Portland State University, Portland, Oregon, USA
Orienting the Body
“…buildings address simultaneously our need for physical habitation and our need for meaning.”— Mark Johnson
“…the building becomes itself by showing its dependence on what exceeds it.”— David Leatherbarrow
Learning to Communicate
This ‘project’ describes the pedagogic intent of the beginning undergraduate architectural design studio taken by students in the pre-professional BA/BS degree at the School of Architecture, Portland State University. The studio asks each student to reflect on the deceptively simple question: “Where am I?” This is followed by the collective question, more loaded because it implies common agreement amongst many of us together: “Where are we?”
What does it mean to be an embodied being that is situated in the world? Faced with the sheer vastness and detail of the world, a depth opened by the horizons of our perceptual experience, how do we begin to find and communicate our place in it, to know where we belong, and to recognize what we bring to the situation through the capacities of our body, the legacies of our effective history, and our hopes for a good life? Then again, what is brought to the situation by a world already underway, such as the given orderliness of a cosmos, its natural cycles and the living traditions and fabricated institutions of the cultural milieu?
To be situated means to embrace this ‘depth.’ To be an active participant, and thus to flourish in a communal life, means to set about communicating ‘what it is like’ to others, to translate experience into forms of communicative enterprise – the mediating currencies of language – that can be recognized by others, within and around which we can coalesce as a collective. This comprises the very possibility of community, and it begins with the interpretive act.
So how do we communicate our ‘situatedness’ in the world? In response, this studio opens with extemporary contrapposto gestures of animate bodies followed by a creative translation into tactile landscapes and metaphoric columns.
Gesturing towards horizons
Each student occupies a single two feet by two feet concrete paving slab in the existing, implied Cartesian grid spread out across the roof terrace of our building, Shattuck Hall. This delimited zone within the implied unlimited extension of the regular grid is designated as their phenomenal site from which to survey the cosmos. Students begin by adopting a posture wherein the anonymous, universalized and abstract position of the grid square is transformed into the particular place of the engaged body embracing its concrete horizons. In posture, the body acknowledges present depth, and communicates a response to this by analogy through bodily gesture. What is noticed? What does each student choose to point out in orienting themselves, as well as those who encounter their gesturing bodies, poised in a reach beyond themselves?
Surveying the vastness of the region
Students then each create a 360 degree panorama photograph from their grid square and perform an exegesis of the content falling within the scope and of this visual frame.
Orienting the body of another
Students are then asked to modify the surface of the slab to create a communicative landscape orienting any occupant who stands upon the square primarily by tactile signals activated upon bare feet. The aim here is to diminish the dominance of purely visual messages. Students must aim to communicate to the soles of those visiting their site a response to the presence of the sun, the moon, the topography, the city, the campus, the building, and the roof terrace, so they might know better where they stand.
Materializing the stand-in
Next, on their terrace grid square, students create a ‘synaesthetic column’; a full-size intervention as a surrogate of their body which takes its place and acts as a hybrid between a column and an interactive device. It must be designed to invite the human body to participate in new perceptions of a familiar world by engaging the sensorial receptivity of the body and by the creative enterprise of cross-sensory translation and metaphor. Both tactile and visual messaging must be deployed.
At the commencement of a student’s education in architecture, these studio practices endeavor to recover an embodied engagement with a world already underway, revealed in the dynamics of horizonal experience and translated into corporeal & material gesture in communicating to others.