spatial shift - alison loader and simon bergman





ross mcleod and jason parmington


The Phenomenological Filter studio explored the concepts of phenomenology as encountered in the realms of spatial art practice and architectural space. Phenomenology may be defined as the study of structures of experience, or consciousness. In this philosophy the body and its perceptual abilities, is seen as the ‘third term’ between subject and object.

Phenomenology lays the foundation for a view of the world where there can be no such thing as a constant set of relationships between the sensations of the external world and the internal cognitive processes of the mind. Within the edicts of phenomenology one’s perception of the world is never completely constructed. The world is always in a state of becoming.

In contemporary art practice the potentials of a phenomenological approach to the creation of spatial installations has been adopted by contemporary artists such as Robert Irwin, Dan Graham, James Turrel and Olafur Eliasson. In their work the subject/object dialogue is manipulated to the point where the perception of the viewer is the medium that is being manipulated. In contemporary architecture theorists such as Juhani Palaasmma and Alberto Perez Gomez and practicing architects such as Steven Holl have sought to use phenomenology as a tool in describing the qualities of architectural space and the forging of design methodologies that structure our experience of the built environment.

The studio began through an engagement in the qualities of sensorial spatial experiences and the development of spatial installations that challenge our perception of the physical world. Through these projects students developed a refined sensibility and understanding of the phenomena and its perception which make up our experience of space. Through a series of investigations students sought to shift their practice away from the idea of ‘the designing of interior space’ to the idea that they are engaged in ‘the shaping of spatial experience’.



sensation and thought - alison loader and christine halim


In response to the artistic activities of Robert Irwin as seen in the documentary The Question of Beauty, the students were asked to conduct a perceptual experiment upon and within themselves. To test for extremes and engage their sight, sound, smell, touch and taste in an extra-ordinary sensorial experience or find moments in nature or the urban canvas that scintillate and transcend the ordinary world. They interrogated the qualities of this experience and attempted to capture its essence and manifest this perception in the confines of the AV Lab.

From the analysis of the first experiments the students were developing an appreciation of the physics and psychology of experience. They were then asked to use this knowledge in order to carefully unpack the phenomena that compose a moment in space and time. Documenting the physical principles at play and the faculties that are brought to their perception and through observation, research and a quasi-scientific methodology the students produced mappings, layers and compositions of data which quantified and qualified the complexities of a specific moment. In doing so they produced a piece of work that was both a measurement and a capturing of essence.

In the next assignment the students were then asked to track down a difficult text. One that suggested certain phenomenological ideas that was perhaps beyond their total grasp. They were asked to struggle and persevere with this text, plumb its depth and references in order to negotiate an understanding and take a position. Rather than write an essay in response the students used typographical, collage and montage techniques in order to expose its nature. This re-presentation involved the employment of imagery and subtle ephemeral material phenomena in the exploration of visual and sensorial ways to express its concepts. The idea was to make the medium the message.

The students were then asked to read Robyn Ho’s essay ‘Designing for the Sensuous Intellect’ and consider the ‘space between sensation and thought’. They were asked to consider how sight, smell, touch, taste and hearing triggers memories and associations and in doing so begin to question what are the ‘schematic structures’ of recognition. The students were asked to consider how can we identify whether a response to certain stimuli is personal, intellectual, cultural, primal or universal and how does the context of a sensorial experience shape our reaction to it. To express this thinking they were asked to produce a resonant piece of art that connects one of the senses to a rich field of associations.

Through these projects the studio touched upon some of the principles of phenomenology, traversing the gap between Physics and Psychology, Phenomena and Perception and Sensation and Thought. The students were then asked to hone the scope of their thinking, focusing their intent and developing a specific understanding of an aspect of experience. They began this by choosing a subject, a phenomenology of (something), for which they would produce a glossary of terms and definitions that would serve to shape an understanding of a quality of the physical world. The glossary was to be short, essential and poetic in its construction, a particular domain of knowledge that would act as a design briefing and technical armature. from which they would deduce the parameters and variables for the creation of a ‘Spatial Shift’.


The mid semester assessment project was entitled Spatial Shift, in which the students working in pairs were asked to choose a particular site within building eight at RMIT, where they would create a sensorial experience that was to be seamless, subtle and profound. Through the observation of the phenomenology of the space and identifying its associations and potentials they were asked to shift the nature of our perception teasing out the physical and psychological potentials which lie beneath the veneer of the everyday.

