Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Spatial Improvisation for Architects

Spatial Improvisation
©Gray Read

Improvisation games are often used in training actors to respond quickly and imaginatively to each other and to situations around them.  Through practice, actors strive for a creative flow in which they feel immersed in a spontaneous and evolving set of relationships in real space and time that emerge as performance.  By shedding the distance of self-consciousness, they are able to act from within the imaginary situation, feeling 'in sinc,' with each other.  In preparation for a public performance, they practice improvisation skills rather than rehearse a script, so the performance is framed as 'play' in the sense of a game, rather than 'a play' in the sense of a complete, repeatable drama.

If we, as architects, are the artists of spatial situations, might we also hone our skills through similar inventive games, which might bring us toward a more integrated practice of our art?  I worked with a group of students to develop a series of architectural games based on acting exercises and performance techniques. We drew in particular on the work of theatre director Anne Bogart to develop a series of spatial improvisation games, which we played several times in preparation for a performance and as a practice of the skills of architectural design.

In the 1990s Bogart devised a series of improvisation exercises for actors based on work by dancer Mary Overlie, "Viewpoints." (1)  Bogart emphasizes space over story, and movement over emotion to train actors to respond to the real space they occupy and to each other's movements.  Before they take a role, she asks actors to physically explore and use the architecture around them, to move in and through the space, to feel its form and innovate body movements with full awareness of the room and other actors as partners in action.   Her work stands in opposition to "method acting" developed by Lee Strasberg in New York, which emphasizes introspection and memory.  Bogart criticizes this approach as solipsistic and limited.  She trains actors to look outside themselves rather than inward, to become intensely aware of their surroundings and other people, rather immersed in a character.  This shift of focus parallels a shift of architectural attention from inward toward the object to outward toward the city, a shift crucial to rebuilding cities attentively.

The signature exercise of Bogart's Viewpoints is "The Flow."  It works like this: Move through a room, become aware of the space around, above and below you.  Notice the details.  Look at the people around you, make eye contact, and notice things about them, while continuing to be aware of the room.  Bring your awareness to include more things and people, using peripheral vision to hold the shape of the space and the motion of others in view.  Bogart calls this  'soft focus.'  Move in relation to the space and the other people, then choose one person or thing to track while maintaining awareness of the entire field, then choose two people and move in relation to them.  The exercise continues with intense attention and purposeful motion that emerges into intelligible coordinated action, yet without a leader or predetermined pattern.  The thrust of this and all of Bogart's exercises is to develop awareness and response to the point that one loses oneself to the fluidity of the situation in real time and space.  Bogart says, "Choose death," move past self-consciousness into a fuller awareness of the situation outside.

In all Bogart's exercises architecture is included as a body among bodies, a physical presence integrated in all action.  Some exercises focus on physical responses to walls, floors, and the features of a room, stairs, doors, and windows to explore with spontaneously creativity both how one engages them and how two or three people might use them socially. 

Bogart's work begs a response from the room, or from the makers of spatial situations: architects.  Her work suggests a fresh approach to architectural design through developing awareness, encouraging physical engagement of spatial situations, and design play in real space and time.  Or more immediately a question: might architects invent parallel exercises or games that set the conditions for a flow between people and architectural space? 

Over the last few years, my students and I have invented several exercises for architects based on Bogart's work and on theatre improvisation games.  Most are fast-moving situations that ask for spontaneous response and in most, the quality of play improves with practice.  Games are played by the cooperative principles of all improvisation, which can be summarized as: Create opportunities for each other, make everyone else look good, and keep the energy moving. (2)  The following four exercises emerged from discussions and experimentation with students over the last two years.  They represent a nascent approach to design that merges the design of space with the 'use' of space, recognizing both as playful, creative, social and inherently theatrical. 

Game 1. Where do you go when you are...
This introductory awareness exercise asks participants to walk through the building they occupy habitually.  Each person is asked to find specific spots he or she goes in several situations: when happy and wanting to share good news, or bored, or angry, wanting to check out what's going on, or wanting to have a conversation.   It asks each person to describe and draw the spatial qualities of the places he or she seeks in each instance.  The purpose is to become aware of a daily environment in personal terms, to notice things about the places that we frequent and how we use them socially.

Game 2. Come in and take a place
This exercise relates closely to one of Bogart's exercises. The game asks that each person in turn enter a room, move a piece of furniture, and take a place in relation to the space and to those already there.  Each player must read the social potential of the space and choose a position that nonverbally projects a purpose and a message for others.  For example, a position and a stance may say:  "I'm on my own, looking out the window, don't bother me," or "I'm in the center of the room so anyone coming in will engage me," or "I'm watching what's going on from the corner."   When all players have entered, a new cycle starts and each takes a new position in turn.  Afterward, each person describes the differences between the first and second reading of the room, which are often vast.  The goals of the exercise are to become more aware of the role architecture plays in everyday social situations and to invite creative interpretation of space.

In Bogart's version, each person in turn takes a position in relation to the room and to others already there in order to define a plausible scenario.  Each person that enters shifts the previous set of relationships and a new story or potential stories emerges.   When all are in place, the arrangement is designated #1.  In the next phase, each person moves in turn to change the relationships until a second arrangement is reached.  The group moves through a third and a fourth arrangement.  Finally, the group moves in unison through the various arrangements, at first called by a leader, then spontaneously.  One participant noted that when it works well, "it's Chekhov or Pinter."  When the spatial relationships are vague, "it just looks like bad experimental art."(3)   Bogart's exercise emphasizes spatial relationships between people.  The actors participating are trained to create stories in their motions so the game invokes a changing sequence of implied narrative.

