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Moments of Absence



by Lulu Yang



Architectural perception in modern societies is mainly directed towards surface appearances rather than meaningful content. It is urgent to understand the creation and perception of architecture in a deeper, more signi cant way. Meaning arises from the composition of foreground and background. Our ordinary perception is based on the predictability of this relationship, as we generally recognize and understand meaning from the gure as it is situated in relation with its ground. A perceptual negotiation occurs in architectural experience from the interaction of gure and ground, and essentially relies on the ground to provide the basis for perceiving gural form or meaning. People do not merely register symbolic one-to-one relations where one element carries a speci c meaning. Instead, they are always ascribing new, exible, and changing connotations, not to elements but to multiple relationships among elements. Thus, the un-recognized signi cance from each individual component becomes a moment of absence.


Perception – de ned as physical sensation interpreted in the light of experience, presents the connection between space and the mind. Experiencing architecture through the characteristics of light and shadow, texture, color, volume of spaces, and crafted details imprint vivid memories and evoke interpretive thinking. At its best, architecture stands in the lived world and encourages people to see through the surface of everyday life, to engage and enrich its meaning. This thesis discovers and illustrates an unfamiliar condition that challenges the conventional perception of the gure and ground relationship. Through rational and random form generation, double blinds, and removing the familiar correlation between elements, the experiencer must revert to ascribing meanings independently. The aim is to “presence� the absent moments, triggering the experiencer to form revised perceptions, and to discover new relationships, new functions, and new implications within their environment. Ultimately, these transformed perceptions will be taken back into everyday life experience, expanding its signi cance by the moments of absence. iv




Copyright, 2014


I was at one time amazed by how art could stimulate excitement and

evoke inspiration. I drew images that were both abstract and a direct translation of my thoughts and feelings. If I were to show them to people, I would get many different stories as to their meaning, most contrasting from my initial intention. However, my horizon would be expanded through their explanations; my creativity would be sparked in hitherto unconsidered directions by another’s impression. There is a great power in the dialogic relationship between perception and meaning. In the discourse of architecture, this perceptional approach falls into the category of phenomenology. Meaning arises through experience, especially in bodily sensations engaging with physical space. This experience leaves internal impressions (mental and emotional), promoting interpretations, creating and conveying meanings. Juhani Pallasmaa states, “the timeless task of architecture is to create embodied existential metaphors that concretize and structure man’s being in the world. Images of architecture reflect and externalize ideas and images of life; architecture materializes our internal ideals of life.”1 1

Juhani Pallasmaa, An Architecture of the Seven Senses, (Tokyo: A U Publishing Co.,Ltd., 2006), 37.






About perception


The background situation


our negotiation with space today 2

Phenomenology of perception


physical sensation in the light of experience 3

“Work of art“


perception of the existing art and space 4

Solidifying the perception


documenting the moments of absent 5

Transformation into architecture


design concept and site context 6

Perception and concept


the generated composition The extension of perception










Our current perception of architecture and space is concentrated on the surface rather than content in the relationship among the experiencer, architecture, and meaning. However, architecture as mediation should engage the negotiation of human perception with space, to evoke musing and imply meaning. Steven Holl states, “Architecture holds the power to inspire and transform our day-to-day existence”1 ; therefore, generating a space by translating “everyday life” experiences, observations, and memories into architectural languages, such as light and shadow, volume of spaces, textures, color, and details, which articulate communication between people and the world. The intent of this thesis is to craft a design with well-composed background and foreground relationships by utilizing bodily senses, such as sight, touch, smell, sound, and taste, engaging the architectural environment with physical sensations, promoting individual perceptions, and invoking meanings.

1 Steven Holl, Questions of perception, phenomenology of architecture, (Tokyo: A U Publishing Co.,Ltd., 2008), 40.


This thesis proposes an art gallery for the Cooper Union in New York

City where the site is filled with complex layers of contexts and inundated with idiosyncratic lifestyles. The gallery typology, with characteristic contents, is meant to encourage people to slow down and re-experience the real meaning of life.

Through moments of pause, the space becomes a celebration of

nothingness in New York City. It forces people to create new perspectives of their relationships with the city and the details of mundane everyday life. This new connection draws an extension line between architectural experiences and people. Architecture, as a practical art, truly bonds an individual’s mind and body with the extant world.




Phenomenology provides the philosophical foundation for our perceptual experience to extend understandings and meanings. Heidegger states, “The fundamental event of the modern age is the conquest of the world as picture.”1 Our perception of the world focuses on quantities and surface characteristics, such as how many new things can we take in a day, how to do things more ef ciently, how much more information can we skim through, and how many new places we could go to entertain ourselves. Therefore, places and spaces are like bus stops, which only provide the function of shelter, and nothing more. On the contrary, the meaning of life is more in depth. How much do we understand, how much do we think, and hence, how much do we change and innovate? Fredric Jameson uses the notion of “contrived depthlessness”2 to describe the contemporary cultural condition and ‘its

xation with appearance,

surfaces, and insane impacts that have no sustaining power over time.’3 Signi cance is lying beneath the surface. 1 Martin Heidegger, ‘The Age of the World picture’, in The Questions concerning Technology and Other Essays, Haper & Row, New York, 1977,134. Quoted in Juhani Pallasmaa, ‘The eyes of the skin’, London: ACADEMY GROUP LTD, 1996), 12. 2 Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, (United States of America: Duke University Press, 1991). 23 3 Juhani Pallasmaa, ‘The eyes of the skin’, London: ACADEMY GROUP LTD, 1996), 20.

Architecture delivers a pure reflection of the development of society.