In the technology stream of the studio students sought to refine both their perception and their ability to confidently manifest and control sensorial phenomena. The students were asked to focus their investigations on systems/effects that challenged their sensorial spatial experience and altered their perception of the physical world that shifted their perception of a particular place and brought into question the relationship between object and subject. From here the students undertook a technical analysis of the chosen effect, (through diagrams, drawings and precise terminology) and exposed the physical parameters involved in its manifestation. With this understanding they were then asked to use appropriate materials, processes, and technologies in order to recreate the effect so that it could be reproduced at will. They then experimented with the effect, devising ways of altering the various parameters and learnt to manipulate and understand its subtleties in order to develop ways the system/effect might be utilised for the ‘Spatial Shift’ project.

As the crescendo of the first half of the semester the students were asked to consider the various approaches towards the perception of space that they had encountered in the semester. From their perceptual experiences, readings and response, the dissection a moment, sensation and thought, glossary of perception and technical experiments they had been engaged in the task of ‘seeing their own seeing’. In the format of a small zine, they were asked to document these encounters and realisations that the work exposed, carefully considering the layout and design and the integration of image and text so that the book itself became a phenomenological construct and a sensorial experience in itself.


eclipse - yi zhen kueh and hui ching laam


In the second half of the semester students applied phenomenological techniques relative to the context and program of building or site and engaged in how the sensorial can become a metaphorical narrative that is attuned to the usage of a particular space. Based on their developing interest in the first half of the semester students chose one of five ‘typologies of experience’ (DWELLING, BODY, SPIRIT, MEMORY, WONDER) and began to develop a philosophy and conceptual design methodology that embodied these concepts.

The students considered the aspects of their particular phenomenological studies from phase one and gathered thoughts and references which defined the topic they were about to investigate. Through the ‘unpacking’ of the actions, rituals and encounters inherent within the typology of space they had chosen they began to think about the program of the project as a series of phenomenological encounters, a narrative of experiences. These ideas were developed in concert with the phenomenological mapping of a chosen site that exposed the nature of the existing conditions and began to inform their approach to the design.

In the development of the projects the students were asked to consider what their philosophical interpretation of the terms body, dwelling, spirit, memory, wonder and question how this philosophy can inform an approach to the shaping of spatial experience. In short they were seeking to develop a ‘phenomenological filter’ toward the site and program.


The Living Room - international student housing - yi zhen kueh


In the Living Room project Yi Zhen Kueh proposed ways of creating a dwelling that both expands the urban environment into the building and infiltrates the interior environment out to the city, through the careful manipulation of the phenomena of relations and opposites, the fusion between light and shadow, stability and movement, mass and void, opacity and transparency. In the proposal, living and sleeping spaces are determined by the point of entry of natural sunlight and air. The main circulation zones become shared space which branch out into smaller shared spaces leading to the personal realm. This configuration of individual and collective spaces attempts to encourage multilayered interactions and spatial qualities, from shared and social activities at the façade to focused and private spaces within the interior.

A series of internal sliding colour panels and a porous facade on the exterior explore the phenomena of spatial colour reflection and transparency and provide the interior with filtered daylight and natural ventilation. The colour panels, organised in a rhythmic succession, together with the arrangement of translucent rooms create an atmosphere of weightlessness and vertiginous lightness throughout the space. Individual student rooms are conceived as lightboxes which serve to integrate living and sleeping areas but still maintain a level of privacy where needed. The translucent outer layer of the boxes allow light to penetrate the interior during the day while in the evening the boxes emit light to their surroundings. Roller blinds can be pulled down to increase privacy. The project offers a new type of porous urbanity - one that filters rather than shields. During the day, natural light filters through internal spaces, channeling light and colour; during the night, internal spaces emit artificial light that will animate the streetscape along with the city lights.


st patricks cloisters - christine halim


In the St Patricks Cloisters Chapel project, Christina Halim explored the ideas of 'transcendence' (the concept of the divine significance of God that is outside of the everyday realm) and 'immanence' (the concept that the embodiment of God is within us and our surroundings). The proposal for a small underground chapel, located next to the neo-gothic splendor of the cathedral, sought to express a religious architecture that created an intimate and communal atmosphere, one that was inviting and hospitable and one which reflected the humanity of God.

The design boldly intersects the existing circular underground priest residence building and sunken garden. The chapel is entered via a semi circular passage that leads the visitor down into a darkened corridor illuminated by slit skylights that are glazed in hues of stained glass, which render the space in different colours throughout the day. The corridor leads to the circular chapel that is organized around a centrally located altar bathed in light from the fan shaped glass roof structure, which casts a moving shadow of the cross on the floor of the space.


inner city zen buddhist temple - hi ching laam


Hui Ching Laam based the design of Soto Zen Buddhist center on the phenomenology of darkness. The design developed from investigations into dark adaptation by the human eye and equated these human sensations with aspects of zen philosophy. The concepts of formlessness and selflessness are embodied within the physical experience of darkness, as the eye slowly adapts to different light levels the subtleties of the physical nature of the design begin to manifest themselves. The relationship between our perception and the surrounding environment is in a continuous state of becoming as the qualities of the space encourage the visitor toward achieving a meditative state.

