In search of Atmosphere and Actors

Victoria Station:

The familiar international location of the travel hub. The tannoy gives away
the country, but the vast potentials of place remain. Muffled sounds and a large cavern sits above
you. A train shakes in giving away what type of travel centres here. Moving outside the rushing
and the unfamiliar talks of places and times has spilled out and into the shops and restaurants in
the immediate area. Back into transport, this time the tube, giving away the city is London. The
acceleration and braking give some feel of distance, the occasional scent of marginally fresher air
might tell you how far out of the centre you are, but you just have to wait patiently in the neutrality
of the carriage.

Onto Whitechapel Road:

So you have exited the transport anonymity. Confirmed by the
breeze of urgency from passers by a financial centre seems to be looming large. The narrow street
is accentuated by the need to rush (those there for business are the dominant actors of this
space). Walled off by the traffic noise (both bicycle and car), the alley grows narrower. Some
smells and sounds poke through rumblings, sirens, shouting and car horns, but still nothing
extends out onto the street enough to create any intrigue. Although the senses are engulfed it
creates such tension on all fronts that moving on becomes the priority.

Onto Brick Lane:

The way the sound is contained tells you the streets are narrow but,
opposing Whitechapel Road, curiosity seems to capture those around you. Hundreds of people
sway, not always calmly but, importantly, they move without much direction. With little dynamism
the meandering crowd begins to allow a wandering of some kind of all senses. You notice the
crowd brushing past, this time with less ferocity. Your eyes wonder with the intrigue of a place
exhaling the smell of street food, placing tastes into your imagination simultaneously. As the rest
of the crowd saunters into the road you can feel the drop off and onto the pavement, the road is
an extension of the pavement, it is a liberty that is extended to you by those already there; a
taking over of the road for pedestrian use.

The intrigue extends to the largely unmodified buildings. Not giving away much in their facades
they encourage you to go in. Once you are inside you experience their micro atmosphere. They
can embrace or contrast the outside freely. Some play music loud, offering an intensified
individuality, then others contrast the outside with a quieter place, a little cove to re-focus the
senses on the smell of a cafe and the warm cosiness that again engages the other senses, a
temporality is present but embraced positively (it is a moment created by the people
accompanying you in that space just as much as the solid architecture that houses it). Both foster
the idea of curiosity paying off. So you leave and explore another micro experience and you are
part of the crowd then that wonders randomly into these places continuously all the way down.

After experiencing this series of places continuously throughout a year the level of (physical)
architectural intervention at each place became apparent. It seemed the larger the architecture
dwelled visually the less the social interpretation of a space was permitted. Focusing on touch,
smell, taste and sound reveals little about architectural characteristics but a lot about how people
occupy the space the architecture gives. In this sense, a lot can be appreciated in structures that
facilitate these micro atmospheres, welcoming interpretation and adapting to different ‘actors’ in
a space. The Situationist movement encapsulated this idea of the public’s power over visual
spectacle. Urban spaces were seen as potentially hijackable spaces for the public. But the public
don’t shift walls, change the facade type, add or subtract floors, they occupy space. They drive
atmosphere, the word so many use to help describe the nature of a public space (a restaurant, a
street, a courtyard, a city centre etc.).

Is there a risk of forgetting what gives a place ‘atmosphere’? The sounds, the feel of place as
well as the way people interact with the space: hurriedly, calmly, excitedly all converse with the
built form around it. The appearance of a place does stimulate a response but what the other
senses allow is a far deeper interrogation into the architectures ability to facilitate. Where
architecture plays a secondary role, like in Brick Lane, the way people interpret similar spaces to
such different effects is fascinating and often beyond what an individual would have imagined
when drafting up a plan. Imagining the ‘Actors’ of a space is necessary in architectural education
but experiencing the effect and acknowledging the architecture that facilitates so many
alternatives can only help encourage a more socially charged form of architecture.

Revisualising this through sketches is a way of reflecting and reinterpreting a place based on all
senses other than sight. ‘Eyes of the Skin’ details how ‘The eye collaborates with the body and
all the other senses’, a deeper understanding of spaces can be found through conscious
reflection on how all senses are addressed and then interact with one another. It seems strange to
attempt to visualise something that is innately non-visual, but in doing this exercise it is beginning
to encourage a critique that could hopefully redistribute itself into the architectural process of