People seek excitement from superficial surfaces, skins; thus, buildings become one of the emotionless products of mass-production. It is time to draw attention to the roots of architecture that convey meaning in an unconscious manner. Pallasmaa states, “the timeless task of architecture is to create embodied existential metaphors that concretize and structure man’s being in the world. Images of architecture reflect and externalize ideas and images of life; architecture materializes our images of ideal life.”1 He further explains and concludes that: “buildings and towns enable us to structure, understand, and remember the shapeless flow of reality and, ultimately, to recognize and remember who we are”2 .

Perception, related to phenomenology, emphasizes the importance of

physical sensations in experiencing the world through bodily involvements and understandings to evoke meaning. Here, significance belongs to 1 Steven Holl, Questions of perception, phenomenology of architecture, (Tokyo: A U Publishing Co.,Ltd., 2008), 17. 2 Ibid.,17. 24

individuals since each physical body is a unique entity. Merleau-Ponty introduced this notion of “intercorporeality”1 to emphasize the theory of phenomenology of perception.

Architects and artists have paved the way to promote this purposeful

dialogue between perception, space, and people. Le Corbusier belived that “architecture is the skillful, accurate, and magnificent plays of volumes seen in light”, while Louis Kahn held the philosophy of the “measureable and unmeasureable”2 . On the other hand, some influential artists anticipated much of the spatial freedom applied to physical sensation in contemporary architecture; such as László Moholy-Nagy who made ’environmental light’ his basic medium.3

In addition, Robert Irwin and James Turrell express

their philosophy that “intent was to offer elusive phenomena in empty space, upon which the viewer could shape 1 Merleau-Ponty, M. (1960/1964). The Philosopher and His Shadow. in Signs. p.168 2 Louis Kahn thinks, “Nature gives to everything both measurable and unmeasurable. qualities”, whereas light is unmeasurable and architecture is measurable. Architecture design should start from unmeasurable, through measurable meanings, to achieve a level of unmeasurable.Louis Kahn, “Silence and Light”. 3 Plummer Henry, The Architecture of Natural Light, (New York: Monacelli Press, a division of Random House, Inc., 2009), 10. 25

his or her own specific experience.


Steven Holl started the discussion by questioning the relationship

between architecture and perception. “Can we see through the world into built form?”2 he asked. “If architecture is to transcend its physical condition, its function as mere shelter, then its meaning, like interior space, must occupy an equivalent space within language. Written language might, then, assume the silent intensities of architecture.”3

He then elaborates on the significance of how architecture dialogically

reflects from and to our everyday life. Architecture essentially is physical spaces that encourage people to communicate with their bodies, each other and their inner selves. How does one feel about the space? How does the space relate to individual thoughts, memories, experiences, imaginations, and moods? These are fundamental questions in the discourse of perceptual architecture. Just as Holl noted, “architecture holds the power to inspire 1 Plummer Henry, The Architecture of Natural Light, (New York: Monacelli Press, a division of Random House, Inc., 2009), 11. 2 Steven Holl, Questions of perception, phenomenology of architecture, (Tokyo: A U Publishing Co.,Ltd., 2008), 40. 3 Ibid., 40. 26


and transform our day-to-day existence. The everyday act of pressing a door handle and opening it into a light-washed room can become profound when experienced through sensitized consciousness. To see, to feel these physicalities is to become the subject of the senses.”1

Steven Holl’s attitude towards architecture circulates within idea

and phenomenon. He believes that architecture is a static object situated on the ground that associates and affects many factors, such as the site. “The site of a building is more than a mere ingredient in its conception. It is its physical and metaphysical foundation”2 , he states. The elaboration of a site is to extend the content by really experiencing it through physical sensation, and translating the content into architectural gestures; at the end to reveal the metaphysical everyday life of the site. Similarly, light and shadow offer substantial influences on a chitectural spaces. 1 Steven Holl, Questions of perception, phenomenology of architecture, (Tokyo: A U Publishing Co.,Ltd., 2008), 40. 2 Steven Holl, Anchoring: Selected projects 1957-1991, (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1991), 9.


Space remains in oblivion without light. Light’s shadow and shade, its different sources, its opacity, transparency, translucency and conditions of reflection and efraction intertwine to define or edefine space. Light subjects space to uncertainty, forming a kind of tentative bridge through fields of experience…p esents us with a psychological and transcendent realm of the phenomena of architecture.1 His philosophy of phenomenon in architecture integrates site, light and shadow, material, space, people, and thought.

This integration renders

everyday life into a sublime experiential and spiritual horizon.

In his book, Questions of Perception: Phenomenology of Architecture, Steven

Holl dissects the whole into partial perceptions, in order to understand it in a systematic and organized way. Perception in architecture is “the merging of object and field; the incomplete perception; color; light and shadow; spatiality of night; time duration and perception; water; sound; detail; proportion, scale, and perception; site circumstance and idea.”2 1 2 2008).

Steven Holl, Anchoring: Selected projects 1957-1991, (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1991), 11. Steven Holl, Questions of perception, phenomenology of architecture, (Tokyo: A U Publishing Co.,Ltd.,




Architectural perceptions are revealed in the matter of experience. Crafting the phenomenon becomes the challenge in architecture. Steven Holl states that Architecture, more fully than other art forms, engages the immediacy of our sensory perceptions. The passage of time; light, shadow and transparency; color phenomena, texture, material and detail all participate in the complete experience of architecture. While the emotional power of cinema is indisputable, only architecture can simultaneously awaken all the senses – all the complexities of perception.1 Understanding the phenomenon of a space requires external and internal engagement; in other words, feeling and thinking. In the meantime, acknowledging the intention is essential when facing the question of perception. Experiencing and analyzing some built architecture will strengthen the understanding of how to “stimulate the interplay of outer and inner perception, how to heighten phenomenal experience while simultaneously expressing meaning; and how to develop this duality in response to the particularities of site and circumstance.”2 1 Steven Holl, Questions of perception, phenomenology of architecture, (Tokyo: A U Publishing Co.,Ltd., 2008), 41. 2 Idib., 42.