The spaces within the center are arranged as a journey from light to darkness, a visual purification that calms the mind and prepares the visitor to enter the darkened spiritual core of the temple. Entering through the deep red painted façade of the industrial warehouse building the visitor is confronted with a naturally lit corridor that extends the length of the space. The black floors and ceiling and the darkened passages that lead of this space are in sharp contrast to the crisp white walls lit from the skylights above. The corridor to the left leads to the meditation room, tea room and main shrine. The meditation room is dimmed and always in darkness. The little light that penetrates into the room is reflected by a circular area of floor that is made from black glass and which produces the sensation of being at the edge of a deep pool of water. In the tea room and main shrine the atmosphere changes subtly throughout the day as sunlight is reflected from a suspended ceiling which is painted red on its reverse side. In the shrine a golden statue of the Buddha glows in soft radiant light. Sliding doors can be opened on the sides of the main space to reveal the luminous green glow of plants arranged in a dry zen garden. Beyond these spaces is the community kitchen and dining hall which is a brightly lit. In this space people can come together to share food and conversation in contrast to the personal introspection and meditation that is performed in the temple spaces. The community space leads back into the entrance corridor and completes the cyclic journey from the light of the everyday to a cleansing spiritual darkness and back again.


rmit spiritual center - nicholas visser


Nick Visser’s proposal for the RMIT Spiritual Center redevelopment, within the bluestone walls of the old Melbourne gaol building, attempted to address the needs of the various religious groups that frequent the facility. The two storey building is arranged in a u-shape around a rectangular central courtyard with a large entrance gate at on end. The functions of the spiritual center were organised within the existing buildings layout and were responsive to the constraints of the building’s heritage listing which did not allow for any structural changes or alterations to the buildings envelope. The complex was divided into an entrance/courtyard/circulation space, an office administration consultation space, a Christian/Non- denominational space for services, prayer meetings and other gatherings, a meditation center for quiet contemplation and eastern religious practices and two Muslim washing and prayer rooms for both men and women.

The design of the spaces explored ideas of sacred geometries and the filtering of natural light in specific ways to act as both symbolic and phenomenal interpretations of the activities undertaken in the spaces. The Christian space used the form of the parabola to define the interior volumes and massive overhead ceiling. The forms were meant to represent a modern geometry that is linked to education, knowledge, learning and enlightenment while the physicality of the raw concrete structure sought to express the sacred through the seemingly weightless presence of something tremendously massive that is defined by a delicate edge and wash of light. The meditation space employed the geometry of the circle that offered no central focus or direction of worship. The space was defined by a ring of timber slats which diffused the natural light from above and created an intimate and warm glow within the space. The approach to the Muslim prayer rooms was more directional, as they had to clearly demark the direction of Mecca. Light in these spaces was directed through specific geometric slits within the ceiling structure which would create a decorative trace of Islamic geometry across the walls and floor at different times of the day and year.

Lisha Corcorans proposal for an installation in the ACMI gallery explored film and cinematic techniques as a phenomenological filter that would expose aspects of the experience of time and memory. The idea of memory stirring and affecting our spatial perception and experience is a poetic notion. Memory and nostalgia are subjective and personal. Every individual experience of space is unique due to the memories that belong to each inhabitant. Designing with the notion of memory raises questions of time and temporal phenomenology. Memory is a time based construct, where it is created in the present, retained in the past and recalled in the present. It informs our perception and affective state and shapes our actions and responses to certain events. Similarly film is a time based construct which requires duration to experience it. It relies on succession and the build up of information. Film is an accretion, a layering of instances and rhythms of intensity which allows the viewer to skip time and yet perceive a continuous narrative.

The design proposal consisted of a labyrinth of four rooms and the corridors that linked them. Each space addressed a different aspect of ‘filmic memory’. In each space edited clips were projected that expressed ideas of movement, space, perspective, body language and spoken language through the manipulation of filmic stimuli. The projected films utilized techniques of slowing down and speeding up, skipping and repeating time to reinforce the interpretation of their specific theme. The installation intended to ‘embody’ the viewer, to alter their spatial experience through their movement, the moving image and the distortions of filmic time. To travel through the installation was to have a heightened temporal experience as the affect of one space rolled into the perception of the next. Ultimately the design intended to engender a renegotiation of the perception of space, time and memory within the viewers mind.

heliographic observatory installation - alison loader


students: Simon Bergman, Helen Dendrinos, Jarmilla Kubique, Alison Loader, Martine Scott, Jessica Gunawan, Christina Halim, Sean Connolly, Hui Ching Laam, Yi Zhen Kueh, Briar Nash, Lauren Hunt, Lisha Corcoran, Nicholas Visser, Jenya Itskovich