Open Conference Systems, National Conference on the Beginning Design Student

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Disembodied Circle: A Twelve-Step Program
Brian Michael Ambroziak

Last modified: 2017-02-14


“… only in the vacuum lay the truly essential. The reality of a room, for instance, was to be found in the vacant space enclosed by the roof and the walls, not in the roof and walls themselves.“

- Okakura Kakuzo, The Book of Tea, 1906

The exercise entitled Disembodied Circle1 is part of a one-hundred level course entitled Visual Design Theory. The problem allows young designers to engage a highly personal three-dimensional space, one that makes the often times more abstract processes of the design studio more tangible. The exercise provides a forum in which to examine the consequences of various physical conditions and question fundamental design decisions related to scale and site as well as appreciate various phenomenological determinants of place. The magic of this exercise lies in its absolute simplicity, its ability to emphasize how subtle shifts in dimension can profoundly affect one’s psychological reading of a space. In a relatively short period of time, students undergo a wonderful transformation from an interstitial state, that of the wall, to an external and then internal realization of an archetypal condition – the inscribed circle. It is the goal of this paper to generate a field manual that exploits this “twelve-step” strategy for spatial perception.

step 01. Gather twenty to thirty beginning design students, find a relatively flat grassy field on campus, and compose yourselves at arms-length into what you consider to be an ideal circle. The students must touch fingertips so as to create a feeling of enclosure as well as to evoke the tactile experience.

step 02. Critique your work and question whether it truly is the absolute purest curve and equal at all points. This insistence on defining an absolutely perfect arc is critical to the psychology of the experiment and allows the individual to internalize the form to the greatest degree possible.

step 03. Once a perfectly smooth circumference has been achieved, begin walking clockwise – leg over leg – watching the center and attempting to appreciate the quality of the circle that you form. These movements create an almost centrifugal force that reinforces the circle’s fundamental attribute.

step 09. Remove your shoes and while standing directly behind them take two steps back.

step 10DC. You are now looking at a DISEMBODIED CIRCLE. The form that the group was once part of has been purged from the student’s body as the wall has been transformed from an interior reality to an exterior condition. This newly created planemetric territory now exists as an outer boundary or a barrier. Through a series of primitive operations, the participant has experienced something much more profound than mere passage from interior to exterior.

step 11. Take several steps forward such that you are inside the ring of shoes. At this point you come to understand the verticality of the inscribed circle as you look skyward.

step 12. A final component of the exercise before re-shoeing includes a discussion with the students as to why they chose to place the original circle where they did. Quite often, it falls in the center of the field and aligns itself unconsciously with site context such as buildings, fire hydrants, trees, and amphitheaters.

1 The exercise was first conducted with Ben Nicholson while on his campus visit to lecture on and exhibit his project entitled Labyrinths.