Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Space and intuition

When we addressed in 2012 systemic decision-making and the role of intuition in it, we could feel immediately that we addressed an important topic. The relationships between knowledge, experience and unconsciousness, and their impact on our decision-making is creating an immense source of inspirations, ideas, inventions and innovations.  Mere awareness about the existence of these relationships and their holistic use in our day-to-day life, enriches us, helps us to understand who we are, and how we respond to the events and impulses that are happening around us.

Our today’s guest is constantly exploring the spaces created by those relationships, the spaces that we are exposed to, that we change, and sense. He is challenged by the characteristics and behaviour of those spaces, about their impact on our lifes, and about the reasons that inspire people  to create them. This is Or’s story. And, if you let him, it is possible that he will make your world even richer.  

V: Who is Or Ettlinger?
My fascination is with complex systems and discovering the simple principles that lie behind them – taking on what seems complex and making it understandable, accessible, and workable. It is a way of seeing the world that I apply to life in general and through which I approach my various areas of interest: architecture, art, computer technology, creativity, beauty, digital imaging, culture, design, personal growth, music, human nature… At each point in time, in any one of these fields, I might be a practitioner or a theorist, a teacher or a student, or several of them simultaneously. In some I have already achieved measurable results, while in others I am still working on it.
Short CV
Or Ettlinger, Ph.D. Arch., is a visual artist, theorist, and Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Architecture of the University of Ljubjana. His work lies at the intersection of art, architecture, and computers.

V: What does ‘space’ mean to you?
Space is the context in which things emerge; it is the background which allows them to show up and become what they are.

V: The title of your book is “The Architecture of Virtual Space”. What is virtual space to you? How would you define it?
This question preoccupied me for many years and led me through its various related fields of study and practice. Yet it also resulted in an understanding of virtual space that is quite different from most of the common views about it. I came to consider virtual space not to be related to computer technology, not to be just another word for the imagination, and not even to be a general way of talking about things that do exist but are quite intangible. These are all useful as metaphors, but what I was looking for was a consistent definition of what these metaphors might refer to.
Instead, I came to consider virtual space to primarily be a visual phenomenon: the visible space we experience that exists apart from the physical space around us, and apart from the mental space of our imagination. Or in other words, pictorial images of all kinds – paintings, photographs, TV, movies, video games, etc. Whenever we look at any of them, the same basic thing happens: We look at a physical object with some pattern on it, and yet we do not see the pattern at all. Rather, we see through it a space with objects that seem to be located inside of that space. That space we see, yet which does not physically exist right there, is what I consider to be virtual space.  

V: Where do you see the major differences between physical space and virtual space? What are the differentiating factors?
Well, first of all, one of them IS physical, while the other only LOOKS like it is physical but isn’t. Yet the whole point of virtual space is that it must reproduce at least some of the appearances of physicality in order to exist at all. Otherwise, the pattern through which we see it remains just a pattern and doesn’t become anything else.
Then, of course, physical space contains us – physical, living beings – in it, whereas virtual space does not. We cannot literally step into virtual space (despite many such fantasies in popular culture), but we definitely can mentally engage ourselves with it on various levels. Many forms of art over the centuries have sought to find ways to create such an experience. It is far from being just a recent matter of computer technology as it might seem to be nowadays.

V: What about paintings or new media? What kind of experiences of space do they provide?
I do not consider old and new media to be any different in that sense. They are just various techniques for producing the same effect. A stretched sheet of canvas with a carefully laid down pattern of paint on it can make us see through it something that is not physically on that canvas. Similarly, a digitally constructed array of colored pixels projected onto a wall can achieve the exact same effect, and both of them can equally engage us mentally and emotionally. Of course, their technical details are different, their cultural origins are different, and thus different theoretical views can rightfully be attached to them. Yet in both types of cases, if a pictorial image is involved, the result is an experience of space where physically there is no space.

Photo: The cover of  book
“The Architecture of Virtual Space”
Source: Or  Ettlinger

V: Do you think that virtual space and physical space have a similar influence on people?
Yes and no. Physical space has a very direct and immediate influence on us. We cannot not be in physical space. However, there are varying degrees to which we may be consciously aware of its presence around us. In the case of virtual space, its presence is of a different kind, and even though we are not literally inside of it, it can engage us experientially to various degrees. For example, when we watch a film, we actively direct our attention away from our physical location and fully into the virtual places that are presented in it.
But also when we just walk down a snowy street and pass by a billboard image of a sunny beach and a palm tree, whether we are aware of it or not, our street has just been visually extended to include a virtual place. It is virtual not in the sense that such a beach does not exist somewhere, but that it does not physically exist right here. It might not even exist in this exact form anywhere at all, but it is enough to mentally engage us into experiencing it to some degree, and if advertisers have their way, make us feel bad that we are not physically there instead.

V: What about people’s responses? Why do we feel better or worse in some spaces? Are architects concerned about the sensitivity of people?
Some architects are more concerned with such issues and some less so. When designing a building, some focus mainly on its technologically correct construction, some care mostly about its functional efficiency, and some are concerned with the cultural statement that they believe it should make. Some architects, of course, are definitely concerned with people’s experiences inside or outside of the building.
Especially in more traditional forms of architecture, the attention to the experience of well-being in a place was such an inherent part of the design that it did not need to be consciously addressed as much as it does nowadays. Over the last century, since so much attention has been given to other concerns, this formerly obvious aspect of design has been pushed aside and neglected by many.

