A Curious Void

April 2024
First published in: Vorkurs Vol.8 - VOID

Words by Aaron Peters

In a void, there is a seed of yearning, a puzzle unsolved. The compulsion to reach out and touch a surface or to explore a building in search of real or imagined delight has shaped and sustained my infatuation with architecture. It’s there in my earliest memories, from a time before architectural calculation, when encountering an intriguing space was just a precursor to a pleasant afternoon, and it persists in the spaces and places that captivate me. Despite years of professional practice, architecture still succeeds in returning me to that childlike sense of wonder and fascination with a curious void.

When I was a kid, I encountered much of the outside world from the back seat of a car, and getting anywhere on the Sunshine Coast in the 1980s involved driving. We trekked north across vast landscapes of sugar cane and south through the endless rows of plantation pines.

The familiar profiles of the Glass House Mountains would appear on the horizon, volcanic plugs towering over the low coastal plain. For an ignorant, non-indigenous child, they were like ancient, enigmatic signposts marking our progress. In my mind, they belonged to a collection of roadside landmarks consisting of the kitsch (a giant fibreglass pineapple, an enormous fibreglass cow, a mock medieval castle built in 1972), the ordinary (the ubiquitous farm sheds and service stations), and the sublime (the lands and waters of the Kabi Kabi people).

These were the times before touch screens when children were encouraged to quietly amuse themselves with threats of roadside abandonment or 'something to cry about'. So, without anything else to do, the scrolling landscape became a storybook or a page waiting to be filled in.

I imagined scaling the cliffs of Mt Tibrogargan and finding a cave-like bower in the cliff face where I could gaze down on our tiny red van inching along the Bruce Highway, the local school, my grandparent’s house, and all the other familiar places that constituted my circumscribed universe. I remember wondering what it might be like to step inside that majestic pineapple or to stand on the blockwork battlements of Bli Bli Castle, gazing down over suburbia, sword aloft and banner unfurled, like an unhinged, prepubescent megalomaniac.

When I was about four or five years old, unbeknownst to my parents, I started introducing myself to our new neighbours, inviting myself into their houses for a bit of a look-see. I wanted to know what these buildings were like, all the secret spaces concealed within. Did they have any cordial in the cupboard? Did they know how to make pikelets?

I began to build a collection of cubbies around our farm, using salvaged construction materials stacked behind the garage sheds, scouting out suitable sites: the concrete water tanks at the top of the orchard, the earthen embankment alongside our house, and the Jacaranda tree overhanging the driveway. I started to appreciate how materials could be deployed, what would bind them, how far they could cantilever before breaking or collapsing, and how cumbersome they were to drag and hoist into place. I was playing, not experimenting; being a kid, not 'learning', so I learnt a lot.

Years later, when I began studying architecture, I didn't think these experiences were relevant to my design tasks. The early 00s felt like the fag-end of theory-heavy 90s architecture, with strange angular forms propped up with obtuse, esoteric rhetoric. I was baffled, uncertain if I was as stupid as I felt. I remember complaining to my second-year design tutor that 'I didn't even know what I liked' - but the truth was, there were many things I found delightful and compelling.

I soon discovered a small tranche of theory that began reconnecting me with my childhood infatuations. Perhaps the most fundamental was Jay Appleton's The Experience of Landscape. His 'habitat theory' posits that humans possess an innate attraction to survival-advantageous settings, which include concealment and an ability to survey one's surroundings. Appleton suggests that we can also identify or anticipate these properties from afar – hence, Secondary Prospect and Refuge.1

Reading Appleton's work felt like uncovering part of the mechanism underpinning my fantastic excursions. It explained why some settings might be more compelling to explore than others and, even at a distance, were more likely to arrest my attention and draw me in.

It makes sense for humans to scan the world around them, anticipating opportunities and avoiding harm. Testing and exploring the things we encounter helps us know if structures are likely to bear our weight, how best to navigate uncertain terrain, or if something might be edible, scalding, sensuous or irritating. The better able we are to make these assumptions, the more likely we are to prosper.

Cognitive theories, including amodal completion, orientation affordance, perceptual organisation, inferred casual history, and object parsing, posit that our brains are accomplished anticipators. We can, and instinctively do, infer complete forms from both two-dimensional shapes and partially glimpsed objects. We also assume other properties, like weight, directionality, stability, depth, texture, and taste, based on size and surface properties or even speculate about the provenance of an object, making assumptions about how it may have been formed or acted upon over time.2 In other words, we’re constantly making assumptions, filling in the blanks.

