People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log


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Assignment 3: Ideas

As there are only a few exercises in the Buildings & Spaces section, I’ve been thinking about potential subjects for the assignment pretty much since I started it. At the beginning I was worryingly short of inspiration, and couldn’t initially see how I could find enough subjects for the exercises and the assignment.

Longlist

So I started a list of ideas that I’ve been adding to and sorting for the last couple of weeks. I started the list in rough draft form even before I’d properly read and absorbed the details of each exercise and the assignment in detail – I think it’s better to at least start with a long list and then refine over time, than to restrict your thinking early on.

  • Summer house (in our garden – now used for the light exercise)
  • Airport departure lounge
  • Train station – but done too many times?!
  • King’s Cross departures concourse specifically?
  • Pickering station coach-building shed?
  • Pickering Castle (specific part – old courtroom?)
  • Newbridge Park (cycle park up in woods near where I live)
  • Castle Howard – courtyard
  • Farm (friend runs a chicken farm nearby)
  • Farm shop? a few nearby
  • Local museum: Beck Isle? Ryedale Folk Museum? Eden Camp?
  • Quaker garden – enclosed ‘tranquility’ garden attached to local Quaker meeting house
  • Converted steel foundry (shopping mall) next door to Zurich office
  • Shopping centre
  • A lighthouse – Whitby nearest?
  • Library
  • Hotel Negresco in Nice – the ‘grande salle’ / ballroom
  • The new ‘promenade de paillon’ square / fountains in Nice
  • Church – Nice cathedral?
  • Pickering Memorial Hall
  • Visitors Centre (Dalby Forest?)
  • Warehouse (friends run an e-commerce business from a huge warehouse)
  • Cafe / bar (White Swan lounge?)
  • London landmarks – Covent Garden?
  • Kew Gardens? I stay not far away during the week – NB can only get there on an evening?
  • Client’s office? (bit intrusive, may have to ask permission?)

I took lots of images at several of these locations as test shots and reviewed them to see how successfully they met the brief. The points in the brief that I particularly want to do justice are:

  • For each building, it is important that you conduct some research beforehand, either archival or personal (or both), so that you have:
    • a good understanding of how and why it was designed in the way it is
    • an opinion on its effectiveness as a usable space.
  • Try to encompass variety in your choice of buildings, including in size and purpose.
  • In addition, describe briefly how you initially set about showing the important features of each building photographically

Shortlist

With these points in mind, and some test shots in the bag, I whittled the shortlist down to:

  • King’s Cross departures concourse
  • Pickering station coach-building shed
  • Beadlam Grange farm shop
  • Quaker tranquility garden
  • Giessereihalle – converted steel foundry / shopping mall
  • Hotel Negresco ballroom
  • Promenade de Paillon fountain
  • Pickering Castle

In all cases I either already know a little of the place’s history or know where to look for research.

All of them have got some distinctive features related to their usage.

I think I have enough variety (size, purpose) in the shortlist. The first two are tenuously linked (trains) but one is vast and teeming with people while the other is small and is a workplace for 2-3 people. Most are public whereas one (the coach-building shed) is a private workspace, albeit accessible to visitors, so ‘semi-public’. Two of them (the garden, the fountain) are outside spaces rather than ‘buildings’ per se but they were ‘built’ for a purpose so I am accepting them into the list.

I’ll get this down to five or six when I’ve got enough shots and I’m at the editing stage.

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Exercise: How space changes with light

Brief

Take one or two locations where you can conveniently return a number of times in different lighting, and photograph on each occasion. To get full value from this exercise, consider making two variations of photograph. In one, set the camera up in exactly the same position each time. In the second, see how the different lighting conditions suggest different viewpoints and compositions. The way the shadows fall, for instance, will create different masses of dark and light.

Results

I had a space in mind for this straight away: the summer house we had installed in our garden last year. We positioned it exactly where it sits, with the doors and windows where they are, specifically to catch the late afternoon sunlight. So it was interesting to methodically go through an exercise of photographing it at different times of day to see how it changed in different lighting conditions.

09:00 and 11:30

I actually took several shots at different times on different days and to be honest up until early evening they all looked very similar, as the light was fairly even and flat throughout the day at the position in the garden. Here I simply chose two representative shots of the summer house in fairly plain sunlight.

18:30

The location really starts to come alive early evening, when the sun starts lowering in the sky to the west. Strong slanted shadows appear in parts of the space.

