Spaces of Embodiment - A practice-based investigation towards a new design typology for urban public spaces

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School of Arts, Design and Architecture | Doctoral thesis (monograph)
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Aalto University publication series DOCTORAL THESES, 141/2023
Spaces of Embodiment examines how citizens can experience intimacy, embodiment and spirituality in the radically changing city. The research is situated within the fields of design and architecture, and it derives from a personal quest for a public space that enhances spiritual and embodied behaviour in a highly urbanised society. This thesis investigates the meanings and practices of contemporary, Western embodied experience, leading to a new design typology through practice-based research. It addresses the questions: What are the features of a new typology of 'spaces of embodiment' in the urban context? How can knowledge of the embodied experience inform the design of public space? The research builds on my previous training as a visual artist and placemaker. It involves a critical analysis of contemporary cities related to digitalisation and disembodiment. It brings together innovative examples through architectural art projects such as Cultural Sauna (Kulttuurisauna, Helsinki) and King's Cross Pond (London) that offer new ways of looking at multifunctional public spaces in contemporary cities, but also rural areas such as Therme Vals (Vals, Switzerland) in relation to art and the notion of the body. The aim of this practice-based thesis is to make a contribution to knowledge within and beyond academia, via an art practitioner's lens, by creating a design typology for 'spaces of embodiment'. Research methods included: a literature review of theory focusing on the digital revolution, extreme urbanisation, secularisation, disembodiment, and lack of spirituality and the sacred; qualitative research through interviews with experts from the fields of visual arts, theology, urban studies, architecture and spirituality; three case studies (King's Cross Pond, London; Kulttuurisauna, Helsinki and Therme Vals in Switzerland) researched through the method of autoethnography; and practice-based explorations leading to practical design outcomes. New knowledge was sought through inductive modes of practice with the development of new types of public space. The findings of this research project concentrate on how the knowledge of embodied experience can inform the design of a new typology of 'spaces of embodiment'. The typology proposes spaces that augment, enhance, or intensify embodied experience and can work well in urban areas, and the collaborations produce various practice-based outcomes (images, visualisations, pictograms, summary of materials and practical applications) consisting of characteristics of a new design typology. A new approach is proposed to grouping, that defines the spatial requirements of public spaces and buildings not through technical specificities, dimensions and scales but rather through human experience focusing on senses, embodied thoughts, feelings and habits.
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Supervising professor
Julier, Guy, Prof., Aalto University, Department of Design, Finland
Thesis advisor
Hodson, Elise, Dr., Aalto University, Finland
design, architecture, cities, public spaces
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