the Interpretation of Architecture
Theory of Interpretation
Vol. 12, No. 2, December 2008
|Interpretation as Doing|
of the paper is to address and discuss relationships between the aesthetic
perception and interpretation of contemporary landscape architecture. I
will try to do this by setting up a cross-disciplinary perspective that
looks into themes from the contemporary art scene and aesthetic theories,
and relate them to observations in contemporary landscape architecture.
It is my premise that investigating the relationship between modes of aesthetic perception and examples in contemporary art, and landscape architecture, will enable us to better understand characteristics of a contemporary concept of landscape and design in landscape architecture, and hereby address the question of how interpretation might be processed.
It is also my premise that a key point in this is the interplay between different sensory experiences of both material and non-material aspects, and that it is this interplay that the individual collects into an entity – an interpretation – through an intellectual process.
It is a well known fact that our understanding of the city in recent years has been and still is being challenged by new types of cities which in several ways depart from the historic and the well known types of cities, as for example the historic city of Siena, Paris et al. Characteristic to this process of transformation is that it not only concerns typologies and categories but also our definition of concepts and images, and our models of perception and representation.
"The city as we know it seems to be dissolving and is being replaced by something for which we lack concepts and images. Spatial transformations have produced a new kind of city for which we have yet no adequate models of perception and representation."
One may with success replace the word city in the above quoted
ascertainment with landscape, and Kai Vöckler’s ascertainment would
still give meaning. That we are able to replace the word city with,
not just another word but with another category, namely landscape,
tells us something about the close relationship between the two categories,
but it also indicates that both categories are subordinated by transformations
due to processes of character, which with an overall concept may be described
with the term globalization.
main figures in the more substantial discussion in aesthetics are both Gernot
Böhme and Martin Seel. In the following I will try to address some of Gernot
Böhme’s thoughts on aesthetic and spatial concepts in my argument that the
interpretation of landscape architecture projects may be regarded as an
interplay between different sensory experiences of both material and non-material
aspects, and that the individual collects these aspects to an entity
through an intellectual process.
In Gernot Böhme’s comprehensive oeuvre on aesthetics, the term atmosphere is used to apprehend perceived qualities of space. Böhme’s assumption is that atmospheres are produced through deliberate arrangements; their character, however can be defined only by the perceiving subject. The aesthetics of atmospheres then mediates between the aesthetics of production and that of reception, and as such it no longer maintains that the artistic activity is consummated in the creation of the work, but instead pertains to artistic activity that consists of the production of particular perceptions, or, that the various kinds of receptions experienced by the user plays a role in the production of the work itself.
Böhme defines the aesthetic phenomena as something in-between the object and the user, you might say as a third ephemeral part that comes into being in the interaction between time, situation, space, forms, materials and the user. Atmospheres are thus something quasi-objective that we experience and whose existence we can communicate with others. They can be produced through objective arrangements, but what they are must be felt by exposing oneself to them. Atmospheres then become manifestations of the co-presence of subject and object.
"this liberates things and works of art from the form in which their own reception was embedded and considers them in their ecstasis, i.e. with respect to the way in which they alter spaces by their presence"
way the aesthetics of atmospheres discover and emphasize space and spatiality,
and the presence of the user.
"The space of bodily presence is essential to my bodily existence, since to be bodily present means to find oneself within an environment. [...] bodily presence is conceived as a state of being placed among things, and the order existing between things is understood as the order of their simultaneity, that is, of their reciprocal presence."
above landscape is by tradition regarded as an aesthetic object in landscape
architecture and as a representational space, which we perceive through
vision. Here the relationship between landscape painting and landscape
architecture becomes obvious. Also the modes of representation used in
landscape architecture emphasize the visual approach to landscape and
landscape architecture projects even though they are executed as three-dimensional
environments, which may also imply that the interpretation of a landscape
risks being dominated by the visual impression of it, at least among the
professional user trained and affected by this implicit understanding
of the vision’s precedence. We here touch upon Vöckler’s ascertainment
that we lack models of perception and representation
adequate to describe, analyse and interpret the transformed landscapes.
Lacking adequate models of perception and representation may in themselves
be seen as a major obstacle in defining a contemporary concept of landscape.
