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Critical Spatial Design,
Architecture, Art & Discourse
::: Nilsson Pflugfelder :::
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Thoughts and experiments on how to spatially organise a conference

If one thinks about the countless conferences, symposia and like-minded discursive events that many of us have visited over the past years, there is a certain frustration that kicks in when considering the way in which those events tend to often produce hermetic encounters, social settings in which there is a clear hierarchical divide between what is understood as ‘actors and viewers’, ‘protagonists and passive crowd’, or ‘speakers and recipients’. Investigating what is understood as the default relationship between audience and speakers at conferences today, one wonders to which extent the spatial design of such event can interrogate the social protocols of temporary venues used for these content-driven means of congregation.
Within the setting of SKOR’s inaugural ‘Actors, Agents and Attendants’ symposium nOffice explored what happens if one proposes a different model, one that takes as a starting point the notion of a diversified engagement, a proactive role appointed to all individuals, who were present at the event. Like any other social congregation, conferences or symposia are subjected to a set of political and social relationships. Often these are presupposed, pre-established, or at least taken for granted.

Today, we have become used to certain formats of both presentation and representation. Using those formats as a shared point of departure, one – however – needs to consider from which position – ideologically and physically – one speaks, as an actor, but – more importantly – from which position and shared spatial conditions do we speak to one another? How can friction be built into not only the design process and the modes of operandi when developing concepts for future action, but the very action itself? How can the individual audience member’s voice be heard as an integral component of the debate and instigator for a more substantial and differentiated discussion? How can one start to think of an architectural and physical model of debate in which the model itself produces the kind of social encounter that also fuels debate amongst the participants, guests, and visitors of the event?
SKOR’s ‘Actors, Agents and Attendants’ event took place at Felix Meritis, a European centre for art, culture and science. Felix Meritis – which translates into ‘Happy through Merit’ – is the name of a former society and its building on the Keizersgracht in Amsterdam, established by the enlightenment-inspired middle classes in 1777. The classical temple façade – designed by Jacob Otten Husly (1738–1796) – with its enormous Corinthian columns is characteristic of the neoclassical style. The interior includes an original 18th-century central staircase, an oval neo-baroque concert hall renowned for its acoustics, and a domed roof, underneath which there used to be an observatory. The building is a national monument and, as a venue, was scouted by SKOR and nOffice as one of a series of potential sites and was chosen on the basis that it would present an interesting and productive platform on which one could model a series of operative scenarios.

nOffice’s design for the ‘Actors, Agents and Attendants’ symposium consists of a family of specific large-scale furniture generating differentiated conditions which are set within a the overall container of Felix Meritis’ neo-baroque concert hall. The various pieces are mobilised when needed. Hence, there is no singular grand gesture, but it produces in-between spaces defined by the container and the furniture dynamic, ever-changing and multi-directional figure generated by the         
audience as they respond to the different formats of the event.   
The proposal and subsequent realization of this stage set presents an attempt to enable the audience to become a more active player within the overall setting, timeline and protocol of the symposium. It suggests, develops and delivers a series of differentiated points of access, which allow for a continuously variable relationship between the two polar conditions of passive appreciation on the one hand and active participation on the other.

Moving away from a default architectural gesture or formal characteristic, towards an understanding of a field of action, a territory of encounter that performs, it tries to challenge the hierarchical spatial correlation as we know it while formulating a different set of potential institutional practices, a condition akin to set pieces in football where a series of clearly defined rules, both material in terms of spatial demarcations and immaterial in terms of certain protocols, yields a certain basis on and against action can be improvised.  

The family of furniture(s) consists of four pieces: a Podium, a Bleacher (type 1), another Bleacher (type 2) and a Soap Box. The Podium is a straightforward piece situated at the top end of the space exactly on the longitudinal axis of the atrium. It is intended for more formal      
podium discussions. The Podium takes on a somewhat altar-like appearance, the most formal and spatially conservative format of hierarchical presentation. The Bleacher (type 1) is bent in the middle to define two flanges. Through the angle the flanges both face each other as well as the audience. As such, it can be used both as a setting for an informal two-way-conversations as well as intimate conversations with the audience. The steps of the bleachers function both as steps and seat. It is situated on the left side of the atrium perpendicular to the cross axis. The Soap box is located directly opposite of the Podium at the bottom end of the atrium. It is used of one person presentations and lectures. Bleacher (type 2) is located across the atrium from Bleacher (type 1). This furniture is an anomaly as, unlike the other pieces that are tailored to the participants, it is solely intended for the audience.      
The spatial layout simultaneously works with and against the spatial logic of the existing neo-baroque space. Formally it adheres to the axiality of the elliptical space in that the furniture is situated at the existing axes. In terms of usage, however, it breaks with the mono-directionality of the space in that the furniture introduces several focal points. The space becomes multi-directional through the notion of the parcour. At yet another level, this apparent break with the existing typology is also a reinforcement of the existing spatiality of the room in   
that it – by placing focus on the entire perimeter through the furniture – highlights the continuity of the elliptical form. The wall reads a container allowing for spatial improvisation. What is more, the intrinsic dynamic relations of the ellipse are further heightened by the careful placement of the furniture. They start to define possible new relationships between the space, the speakers, and the audience. By doing this, the entire space is being treated like, and turns into, a ‘continuous conversation’ with different focal points scattered over the event’s timeline and protocols. It asks for a continual and active re-positioning.

In line with the nearly prototypical neo-baroque space of Felix Meritis’ concert hall, the organisation of the furniture are loosely based on typical and iconic baroque church layouts such as Borromini’s San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane in Rome, where an elliptic space used for the congregation is surrounded by a continuous perimeter. This perimeter can be thought of as a thick wall housing niches that have highly differentiated spatial qualities depending on liturgical format. Similarly, the furniture (Podium, Bleacher (type 1), Bleacher (type 2) and Soap Box) are placed along the perimeter. The furniture pieces are to be understood as morphological inversions of the niches – niches become objects.

In a symbolic and liturgical sense, there was always an unresolved conflict latent in
the baroque elliptical layout as God – i.e. the altar – was always intended to reside at the centre of the ellipse. In the elliptical typology the altar was pushed towards one of the sharply elongated ‘corners’. This move caused the typology to have an unintentional multi-directionality. The design for the ‘Actors, Agents and Attendants’ symposium utilises this inherent historical flaw by consciously placing the audience at the centre as a multi-directional participant whilst pushing all functions as inverted niches towards the periphery.  
Every part of the installation is visible at all times. Through a choreographed lighting concept attention is called to the individual pieces. By implementing this strategy, the audience becomes active in that they continually re-position themselves within the space in order to face the different speakers. Such continuously shifting mode of engagement – enforced onto both the speakers and the audience – indirectly attempts to foster active participation and stimulates a fertile breeding ground for the different discussions and conversations. Acts of dislike towards a speaker can be acted out by the audience by turning their backs towards a speaker. As there is a choreographed lighting to correspond with the different formats of presentation, there is also a form of indirectly choreographed acting through the audience.
Staging Discourse II
in: Caring Culture: Art, Architecture and the Politics of Public Health
Actors, Agents and Attendants Series
Sternberg Press
The choreography is not intended to be flawlessly or effortlessly smooth as the participants have to negotiate their personal boundaries every time there is a change of direction. Within this newly commissioned stage setting there is a productive friction that yields a non-precious atmosphere that in turn enables the participants to play a more active role within the symposium: towards an agonistic field of potential, exploiting the social, political, and professional differences in order to animate the platform at play – staging discourse.

Markus Miessen and Magnus Nilsson