CHAPEL of ST. IGNATIUS - archetypal experience Steven Holl’s Chapel of St. Ignatius, located in Seattle, Washington, was completed in 1997. The location on the Seattle University campus provided both restraints and opportunities for the design. First of all, the con guration of all the buildings conforms to the rectangle of the site. Secondly, the purpose of creating one space was to welcome and celebrate people from all different backgrounds and religious beliefs. The concept is inspired by Jesuits’ “spiritual exercises,”1 no single method is prescribed – “different methods helped different people…,”2 here a unity of differences are gathered into one. The light is sculpted by a number of different volumes emerging from the roof. “Each of these irregularities aims at different qualities of light”.3

1 2 3

Francesco Garofalo, Steven Holl, (New York: UNIVERSE PUBLISHING, 2003), 121. Ibid.,121. Ibid.,121.


IN STIMULATING THE INTERPLAY OF OUTER AND INNER PERCEPTION Light experiences a change from monochromatic to chromatic. The phenomenon has been well explored throughout each space with the concept of “seven bottles of light.”1 The intertwining of geometry and color is extended and completed through light, color, volume, and texture, which engage a variety of senses. The pond re ects shadows of the building during the day and colored lights in the night, as if it were a preparation for the experiencer before they enter the space. The re ection also creates a sense of curiosity that intrigues people, giving them the desire to further explore what is inside of the building. It allows the project to become a “thinking eld,”2 as if the pondering is extended to the site and outside of the building. When different colors and quantities of light meet the water, re ection and 1 Steven Holl, Intertwining: Selected projects 1989-1995, (New York: Princeton Architectural Press,1998,158. 2 Ibid.,158. 36

refraction occurs. It is the prelude before people enter the building, and it is also the grand nale after people leave the chapel. The rst impression before stepping inside is the special door handle, the touch of the bronze with the curved shape directly attracts people’s attention, the weathering and textures of oxidation reveals “being and time.”1 Additionally, the irregular shaped windows penetrating through the door increases the sense of wondering. Haptic perception and state of mind are connected.


Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, (SUNY Press, 1973).



IN HEIGHTENING PHENOMENAL EXPERIENCE WHILE SIMULTANEOUSLY EXPRESSING MEANING The phenomenon is represented in a combination of all the senses. The handcrafted plaster texture on the wall brings nearness to people, and it reveals abundant details when light shines on it. The combination of the handcrafted glass sconce light and wall texture frame (itself a work of art) are presencing in front of people, implying meaning, and the signi cance that belongs to each individual. The plastic nature of the forms is conveyed largely through light. Tension in the ambiance is expressed when light from different angles punch through the voids of the volume. When the light speaks for itself in a colorful way, physical sensation is engaged within the atmosphere, and one starts to appreciate and meditate. There is no description, no de nition, no shape, no temperature, no sense, no taste, and no means of de ning this sensation and its meaning. All is embedded in the intensity of silence.


IN DEVELOPING THIS DUALITY IN RESPONSE TO THE PARTICULARITIES OF SITE AND CIRCUMSTANCE The duality of outer perception (how one experiences) and inner perception (how one feels and ponders) is articulated in strange making to capture attention. To fully illustrate the intention of perceptional experience, the construction method is challenged as well. Rather than utilizing a conventional approach of building, the concept brought prefabrication method on site. “The concept of ‘Seven Bottles of Light in a Stone Box’ is further expressed through the tilt-up method of construction. The integral color tilt-up concrete slab provides a tectonic more direct and economical than stone veneer. The building’s outer envelope was divided into twenty-one interlocking concrete panels cast at on the chapel’s oor slab and on the re ecting pond slab. In two days these panels were picked up and rotated into place by a hydraulic crane straining at weights up to eighty thousand pounds. The ‘pick pockets’, hooks inset in the panels, were capped with bronze covers once the panels were upright. Windows were formed as a result of the interlocking of the tilt-up slabs, allowing the 5/8 inch open slab joint to be resolved in an interlocking detail.”1 1 40

Francesco Garofalo, Steven Holl, (New York: UNIVERSE PUBLISHING, 2003), 125.

Today, the bronze connection on the outside of the building has started to reveal its weathering nature, the wall has begun to crack around the connection, making the joint more evident to people. The wearing of the bronze arouses a temptation of touch. Through the metal screw connection, the imagination takes one to the day when the building was assembled piece by piece though this connector. Pictures become vividly refreshed in one’s head, perceptual senses are activated and become vibrant. Moments of perception continually encourage interpretation and thoughtfulness during the entirety of the experience.



STOREFRONT FOR ART AND ARCHITECTURE Another Steven Holl project, Storefront for Art and Architecture, is situated on the corner of a block that marks the intersection of three distinct neighborhoods: Chinatown, Little Italy, and SoHo.1

As a façade design,

the intent from Storefront for Art and Architecture is to create a division between interior and exterior. However, neither the project architect Steven Holl nor the artist Vito Acconci were interested in the static or permanent impression of a traditional art gallery.2 Instead, what they did was to blur the boundary of interior and exterior in order to let art expand, to walk to the sidewalk and into the city. To achieve this dynamic storefront, they broke regularity by bringing activity into the static, irregular into regular, and irrational into rational in a way to give a space a different experience, to give light a different de nition. Windows therefore were transformed into ‘frames’, framing the light, framing the view from inside out, and from outside in. 1 2

Steven Holl, Intertwining, (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1998), 110. Ibid.,110.


