The Phenomenology of Space

While walking down the streets of Newtown I was asked to explain any senses I had about the space? I couldn’t say it then because I was worried I would seem too disconnected from my work, but honestly I felt nothing. No thoughts came to mind, no words came out of my mouth, not even a bullshit sentence. How do I articulate a scholarly response reflecting deep analysis when I barely have any opinion on the matter? I get the impression that I am supposed to know exactly what it is I am supposed to accomplish and have some answer to the prompt, but this is not the case. As I walked down, up and through the streets nothing about the use of space stuck out to me. What I did notice of course was the gradual move towards a more modern form of settlement. There were few houses with fretwork and even fewer made of wood. Beyond those two architectural characteristics, I am at a complete loss.

I am ashamed to admit that felt absolutely nothing as I walked past these houses and I can not begin to "read" now these spaces are inhabited. My mind rarely questions the lifestyle of the people in the space, yet oddly I do have an unexpected appreciation for the structure. Anytime I see a building I focus on the exterior, I look for unique features, contemplate the purpose/ function and continue about my way. However after reading The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard, I was able to somewhat formulate what it is that intrigues me. On a very subconscious level, I am responding to the physical manifestation of imagination.

The author relates the experience of reading poetry to the type of daydreams people have about their childhood homes. The emotional connections felt when one reads a piece of work is similar to the phenomenology of inhabiting intimate spaces. He suggests that the house is a physical manifestation of imagination; the space is first designed in the mind and eventually becomes a protective (thought up by architects) and comforting (created by the residences) shelter. People want to protect themselves from what they fear (the outside world) by building a shelter to enclose themselves in safety.

One example of this lies within an aspect of inhabiting space that I so easily overlooked. Although I’ve noticed and registered the fact that Trinidadian houses are very close, I turned a blind eye to it because I did not know what else to say about the proximity. I just thought that people were short on space here so it was necessary to built houses close to each other, but maybe it is more than that. According to Bachelard, the closeness is a way to make residences feel safer because they know they are near a helpful neighbor. And another trend he touched on that I hadn't pieced together on my own was the idea that houses have minimal interaction with the environment and becomes artificially/superficially constructed the closer it gets to a city surrounding. While it is happening at a slow rate, I agree that the houses built now, especially near major city-like areas, stand out visually, structurally and in terms of its functioning within the environment. No longer do they have pleasantly useful architecture that infers a certain amount of information about the creativity of the architect while still effectively utilizing the climate of the country.

At Trinity College in Hartford Connecticut, I had taken a “Science in Art” course where the art world had been revealed to me. I wonder if artists intentionally created artwork. While there are some situations where some pieces dubbed “art” was created intentionally, we had looked at a few where accidental masterpieces. As with the case of Van Gough, who painted over some of his own paintings proved that he was more interested in expressing his imaginative ideas rather than displaying art. What he created was not for art sake but he painted because he wanted to show what was in his mind. In a similar fashion, the architects have created houses and other buildings originating in their imagination. I realize that I am fascinated with the fact that people think these functional houses into existence.

Furthermore the book helped me to see that my phenomenological experience may just be very different from others. It’s expected that my personal history affects my initial interaction with each house, which would be different from someone who has lived here long enough to see the gradual changes. For instance, it’s incredible that Christopher Cozier can easily point out 1930’s glass or the approximate year a fence would have been built or surmise that a house was renovated more than once in two different eras. Either way, he seems very knowledgeable about the subject and it is evident that he experiences and interacts with the same space on a different level. I’ve been told that I am too oblivious to my surroundings, maybe that is why it's so hard for me to verbalize my phenomenological encounters with these spaces.

Architectural Heritage with Rudylynn Roberts

An abstract representation of "Progress" in Trinidad. Here we see past, present and future all in one image.

On November 6th I attended a lecture at UWI given by Rudylynn Roberts about architectural heritage. For the past two or so months I've been wondering exactly what architectural heritage means, i.e. why do we consider certain edifices and/or houses to be important enough for later generations to experience? It’s not as if I do not perceive the nostalgia of these buildings, but what exactly do they say about the culture? Of course, some buildings clearly represent the past; there are old colonial buildings from different eras including the Spanish, French and whoever else. Interestingly enough many of the architects were not Trinidadian, which added to my confusion. Why are these pre-independent buildings culturally significant even though the Trinidadian imagination is exempt? What do they have to offer a modern society, besides a pretty version of a not-so distant, tormented past?
I read Architectural Heritage of the Caribbean by Andrew Gravette hoping to get a straight-forward understanding of the meaning of the term. The first few words in the first chapter talked about climate and emphasized how important it was for architecture to be able to survive within the natural surroundings. One of the simplest ideas I initially overlooked was the fact that the Spaniards who came here probably knew little about construction, so they would have had to follow an already established (working) structure. They took ideas from the Amerindians (Ajoupa) and incorporated some of their own ideas to make a Creole version of what they were accustomed to seeing. This implies that every structure has some element of Amerindian influence and therefore has some value to a society that knows little about Amerindians. And as the years passed by, even the imported peoples found ways to integrate their modifications on the Trinidadian "style".

In conjunction with Mrs. Roberts talk, I gathered that the main reason for dubbing buildings culturally symbolic and representative of heritage has to do with: 1. the effectiveness of the building within the natural surroundings and 2. the creativity of the architect. According to Mrs. Roberts, it's not about the original nationality of the architect, but their intent for creating the designs. On the other hand, nationality is important to note for the people who labored to make the imagined designs come into existence. The houses were built by Trinidadians and designed by foreigners for Trinidad. So we have to look at architecture as an important aspect of Trinidadian heritage because it implicitly connects the people to a tangible structure.
The talk as well as some of my own photographic evidence highlighted aspects of Trinidadian architecture that are somewhat unique to the country. The tiles, fretwork and glass used generally added charm while increasing functionality within the environment. Even though some of the materials were imported to Trinidad, the way they were implemented is what made it unique to the region. I have been trying to document these rapidly disappearing houses. Just by existing in this modern society, these houses silently impose a kind of significance. Christopher Cozier mentioned how the same architecture people are getting rid of now had once been tourist attractions. Exactly what has replaced this type of attraction? Will people come to Trinidad to see the big skyscrapers and large industrial factories? For now, it seems as though the government and most citizens are disinterested in trying to preserve a past window into their history and artistry. Trinidad does not value what they had, instead they insist on knocking down the old in favor of propagating an image of a modern and developing nation. Perhaps, they are trying to free themselves from this notion of being a tourist island and working on having a more sustainable economy.