Referencing the Past Without Replicating It

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Referencing the Past Without Replicating It

Matthew Kernan


Throughout the course of the year, this project has aimed to engage with the idea of dimension and consequently form, space and scale in how we order our cities. It is through housing that our cities fabric are weaved.
It is estimated that over 75% of the European population is resides within urbanised areas, with housing the primary output. The location of the project was set in Aarhus, Denmark’s Second city. The scheme was focused on the square as a collective space. It is through these squares and courtyards, that they form as a walled enclosure open to the sky affording inhabitants within the sense of enjoying the blissful nature of above whilst having a sense of security. A square left blank
is nothing but space, when inhabited, it becomes an extension of rooms. These features of urban design have been used in residential architecture for as long as people have lived in constructed dwellings. The studies undertaken through the design of the project have involved careful making of rooms that link the private spaces of individuals to the collective work of the city.

Driven by the idea of designing a contemporary building that would react to its immediate historical context, referencing the past without replicating it, the proposal seeks to integrate itself sensitively into the existing context while retaining a sense of confidence and individuality, reading as an architectural artefact within the historic surroundings of Aarhus’s built fabric.

“I believe that buildings only be accepted by their surroundings if they have the ability to appeal to our emotions and minds in various ways. Since our feelings and understanding are rooted in the past, our sensuous connections with a building must respect the process of remembering” (Zumpthor, P. 1998)

The site, vast and unoccupied, allowed for the development of a building that would transcend into a play of mass civic offering as a new architectural threshold offered to the city. This inherently, allowed the concept of the design to unfold, ‘Articulation of scale as appropriate’.
The proposal was not rooted in one main element of design, but based upon the context it sits and the personality of the people it serves in which an architectural solution carefully evolved. To create and enhance the sense of place, where the architecture is a celebration of the user’s emotion and experience. The final proposal was the carefully manipulated idea of forming an environment that allows the relationship between building and user to play out in simple scenarios whilst allow the progression and story of the building to unfold in its purist sense.


Who influences you graphically?

I don’t particularly have any favourite references as a general for my projects as I like to keep as open as possible for trying new ideas and not repeating the same moments. However for this scheme I drew my references mainly from artistic mediums when the image I am going to convey suits it. Painters such as Hammershøi, Vermeer, velazquez and Rosseau to a lesser extent, where important to me here. I am currently in the summer before I embark on my thesis project in September, so I will have to refresh by graphical influences based on the concept I wish to pursue then and how I would like to portray them.

Through both your description and perspective images it almost appears as thought the building is constructed out of a sequence of spaces and personal moments rather than it being a physical structure, do you agree?

Yes, from the beginning of the project the idea was to fully understand how a person would tangibly and emotionally experience moments such as a room, hall, doorway and common area’s. This, in turn, evolved my understanding of what the project needed to be in term of addressing the brief as a Danish economy housing project.

The physical structure merely presented me with the opportunity to refine the boundaries and constraints within the spaces that I had envisaged to work as a series of sequences. The initial task before I had began to design the building was to design a threshold and after that, a window. At first, a very hard thing to get right as it is not so easy to design a doorway without a building, however the ramifications of it later on throughout the design became evident when decisions where made on the building scheme as a collective mass. For the thresholds, this allowed me to develop two types according to scale and order. A civic threshold, that addressed the city – building – square sequence, and a domestic threshold, that addressed the city – building – dwelling sequence.

For the window, having undertaken the task to design my ideal window for the project, this allowed me to construct my facade and the rooms behind. The fenestration of a housing scheme to me are one of the most important aspects. This is where a person experiences the outer world from, and from where the outer world experiences theirs.

What is the effect and purpose of juxtaposing both render and model to provide for these interior moments?

Both model making and rendering were very important design techniques throughout this project. Whilst rendering allowed me to quickly dream up my ideal scenarios of inhabitation of the larger spaces within the context of the scheme, the models allowed me to understand to a greater sense the proportion of these spaces. It is a process that our tutors believed in throughout the year that we should pursue both mediums in order for us to fully understand the various scales of our buildings.

Whilst you seize to feature people within the model images these are very present in a paintbrush form through the photoshopped perspectives, why so?

For me, the models where a means of exploring the spatial characteristics of a space, as well as moments of details, such as linings and datum points. I had pursued two types of models in this project, the first being the 1:20 interior model, that was modelled only to the extent to which you see in the photographs, where I had emphasised aspects such as elaboration of flooring and lining.
The second, was that of a larger 1:30 model that did not divulge as much information such as a skirting board might give away. This model was focused on my ability to investigate the spatial tension that was created between order and discourse in the scheme.

The renderings afforded me the opportunity to then inhabit these spaces in ways in which I would hope to occur if the scheme was to be realised. Hence to only include people in them. The renders had been inspired by painterly images as a means of progressing through the mediums as to not portray something that was not yet constructed. By using people in this way in the images, I had hoped it could engage the imagination of people behind the idea of what the spaces might be like to them.

What dictates the way the perspective views are composed? Do you have any fixed parameters you need to convey and explore?

Perspective views are entirely composed based on the essence of the space in which I am hoping to portray. Again, this goes back to the idea that the scheme was composed as a sequence of spatial experiences rather than it being a physical structure.
The perspective of the civic threshold was inspired by the idea that it was a concentrated area of in-between space, which meant creating a setting and view for welcomes and farewells. Therefore, this space was my way of translating a scene into architectonic terms of social hospitality. This allowed me to focus the parameters and extents of which I wished to portray in the final scene.

What is the purpose of the painting in Long Room? Is it to create a Vermeer/ Velazquez illusion? 

The painting is that of Vilhelm Hammershøi, however Vermeer and velazquez had also been studied as references in this project. It was the way they portrayed their liberation with furniture and people in their paintings that had inspired me so much. Viewing threw a screen, you could almost engage the tangibility and weight of the doors and windows that they had painted. There was a real sense of delicately poised ‘meatiness’ to their fixtures and fittings that I guess many architects now don’t consider so well. It was my way of showing to people who viewed the image of its importance in my own design process as a reference. The image highlights the essence of space in one of the housing typologies that had evolved over the course of the year and how important Hammershøi had been in influencing it.

How important is the proposal’s relation to light and shadow?

Light and shadow should form one of the founding bases of any design I feel. It is an aspect that can create and gather the most profound effect of the walls we construct as Architects. It was always an aspect for consideration in each space that I had designed as one of the most important factors, particularly as a housing scheme where people would intend to hopefully live and experience their lives. It would be a shame to take away this from the inhabitants.

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Matthew has just completed his MArch I under the tutorship of Andrew Clancy and Colm Moore having been selected as the MArch Project for Queen’s University Belfast submission to this years 3D Reid competition and will be entering his final year in September.

He worked previously in London for two years at Foster + Partners after graduating from his Part 1 at Queens and is currently working with Clancy Moore Architects in Dublin.


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