The design extended the meaning and signi cance of art, expressing art and architecture through the building (storefront) itself. From the diagram, the contrast between regularity and irregularity can be seen. Not only does this change the façade, but also it changes the con guration of shadows (as the diagram shows). The project implements ‘dynamic spaces’ thoroughly. Art and architecture are the emancipation of a human’s soul, breaking the convention also expressed via the experience of views. Typically, architectural windows provide a linear opening allowing people from the interior to experience the outside. This type of window is unidirectional, which is functional and rational for residential buildings. However, as a museum, the key intention is to engage. Free shapes and sizes allow the maximum interaction to take in place between interior spaces, people, and the city, urban contexture, and culture. This multidimensional space creates a series of conversations to celebrate the beauty of art.




CHURCH OF THE LIGHT “To create space in architecture is nothing more than to concentrate and refine light” - Tadao Ando Tadao Ando nds and creates the most beauty with within, using extreme, mundane, and rough materials. He masters monolithic walls and geometries to form an architecture that is lled with shadow and light. The environment is rendered to amplify the power of natural elements, such as light, by simplifying the hosting environment to create the focus and silence people need to feel the mood of the space. Stop, and ponder. Similar to Kahn, Ando also practices with geometries by creating a void out of a solid, allowing light to come through the building, or vice versa.

Nevertheless, his understanding and interpretation of light is

through darkness. He believes that darkness provides an ‘enclosure’ to make a body feel protected. He said, “Because of the darkness, you felt


the strong presence of the light.”1 He is also utilizes naked materials, such as concrete, to apply to his simple geometries. Japanese critic, Masao Furuyama states,“He hates the manipulation of knowledge and games with form.”2 For Ando, true architecture is not space expressed through metaphysics or aesthetics, but space that embodies physically absorbed wisdom.”3 He further defines,“His simple geometric formulas welcome nature and transformative light renders his spaces complex. He stages memorable architectural tableaux within external light by placing walls that slice the sky and reflect water.”4 The intention behind Ando’s bare material is to provide a space where people have no distraction from the communication within themselves, with light, texture, sky, water, and all the natural elements. That is the essential spirit that lies in his philosophy.

1 Auping Michael, Seven Interviews with Tadao Ando, (Surrey,UK: Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 2002), 51. 2 Philip Drew, Church on the Water Church of the Light, (London: Phaidon Press Ltd, 1996). 3 Masao Furuyama, Tadao Ando, (Köln, Germany: TASCHEN, 2006), 12. 4 Idib.,7. 48



Louis Kahn creates perceptual space in his architecture. His respect

and appreciation towards material are reflected in all of his work. His style has been described as “monumental and monolithic”, which means “his heavy buildings do not hide their weight, their materials, or the way they are assembled”.1 His poetic approach to natural lighting, something that exists in our everyday life, makes his architecture touching and meaningful. He states, “No space, architecturally, is a space unless it has natural light.”2 He emphasizes the relationship between nature, architecture, and human being, especially within the integration of all architectural elements such as structure, material, indoor and outdoor spaces, or even program and site. He believes that “light is really the source of all being.”3

In one of his masterpieces, the Kimbell Art Museum, he uses “light as

a theme”4 throughout the entire design. His integration of natural lighting 1 Wikipedia, “Louis Kahn.” Last modified 10 29, 2013. Accessed November 14, 2013. http:// en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_Kahn. 2 Nell E. Johnson, Light is the theme: Louis I. Kahn and the Kimbell Art Museum, (Fort Worth: Kimbell Art Museum, 1975), 15. 3 John Lobell, Between silence and light, (Boulder: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1979), 22. 4 Nell E. Johnson, Light is the theme: Louis I. Kahn and the Kimbell Art Museum, (Fort Worth: Kimbell Art Museum, 1975),. 50

with his new invention of vault-like lighting structure is based on his realization that “light must come from a high point where the light is best in its zenith.”1 Besides that, he intentionally ‘hides’ all the physical lighting by ‘combining’ them with natural lighting sources, calling it a “natural lighting fixtu e.”2 This is based on his belief that “artificial lighting is a static light… where natural light is a light of mood.”3 Mood is related to metaphysical being. Therefore, lighting becomes the main axis as a connector of space and people. Another reflection about his interpretation of perceptual space is his strategy of creating courtyards in this project. Instead of leaving void places in plan, he filled the program with his solid vault forms, cutting the vaults in several places to create courtyards, so as to let them “open to the sky.”4

1 Nell E. Johnson, Light is the theme: Louis I. Kahn and the Kimbell Art Museum, (Fort Worth: Kimbell Art Museum, 1975), 33. 2 Ibid.,37. 3 Ibid.,17. 4 Idib.,22. 51




NORTH CHRISTIAN CHURCH – archetypal experience The primary element to create the right spiritual atmosphere would, of course, be light. That is the crucial thing… The primary light source would be an oculus in the spire. It could give intense light on the communion table. This light would lead you in as you saw it from the narthex. It would also keep you from being distracted by the people across from you, but you would be aware of them. Then there could be a feeling of contracting light back in the seating area. 1 - Eero Saarinen Located in Columbus, Indiana, the visit to the North Christian Church deeply touched me, and in uenced my understanding and beliefs on perception. The building was designed and constructed in 1964, Saarinen’s last project before he passed away. The experience starts from the drive in with the landscape suddenly becoming organized as one approachs the site. Residential houses and vegetation are symmetrically rearranged 1

