Winner of Alexander Bequest Award 2012


This essay seeks to explain the characteristics of installation art which make it a suitable architectural tool in the exploration of place awareness. Firstly it explains what contemporary installation art is and the similarities it shares with architecture. Secondly it looks into case studies to discuss the ways in which place awareness is explored through a variety of installations conceived by artists and architects. The theoretical base for analysing the chosen works comes from phenomenology and its study of the embodied experience of architectural space. The works are divided according to the main elements which constitute spatial awareness; the body as the vehicle of sensory interaction with space, and perception as the a cognitive tool in the navigation of space. This methodology aims to dissect how the spatial aspects (materiality, scale) of the environments created in installations affect the way people navigate and experience a particular space. The final discussion opens the door to the idea of using installation art as a critical spatial practice that can help in breaking the limitations of conventional architectural practice through its exploration of sensory stimulation and spatial perception; advocating an additional architectural design tool in the practical and theoretical development of the concept of place awareness in our built environment.


“The development of the concept of place is a necessary condition for finding an existential foothold.”1 (Norberg-Schulz)

We understand our being or dwelling in the world through a matrix of place perceptions.2Place is the physical environment (buildings, towns and cities) which we construct so as to ‘concretise our image of the world’.3 The images or schemata of the world which we carry, originate from our interaction with places 4 (walking along the pavement, entering a house, siting on a chair). Neuroscience has found that the brain uses an interactive process of repeated cycles of imaging, presenting and testing to make sense of the world and ourselves in it.5 In this process, how we perceive, experience and remember our surroundings depends on our awareness of them.

“Awareness of ‘place’ is critical to the definition of a memory. Physical environment is therefore essential to memory reconstitution.”

If place and our awareness of it plays such a crucial role in our experience of our built environment, then how can architects as place makers begin to explore this phenomenon of perception? Unfortunately, contemporary architectural practice is laden with time and cost restrictions which do not allow genuine freedom in the exploration of how spatial composition (materiality, scale) affects our awareness of place. In contrast, contemporary installation art and its inherent concern with our spatial awareness, as well as its similarity to architecture, a notion put forth by Sarah Bonnemaison and Ronit Eisenbach in their book Installations by Architects (2009), allows for spatial concepts and ideas to be explored relatively quickly. 7 Furthermore, the desire of installation artists to activate the viewer and to induce a critical vigilance towards the environments in which we find ourselves, makes this art form an ideal candidate to begin to explore the ways in which architects can distill the experience of architecture, and broaden their knowledge on issues which are critical to architectural practice.8

“Just as life consists of one perception followed by another, each a fleeting, non-linear moment, an installation courts the same dense, ephemeral experience. Whereas painting and sculpture freeze time and perhaps suggest something eternal, installation abhors such an effect. The viewer is in the present, experiencing temporal flow and spatial awareness... there is no separation or dichotomy between the perceiver and the object.”9

If installation art leans towards an exploration of what constitutes place awareness then the main question this essay aims to answer is what are the characteristics of installation art that make it a suitable architectural tool in the exploration of place awareness? Firstly the essay introduces installation art as a place between art and architecture where its inherent spatial and phenomenological concerns open ground for a discussion on the human experience of physical space. Secondly, through a theoretical discourse, anchored on phenomenology and its study of the embodied experience of space (subjective-objective, body-mind), case studies of installations (visited personally and reviewed in literature) are critically explored under two categories of place awareness:

1)the body as a vehicle of sensory interaction with space

2) perception as the a cognitive tool in the navigation of space

Projects realised by architects as well as artists have been included in order to highlight an existing collaboration between the creative practices. The thread connecting the works is the artist or architect’s ability to awaken the viewer’s awareness of place, either by stimulating the senses through materiality, scale and interaction, or by activating perception through disorientation.

This selected methodology is designed to open the way for a discussion on the ways in which different installations have addressed the physical and cognitive aspects that make up an embodied experience, culminating in a final discussion on how this art form could become a useful and more widely used tool, as part of a critical spatial practice in architecture, to open the way for a better understanding of place awareness.

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