Exploring Obscure Places – Part 2 of 5

The second in a series of five on Urban Exploring. In this I explore aesthetics and spatiality.

Aesthetics and Spatiality

The concept of aesthetics is extraordinarily complex, highly debated and entirely relative. It would be ridiculous to try and tackle a topic so huge in a paper so short, but I do feel that it needs addressing before I actually get into in investigation.

In the case of most urban explorers, the definition of ‘beauty’ clearly draws outside the lines of the social norm. To understand the discourse of beauty in decay, it is import to understand that aesthetics are highly subjective. When we look at a building, a seemingly endless number of factors need to be taken into account. Location and perspective are obviously important, but we must also take into account our own experiences, age, where and when we grew up, and so on. The relationship someone shares with a building is not only physical, but also relative in terms of personal experience. Henry Glassie represents this well in Vernacular Architecture:

“All architects are born into architectural environments that condition their notions of beauty and bodily comfort and social propriety. Before they have been burdened with knowledge about architecture, their eyes have seen, their fingers have touched, their minds have inquired into the wholeness of their scenes. They have begun collecting scraps of experience without regard to the segregation of facts by logical class. Released from the hug of pleasure and nurture, they have toddled into space, learning to dwell, to feel at home. Those first acts of occupation deposit a core connection in the memory” (2000, 17).

St. John's Adventist Academy - Click for Larger View

St. John's Adventist Academy - Click for Larger View

The idea of space, called spatiality, is complex to explain but intuitive as an experience. Leland Roth suggests, “the reality of architecture lay not in the solid elements that seem to make it, but rather the reality of a room was to be found in the space enclosed by the roof and walls, not in the roof and walls themselves” (1993, 45). With this, he continues to break down space into numerous categories: physical space, perceptual space, conceptual space and behavioural space. For an urban explorer, the most important is “behavioural space, or the space we can actually move through and use” (Roth 1993, 45).

Behavioural space can further be broken down. In it, we can examine positive and negative space, directional and non-directional space, and public versus private space. In a normal building, we usually pass through negative space (a lobby, porch, etc) and tend to dwell in positive space. Once inside, we can be free to move around (non-directional space), or “in the Gothic cathedral the emphatic axis directs movement towards the single focus – the altar” [directional space] (Roth 1993, 51). Urban exploring meshes all of these ideas instead of suggesting strict dichotomies like Roth suggests.

An abandoned space instead functions on a continuum, up for debate if it is public or private. It can also be directional or non-directional depending on the level of decay. For instance, the loss of dividing walls and furniture can be disorientating. It can change how an explorer moves about the space, and shift its interpretation. The same goes for the debate of public versus private space: explorers often compare the level of difficulty involved in ‘getting in to a building’ to its legality.

Lastly, it is important to explore perspective. Most urban explorers choose to document with photography, and this can range from rudimentary snapshots to photography as an art. While the result can be moody, scary, sad, happy, inspiring and interesting, it is important to note its compression into a two dimensional object. Hazel Conway and Rowan Roenisch explain, “no photograph, film or video can reproduce the sense of form, space, light and shade, solidity and weight that is gained

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for the next part!

– Matt


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