Henry Plummer, Maters of Light, (Tokyo: a u Publishing Co.,Ltd, 2003), 154. 55 55

in two rows along the street with the building centered in the frame. The relationship between background and foreground is manifested.


building, at this moment, is presented as a silhouette, in an attempt to draw people closer. The winter trees reveal much of the building, but one would instinct to imagine how beautiful it would be in the fall, with all the golden leaves composed with the dark leaded copper. The visual enjoyment opens up one’s imagination. The entrance is elevated and the lobby is recessed from the outline of the building, creating an intentional darkness of welcoming. Soon, one starts to notice the material a little more; the hesitation from the darkness slows down the speed and calms the excitement. Walking in, the first impression is a very small lobby, a lightfilled space, so the environment appears warm and welcome. Pausing for a while; looking back and forth, purely feeling the space. Then, a step of the staircase immediately “interrupts� the visual concentration.


Two walls on both sides assist this staircase. The width of the stair

is not very generous, but it gives a sensation of solitude. The view opens as one steps up; the space becomes lighter and lighter, until one arrives at the last step, and comes into direct eye contact with blue sky. The skylight frames the sky with filte ed color and light, allowing it to flow and shine into the sanctuary. The presence of the space strengthens the gravity that locks people to present moments.

Thoughts are running; breaths are

pausing. The silence is so absolute that one could hear the heart beating. The moment is frozen, the senses are flooded; the moment is linking the body with the mind.

This series of perception was done intentionally, the description from

Ricky Berkey provides an overall view of the design:


“He achieved this sanctuary-centered design by elevating the building high above its very flat site in a residential neighborhood populated with mostly one story ranch homes. He also wanted to make it an experience to get inside, almost as if you were taking a spiritual journey from the parking area. All of the parking is in a straight line directly in front of the church filtering the parishioners and guests into a central walkway leading up to the church, then up an oddly spaced series of steps into the narthex and then another series of steps to get into the inner sanctuary space. As you were getting closer you begin to see the light from the occulus shining into the very heart of the worship space. He wanted to create an impression that the environment was changing as you left the outside world and entered into the church.”1

Each portion of the building has its own emotional attachment, representing our everyday life through volume, scale, texture, light, detail, to influence people’s perception, hence evoking meditation, and implying meanings.

1 Berkey, Ricky. 52 weeks of Columbus, Indiana, “Week 21 (North Christian Church).” Last modified 09 28, 2013. Accessed November 14, 2013. http://52weeks.rickyberkey.org/2011/06/06/week-21/.




SALK INSTITUTE “No space, architecturally, is a space unless it has natural light.” - Louis Kahn Louis Kahn is one of the masters of utilizing daylighting in architectural design, with a poetic approach that assigns a building its singularity.

His perspective towards light and shadow, the nature of

materials, as well as the importance of the courtyard, is represented Salk Institute. The project is situated at the coast of San Diego, California. The site itself is abundant in natural elements, such as a view of the water, surrounding woods, and low-height neighboring buildings, which all provide an internal bond for the project to nature. The founder of Salk Institute – Jonas Salk - directed Kahn “to provide spacious, unobstructed laboratory spaces that could be adapted to the ever-changing needs of


science. The building materials had to be simple, strong, durable, and as maintenance-free as possible.”1

Kahn split the program building into two parts: the north building

and the south building and inserted a courtyard in between, resulting in light entering the architecture from both directions.


he satisfied the natural lighting requirement for the lab. The courtyard, not only enabled lighting, but also delivered an opportunity for Kahn to connect the architecture to the sea (on the west). He created a long strip of water feature to symmetrically continue as an extension of the water. This water feature is the mirror that allows light to create a reflection of the building during the day, which lets the visitor to see the coexistence of people, architecture, and nature. The special experience is oriented by light and shadow. Kahn deliberately angled several exterior walls inside out to create a linear direction when one is standing in the courtyard. Yet, when 1 Salk Institute for Biological Studies, “Salk Architecture.” Accessed April 23, 2013. http://www.salk. edu/about/architecture.html.


people are walking through the open corridor on the first flo , a maze has been crafted by the sense of light and shadow. It implies the path to science education, a path to brightness, a momentous path that consists of light and silence.



SEATTLE PUBLIC LIBRARY The success of Seattle Public Library stems not only from its innovative program logic for library design, but it also represented a revolution for high-rise buildings in urban environment. Located in Seattle, Washington, where the sun only shines forty-seven percent of the year, Koolhaas exempli ed the importance of lighting design in the library. The entire concept is a dynamic entity, from its form, division of program, to its lighting. In contrast to Kahn’s poetic philosophy of light and shadow, this building provides an energetic atmosphere to a space, utilizing daylighting and shadow to accommodate and emphasize a holistic vibrant design. Unlike other high-rise architecture that use glass curtain walls, especially in an urban environment, the Seattle public library employs daylighting with personalities. Conventionally, a curtain wall is applied


vertically to complete the mission of lateral support as well as lighting requirements, regardless of the characteristic of lighting. Lighting changes its form and color according to different functions of space. For example, in the level three – “living room”, light penetrates from the slanted curtain wall, casting shadows of the powerful and energetic structural grid, providing the space a positive and delightful atmosphere.




REAL PERCEPTION One of the most dif cult aspects of this thesis is how to engage the theory of phenomenology into a real project. Analytically, we can dissect meaningful architecture into elements such as light and shadow, water, form, material, and detail. However, when designing a building, it would be absurd to just include all the elements and then declare it is meaningful. Then, how can we truly design the meaningful experience? Let us go back to the origin of perception, de ned as physical sensation interpreted in the light of experience. However, interpretation and experience are associated with individuals, such as education background, personality, memories, experience, and imagination.

