Enclosures and cells

There is a lot of discussion within architecture and landscape architecture about what gives public and private spaces their character, but I decided to rework this competition entry because it explains something about how I feel about space.


Enclosures and cells – reflections on my experience of space

I explore my mouth with my tongue, then I start to feel the walls around me a little. I kick and stretch a little from time to time. I’m in a warm bath and sounds resonate through the walls. A tube in my belly connects me to the wall and a gentle voice calms me from outside.

My capsule is breaking apart: there are bright lights, plastic gloves, and cold, dry air. Being pulled out is terrifying: my first social contact, my first time in a room. I burst into tears. The smell is awful – nauseating and sterile. The medical people have no faces, only eyes, but the owner of the gentle voice holds me close.

The family dog is standing on its hind legs, barking at the living room window as the others return in the car – but this will be my first night here, and my first experience of a home. The boisterous labrador nuzzles everyone as we come in, but he takes a special interest in my mum, and the soft cotton bundle squeaking in her arms. The lights are softer, the rooms smaller, and only members of our tribe come and go, which I like. I am the only one my size, but my mum takes constant care of me.

At the front and back of our house there is a small piece of land before you reach the street, and mum takes me out there every day. I sit on the grass, doing my things (though I am not allowed to eat any of the mushrooms out here). There is a wall around the land, which I imagine is to stop the bushes and grass from growing onto the pavement.

Since my walking isn’t good yet, I have my own vehicle. I don’t understand how it operates really, but it stops whenever my mum walks in front of it. It has sides and a kind of thin roof. When droplets start to hit me on the face, mum closes my little vehicle completely, then we start moving as soon as she’s out of the way. I feel so safe inside the pram; I have my bottle and a couple of toys. My ears get very cold, so mum gives me a special hat, with flaps to cover them. They’re lined with something soft, like the family cat, and I like the feeling as mum puts it on me.

The park is like the garden, but a lot bigger, and it’s full of different people. The most amazing thing about it are the trees. They’re all sorts of colours and shapes, and they move on their own. As soon as we come into the park, the cars disappear and it’s just dogs and people running everywhere. I get out of the pram and run too (more or less), and I don’t have to look where I’m going. There is also a small version of the park in one corner, with a fence (this time, I imagine it’s to stop the trees growing into the little park) and there are things to play on.

The best thing about this place is that I’m not the only one! I love it, there are lots of others around my size and we play together.

Twenty years later

I started an architectural model-building apprenticeship just over a year ago, and it’s going very well. My mentor is a very skilled and patient craftsman called Manolo.

It’s a clear day in early March, cool, with almost no breeze. Manolo suggested I take a close look at the interior of the cathedral, since it’s a great way to learn about structures.

I pay as I enter – something which I find obscene, given the outrageous subsidies the Church receives from the State – and on taking one step inside the temperature change hits me. It’s been years since I crossed the threshold of any religious building. But it’s not only that, it’s the darkness. The sunlight, unhindered by even a single cloud, was bringing a smile to my face in the plaza outside. But now, I feel a chill. I tilt my head back, peering into the obscurity of the arches far above. But the light which does enter is magnificent. Here inside, in this relic of Medieval Europe, the sunlight which every surface outwith this stone ribcage can absorb, is enslaved, yoked to the images of torture and death. I ignore them and look only at the coloured light, and I’m captivated for a little while.

I lean against a pillar and make three or four brief sketches of the most significant load-bearing and distribution elements. When I’m ready to leave, I make my way over to the door at the opposite end of the nave. The short passage leading to the cloister is already a world apart from the staleness of the cathedral, and on reaching its end, the garden seems like paradise, democratically coated with sunlight. No medieval layman ever laid eyes on it, but here I am. I sit down on a stone bench and listen to the little fountain in the centre of the raised pool; I crush a few nearby rosemary leaves which I pull from a branch near my arm. The calm could tempt me to stay all day, but I have work to do.

Leaving the complex by the garden exit, the breeze blowing down the narrow alley makes me put the hood of my parka up. The parka was designed for extreme conditions, and the hood protrudes well beyond my face. I notice the soft texture of the lining of the hood as it sits lop-sidedly against my face, and I rub my cheek slowly back and forth against it as I walk. It reminds me of something, but I can’t quite place it.

The next stop is the Botanic garden, the glasshouses specifically. The slender, cast-iron and glass structures are bare, but the light enters from all sides, warming the spaces, and the tropical and sub-tropical plants are flourishing. I reach a glasshouse with a sizeable pond full of lily-pads. I sit down to sketch the structure, and I take my time. The fish break the surface occasionally; small birds and insects stir the foliage overhanging the pool, and the humidity of the glasshouse shakes the chill of the day outside.

Reluctantly, I finish my work, take a stroll around the edge of the pond, crouching down and peering into the water, which is full of aquatic plants and small amphibians. On leaving the glasshouse, I make my way across the garden at a quick pace and catch the airport bus in front of the East gate.

I doubt I’ve ever visited an airport just to look, but there’s a first for everything. The building can’t be more than two years old, and it’s still like the ‘visualisations’ (except that the people aren’t silhouettes, and the trees which line the entrance aren’t transparent). The main point of interest for me are the curious pillars which support the beautiful, undulating ceiling high above my head. Ignoring the anxious rush of the travellers all around me, I sit on a stylish bench to one side of the terminal. I set about making a short series of sketches of the elegant, coloured stems rising up from the shimmering marble floor, branching open like Dalí’s crutches to bear the strain of the roof over my head. Despite the cool night air coming into the terminal, the vivid tones of the pillars and the moon visible through the light-wells above make the huge hall welcoming.

As the bus passes my swimming pool, I decide to get off: I’ve got time for a quick swim before dinner. My pool, a well preserved industrial revolution building, normally fully-lit by sunlight from the windows above the pool, through which the moon now shines. The rafters which support the roof have been painted white, and they contrast with the pale orange sandstone arches and columns at the far end of the pool.

I choose to skip the swim, and I make my way straight to the open shower block beyond the pool and I rinse myself thoroughly, soaking my hair and skin. I open the glass door to the steam-room and the humid heat washes over my face and chest. As I close it I realise that I’m alone, and I sit down on the moulded plastic bench; I put my feet on the edge of my seat and wrap my arms around my legs. I close my eyes and put my head on my knees just as the vent starts to emit a fresh burst of steam. As my pores open, my mind begins to wander.

I feel an odd kind of comfort as wave after wave of heat hits me. I feel a poppy seed stuck in one of my molars and I use my tongue to dislodge it. I smile to myself as I realise why this space makes me feel so at home.

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