An object or a physical environment can be like a puzzle. But what makes the puzzle pleasurable to complete are often the mimetic traces, the capacity to allude to scenes and sensations that have emotionally impacted us in the past and might do so again.3 Other people and their actions are also palpably present in any environment we encounter,4 and there is no shortage of architectural theory willing to assist with this line of inquiry.Rather than overburden a space, such associations trigger our empathetic imagination and form the basis of powerful emotional connections that makes that place compelling. Put simply, a building has to make you feel before it can persuade you to want to think.6

When I discover a building that particularly interests me, I often take the time to apply some of this theory to nut out why and how it works. For example, I discovered an alluring photograph of a ‘traditional house in Cairo’ in a compendium of Islamic architecture.7 The image was of a house built in the 17th century (now known as the Gayer-Anderson Museum) that had been captured by looking down across a central courtyard opposite a double-height loggia framed by two arched openings. The publishers had reproduced only one image of the building and included no accompanying drawings.

I started to project myself into the photograph, wondering how it might feel to leave the bustling Cairo streets and emerge from the darkened passage below the loggia into the roofless volume of the courtyard. I imagined my senses becoming accustomed to the relative calm of a secluded courtyard, perhaps appreciating the murmur or conversation drifting down from the logia above.

The image is ripe with quiescence. I found myself following the breadcrumbs, trying to navigate the scene, imagining how my body might move through the space. The short flight of steps in the courtyard suggests a pattern of movement, but part of the route is obscured. Could the narrow door at the stair landing prefigure a tall, slender passage, walls pressing in on both sides? I imagined the buzz of conversation dimming as I entered the tall, dark passage and ascended the steps. The rugs, divans, low tables and cushions anticipate the appointed time when the figures fill the room with movement and music. At the top of the stairs, I’d find myself amid lounging bodies and an array of fragrant dishes, reoriented back toward the courtyard from which I'd just departed.

I like to imagine unseen rooms gathering around this loggia, shadowy figures glimpsing the proceedings behind elaborate timber screens. At the rear of the logia is a little room within the room: a daybed recessed into the rear wall, perhaps projecting out over the hubbub of a street below. I imagine the daybed as a voyeuristic perch, a liminal space within the city's intertidal zone, between our public and private lives.

The photograph captures exquisite juxtapositions, light and dark, compression and expansion, refuge and exposure, clamour and reverie, discovery and concealment. It depicts a setting attuned to occupation, which compels events into being. The Gayer-Anderson Museum hints at spatial, atmospheric and experiential possibilities. There is prospect and refuge within prospect and refuge, marinated in the residue of centuries of occupation. It awakens a deep longing and a keen sense of anticipation.

As a child, I wanted to make things to capture and hold these feelings. Buildings and landscapes seemed to contain a latent potentiality, and that promise was like a propulsive force, calling my imagination out into the world. A little later, I figured out that what animated these fantasies and gave them enduring resonance was the potential for others to participate.

To make buildings capable of establishing connections with others, we need to understand the reciprocity between behaviour and buildings, emotions and atmospheres, people and places. The best method for doing this is to critically observe and reflect on the world around you, seeking patterns that can be abstracted and reapplied. The best motivation for undertaking such an inquiry is a childlike delight. Reading theory and philosophy can train you to see more acutely. Still, they aren't a substitute for living an active and engaged life, preferably with at least some people who aren't architects.

Designing buildings takes a lifetime of study, a lot of empathy, and a willingness to trust your intuition. In childhood, we form a nascent sense of decorum, a schema of the world, a feeling for things, their 'correctness', and their connectedness to other things, people, circumstances and situations. You might call it a private lexicon that gets overlaid with decades of life and learning but whose underlying profile shapes the contours of our present sensibilities.

As an architect, it can help to know that what you feel is derived from the repository of memorable spaces and experiences you've been carrying around and adding to from the moment your senses first perceived the extraneous and began the life-long task of making sense of it. The terrifying void of 'not knowing' isn't a barrier to designing buildings; it's a wellspring of possibility. I am certain that the best architects understand this intuitively. They delve into the void of not-knowing as if it were a sandbox, gleefully.
1 Appleton, J. (1996). The Experience of Landscape. London, Wiley.   

