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“Defining the Threshold of Natural Experience”- My Fifth Year Thesis

As architects, we’re perpetually tuned to the subtle changes we see or experience as we move through, over, and under different spaces, whether natural or man-made.  Since a very young age I can remember the fascination I felt, the comfort I enjoyed, or the misery I endured upon habiting a particular space or place, and more so, the varying emotions as I moved from one to another.  With my unending fascination with the ways in which our minds and bodies react to nature and the creations we build, my thesis study began with the following passage by UK architect Simon Unwin:

“We might not always consciously acknowledge it but, as we move, the places we experience take us from emotion to emotion: from the confusion of a dark forest into the sunlit certainty of a rocky clearing; from the invigoration of open heath into the calm of a country church…or the knee-weakening precipice of a thousand-foot cliff; from the fresh warmth of a summer beach into the nausea-inducing urine stink of an uncleaned public lavatory; from the solitude of a dark deserted street into the fellowship of a local pub . . . Instances are innumerable and range from the infinitesimally subtle to the starkly dramatic, from the remote to the intimate, from the life threatening to the life affirming.  Every time we cross a threshold we feel a slight frisson as if the crossing will change us in some way . . . which it always does.”

As I continued my study I revisited the memories I have as a young toddler, mesmerized by the seemingly infinite stretch of grass in my backyard and that one awesome tree that stood in the middle of it, or the comfort that the ugly shag carpet in the living room of my childhood home provided as I weaved my wooden train tracks around packaging cardboard that resembled mountains.  There is inexhaustible curiosity and wonder inherent within toddlers, preschoolers, and kindergartners.  These types of experiences, whether indoor or outdoor, man-made or natural, or both combined are incredibly important for the developing minds and bodies of young children, therefore I focused on them as the primary user of whatever it was I was going to design.  To avoid a seemingly never ending study, I decided to focus my studies on the learning and developmental potentials of just one experience, how the architecture was influenced by that experience, and therefore how a new experience is then created.   Simply put, because I remember spending more of my time in trees than indoors, I chose experiences in nature as my vehicle of study.

Consider this: studies indicate that multisensory interactions in nature are particularly effective in influencing creative, cognitive and other important developments in a growing child.  In today’s frequent and rapidly changing world of technology, it’s hard to ignore the benefits of educational television programming and computer games that are able to expand children’s mental capacities in ways they couldn’t before.   However, studies also reveal that children are becoming increasingly more consumed by such media, masking the unique learning experiences provided by interactions in nature.  Arguably, I could design a building that perfectly housed digital media in inventive ways to achieve a similar goal, but because I’d hate to see the day where digital media has replaced all physical interaction with our natural world, I aimed to create spaces where as the power of its learning potential lay within its placement and manipulation upon its site.  After several months of immersive site analysis and 300 sheets of chipboard later, I presented the following:

A daycare/nature center fragmented among various conditions in Philadelphia’s Pennypack Park becomes a vehicle with vast potential for resolving what researchers and various authors have defined as “nature deficit disorder”.  It is here, and among other natural settings dispersed among large urban densities that it becomes vital to orchestrate such efforts.  An architecture in the landscape can heighten and transcend the natural experience, providing endless interactive combinations of play and learning for these young users.  The careful processes inherent in exploring and designing such opportunities gives architects/designers an intimate knowledge and understanding of their chosen site.  This understanding translates into a design that gives toddlers, preschoolers, and kindergartners profound alterations of the natural experience that otherwise wouldn’t exist had that architecture not been there.  “Inside” and “outside” become loose terms blurred together by careful manipulations of form and space upon a site that is as intimately known to the designer as it is to the user.  The Design becomes the threshold of the natural experience defining a place for new ways of furthering the developmental potentials within young children today.

I drove along every mile of Pennypack Park’s perimeter.  I took pictures at every time of day through three different seasons.  I trudged through two feet of snow, crawled through tall grass, and risked harassment from angry parents concerned by the strange male college student wandering through and taking pictures of the playground from which their kids played.  I viewed the site as a young kid would, not only because I assumed the “spidey” position and crawled through grass and among trees to lower myself to child height, but perhaps also because every second of the 24 hours I spent there brought back the inner child in me.  My study became my own personal threshold – a place, a design, and an idea that I can always revisit in my mind . . . and imagination is endless.