Architectural Poetics

Experiments in Spatial Meaning

University of Art & Design Helsinki, MA Program in Environmental Art, 2004

I would like to build a house such that, the more you put in it, the emptier it becomes. – Dick Higgins

Gordon Matta-Clark

This course explores the literary/artistic potentials of spatial design and construction.  We will follow the logic of a few radical experimenters who view architecture as a medium for poetry, and try to blow open our idea of what functions a building is intended to serve.

This course explores the interdisciplinary potential of applying ideas of language and poetry to the visual and physical spaces of our built environment, focusing primarily at the level of the room and the house as possible poetic genres.  We will consider the provocative notion of an architectural poetics from various theoretical perspectives, and in relation to various forms of artistic production — poetry, graphic design, installation art and architecture.  Excercises and examples will challenge us to engage the idea of an embodied, spatial thinking, and to discover forms of “writing” that address the body-mind directly.



The course will have three main components:

  1. Reading and discussion of theoretical texts
  2. Writing, visualization and movement excercises
  3. Construction of models and environments



Arakawa and Gins, Site of Reversible Destiny-Yoro
Arakawa and Gins, Site of Reversible Destiny-Yoro

No architectural background is required.  Work for the final project can be verbal, visual, spatial or all three.  The course will benefit from contributions in a wide range of media: writing, graphic design, photography, video, sound, installation, spatial design.

The course will be conducted in English, with some opportunity for creative writing in other languages.






The “poetic” in architectural criticism

Readings: Franck and Franck: “Quality: on the Poetics of Architecture” – Schaik: Introduction to Poetics in Architecture issue of AD – Novak: “Liquid Architectures in Cyberspace”


“Languages” of Architecture

Readings: Alexander: “Preface” to A Pattern Language – Jencks: “Modes of Architectural Communication” in The Language of Post- Modern Architecture


The Poetics of the House

Readings: Bachelard: “The House. From Cellar to Garret. The Sense of the Hut.” from The Poetics of Space


Mental Maps

Exercise: from map to territory from territory to map

Reading: Tversky: “Remembering Spaces” on mental maps and spatial cognition


Visual Poetry up through Installation Art

Reading: Handout of poets’ quotations on the spatiality of language and verbal meaning

In-class exercise: working with metaphor and isomorphism

“Marrying your Metaphor”:  find a metaphor for life (or your life) e.g. (my) life is a roller coaster;  list 3-4 things about life (the target or “tenor”) and find their equivalents in roller coaster; list 3-4 things about rollercoaster (the source or “vehicle”) and find their equivalents in life.  Take home and develop the parallels as far as you can, working from both ends, write and draw the resulting figure.


Mid-Term: Living Room revisions; Placing Text in Space

In-class action:  Living Room assignment rejected

Students hand in living room design assignments.  after an impatient review of the results, students who had taken me literally and designed functional living rooms are told “You call that living?!  That’s not living!  Do it again.”  Students who had taken me figuratively and designed imaginative spaces expressing life in a non-functional way are told “You can’t live in that.  Do it again!”   All students work to find a balanced design that fulfills Rimbaud’s notion that poetic statements are meant “literally and in every sense”.


Textual Space:  Reading Installations (David Arnold, Ilya Kabakov)

Discussion of how spaces are designed and activated as texts.

Readings: David Arnold’s “because” from the project of treated found structures, Situations – Ilya Kabakov’s installation “The Man who flew into Space from his Apartment”


[no class]


Introduction to Arakawa and Gins

Readings: from Architectural Body, Guggenheim catalogue, etc


Field Day – Exercises

Counterflocking: run swiftly through the crowd of moving people in the central lobby of the railway station, following as straight a line as possible without bumping into anyone.

Flocking: return along the same trajectory, this time in a group, responding to obstacles  while trying to keep a constant arms-length separation between all members.

Sokos Hotel lobby: discuss spatial perception and tracking experiences from the exercises.

Walk-throughs of Sanomat Building, Kiasma, observe “unfolding” of spatial experience, Gibson’s visual field/visual world distinction, and kinaesthetic input from visual perception.

Visit primitive cabin and 18th C. Finnish interior displays in National Museum, discuss.

Visit Tempeliaukio Church. Compare inside with out.


Arakawa and Gins: Ubiquitous Site and the Dawn of Reversible Destiny

In-class exercise:

Labyrinth experience: classroom near-totally darkened, tables have been arranged on-end and on their sides to form a labyrinth whose entrance is the door.  Students (uninformed) are made to enter carefully one at a time with eyes closed and to proceed to the spot where they usually sit, waiting there silently for the others.  Evaluate the accuracy of your location, discuss the non-visual spatial cues you used, and the (dis)-orientation experience in general.


Arakawa and Gins:  Architectural Body

Discuss as.