"Contemporary arts seeks a solution to this crisis by offering us a new way of seeing, feeling, understanding, and accepting an universe in which traditional relationships have been shattered and new possibilities of relationship are being laboriously sketched out."
to suggest that art alone is capable of solving this “crisis” that we
seem to experience lacking defined concepts, and modes of perception and
representation of a transforming landscape, but to encourage
investigation of the issue by using the freedom of the arts in examing
single phenomena in isolation.
contemporary art scene one may observe an array of art projects, installations
and “happenings” and “events”
are characterized by what may be described as a search for and examination
of both models of perception and representation, and of an environment in
transformation. Another common feature in these projects is the participatory
aspect between the artist, the project and the user, where the project is
sought established, negotiated and interpreted through a dialog between
the artist, the project and the user.
A further characteristic for these projects concerning landscape, urban and environmental issues in a broad sense, is that aesthetic perception is used as a way to become acquainted with environments, phenomena and situations in environments that are beyond traditional definitions and form, and hence aesthetic perception is used as a methodology to describe and understand new forms of landscapes and cities, and environments.
In the following I will try to discuss examples by artists such as Studio E.U., Stalker, Kai Vöckler, Boris Sieverts, who all use walking, moving (e.g. haptic sensing) and aesthetic perception in general as part of their artistic activity, as part of constituting their work, and as pivotal points in the process of interpretation.
I here prefer to use the term project instead of artwork to indicate the open and explorative character of these aesthetic and artistic activities, and also to refer to Umberto Eco’s thoughts on the process of interpretation and strategies for communication. In his Opera Aperta Eco suggests that texts should be considered fields of meaning that can be open and dynamic, rather than finite works. The process of interpretation by the user, when engaging with and interpreting the text, may in this way be seen as a mode of constituting the text as a finite work. In describing the process of interpretation Eco refers to music and its performance as interpretation, every reception of a work of art is both an interpretation and a performance of it, because in every reception the work takes on a fresh perspective for itself.
Eco questions both the traditional concept of artworks known from and used in classical art historian terminology and also in architectural history, and the process of interpretation. Eco hereby added an important contribution to the phenomena and discussions on the art scene at that time concerning the relationship between the artist, the object and the user, and hence the interpretation of the art object, sometimes also including the institution (the art museum, art gallery, etc.). Also, issues concerning modernism and modernistic art and aesthetics were enthusiastically discussed.
These discussions initiated a shift, reflected on by Gernot Böhme, from an understanding of aesthetics of production as constituting both the art object and its interpretation, to a mediation between the aesthetics of production and that of reception. A further characteristic was a shift from interpretation as mainly an intellectual process based on a visual approach to a finite art object to the incorporation of the senses as implicated by the art project and, hence, incorporated in the user’s interpretation of the art project and the art experience.
New models of perception and interpretation of the art experience and the process of interpretation were in this way examined. Dialogue and participation were to become key words in these discussions.
Among the artists exploring and questioning new models of perception and interpretation, and using the aesthetic perception as an artistic praxis, was the artistic and political movement of the Situationist International. Between 1957 and 1972 the movement delivered a broadside attack on the Establishment on several levels, for example in their critique of the modernistic urban planning. Simon Sadler describes the outset for the movement as,
"A nostalgic for a time when artists, architects and designers had pursued disparate, open-ended experiments; for a time when the conditions of modern life – above all, the relationship between ”man and machine” – had been addressed head-on; for a time when fundamental shifts in thought, like those engendered by Marx, Freud and Nietzsche, still felt fresh and vital; and for a time when general revolution was regarded as necessary, even inevitable."
could argue that this seems to be a rather past-oriented and future-denying
approach, but it can also be seen as a defence of the individual, for
imagination, dreaming and sensing. In their critique of the modernist
city, the method of drifting (derive) was developed to describe
and analyse factors affecting mood, behaviour and choice of route. While
drifting through the city, the atmospheres, smells, noises, and the people
and their activities were “recorded” through the senses of the drifter.
The recorded material and the route itself were later used in a mapping
and reconstruction of the city. The so-called psychogeographical method
was regarded as, a sort of therapy, a fetishization of those parts
of the city that could still rescue drifters from the clusters of functionalism,
exciting the senses and the body.