In other words,

meaning belongs to the individual. As a designer, we can only suggest and indicate meanings within each movement, but we cannot anticipate their signi cance. So, what is the offset? Where does the glitch occur between designer and experiencer?


To nd out the answer to that question, I started doing an interesting exploration of blind drawing architectural experiences. The process begins with researching speci c buildings in terms of their architectural intent, the documented experience, and building elements. The next step is to do a blind drawing of the experience from my visit to the actual space. The conclusion is that I would document the experience in a new composition where it contains foregrounded moments, such as dramatic light and shadow, signi cant forms or details of a space, but not exactly aligned with the actual physical space. This process is representative of the individual perception, which organizes a new set of foreground and background compositions upon encountering a space.










Perception is an invisible thing, a sense of feelings. In what way can we solidify and document perception, given that there is no ‘true’ perception? Impressions are people’s re ections of what they perceived. Accordingly, the experience of

rst impression of a city stems from its

history, culture, urban fabric, movement, and lifestyle. Wikipedia described the culture of New York City in this way: The culture of New York City is re ected by New York City’s size and variety. Many American cultural movements rst emerged in the city. The Harlem Renaissance established the African-American renaissance in the United States. American modern dance developed in New York in the early 20th century. The city was the top venue for jazz in the 1940s, expressionism in the 1950s, and the home of hip hop, punk rock, and the Beat Generation. The city of New York is an important center for music, lm, theater, dance and visual art. Artists have been drawn into the city by opportunity, as the city government funds the arts with a larger annual budget than the National Endowment for the Arts, and New York is a major center of the global art market which grew up along with national and international media centers.1 1 Wikipedia, “Culture of New York City.” Last modi ed 2 24, 2014. Accessed February 27, 2014. http:// en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Culture_of_New_York_City. 77

Diverse cultural developments stimulate a dynamic cultural appearance, where a city is always active with events. The mundane everyday life becomes a circular marathon race, running to work, rushing for lunch, hastening to after-work events, and going back home, a lifestyle that is always on a move between the concrete forests.

Within the rustling movement, typically, people bear many

destinations in mind, regardless of the journeys experience. Because the movements are so fast, there are no pausing moments that would allow people to experience the journey. ÂŹTherefore, those moments become absences that exist yet are not recognized by the mundane everyday life.

In the meantime, the interpretation of New York City urban fabric

reflects a composition of figu e and ground relationship. The grid system established a systematic everyday background pattern, which Broadway then disrupted as it “charged�1 Manhattan, creating dynamic breaks 1 78

Tom Bible, (Thesis discussion), 11 12, 2013.

throughout the regular grid. Whenever it intersects another street, a node has been formed, such as Columbus Circle (59th street and Broadway), Times Square (42nd Street and Broadway), the Empire State Building and Madison Square Garden (34th and Broadway), Union Square (14th and Broadway), as well as Astor Place (E 8th Street and Broadway). Broadway “foregrounded� itself, endowing meanings to the entire city. Thus, we can make a conclusion that meaning exists in composition of foreground and background relationships.

Additionally, from the psychological and philosophical approaches,

general human cognition and perception are developed through the interaction between the individual and the context. Within communication, experience would gradually develop a series of familiarity towards things, which eventually influences our thinking and awareness. For example, there is a difference between walking on a street for the first time, as compared to walking on the same street every day.


Without the perception of a figu e in a background, there is no meaning. Pure background or foreground is meaningless. It is the composition that creates understanding of and negotiation with spaces. At first, one would pick up the perceived figu e out of the patterned background. However, once this relationship is established, what is remembered is what has been foregrounded. The background slips into obscurity. The level of cognition and perception will gradually disappear due to the familiarity of the figu e and ground relationship. Hence, the meaning of the origin is ascribed and altered by each individual human being. The un-recognized significance from each individual component becomes a moment of absence.












After identifying what are the absent moments, then the question becomes how can we utilize architecture to evoke attention to them? What can we do, as designers, to re-evaluate the problems or questions to put forth a proposition? To observe the abundance of experiences in New York City more comprehensively, we need to constantly adjust our perspectives from a telescopic point of view and zoom into speci c areas – the site. Located in 7 E 7th St, Astor Place. New York City, Cooper Union Square has one of the most iconic cultural and architectural environments in the city. The actual site is at 56 Cooper Square, adjacent to historical Carl Fischer building, facing Cooper Square, surrounded by the Cooper Union Foundation Building, 41 Cooper Square, and other commercial and residential buildings. It is in general a mid-rise building area bordering the East Village and NOHO district. Due to its proximity to New York University and other amenities, the environment of the area as a whole is


relatively animated, vibrant, energetic, and artistically-oriented.

The overlapping of different districts provides a special character to

the site, the subway station nearby (Astor Place) becomes an urban node to connect each piece. Therefore, the combination of the eclectic environment of East Village, the academic atmosphere from New York University at NOHO, with the artistic, vigorous ambiance from Cooper Union itself, in all, offers many divergent opportunities in terms of stimulating perception and mood in design.

Geographically, the site is fairly flat, which provides clear and direct

views to the natural and urban context. The dominant wind direction on the site throughout the year is northwest, and with cold winters, it requires heat and energy efficient strategies in building design. The daylighting conditions in general are even, with average fifty to sixty percent of cloud coverage per month.


