The Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios 2015 Forum series began at the beginning of February, kicking off a series of five discussions which investigate the significance of ‘Lost Places’ in our cities and their architecture. The first event ‘City Gate’ was held in Bristol, and invited three architects to talk about their very disparate academic research work, all united by a preoccupation with ‘Movement through Architecture’.
Many architects have been preoccupied with the movement and ‘promenade’ through their works, from the landscape follies of Robert Adam to the ramps of Le Corbusier. Movement is the variable that makes a building’s stasis endlessly reiterative; that expansive sense of release from a low arch through to a vast interior, or the shrinking enclosure of stepping from a crowded square into the silence of a side street. Although the movement of people is so elusive and difficult to capture, the dichotomy is that the traces it leaves behind are visible everywhere, often a source of fascination and inspiration amongst historians as the cherished proof of decades and centuries, the patina that John Ruskin called ‘the golden stain of time’.
To begin the evening I presented a consideration of ceremonial movement in grand formal architecture, as typified by the approach to and circulation through British Country Houses throughout history. From the early medieval houses where admission of entry was the guarantee of safety and sanctuary, and entertainment within the banqueting hall, through to the opulent villas of the baroque and Palladian revival, where society engagements and formal assemblies were a status symbol of wealth, culture and influence. In each example the movement is curated by means of familiar architectural devices, and the research presented became a study of approaches, axis, entries, receptions, lobbies, anterooms, halls, stairs, screens, doorways and enfilades. The architecture of the house makes explicit exactly how it is to be used and by whom, using all devices down to the iconography of collections and decorations to underline the power of the messages unspoken. The importance of movement and sensational architectural set-pieces can be seen in the evolution of the houses’ largest space; Once a title that belonged to the great hall, room of dinners and dancing, subsequently demoted and overtaken by the developing importance of the reception hall, with no specific function beyond arrival, ascension and circulation.
Matthew Hynam presented the results of his masters research into the overlap between his dual roles as film maker and architect – derived from the media saturation of the moving image, and a human being’s increasing reliance on the language of the televisual to understand their surroundings. Moving through the spaces of a building has much in common with the editing of a coherent narrative; each room is an independent scene, but needs to make sense when the sequence is moved through in the correct order. Matthew’s research identified the way in which the succession of juxtaposing urban environments can create a series of ‘cuts’ between atmospheres, one of the fundamental tools of the film maker for telling his or her story. The idea of the ‘cut’ is then developed into an urban design master-planning tool – although not a design proposal in itself, the research at least offers a fresh way of thinking about movement in cities, and the ways in which a seemingly distinct creative art could inform a new approach to designing a building or cityscape.
Nick Scott was the final speaker, presenting a series of concepts from contemporary dance theory, and how they might be applied to the design of architecture and the body’s movement through it (the overlap of ideas originating from Nick’s own career as both an architect and a dancer). Nick demonstrated some of the ideas of Laban Effort Theory, and how any particular movement can be described within a framework of opposing values; lightness and weight, sudden or sustained, free and bound. Design of architecture with these values in mind begins to be informed by that which we struggle to define, but our bodies know to be true; The heavy tread of an ascension of steps, weighty in rhythm originating from the body’s pelvis, mitigated by the graceful generosity of hand on handrail, flowing from the shoulder down through the elbow and wrist. The practice of dance is a hymn to the joy of movement, a celebration to the extents of the human body and the beauty of its capabilities. The relevance of these movements to our behaviour on a day to day level should not be underestimated – The inquisitive actions of a body exploring an unknown sequence of interiors becomes a naive type of dance; leaning, probing and stretching, retreating and retracing as our senses and bodies comprehend that which encloses us.
St.John the Baptist Church proved to be a popular venue (amongst those who managed to fight through the lack of any heating), a significant location above Bristol’s last remaining city gate: an environment that has witnessed 900 years of urban movement, during which time the sprawl of the city has burst beyond it’s walls on more than one occasion. St.Leonard, St.Nicholas and Newgate (the other 3 original city gates of the medieval settlement) are the ‘lost places’ of movement within Bristol, each one now just a ghost, increasing the significance of St.John’s survival. A piece of crucial evidence discreetly hidden in plain sight, lost in the day to day grind of a busy 21st Century city, but creating a proud landmark, orientating the body and its movement through time, as well as through architecture.
Thanks to Matt and Nick for their involvement with the City Gate forum, and many thanks to Ed McGregor and the Churches Conservation Trust for their help in organising the amazing venue. Check out the CCT website for more information on this great charity – http://www.visitchurches.org.uk.