suggests that the process of interpretation, as shown by the references
to both aesthetic theory and to the contemporary art scene for several years,
has been questioned and examined through both theoretical and empirical
examples initiating and emphasizing the user’s participatory role in the
process of interpretation. In relation to the exemplified art projects,
the user’s role is taken even further than just being an active participant
in the process of interpretation. The user, in Büro für Städtereisen
by Boris Sieverts, is an active part of producing the project, and thus
to be regarded as mediating between the aesthetic of production and that
of its reception. The relationship between artist, art project and user
is in this way both reformulated and reconfigured; the process of interpretation
is implemented within the process of producing, which in this way becomes
an enacted process. A key point is the interplay between different sensory
experiences by both the artist and the user, and it is this interplay that
the individual collects to an entity
through an intellectual process, where the “material” provided by the sensory
experiences are negotiated, discussed and interpreted. The aesthetic perception
is thus to be considered as a methodology processing the interpretation.|
The user is thereby given the possibility to interact with and perhaps even change the project. The process of constituting and interpreting the project becomes a two-way process: the user engaging in a project influences the project, as well as the experience influencing the user, and hence the interpretation of it. By basically focusing on the common perceptual capacities of the user and by enacting his projects in ordinary environments, Sieverts seems to reach out beyond a traditional art, architecture and planning audience. And, in emphasising the user’s individual sensory perceptions of the environment as an important part of the interpretation, the traditional relationship between sensory perception as seeing, hearing, smelling etc., and interpretation depending only on our intellectual capacities, is displaced in favour of the former. The interpretation thus becomes a process enacted between the artist, the situation and/or environment and the sensing user, where the presupposed and the actual, but non-material sensing by the user, is a key-point. The participatory aspect is thus to initiate a non-material – ephemeral – in-between and multi-sensory experience of the user.
Turning back to Gernot Böhme’s thoughts on the space of bodily presence and aesthetics of atmospheres, he emphasizes the interplay between man and objects, and the atmospheres that are created in the interaction between space, objects and user. Böhme also emphasises that the apprehension of perceived qualities of space is an individual intellectual process, that the perceived qualities are processed intellectually by the individual, and that we are able to communicate the results of this process. In this respect, Böhme’s approach is more spatial than object-oriented, and as such his thoughts are interesting to planners and (landscape) architects concerned with spatial issues and how we understand, perceive and interpret environments such as transforming landscapes and urban environments.
It was stated in the introduction that the definition of the concept of landscape and actual landscapes are being transformed and replaced by new definitions and typologies for which we lack concepts and images. It was also stated that both our models of perception and representation seem inadequate to accommodate and deal with these transformations. Thirdly, it was also stated that, by investigating the relationship between modes of aesthetic perception discussed in aesthetic theory and contemporary art projects, we could better understand and define characteristics in a transforming concept of landscape, and hence in contemporary landscape architecture, hereby addressing the question of how interpretation might be processed.
Relating this to the field of landscape architecture, one may observe that, after generally being regarded as a design discipline, the planning and structural potential in landscape architecture was rediscovered and reformulated according to renewed environmentally concerned urban agendas in the 1980s. In this period several trans-disciplinary projects were pointing more and more directly towards in-between space and landscape architecture as perhaps the most interesting and potent field for dealing with contemporary urban and spatial issues. Some of these projects raised questions regarding the modernist notion of space, where the relationship between figure and ground as reflecting a dynamic interplay of form-masses and space-volume, were given priority as the main agent in space.
But do we have an articulated contemporary spatial concept to replace this?
Different modes and approaches to this question have been addressed and discussed, several of them relating to discussions on theoretical aspects in the psychology of perception and virtual reality.
Representing these discussion one may point out two modes; the one called the Ecological mode, named by James J. Gibbson and based on a redefinition of the psychology of perception. In Gibbson’s view, man is not only part of his surroundings through sight but also a point of departure, as presupposed in the modernist concept of space. Man is moving around among the various elements in space of which some are of the same movable kind like himself, and others like buildings, trees, mountains etc. are stationary. Gibbson’s theory seems to relate to,
"the Baudelairian hero of modernity, the dandy strolling about in the city mingling in the anonymous mass of people in their busy activities. But it might as well be an attitude symptomatic of the beholder in his spatial relation of himself to the elements of the installations or ’sculpture in the expanded field’ to use Rosalin Krauss’s definition."
The other mode is related to cyberspace and virtual reality with their incorporeal transparency. Some argue that our surroundings already have been influenced by virtual reality and that this influence has,
"managed to suck from the urban and natural surroundings, all dimensions and all volume of form and space [and that we as an impact from here] increasingly [will] experience our surroundings in a kind of underwater mode of vision, as if living in a wrapped-in and consequently ungraspable reality, a gigantic project in the manner of Christo."
to both modes is the description of large scale space, not as a defined
and articulated space, but as a spatial entity that we cannot get a distance
from and which therefore seems ungraspable as an object and, to some,
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