The neighboring East Village began as a farm owned by Dutch

Governor-General Wouter van Twiller until the great Irish and German immigration of the 1840s and 1850s. The Germans began to build multiunit dwellings on lots for single-family homes, and in the meantime they rented out rooms and apartments to a growing working class, including immigrants from Germany.1 In present day, the German immigrants are no longer there, but the buildings remain, carrying a century-long legacy. Today, the original purpose of dwelling still exist, with more urban vibrant commercial and food developments along the street view, a sense of interactive happiness has been carried out with the involvement of human activities.

Architecturally speaking, the buildings in this area have a strong

dwelling character due to the history of purposefulness and occupation. This character is reflected in the façade or appearance of the building, which are directly associated with the function of single-family housing: 1 Wikipedia, “East Village, Manhattan.â€? Last modified 10 29, 2013. Accessed November 10, 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/East_Village,_Manhattan.


regular windows indicating bedroom and living room, with a main circulation staircase inside connecting to each floor and a set of fi e staircases outside. Diagrammatically, the building façade provides a regular grid pattern embedded within the urban fabric, performing as a background behind the human activities and foregrounding itself as historical trace of memory as well as urban city development.

Situated within this warm and rich historic environment, the site itself

also has its own distinctive views and characteristics. The most noticeable piece of architecture is 41 Cooper Square by Thom Mayne. As previously mentioned, the building was finished in 2009 “as the new academic building for The Cooper Union. It aspires to manifest the character, culture and vibrancy of both the 150 year-old institution and of the city in which it was founded”.1 The design of the building was inspired by Mr. Peter Cooper’s vision on education, along with the prestigious institute that Cooper Union stands for in society today. Both these elements come together to create 1 Morphopedia, “Cooper Union.” Last modified 06 24, 2013. Accessed November 10, 2013. http:// morphopedia.com/projects/cooper-union. 92

an iconic building that aspires to reflect the institution’s stated goal – “one that reflects its values and aspirations as a center for advanced and innovative education in Art, Architecture and Engineering. Internally, the building is conceived as a vehicle to foster collaboration and cross-disciplinary dialogue among the college’s three schools, previously housed in separate buildings”1 . This innovative approach is reflected in the façade design, material, structure as well as finishes. It has definitely propeled itself out of the background architecturally by “strange making”2 in order to achieve an iconic perception.

The other notable site background is the Cooper Union Foundation

Building. Opened in 1859, it marked the creation of The Cooper Union. The building—today a New York City landmark— quickly became acommon meeting place for intellectuals, inventors, tinkerers, and people from across the social strata. At the time of its erection, the Foundation Building was one of the tallest in lower Manhattan. It boasted such novel features like a cylindrical shaft between floors for the transport of goods by pullies—with which Peter Cooper foresaw the forthcoming invention of the elevator. Perhaps its greatest feature however was the Great Hall.3 1 Morphopedia, “Cooper Union.” Last modified 06 24, 2013. Accessed November 10, 2013. http:// morphopedia.com/projects/cooper-union. 2 John Hancock, (Phenomenology Study), 11 15, 2013. 3 The Cooper Union, “FOUNDATION BUILDING & THE GREAT HALL.” Accessed November 10, 2013. http://cooper.edu/about/history/foundation-building-great-hall. 93

Over time, the building has become historical landmark. The people

who built the building over one hundred years ago were holding the brick with hope, crafting the building piece by piece. Today, when light shines on the building, through the material, the roughness of the brick reveals its detail as if layers of the memories have been evoked, presencing themselves in front of us.

The Cooper Square functions as a buffer in between the 41 Cooper

Square and the Foundation Building. It opens up the view and provides opportunities for daylight to enter surrounding structures. The road system in Manhattan offers a visual connection with the Empire State Building to the north.

The site itself contains several forces that could direct the design.

First is the view. As stated before, the proximity to the intersection and park provide many opportunities to access different characters of view. The challenge of engaging, manipulating, presenting, and representing


will be an important piece in terms of design. Second, is the background condition that includes physical, cultural, and social background. The physical relates to the intertwining of the historic architectural character and atmosphere with the new and modern developments. The relationship between the façade of the building and the road system composes an unspoken grid background. The design’s prerequisite is to think about the composition of foreground and background, and the interplay between the two, in order to generate meaning in the context. Third is within the campus, considering how to embrace and engage the historical Foundation Building, the Cooper Square, and 41 Cooper Square, and evaluate an appropriate proposition for the design to stand within and beyond the context.

One precedent that encountered similar site forces is the American

Folk Art Museum in New York City, designed by Tod William and Billie Tsien. Adjacent to multiple high rises, the eight-story building is 40 feet by 100 feet. One of the design approaches is to utilize a skylight from above


as the main lighting sources to illuminate and dramatize the whole space. The building, from a design standpoint, is foregrounded within its context by integrating Tombasil (bronze alloy) material, in which the building “evokes the human hand and catches the light at different angles”.1 Nevertheless, one drawback about the design is that it ignores the experience at street level. The bronze panel extends from the top all the way down to the bottom; it nearly covers the entire façade and the main entrance, which leaves a dark and unapproachable impression to people walking along the street. This feeling is also due to the concrete forest of the high-rise buildings make streets having limited access to sunlight, accompany with the severe cold weather in New York City, the bronze actually expresses a dark, cold, and stern feeling. Thus, in the proposed project, considering experience at the street level is signi cant.

1 96

Wikipedia, “American Folk Art Museum.” Last modi ed 07 21, 2013. Accessed November 11, 2013.





One phenomenon about 41 Cooper Square is that the forces of its strangeness foreground it out of its context. The irregularity of lines and forms expand its in uences out to the ground, moving towards the site. This movement sparks the inspiration of the design: using void to represent the absent moments.

