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Perception of architecture – Lens of culture

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Of the five senses, what first comes to mind when thinking about space is the visual sense. Truly, much of spatial experience is derived from vision. But in real experience it is the cultural landscape including food, sounds, temperature and even smell, that creates a unique architectural atmosphere. Culturally shaped perception models change our understanding of space, our relationship to space and our use of space.

I loved my work experience in Singapore and being a part of multinational dynamic team of young people who met in the heart of South East Asia to sketch, experiment and have fun designing. Architecture was a tool to impress. Strong branding, fashion, bending the structural rules to shine and show off. We called it the “Wow” effect. I worked in a large team of architects, interior designers, graphic designers, 3D specialist and even an animation team to make sure our presentations leave that astonished effect on the clients.

Feng Shui masters were involved in commercial projects to make sure the energy is balanced for the business prosperity. One of our office projects entry had to be relocated to another corner after consultation with one of the masters and finding out the success energy was higher in the new location. Dragon dance was performed after construction completion, to scare away evil spirits and all the bad luck associated with them and bring good luck and wealth instead.

At the same time technology in architecture was highly used. Smart and interactive systems, movable walls, high tech solutions were widely used and enjoyed. It was part of the game to be on top of what was available on the market and make a use of it in proposed designs.

Creating urban oasis was another huge impact on the architecture. Green walls, green roofs, landscaped forms were considered in each project I was involved in.  With daily rain, high humidity and heat, Singapore has a perfect climate for lush landscaping to enhance the design and add colour and a calming vibe to balance a very busy urban landscape. Futuristic green spaces are definitely one of the trademarks of Singapore.

However, often the “make to impress” attitude could sometimes reach an extreme approach.

I remember in one project large residential pools were designed to surround the house in flamboyant shapes.  The whole pool was finished in tiny colourful mosaic tiles. The basement entertainment room was built with a meter-thick glass to allow the view of the underwater while enjoying the glass of wine. But the owners couldn’t swim so the whole effort was for decoration only!

Constantly following the fashion also carried a risk of designs being “out of the fashion” so longevity of the projects was not of a consideration. I grew up in the over 1000 years old city of Gdansk, Poland, with many buildings still standing since medieval times and being carefully and constantly preserved under the caring wings of a conservation scheme. That left in me a strong sentiment to spaces that stand still through generations, as though buildings are some mystical creatures who breathed through the walls and listened to centuries of human stories.

When I moved from Singapore to Christchurch over 8 years ago, I felt everything was upside down (literally it was in a way). The city was traumatized after earthquakes and trying to recover and heal. The approach to design was mainly practical. It felt like being on completely opposite spectrum and role of architecture was to clearly respond to user’s needs. Each garage shelf was checked to fit a certain sports equipment, colours were used in a safe range of tones. At the beginning it felt restrictive but also more respectful, more meaningful. 

I have no doubt it is the most beautiful country in the world and the architecture should rather respond holistically to that natural beauty, rather to enhance it than dominate it. Christchurch feels healed now and ready to spread its wings; urban energy moved to the 21st century. The city now feels more relaxed, the space for more joyful design experimentation has been created. Looking forward, I’m hopeful that new developments will start appearing that bring joy and colour but also respond to the real needs of the occupiers.

– Paulina Porebska

Published on Friday, February 21st, 2020