by Esra LemmensDec 20, 2021
American urban planner and author Kevin Lynch (1918-1984) explored the meanings of context in his 1960 book ‘The Image of the City’, “Looking at cities can give a special pleasure, however commonplace the sight may be. […] At every instant, there is more than the eye can see, more the ear can hear, a setting or a view waiting to be explored. Nothing is experienced by itself, but always in relation to its surroundings.” Another statement from the same book says, “A landscape whose every rock tells a story may make difficult the creation of fresh stories,” upholds the importance of surprise and unpredictability in urbanism. However important ‘context’ is to architecture, it can be said that it brings out the best within a space when it is projected with ‘contrast’.
During the recent Dubai Design Week, London and Dubai headquartered studio ANARCHITECT presented Context Reflections – a low-tech analogue installation that called audiences to observe the context surrounding it. Designed as a dark chamber lit only by natural light entering through a pin hole, once inside, visitors were drawn into an ambiguous landscape of upside-down visuals projected on the walls. Upon closer observation as people adjust their sight to the low light conditions of the space, the imagery revealed itself as real time glimpses of the immediate world outside of the four walls.
In a conversation with STIR, Jonathan Ashmore, Founding Principal of ANARCHITECT, shares the idea behind the installation, designed for innovative surfaces company Cosentino.
Edited excerpts from the email interview:
Zohra Khan (ZK): Why is reflecting on the context important to you?
Jonathan Ashmore (JA): Firstly, it is about reconnecting people with their environment so that they pause and hopefully contemplate their context as an active observation rather than taking it for granted in a daily passive way. This is particularly important right now as we all face a climate crisis and are often bombarded by information and distractions that draw our attention away from important matters that need to be addressed.
In a more emotional way, I really enjoy the architecture of a place, buildings and spaces that are directly connected to their location, whether we design projects in the urbanity of London, UAE desert or tropical Sri Lanka, and respond and work with their environment and cultural position rather than against it. This, in turn, connects the occupants to the place, and for a split second, makes them present and appreciate or, at least, understand where they are in the world, what time of day it is and the climate, which I also believe is an important part of human wellness.
ZK: What inspired the form of the installation?
JA: Context Reflections was a continuation of ANARCHITECT’s on-going research and exploration into the relationship of natural light with architecture and interior spaces our practice engages in.
For this particular iteration of our research and interest, we explored the natural light phenomena of the ‘camera obscura’ or pin-hole camera to create a life-size analogue tool that visitors could inhabit and experience first-hand.
A lot of my own interest and research into light and space first started during my studies at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London where my final thesis looked at the early work of artist James Turrell, and then explored theories of low-light manipulation into interior spaces for sight rehabilitation in my final diploma project - an ophthalmic hospital.
It is about reconnecting people with their environment so that they pause and hopefully contemplate their context as an active observation rather than taking it for granted in a daily passive way.
ZK: On the inside, the installation projects a medley of images. Are these visuals solely capturing scenes from the space outside of the installation or do these include references from beyond? What was the underlying idea here?
JA: The images projected inside the installation are naturally occurring and are drawn inside the darkened chamber through the small aperture hole. This is a completely live translation of exactly what is occurring outside the installation in front of the hole and for quite a large distance beyond it. This is the natural light phenomenon of the ‘camera obscura’ (pin-hole camera) and is a direct representation of how the human eye works as well as the traditional camera.
The fundamental principles of what we present are the reason we see what we see and how and why our cameras and phone cameras work, which is not so often understood or remembered.
ZK: Why did you choose to invert the projected visuals inside the installation?
JA: Like our eyes and like the camera, the projected image on the back of our retina (human eye) or the photographic film (camera) is inverted; this is the principle of how reflected light enters through an aperture or lens and projects an image of the outside world which we then see or capture.
ZK: The project is said to have employed 'a technically challenging construction built with precise geometry'. Could you walk us through the process of building the work?
JA: To achieve the camera obscura natural light phenomena, there are a series of mathematical calculations and conditions that need to be considered. The larger the scale of the project (a public installation, for example), the more complicated it becomes to achieve the required precision. So for Context Reflections, the single aperture hole was 22mm in diameter and the distance to the rear wall was 3m (focal length). The other structural factors we had to consider in parallel were the standard sizes of the stone surfaces, the site area available and the size of the interior spaces for people to be able to comfortably move around. Therefore, this made the ‘low-tech’ installation quite complex to achieve all the parameters in perfect harmony.
ZK: Could you tell us more about the materiality featured on the installation’s exterior surfaces and the roof?
JA: The surfaces of the installation are from Cosentino’s first carbon-neutral collection; Sunlit Days by Silestone. The material is a series of pigmented quartz stone slabs of standard size, 3.2m x 1.6m. We wanted to communicate the significance of achieving carbon neutrality with this material by designing an installation that was based on the standard modular sizes and so we created a subframe structure to support the stone that is fully demountable and reusable with minimum substrate material usage.
Through subtle form and mathematical proportions of the installation, we wanted to also showcase the five pigmented colours of the stone across vertical, horizontal and angular surfaces to bring the material to life as the sunlight transforms the installation passing overhead through the day.