Collaboration between architecture and theatre students, Florida International University 2006
For architects, we shifted the emphasis toward engaging space.   Even if we play Bogart's game exactly, it emerges with an architect's sensibility.  Participants take positions in relation to the features of the room as much as they respond to each other.  A heightened version adds 4' x 8' foam panels as moveable elements in the room that can significantly change the space, so the room transforms as it is occupied.  Players interpret the underlying architectural features in each move and reinterpret them in succeeding configurations, each with several potential narratives.    

Music video
Game 3. Music Video 
The game asks players to choreograph movement (not dance) in a specific place to a short piece of music.  Players choose a built place such as a set of steps, a doorway or even just a wall, and select about 15 seconds of music, then make up a movement sequence, practice it and perform it.  The exercise is not strictly improvisation, but it encourages players to see architectural space as the raw material for inventing movement.  It was based on "Parcours," ninja-like gymnastic leaps in found places: jumping off roofs, over railings, etc.  The architect's game is less athletic and adds music, but requires a similar reading of a found space through motion.

F8 Game 2009
Game 4. F8
In this game, eight architecture students, each with a rectangular panel, improvise an evolving spatial composition, by placing the panels one by one in relation to the others, while a dancer (also an architecture student) moves around and within the changing spaces.  In this version, the dancer records gestures in magic marker on the boards.  The game is best played with music and a regular interval between changes, so each player repositions his or her panel in sequence and in time.  For clarity, we ruled that panels must be oriented orthogonally, no diagonals.  Players made spatial decisions spontaneously in relation to the other panels, to the surrounding architecture and to the dancer's motions.  After several rounds of practice, players discovered the potential of the game to create passages, rooms, low spots, corners, narrow entries and spatial tensions over a distance, which the dancer can use expressively.  We began to feel a sense of flow with each other in the game, to recognize spatial opportunities and try out ideas quickly.  This game depends on a cooperative spirit among the group, so players respond to each other's spatial propositions.

This game grew out of elements of the other games, emphasizing spatial play as the moving panels define and redefine space.  The sequential movement allows each player a turn to act in and on the space in response to the moves of others.  The music adds rhythm and the dancer integrates movement with space.

Each of these four exercises merge space and movement into a spontaneous flow that players feel bodily.  Action and response are indistinguishable, while the use of space and the making of space intertwine.  The flow of the game impels spatial decisions forward and there are no 'wrong' moves.  The effects of each decision on the space and on the movements of other people are seen immediately, so the feedback loop is tight, contributing to the sense of flow.  Players develop spatial sensibilities tied to movement and to relationships between people, skills that can contribute to the design of social space.

Bogart devised the Viewpoints exercises to locate creative invention not in the individual, but in the interactions of the group.   Each player is called on to act in the context of the evolving situation, so imagination is lodged in the play of the group.  She writes,
Viewpoints relieves the pressure to have to invent all by yourself, to generate all alone, to be interesting and force creativity.  Viewpoints allows us to surrender, fall back into empty creative space and trust that there is something there, other than our own ego or imagination, to catch us.  Viewpoints helps us trust in letting something occur, rather than making it occur.   The source for action and invention comes to us from others and from the physical world around us. (4)    
This displacement of attention from oneself to the surrounding situation is one of the elements that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described in 1990 as essential to creative flow. (5)    He focuses on the interior, psychological qualities of flow that lead to individual engagement in art, and often points to the solitary painter or writer engaged in his or her work as the characteristic example.   In part, his ideas grow out of a larger philosophy of social dialogue and polyvocality, the presence of many voices in any statement. (6)  In the 1950s, Mikail Bakhtin wrote that imagination must be defined as dialogic and that any work of art originates in and speaks to a cultural conversation as a social event.  Bakhtin's work on the medieval carnival provides a metaphor of social creativity, which absorbs many people into a flow larger than the sum of its parts.  The event includes multiple imaginations, drawing them not inward toward unity or collectivity, but outward toward further complexity, engagement, and invention. 

A reflection of the generative chaos of Bakhtin's carnival appears in all improvisation.  It defines a successful creative move as one that supports and enlivens the group, while the players seek flow in and through interaction.  Anne Bogart' exercises set up the conditions for dialogic imagination that engages space as well as other people.  Architects and architecture might also play, architects in the process of design, and architecture in the social life of the city.  In this sense architecture might be redefined, not as a fine art or object, but as one of the performing arts that is manifest in time.  At its best, architecture is part of an ongoing flow that engages people and natural systems in improvised events that are ordered and reasonable, yet play out differently every time.

 1.  Anne Bogart and Tina Landau, The Viewpoints Book: A Practical Guide to Viewpoints and Composition (NY: Theatre Communications Group, 2005).  The viewpoints are space, shape, time, emotion, movement and story.   The Space viewpoint includes architecture and position.  Shape includes gesture and the shape of the body in place.  Time includes tempo, duration, kinesthetic response and repetition.
2.   Chris Johnston, The Improvisation Game: Discovering the Secrets of Spontaneous Performance (London: Nick Hern Books, 2006).
3.   Leon Ingulsrud, quoted in:  Ginger Eckert "Time and Space in the SITI," Theatre Bay Area, 29 November 2007. (http://www.theatrebayarea.org/mag/article.jsp;jsessionid=B61FE5CC0F0853AA0C658E5EC0A4BA44?thispage=archives.jsp&id=2&hi=1)
 4.  Bogart & Landau, p. 19
 5.  Mihaly Csikszentmihali  Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (NY: Harper & Row, 1990) p. 92
 6.  Mikhail M. Bakhtin, 'The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M.M. Bakhtin', translated by Caryl Emerson & Michael Holquist, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981)