41 Cooper Square foregrounds itself

through its composition with the urban background. The relationship of the contrast invokes the idea of creating a new composition of the void rather than building a solid replacement. Consequently, three layers of structure are created within the site. The rst layer is a 15 feet by 15 grid system that functions as primary structure support, but is also generated from psychological dimension of public space within, which is 12 to 25 feet, suggesting public social spaces. The second layer is the 5 foot by 5 foot grid structure, offset from the rst layer, associated with human dimension of the social space (4 to 12 feet), to propose more intimate activities. The third layer, offset from the previous two, is the 20 foot by 20 foot grid.


On one hand, it responds to the site forces as a diagonal arrangement along the main road Bowery and Broadway. On the other hand, it promotes another level of social activity.

Three levels of structure endowed the site forces, representing the

New York urban fabric – the background grid system, as well as the patterned façade from the surrounding architecture.

This void representation

embedded a background situation for the design.

Therefore, what is the foreground situation? If the background

is the static “pattern”, then people’s experience and activity become the foreground - the hustle, the moving, and the running. Plug these various types of movement into the grid, and then place many pausing moments rationally and “randomly” for people to stop, experience, ponder and imagine. . The spaces essentially provide a different type of negotiation with human interaction. The strangeness draws people’s attention to come to the space, and once they step into it, suddenly, all the existing logistic


relationships between space and themselves are altered to something they have never encountered before. The limited activities within the space become a celebration of nothingness, people can only walk and sit, but it provides the opportunity of re-experience the same city or structure in a different angle. Three layers of frames converted to multi directional frames for people to capture different perspectives. The art that is integrated within the entire infrastructure challenges how art gallery display art pieces, and offer an unconventional perspective of experiencing art.

The entire design process truly felt like a discovery about cognition,

perception, and imagination. The experience consists of wondering within the space, pondering the moments of absence.










Our world is full of beautiful surprises and signi cances. If we pay a little more attention to the details of things that are around us in the mundane everyday life, we would receive wonderings of excitement and happiness. This is the hope of this thesis: to extract and present the absent moments in our daily life, so that people could ascribe presence and meanings to the most familiar yet most estranged things, to praise the perception of the absence.




TOM BIBLE for the patient, knowledge, encouragement, support, communication, and the special chocolate on the New Year day.

JOHN HANCOCK for the special warm email, your trust in me warmed my heart.

MICHAEL MCINTURF, AARATI KANEKAR for believing in me, share the knowledge and shed light on moments that give me nutrition to grow.

DF for the endless support, love, and encouragement, make me realize that sunshine is forever exist in my heart.

M,D,GM,GP,DY your love gives me strength to pursue my dream, to have the faith and never ever give up.


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All images belong to author, unless otherwise cited

P ii, New York Chaotic city, © Flickr P iv-v, Design analysis diagram P vi, ix, Illustration of imaginary architecture P xii-xiii, New York Chaotic city, © Flickr P xiv, Sketch of imaginary architecture P xvi-xvii, New York Roof top picture, © Google image P xviii-xix, New York Roof top picture, © picsto pin, source: http://www. ehdwalls.com/plog-content/images/1680x1050/cities/new-york-citymadness-1.jpeg P xx-xxi, Thesis word diagram P 22, New York Roof top picture, © Google image P 25, New York Roof top picture, © Google image P 25, New York Roof top picture, source from Google image, edited by Weilu Yang P 26, New York City chaotic display, source from Google image, edited by Weilu Yang P 31, Form/light/texture P 34-35, Time and light P36, “deep sky”, © James Turrell, source: http://blogs.utexas.edu/ culturalcompass/ les/2013/10/TurrellDeepSky1.jpg, edited by Weilu Yang P 38-42,45, Chapel of St. Ignatius analysis diagram 140

P46, Storefront for Art and Architecture, Š Artandarch, source: http:// en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Storefront_for_Art_and_Architecture.jpg P49, Storefront for Art and Architecture, source from Google, edited by Weilu Yang p 50,53, Church of the Light analysis diagram p 54,56-57, sketch diagram for Kimbell Art Museum p 58,63, diagram and photography of North Christian Church p 64,67, diagram and photography of Salk Institute p 68-69, Seattle public library analysis diagram, building section source: http://architectureinmedia. les.wordpress.com/2008/03/section_02.jpg, photography and edit by Weilu Yang p 71, image of spacialities p 72-73, Hayatt Regency San Francisco photography and experience blind illustration p 74-75, Cathedral of Christ the Light photography and experience blind illustration p 76, DAAP and New York City experience blind illustration p 77, Richard Serra’s Sequence with sun, photography by Weilu Yang p 78-79, The imaginary rooftop in New York City, photo source from Google, edited by Weilu Yang p 80, Illusion of wondering in New York City, photo source from Google, edited by Weilu Yang p 84, Movement diagram of the speed in New York City 141

p 86, New York City Street View, image source from Google, diagram by Weilu Yang p 87, Site condition analysis p 88-91, Impression of New York City, image source from Google, edited by Weilu Yang p 92, Spacial diagram p 96-97, Roof tops on the site, image source from Google p 100-101, Folk Art Museum, image source from Google p 102-105, Site activities diagram, image source from Google, edited by Weilu Yang p 106-108, The foreground and background condition on the site p 110, Site forces diagram p 112, Design analysis p 114-134, Site forces diagram and design illustration



Profile for Lulu  Yang

Moment of absent  

A perceptual negotiation occurs in architectural experience from the interaction of figure and ground, and meaning arises from this composit...

Moment of absent  

A perceptual negotiation occurs in architectural experience from the interaction of figure and ground, and meaning arises from this composit...