19:00 and 19:30

The first one here, ’19:00 back wall’ was taken at the same time as the next one ’19:00 chair detail’, and I included both here to show how localised the light effect was that evening… a few metres apart and one looks as flat and even as the daytime shots and the other bathes in a shaft of sunlight throwing a strong shadow onto the wall. ’19:00 sunny’ was a different day and the sunlight is permeating a much broader spread of the room this time. ’19:30 armchair detail’ shows the light coming through the side window and illuminating one specific chair.

20:00

On this particular day the golden hour sun was particularly warm, making parts of the room glow. I included an outside shot too, to show the warmth of the sun on the outside wood.

What I’ve learned

In some ways this was similar to exercises I’ve done before, on the Art of Photography course. This time around I decided not to do it in such a structured way (shooting on the hour all day from exactly the same spot) but rather to use the differences in light to pick out the aspects of the space that support its use as the light changes. It’s a relaxing space anyway, but when the sunlight bathes it in the evening it takes on a  specific glow that makes the place feel warm and calm.

The combination of the location, its usage and the light is something that I hadn’t necessarily thought about consciously before, but the exercise has taught me to consider lighting as one of the factors in being able to effectively ‘tell the story’ of a particular space.


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Exercise: The user’s viewpoint

Brief

Choose two or three buildings or spaces designed for a particular activity that is undertaken from a specific, distinctive, position. For each location, take one or more photographs that attempt to capture the user’s point of view. Consider height, orientation and lens focal length (which controls the angle of view).

Results

1. Terrace at Promenade de Paillon, Nice

Terrace, taken from outside

Terrace, taken from outside

Promenade de Paillon is a huge public space in the centre of the city of Nice. It’s main attraction is a vast open fountain with water jet displays throughout the day (which may be one of the subjects of my assignment) but here I am focusing on the covered terraces off to the sides of the space. To the right is a photo of one of the terraces from the outside, just to set the context for the photos that follow.

The interesting aspect of the design of the space is the seating: rather than have fixed benches or individual seats, they have taken a rather novel approach and fixed chairs by one leg to the ground and a swivel mechanism allows each chair to be rotated on tracks in a 360º circle. this allows people to create their own seating combinations, within reason: you can be alone and face whatever direction you want; you can face one another; you can have up to four people facing each other in a square.

So in effect, the user has a choice of viewpoint, as can be seen in the examples below.

2. Picnic area

I was trying to think of an activity that one performs low to the ground and after a while the idea of a picnic came to me. You could define the ‘space’ as either the picnic area broadly, or the picnic blanket specifically – either way, I think it meets the criteria of an activity performed from a distinctive position.

I took pictures from two slightly different viewpoints: sitting on the ground, looking down slightly; and flat to the ground, lying down (as that’s how I like to relax on a picnic, personally…).

3. Viewing platform

For the final user viewpoint I chose a viewing platform at the highest point on the Colline du Chateau (Castle Hill) in Nice. I was in two minds as to whether to use this, as it’s potentially just a cliché of a tourist shot. However, I did take it specifically from the platform designed for viewing the panorama (I even stood on the step of the coin-operated telescope put there for exactly that purpose) so I felt it did meet the brief. I deliberately left in the pointing hand of the tourist explaining the view to his son, as I reckon it helps to demonstrate the user-centric view a little more.

What I’ve learned

I found this exercise a little tough to get into. It took me a while to think of ‘distinctive viewpoints’ linked to specific activities. As ever when short of inspiration, I researched what other students had done. However, for once I found this largely unhelpful and frustrating as very few students seem to have correctly grasped the brief in my opinion, instead taking pictures from a particular viewpoint of their choosing but not one designed for a particular activity. I was determined to find locations that better fit the subtleties of the brief than (for example) looking out of a particular window in a generic room. On a short break in France my mind relaxed somewhat and a few ideas came to mind, thankfully.

Anyway – what did I learn in the exercise itself? This is probably the first time I’ve consciously put the camera in a distinctive position (height, distance, focal length) in order to capture a specific vantage point, although maybe I do that naturally in most situations when I lift the camera up to my eye. In doing this exercise I came to better understand how choosing a very specific viewpoint can enhance the viewer’s engagement with the image – seeing it though the eyes of another. It should help form a connection between viewer and image. Whether I’ve succeeded with my attempts here is another story.

One thing that I wish I had done more of is to consider the effect of the focal length on the viewpoint; I took all of these with an 18 mm lens (27 mm EFL) as I was trying to capture a wide sweep of a view in most cases. However, with hindsight I should have tried some of these subjects with my 35 mm (53 mm EFL) as this is more like a normal human field of vision – which could further help the approximation of the user viewpoint. However, I now don’t have the opportunity to reshoot for several weeks, so I’m going to leave them as they are!