V: Which elements do you think have the largest impact on the relationship between space and people? Maybe you can share some experiences from one of the projects that you did with your students, in which you took a science fiction book and designed the architecture for a film that would be made from it.
The project was based on Isaac Asimov’s book “The End of Eternity”, the story of which takes place in various periods between 7,000 and 250,000 years in the future of humanity on Earth. This period is so distant from our time that nothing from our history or speculations about our future is relevant to its design, not to mention that parts of the story even take place outside of time altogether. I think it was the ultimate design challenge. 

V: How do you even approach such a project? Which elements do you bring into the equation?
Such a project is impossible to make without a major shift in perception that takes students beyond their existing patterns of thinking, which is also what makes it so interesting and educational. One of the major difficulties in learning architecture – or any creative profession for that matter – is that most of the available education is about how to produce a realizable project. However, much less attention is usually given to the process of creating the ideas and vision that drive a project. The purpose of this exercise was to engage students’ imagination and strengthen their ability to continuously generate a mental image for the project as they go along.
In this particular case, the key was to search for the factors that influence the architecture of different cultures and periods rather than just focus on their visual expression as a ‘style’. So first we studied different times and places in human history and observed what their core values were, and how they each understood the role of architecture. Then, based on Asimov’s book, the students started to invent the values of the various cultures in the story, how they understand what architecture is for, and how the two connect with each other. From there on, the students’ imagination just took off…

Photo: A home in the 482nd Century(developed from the book "The End of Eternity" by Isaac Asimov)
Source: Or  Ettlinger

V: Can you share what those elements are?
It is not a formula, but, for example, we can see this process by trying to understand why the architecture of our own time looks the way it does. Seeing ourselves from the outside is the most difficult thing to do, but if you compare our time to, say, two thousand years ago, you realize, for example, that the master of everything today is not God or emperor, but the economy. Whether we are speaking of mundane apartment blocks or outrageously extravagant hotels, they are both driven by the economy – otherwise they just do not get built.
We also live in a period that is all about the individual ‘I’ and catering to its needs and whims, and in which the tool that makes it all possible is technology. So, there you have it, some of the core elements that determine contemporary civilization, and thus its architecture: economy, individuality, technology. Now, if you are going to imagine the distant future without shifting to another mindset, then whatever you may come up with will still look like it belongs in the late-20th/early-21st century.

V: Do you think that there is a relationship between the construction of space, and intuition? By intuition, I mean a way of coming to know something without being conscious of the process by which it reached us.
Absolutely. Our ability to understand the world beyond verbal analysis and sense impression is part of being human, and the degree to which we have this ability is also determined by the space in which we live. Does it support this mode of perception or does it suppress it? For example, take a generic office building as opposed to a mountain hut. Each of them brings completely different aspects of who we are onto the surface.

V: At the end of your book you thank the many spaces that inspired you and where you spent hours researching. Libraries, coffee shops, the reading room at NUK, and even Ple─Źnik’s benches in the park... How would you describe your relationship with these spaces?
To me they provided a context in which I could get into a creative flow, they gave me peace of mind, they gave me inspiration. I felt that I could be myself there, align with my ideas, sharpen my focus, and just produce.

Photo: A view from the 2456th Century
(developed from the book "The End of Eternity" by Isaac Asimov)
Source: Or  Ettlinger
V: What is it about these spaces that makes them so?
First of all, I don’t know. It’s an intuitive feeling. I just sense which places inspire me and I go to them rather than to others. Then, if you ask me to think, I can start looking for explanations, which we can discuss on three levels. First, such places probably have a certain balance between nature and artifice, certain proportions, a choice of materials, and so on. These are the technical factors. Another level is what these technical factors may help to invoke, which is rather at the level of experience, such as peacefulness, a sense of security, or a strong sense of being alive. And the third level is what this experience can bring out of different people, such as creativity and productivity (in my case), or indifference and boredom (in the case of some others perhaps).

V: Where do you see the next great challenge in architecture?
Past challenges have included the need to provide housing for the masses, to develop cheaper and faster construction technologies, and more recently, to make energy-efficient buildings that do not harm the environment. I believe that the next challenge in architecture will be to combine all these valuable breakthroughs together with the more human qualities that older architecture once had but lost while it was facing these demands. There have been some failed attempts to do so, which make it even more difficult, but I think it is a challenge still worthy of pursuing.

There is something about older forms of architecture that spoke to our intuition, engaged our senses, and conveyed endurance – which contemporary architecture very often lacks. It is not a matter of their visual style or formal elements, but of the essential qualities that they embodied. In the long run, I see no reason why architecture could not find a way to incorporate these lost qualities again together with the achievements of the recent century and make them all work together as one – not just in the case of particular architects, but as a standard practice.

Thank you Or. We are looking forward to exploring this topic further with you at the next InCo movement event.

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