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VAGUE SPACE: Tracing eyes, edges, and the indeterminate limits of architectural space


Chris Jarrett, Peter Wong

Figures 1: Out-of-Site, an affordable housing project testing the indeterminate limits of space. Source: (Authors, 2017)

ABSTRACT: The objective of this design research is to understand how humans view various interior architectural spaces and realms. The study makes specific use of modern spatial configurations that feature spaces which move beyond our field of view, across apparent wall planes and behind edges that have no apparent closure. This emphasis on continuous space is important when compared to similar spaces that have confined or contained physical attributes. The first part of the study outlines a design project that demonstrates space beyond our immediate perception. An affordable housing model with three types of 280 s.f. units serves to show the design potential in action. The second part of the study exists as a pilot investigation that gathers data from human subjects using eye tracking hardware paired with computer displays. The goals of the study aim to initiate a discussion about architectural space within the limits of perception as people scan indeterminate space. The design therefore serves as the starting point for research that analyzes and test this aesthetic hypothesis.

KEYWORDS: eye tracking, architectural space, micro-unit housing, interior space, perception

1.0. Introduction

The popular tenets of modern 20th century architecture relied on several factors that aimed to anchor its orthodoxy. There was the movement to replace traditional uses and iconography (common to religious and aristocratic programs) with more secular functions to help widen the status and meaning of contemporary building. Architecture aligned itself with new industrial methods inspiring alternate ways of building and allowing new means of formal expression. In addition, one identifying trait of modernism was its expansive use glass, allowing a connection between interior and exterior that was not before possible.


This portrayal of modern architecture, though admittedly reductivist, constitutes the basis for reexamining the effects of contemporary space resulting in its democratization, methods of construction, and perception. This study aims to investigate how modern space operates under new conditions that are both about production and effect, placing emphasis on how we understand the impact of contemporary architectural settings.


To narrow this study, a position is adopted that assumes that modern space is an experience that turns away from the reverence of architecture as an object, a position that privileges a building’s outward expression and primacy of external form. Hence the study turns inwards, a position that is concerned with the interiority of buildings, internal space par excellence. This stance accepts that space is incomplete or indeterminate, open to vague clues of closure, possible extensions and leakages, and realms beyond the finite limitations physical place. This inquiry therefore aims to investigate the cognitive impressions that underlie architecture as we understand its spatial affordance, and how the landscape of its interior realm becomes primary to contemporary experience. Important questions of what such spatial experiences include: 1) what are the indicators of modern space that allow expansiveness and visual freedom, 2) what forms of space produce indeterminate limits or an impression of an interior as something more than its physical dimensions, and 3) how does the reliance on such spatial vocabulary play into a renewed appreciation of the characteristics of modernism within the context of contemporary building practice?


The significance of such a study might be applicable to more practical and contemporary problems. For example, how buildings serve to meet the challenge of offering more compact and affordable housing options, or the ways in which designed spaces could provide answers to the increasing density of existing urban environments. As such, this research examines the use of particular spatial design scenarios to posit potential aesthetic and pragmatic solutions for architecture.


The design-research is therefore presented in two distinct segments. First as a design solution for small scale spaces, and second, as a research pilot study that uses laboratory methods for gathering and assessing perceptual phenomena of the spatial realms explored in the first segment.

1.1. Out-of-Sight: a case for affordable micro-dwellings

The design component of the research explores the notion that small-scale design can lead to large-scale effects via an affordable housing strategy that adapts to varying urban conditions and sites. The approach is based on a 280 s.f. single-room structure that incrementally populates different site and building typologies in Manhattan, allowing familiar yet alternative architectural morphologies.


As such, the design aims to promote: 1) perceived space over square footage; 2) indeterminate room limits over confined boundaries; and 3) the occupation of desirable places in the city by virtue of incremental infills rather predetermined urban typologies. The conceptual strategy is demonstrated in three New York urban conditions which test the viability of the system as: a 12-story urban corner building, as a five-story urban townhouse, and as a multi-layered, horizontal mat-building situated at the edge of the East River (Figure 1).


A basic L-shaped configuration for each unit is predicated on a perception of space that disappears out-of-view or out-of-sight (Figure 2). This visual effect expands the impression of the interior beyond normal expectations and avoids the container-like character typical of most micro-dwelling proposals.


