a space is designed “for the camera” and designers forget that “comfort is not always photogenic” (Moby, Anna Winston, Dezeen, 20/09/2016) one becomes increasingly unforgiving to its qualities. The seeking of a bond between the space and the user appears to easily, and often, slip between the finely measured crack of stylistic modern architecture, where a picture perfect ideal is assured. In significant contrast to this, brutalist architecture, whilst arguably obtrusive and harshly unapologetic, lacks the self- consciousness that modern concepts, such as Hadid’s liquid smooth hotel designs, cannot seem to shake. Instead, the buildings are able to accommodate for the users, and vice versa in order to create a harmonious relationship without discomfort or superiority.
https://www.dezeen.com/2016/09/20/moby-puerta-america-hotel-madrid-spain-zaha-hadid-dumpster-more-comfortable/ Accessed 2/01/2017
https://www.dezeen.com/2014/09/13/brutalist-buildings-barbican-estate-chamberlin-powell-bon/ Accessed 2/02/2017
https://www.dezeen.com/2016/09/24/architecture-design-news-roundup-moby-zaha-hadid-tate-modern-neo-bankside-london-design-festival/ Accessed 21/12/2016
http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/1317698/1/271580_Vol1.pdf Page 19 1/2/17- UCL essay on space
‘Space in architecture’- Cornelis Van De Ven ISBN: 9023222814
‘Sketches from Japan’- Francis D.K. Ching ISBN: 047136360x
‘The living, breathing, thinking, responsive buildings of the future’- El-Khoury, Rodolphe ISBN: 979800704
Word Count: 1795