2 There is plenty of fascinating stuff to dig into here, starting with Roland Fleming, who states: […] without actually touching an object, we usually have a clear idea of what it would feel like were we to reach out and handle it: whether it would be hard or soft, rough or smooth, malleable or likely to crumble in response to force: Fleming, R. W. (2014). "Visual perception of materials and their properties." Vision Research 94(January): 62-75. Chen and Scholl's research indicates that Casual history leaves visual traces in the present: A dented can, for example, is readily interpreted as an undamaged can that was subsequently dented: Chen, Y-C Scholl, B. (2016). "The Perception of History: Seeing Causal History in Static Shapes Induces Illusory Motion Perception." Psychological Science Vol. 27: 923–930. Sprote et al. contend that our minds […] infer the underlying generative processes that structure and organize the observed shape: the causes and processes that have endowed the shape with its specific features: Spröte, P., Schmidt, F. & Fleming, R. (2016). "Visual perception of shape altered by inferred causal history." Scientific Reports 6, and Leyton argues that […] people are capable not only of inferring casual processes in the past of some object, but also of inferring complex temporal relationships between those processes: Leyton, M. (1989). "Inferring causal history from shape." Cognitive Science 13(3): 357-387. Heida and Sigurdardottir state that […] nearly any novel object has intrinsic directionality derived from its shape (p434) and that when a previously seen object is reencountered from another viewpoint, the new object instance […] is thought to go through an iterative transformation, such as a mental rotation or alignment that orients the observed object with either a previously seen view or a privileged, canonical view: Sigurdardottir HM, Michalak SM, Sheinberg DL. (2013). "Shape Beyond Recognition: Form-derived Directionality and its Effects on Visual Attention and Motion Perception." J Exp Psychol Gen. 143(1): 434-454. Patrick Sprote et al. refer to these cognitive gymnastics as amodal completion, stating that in order to make higher-level inferences about objects, [...] the brain must somehow pool and organize information from distant locations across the object and into more global quantities – a process known as perceptual organization. In essence, they shows that we 'construct' mental images of three-dimensional objects from partial, incomplete perception and continue to update that image as we acquire more information about that object. Cool, huh?

3 As Kevin Lynch memorably writes: Nothing is experienced by itself, but always in relation to its surroundings, the sequences of events leading up to it, the memory of past experiences: Lynch, K. (1960). The Image of the City. Cambridge, The Technology Press and Harvard University Press.       

4 Aldo Rossi's Theory of Permanances was my first introduction to this. He writes that […] the past is partly being experienced now, and this may be the meaning to give to permanences: they are the past we are still experiencing [...] these persistences are revealed through monuments, the physical signs of the past, as well as through the persistence of a city’s basic layout and plans: Rossi, A. (1982). The Architecture of the City. Cambridge, London, MIT Press. Henry Lefebvre concludes that […] social space ‘incorporates’ social action, the actions of the subjects both individual and collective who are born and who die, who suffer and who act: Lefebvre, H. (1991). The Production of Space. Madden, Oxford, Carlton, Blackwell Publishing. Which neatly compliments Halbwachs, who argues that when [...] a group is introduced into a part of space, it transforms it to its image, but at the same time, it yields and adapts itself to certain material things which resist it. It encloses itself in the framework that it has constructed. The image of the exterior environment and the stable relationships that it maintains with it pass into the realm of the idea that it has of itself: in Rossi, A. In other words, we're shaped by the things we shape, etc.

5 See: Rapoport, A. (1982). The Meaning of the Built Environment, a Nonverbal Communication Approach. Tucson, The University of Arizona Press; Low, S. and Lawrence-Zuniga, Eds. (2003). The Anthropology of Space and Place, Locating Culture. Madden, Oxford, Carlton, Berlin, Blackwell Publishing; Bloomer, K. and C. Moore (1977). Body, Memory and Architecture. New Haven, London, Yale University Press.

6 The architecture of Lynch Architects encapsulates this theme, particularly their seminal project, Marsh View (2001-2008). They write that a […] crucial dimension of the practice’s work is that it doesn’t demand precise deciphering to make sense. The depth of reference is there and can be assessed by the informed visitor to reveal great richness, but it isn’t strictly necessary: Lynch, P. Evans, L. Stara, A. Lynch, C. (2015). Mimesis: Lynch Architects, Artifice Books on Architecture. Patrick and Claudia Lynch's written and built works offer an expansive resource that improves upon many of the subjects covered in this essay.

7 I first encountered the photo in Bianca, S. (2000). Urban Form in the Arab World: Past and Present. Zurich, VDF. With a little internet snooping, I subsequently located Warner, N. (2003). Guide to the Gayer-Anderson Museum Cairo. Cairo, Supreme Council of Antiquities, which included a number of additional images, measured drawings and notes on the history of the building. This information revealed that many of my surmises regarding the layout were correct and that the house was far more intricate than I had imagined. The Gayer-Anderson Museum is located adjacent to the Mosque of Ahmad ibn Tulun, and a pedestrian passageway cuts through the building. There are also several other fascinating rooms within the building. I also suspect that the house may feature in an Indiana Jones film, but Wikipedia isn’t playing ball.