Figures 2: There unit configurations + nine possible arrangements and layouts. Source: (Authors, 2017)

The significance of this strategy lies with the premise that affordability does not necessarily amount to meager or slim layers of accommodation, and that the notion of affordability can serve basic needs without resulting in stereotypical design imagery or over-systematized construction methods. The design therefore takes a psycho-physical approach to housing by creating an indeterminate sense of volume and space. This out-of-view or out-of-sight space may seem larger or more abundant if we can't perceive all of it. 


The hypothesis is that a basic L-shaped volume permits an impression of ample space. Seeking different orientations - like solving an interlocking Chinese puzzle - the units are oriented up, down, and sideways allow space to retreat, disappear, and vanish from view while simultaneously drawing our awareness beyond the confines of a typical four-sided cell (Figures 3, 4, and 5).


Figures 3, 4, and 5: Leaky Space (left to right): horizontal drift, up n’ away, and descending. Source: (Authors, 2017)

This bent volume allows for an interlocking accumulation of tangled pieces providing structural rigidity as well as negative space between units (ideal for outside patios and exterior gardens). One possible structural variation is to render each unit as a cartridge composed of cross-laminated timber elements.


The toy block character of these units allows for a natural fit to varied urban conditions and sites types. The resulting accumulations are a way to adapt to under-utilized or oddly shaped urban sites while at the same time offer a response to established urban site typologies in a strong manner. The deployment of the system is therefore flexible, offering a part to whole relationship that allows diverse configurations. The three Manhattan locations used to test the different morphologies helped to visualize the research as a system of small spaces (Figures 6-10). 


Figures 6 and 7: Harlem Brownstone site. Source: (Authors, 2017)


Figures 6 and 7: Harlem Brownstone site. Source: (Authors, 2017)


Figures 6 and 7: Harlem Brownstone site. Source: (Authors, 2017)

1.2. Transition to Research

Next to the vertical line, whose living bearers resolve space by our bodily orientation into above and below, front and back, left and right, the most important direction for the actual spatial construct is the direction of free movement – that is, forward – a that of our vision, which, with the placement and positioning of our eyes, defines the dimension of depth. (Schmarsow, 1893)

The research phase of the project serves to test the hypothesis of vague or indeterminate interior space. The specific methodology uses eye tracking hardware and software data analysis to understand how interior space from the design is viewed perceptually (Figure 11 and 12). Digital line drawings are presented as images in conjunction with this hardware to trace the location and duration of eye movements. Images are arranged progressively, starting from simple two-dimensional forms (lines, edges, surfaces, and apertures) that, in sequential order, building a spatial scene of each of the three unit types. These scenes are ordered according to modernist spatial types that aim to introduce increasing degrees of complexity, building a complete interior view of the room. Data will be captured that track locations in the scene as well as the time spent in each location.


The objectives are to determine if there are patterns of data from the participants point to how the scene is understood, viewed, and/or perceived. Factors leading to these assumptions include the visual absorption of a scene, a room's perceived limits, the psycho-physical understanding of room depth given the different types presented, as well as areas that might arouse curiosity, confusion, etc. as suggested by these simple data points.


Figures 11 and 12: Eye tracking test images of the three spatial configurations. Source: (Authors, 2017)

1.3. Definitions and Methods

In this pilot phase methods and elements of the experiment are planned, predicted, and refined. It is planned as a run-through stage of the research that is conducted prior the comprehensive experiment. Beyond this pilot study a full-scale survey will be implemented.


The hypothesis tests a number of issues related to viewing interior scenes that are represented in drawing form. The notion that vague or incomplete spaces as defined by wall, floors, and ceilings trigger specific eye movements, fixations, and areas of interest (AOIs) that lend clues into the indeterminacy of space (Figure 13). Though this study doesn’t claim to understand what such AOIs mean, the hypothesis does attempt to understand that dwell times, fixations, and transitions can be considered important to the way we read the limits of space. Moreover, if the AOIs are frequent in the areas, edges, corners, etc. that fit the expected results, then additional configurations, perhaps more complex spatial surfaces and forms, might be the next logical step in the process.


Figure 13: Placement of AOIs in a drawing image. Source: (Gero, Shields, Yu, 2016)

The field of view is composed primarily of lines that represent, in drawing form, a room or interior space. These lines serve as the stimuli for these interiors, as they will represent edges, corners, and define interior surfaces. In order to limit the stimulus field there are no other elements in the scene (furniture, people, windows, etc.) that might conflict or be misleading with the AOIs during the experiment. In this way, the image will contain a large percentage of white space in order to allow stimuli in the AOIs to be direct and measureable.