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Exercise: Exploring function

Brief

This exercise will help teach, first, a way of approaching a space and thinking about it that focuses on how it was intended to be used and whether or not its design was successful, and second, translating this thought process into an image. Choose any interior space, either domestic or public, and consider it from the point of view of its function. Who uses it or will use it? What is it intended to be used for? And how many different aspects are there to that activity? You are analysing the purpose of the room/space, and the process of doing this is the same for a dining room as for a more complex large area such as a public library.

First note what you think the space ought to be doing — a short list. Then consider how well you think it succeeds. This is all before attempting photography, and it hinges on your own, personal point of view. Forming a point of view is important, because it will influence how you decide to photograph the space.

Having made your analysis, make a carefully considered photograph of the space in order to put across the way it works — or should work — for the people who use it.

Results

The space:

After much head-scratching I landed on a subject for the exercise: an area of the open-plan office that I’m currently working in that is known as “The Library”. It’s not an actual library, rather a space that people can use if they need a bit of peace and quiet. It’s just one type (albeit the most quirky one) of working space in a very modern office environment that has, in addition to the more traditional desks and meeting rooms, a variety of ‘breakout spaces’ of various sizes – single-person ‘phone boxes’ for conference calls, sofas for informal chats, and acoustically cushioned booths for more intimate conversations.

Overall purpose:

The stated purpose of “The Library” is to provide individuals (not groups) with a space to work quietly and without distraction, for example to read something, to concentrate on a particular task, or to think through a problem. It is available to anyone in the office, without prior booking; you just turn up and use it. It is laid out as a mock library, with fake bookshelves and other library paraphernalia to ‘dress’ the space in such a way that heavily emphasises its purpose.

Layout:

Its layout is dominated by a central table with 6-8 chairs around it – note however that this is specifically NOT a meeting table; there are desk-mounted dividers about 6” tall to delineate the space of each table setting. The objective here is to emulate the experience of a real library, where individuals will sit in silence and focus on their own work, even if they are elbow-to-elbow with another person – it is specifically a shared space for multiple individual use… you are NOT supposed to use The Library for meetings!

There are also two armchairs in the corners, high-backed and with exaggerated ‘wings’ to help with soundproofing. These are where one would sit to peruse a document, for example, rather than work on a laptop.

Finally, the other distinguishing feature of The Library is that, although open to the rest of the office, it has a full-width floor-length curtain, heavy and lined, to allow occupants to really cut themselves off from the rest of the office and get some proper quiet time.

Requirements shortlist:

  • Quiet (acoustically)
  • Calming (ambience)
  • Detached from main office environment (physically, visually)
  • Soft lighting
  • Clear identification of personal space
  • Comfortable

Is it successful?

An interesting question; yes, it is functionally successful for those that use it for its intended purpose. It is quiet and calm, softly lit, identifiably different to the surrounding area and promotes individual concentration with its use of furniture. The mock library stylings are an excellent visual cue to signify its intended use, so bravo to the interior designer.

However, I don’t see it being used for its intended purpose very much. It’s probably the least-used non-desk space in the office. I see what the workspace designer intended, but I fear that they over-estimated the need for such quiet contemplation. It’s almost as if people are embarrassed about being seen to be sitting quietly thinking or reading rather than *doing stuff*. I think this is an example where the real culture of the workplace is slightly at odds with the assumptions by HR of how they should work.

So in summary it is unsuccessful in as much as it under-used (rather than misused or unfit for purpose). It’s a bit of a white elephant. It wouldn’t surprise me if at some point they ripped it out and stuck in another meeting room or a few normal desks instead…

Photograph:

I took pictures of the space in use by one person, and of it empty. I thought for a while about which was a ‘truer’ description of whether the space is successful at its intended purpose. In the end I landed on depicting it empty. It’s clear from this picture what it should be used for – the layout and décor do that – but the fact that it is unoccupied tells the true story.

Library

If you really want to analyse it, there is evidence that someone has used it recently – the chair pulled out – so it’s clearly not wholly unused, just under-utilised. This is exactly the intention of my capture.

What I’ve learned

Wow, that’s the most time I’ve ever spent analysing a section of an office! Very useful though – it’s an insightful exercise to really think properly about what a space is supposed to do (or what people are supposed to do with it) as making a judgement on whether it ‘works’ or not makes a difference to how you then try to capture it in a photograph.

I found myself trying to work out how you compose a picture to make a point about the usage. I hadn’t really thought about this kind of thing before!