D I A L O G U E S  W I T H  P L A C E S

INTRODUCTION

In 2018 and 2019, with the kind support of the Center for Studies in Architecture and Urbanism (CEAU) at the Architecture School of the University of Porto, I presented to the national science funding agency a post doctoral proposal directed to inquiry public space from the perspective of emotions, perceptions and place.

 

This proposal aimed to improve the understanding of how emotions play a role in public spaces, given the complexity of elements that define our perception. It intended to debate current practices while introducing the scarcely studied aspect of affect in the urban studies equation. Considering that for public space to give answer to specific uses, in a specific place and for a specific society, we must have a precise and critical understanding of its constitutive elements, my aim was to contribute to this subject, and to the enduring dialogue between the consciousness of our emotions and our intellect’s reasoning, with the relationship of ethics and aesthetics in the background.

 

This evolved into the factors that define atmospheres in waterfront public spaces, by analysing the intangible forces that define our perception of these spaces mediating nature and urban developments, with a gender perspective. Our sensory experiences are highly complex and correlate with natural attributes, landscape integration and sensible design practices. By deepening our understanding of these mechanisms, we create a framework for the design of these vulnerable coastal areas that preserves its poetic attributes and inherently integrates nature conservation towards life-enhancing Portuguese seashores.

Emotions, to be understood both in relation to basic emotions and to aesthetic emotions, evoke the capacity for us to feel pleasure, awe and transcendence. And whether we are conscious of them while doing our lives or use them with intent when designing, they are there. To understand this and learn how to consciously bring this domain into the design process was to be taken as the exploratory and reflective practice that guided these proposals.

 

On the other side of this equation, was the aim to understand what makes a waterfront public space meaningful and develop pathways for expanding this knowledge considering our multisensory experience, from a gender perspective. I hypothesized these atmospheres are deeply related to sustainable coastal public space interventions: In considering this as essential in public space design outcomes, my idea looked for an essential perspective in urban studies – one that takes into account the complex interactions between nature, perception and public space. Public spaces that transcend functional, recreational and commercial goals allow our wellbeing and development – yet, we know so little about them. Thus, the questions: what makes a public space life enhancing? What characteristics are those? And what do they do for people?

Therefore, integrating emotions and perception was a natural step forward in my academic research path. The design of atmospheres anchored in empathy, preconceiving emotional reactions, sensible landscape integration and by addressing all our senses simultaneously is part of architectural theory and practice, namely by Zumthor, Norberg-Schulz and Pallasmaa. These principles should be further extended to the public space realm - something that seldom happens, and by which the design and the life of our cities would be enriched. Other than its functional, aesthetic and symbolic aspects, the perception of space is deeply rooted in our senses. This view of the body as transcending the rational and experiencing space in a multi-sensorial way is central to Pallasmaa’s work, who notes that the study of these qualities, together with atmospheres, hasn’t been much analysed in architecture nor planning.

How our bodies and senses perceive public space in terms of intimacy and scale, proximity and warmth have been explored by Gehl, as well as questions about the pleasantness of places, related to security, weather, aesthetic quality and a sense of place. The sense of place within our perception of the urban space as a highly subjective subject was analysed by Bailly; while Sennett noted the sensorial privation of cities, explained with historical perspective. Damásio highlights the role of our emotions in our experience, whereas studies relate the subjective relationship we establish with the environment by linking it with neuroscience data.

Regarding our senses beyond sight, research indicates the benefit of being in nature for human’s wellbeing. Water areas benefits for our health have been subject to studies with further insights being carried on by the EU program BlueHealth 2020, while also researched by Nichols. Urban studies research that link public spaces rich in sensory qualities with positive health outcomes are few – much less from a gender perspective. Given the lack of acknowledgment of differences between how women and men live public spaces, with urbanism and planning not integrating these differences enough, this is by large a field to explore.

This background has structured and informed my own independent practice ever since, by the means of working across disciplines and approaching territories adjacent to the sea, on both its symbolic and physical level. Sometimes it has been more, other less, directly. Through these ongoing Dialogues, my aim is to reflect, through my own personal perspective, on some of these subjects.

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Lígia Oliveira © 2021