By looking beyond traditional sections and plans, we can better capture the intended experience of those who will live and work in the buildings, says RIBAJ Rising Star 2021 Hannah Durham
Stories bring us into contact with worlds unknown to us and open our eyes to possibilities not yet imagined. For us, as designers, having compelling ways to tell stories provides us with tools to powerfully communicate our ideas and visions. Stories are embedded in everything we produce: our words, music, food, landscapes, buildings, drawings and routines.
As architects we are storytelling dreamers. We imagine a building and then will it into the present through our written and spoken words, drawings and hand gestures. The design of a building involves transitioning through the lost past, imagined present and into the invented future. Throughout history, architects have drawn visions for our future buildings whether utopian, dystopian or an alternative future.
As an educator in architecture at Oxford Brookes University, I believe it is essential to equip our students with design tools to test the experience of their design ideas. I believe it is important to broaden and develop their methods for expressing and experimenting with their ideas, beyond the traditional architectural plans, sections, elevations and models. Although these are essential components of communicating an idea to a planner or contractor, these artefacts do not embody the full human experience of a building.
We all experience architecture by moving through space using all our human senses. However, our western culture has an obsession with the visual. This has resulted in us neglecting the full sensory experience when designing buildings, which in turn disconnects us from fully participating in our shared habitat, built or unbuilt. As architects we must consider what our architecture sounds like, feels like, tastes like and smells like.
To tackle this, the undergraduate design studio Building Stories at Oxford Brookes University – which I lead, with Sam Chisholm and Tom Sykes — includes the design tools of storyboards, 1:20 room models and animations, taken from other art-based disciplines like graphic novels, filmmaking and theatre stage design. Our students use these tools in the design development of their architecture proposals. The students learn to think beyond architecture as the enclosing of space, to uncover new ways of storytelling their architecture in a captivating manner to capture the intended experience of those who will live and work in the buildings.
The students of the 2020-21 cohort demonstrated these tools in varying ways. Adrian Truta used storyboards at every stage throughout his design process to draw fragments or scenes of occupation, to eventually create an overall story of the intertwined relationship between the occupant and their home. First Truta ensured he understood the needs and aspirations of his client, a shepherd, and then considered a series of simple pleasures the shepherd would like in a home, drawing each experience in the building as a scene. He used these drawn moments of occupation to test and explore the design, with the intention that the home would fit the shepherd like a tailored glove. This culminated in an atmospheric hand-drawn storyboard of the home design, capturing the qualities of light, texture, scale and inhabitation.
These 2D drawn scenes were then translated into 3D spaces, extending these experience explorations by making a 1:20 room model of a key space within the home design, supported by a workshop led by Chisholm. Stop-motion animation was then used to bring the room model ‘alive’ with the movement of objects, light and wind to explore and document occupation.
Sharvaree Shirode started with a quick sketch of the room she imagined her character – a modern-day Miss Havisham – would inhabit. She then translated this into a 3D model using corrugated card. Anna Deligianni, meanwhile, used the 1:20 room model to great effect in her design development of a photography gallery.
The students use the room model as a vehicle for experimentation rather than a precious pristine architectural model. It is made with the intention of capturing the spatial qualities from one or two viewpoints at most, much like a film set is designed to be seen from a particular angle through a carefully positioned camera. Seen from another angle the physical model is unfinished and incomplete. These doll-house scaled models are for testing the lighting conditions with different sized windows in various locations, different orientations to the sun, testing of materials with textures and colours, scale and shape of room as well as occupation with furniture and belongings.
Through rigorous experimentation with this one room model, Shirode found her client’s home proposal revealed itself. For Deligianni, working with a room model resulted in a convincing proposal with the viewer understanding what it would feel like to actually be in the building. The room model unlocked the design strategy for both students’ design proposals, including the materiality, light qualities, type and scale of spaces.
Lucy Monk extended this further to design the soundscape of walking through her museum and archive building. Monk used collected sounds, like a foley artist in film, to capture an imagined experience. Foley in filmmaking is the creation of sound effects to be added to the soundtrack after shooting the footage. This method enabled Monk to make design decisions on the materiality and scale of spaces in her proposal.
These are examples of designing a building through the experience of the end user, a way of designing that is human-centred. These design tools are analogue rather than being contained in the vacuum of digital software. This gives architecture students the enriching benefit of a hands-on experience of working directly with the real mediums of light, colour, scale of space and materiality on a miniature scale. Working in this way develops a student’s sensibility to understand the poetics of space from a human perspective using all the senses. This approach extends way beyond the information provided in an orthographic drawing set or digital model. Our built environment has an impact on how we all feel, so let us design the experience of our shared built environment as an integral feature of our design process.
Hannah Durham is a lecturer in architecture at Oxford Brookes University