An area for concern lies in the relative abstractness (non-real, representation of the space) that leads to confused or unexpected understanding of the spatial scene. Incorporating subjects that are familiar with such abstract drawings is a factor in the population group selection (for example, architectural students vs. non-architectural students). On the other hand, the opportunity for non-expert or inexperienced subjects for the experiment might also provide more natural data results. For non-experts, a set of test or learning image on how to read abstract drawings may be employed. In this instance, data would not be collected or analyzed. In short, a means for the viewer to acclimate to the image, described only by lines within the slim perspective depth and vacant white space of the image.


The anticipate results would yield evidence of eye movement or fixation on the edges of the scene that are outside edges or corners. These are to be classified as areas of interest (AOI) data in the evaluation of the scene and the stimuli that lie within. AOIs for this study have the following characteristics:



When the stimulus of the image incites eyes tracked in a preferred area of the scene. An AOI hit involves a fixation of the eye that can be measured as an amount of time – e.g. 200 milliseconds or more – before it is counted as important or significant in the AOI (Figure 14).



Time as measured at the point when the eye enters a particular AOI field and the point when it exits that field. There can be repeated dwell times as the eye returns to a specific AOI. Dwelling in an AOI provides rough data where one can add characterizations to the AOI via a qualitative description to help explain the data results. For example, an AOI of a corner may be a “space definer” or “boundary,” were as an edge with space beyond could be described as an AOI field of “transition” or “lead to” element in the image.


Figure 14: Diagram showing the duration and sequence of AOI fixations. Source: (Holmqvist/Andersson, 2017)


The movement from one AOI to another but existing outside either AOIs. Transitions are events between AOI and reveal direction, returns to previous AOIs. They are like hallways to rooms, with their own specific durations (Figure 15). 


Figure 15: Diagram indicating transitions from one AOI to another AOI. Source: (Holmqvist/Andersson, 2017)


Figures 16 and 17: Out-of-View space in research drawing form and in a typical rendered perspective drawing. Source: (Authors, 2017)

1.4. Planned Outcomes and the Significance of the Study

Psychologists have reported that, when perceiving a picture visually, a person attaches a certain organization to it (Granovskaya, Bereznaya, and Grigorieva, 1987). Vision is seen as the process of forming a description of what is in the scene from the retinal images. This process is sometimes referred to as inverse graphics. From the starting point of a description of the geometry of a scene, the reflectances of surfaces, the position of light sources and the position of a viewer, it is possible to construct a realistic image of a scene. The task of the visual system is to reverse this process and recover the causes of the scene from the images on the retina (Gero, 1993). The design and research components of this study aim to specify how this is done by way of drawings and to assign a functional role to neural components involved in this computation. Computational psychologists aim to understand visual processes by building computer models of these processes (Mar, 2010).


The potential design benefits from altering plan and sectional configurations may draw significance from this visual research and provides a measured and limited means for investigating room shapes, window placements, as well as furniture layouts that maximize the perceptual realms that are part of this investigation. The resulting visual effects expand the impression of the interior beyond normal expectations (Figure 16 and 17).


The authors would like to thank Professor John Gero, Research Professor in the Department of Computer Science and in the School of Architecture at UNC Charlotte for guidance and advice on this pilot study, and research assistants Robby Stubbs, Nazanin Modaresahmadi, and Arturo Lujan for the article graphics.


Gero, J., Shields, J., Yu, R. 2016. “How Veridical are Different Modalities of Digital Representation? The effect of presentation modality on physiological response,” Proceedings of the 21st International Conference of the Association for Computer-Aided Architectural Design Research in Asia. Hong Kong: CAADRIA.


Gero, J. 1993. The Role of Visual Emergence in Collaborative Design. University of Sydney: Key Centre of Design Computing.


Granovskaya, R.M., Bereznaya, I.Y., and Grigorieva, A.N. 1987. Perception of Forms and Forms of Perception. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.


Holmqvist, K., Andersson, R. 2017. Eye Tracking: A comprehensive guide to methods, paradigms, and measures. Charleston, SC: CreateSpace.


Mar, D.C. 2010.Vision: A Computational Investigation into the Human Representation and Processing of Visual Information. Cambridge: The MIT Press.


Schmarsow, A. 1893. “The Essence of Architectural Creation,” Empathy, Form and Space: Problems in German Aesthetics 1873-1893, trans. H. F. Mallgrave and E. Ikonomou. Santa Monica: Getty Center, 1994, p 289. Essay originally published in German in 1893.

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