From static to dynamic experience

Research Methodology for the current project: Experience Cultural Public Space |

The proposed research will consist of three stages in response to the project aims. Stage 1 is a spatial analysis of existing conditions, followed by a fieldwork stage to investigate public space user experience, and a final stage to analyze data collected and to formulate recommendations.

It will be conducted in qualitative methods, including architectural mapping and ethnographic observations. The overall objective of the study is to compare user experience in different cultural public space conditions, with a broader goal to inform innovative spatial strategies towards cultural participation. The findings of this study will contribute to a larger research to investigate the role of cultural institutions in the making of public space. At the same time, it is conducted as a pilot study to develop an experiential survey method that can be applicable to future public space research.

Stage 1: Baseline Study: Spatial Analysis

The research will begin with a comprehensive review of public spaces at the HKCC complex, in terms of spatial typology and organization. Consolidating information from multiple sources such as topographic maps and architectural plans, a composite map-plan of public space, including key buildings’ ground floor plan, will be produced in the scale of 1:1000. This map will provide a clear view of accessible public space in the manner of the Nolli Map of Rome, a two-dimensional figure-ground map made by the Italian cartographer Giambattista Nolli in 1748, which depicts publicly accessible space (including open space and interior) in white and private space in black. The clear demonstration of public and private spatial relationship is influential to designers and scholars of public space, in the way how spatial continuity and urban experience are perceived and represented. The resulting composite map of accessible space at the HKCC area will be used as the base map to evaluate user experience in stage two.

The initial spatial analysis will also include categorization and description of different spatial typologies. Kevin Lynch, in his seminal work The Image of the City, has identified five urban elements that contribute to our perception of the urban environment, namely the Path, Edge, District, Node and Landmark (Lynch, 1964). This concept is expanded by recent scholars who study activities in public space, proposing additional spatial feature such as threshold or boundary that could have a conducive effect on public activities (Sennett, 2018; Stevens, 2007). Adopting this view to associate architectural conditions with behavior and activities, the spatial analysis stage will result in the identification of key conditions for the observational field study in the next stage.

Stage 2: Fieldwork: Experiential Walk

2.1 Background: video as data collection medium

Based on an initial understanding of specific site conditions, the fieldwork will focus on data collection of usage and experience at the public space of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. Most public space studies involve stationary observation at a set location, with common practices of counting, mapping, tracing, or sometimes photography (Gehl, 2013). While these are effective means to study public activity, it remains a static view confined by the position of the observer. The study by William Whyte on public squares in midtown Manhattan could be one of the first attempts to utilize audio-visual methods, in particular time-lapse photography and film to capture the dynamic use of urban space (Whyte, 1980). It was a substantial project at that time to deploy audio-visual means to collect data of pedestrian movement, yet nowadays the use of such recording devices has become widely accessible. As an emerging field in social science research, the use of video footage as data was adopted earlier in anthropology or psychology to document behaviors of the research subject in a natural setting. The method usually involves setting up a video camera to make a recording over a period of time, with minimal intrusion to the subject during the recording for an objective documentation (Heath, 2010). The focus is usually placed on the interaction between people in a particular setting and less about the participant’s reactions to spatial conditions. Although architecture and urban design are highly experiential disciplines, the use of video as a research tool is not as frequently applied in the field as it could have. In recent years there is a number of video documentaries on architectural and urban space, yet most of them remain aesthetic representation instead of analytical investigation.

2.2 Design: first-person experiential walk

The research design of “experiential walk” intends to bridge the static physical space and dynamic experience through the medium of video-photography, using the footage as data to analyze user experience and interaction with architectural conditions. This study would be a pilot to explore the methodology to record and analyze first-person experience in urban space. The current plan is to conduct the “experiential walk” on a smaller scale of 5-8 participants, in a scenario where they would take a 30-minute walk through the study area with a wearable video-recording device. Their path and what they see will be documented, providing spatial experience data in a first-person perspective. As the objective is to understand user reactions to different public space conditions, “clue cards” to introduce the site will be designed for the participant as a guide, other than that, minimal interference would be given as the intention is to document the walk as they would experience in everyday life.

2.3 Participant selection and follow-up

As the HKCC evolves from a touristic landmark to everyday public space, a long-term goal of the research is to enhance community participation in culture through spatial intervention. With this in mind, the participant sample would target local citizens who could be current and potential participants of cultural activities. The research will seek three types of participants: 1- Arts Practitioner (frequent user), 2- Audience (occasional user), and 3- Non-cultural participants (general users). While the experience of frequent users could provide insight on the cultural site that they are familiar with, the inclusion of non-participants is important for their alternative perspective to look for potential deficiency in the current condition. A report recently published by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council (Arts Participation and Consumption Survey – Final Report, 2018) has pointed to the reasons for non-participation in arts activities, relating to the preconception of some art form are detached from everyday life or difficult to understand. While these factors are not directly spatial issues, as the HKCC evolves into an everyday public space it presents an opportunity for culture to be viewed in a quotidian context. Public space strategy can enhance social inclusion by improving accessibility to cultural spaces and increasing circumstantial encounters of cultural events to a wider public. A focus group session is planned after an initial analysis of video footage, where the participant will have the opportunity to review the clips and further elaborate on their experience.

Stage 3: Video Analysis: Space-Action matrix

To capture the richness of information in the experiential video, the raw footage will be analyzed in multiple aspects to learn about the experience in different dimensions. It would be conducted in methods of decoding similar to that of behavioral studies (McNaughton, 2009), but with a focus on human-spatial interaction instead of inter-person relationships. Two key aspects of the experiential video footage will be extracted: (1) the flow: following the participant’s path through different spatial conditions, marking the duration in between each stop, and the threshold that the participant encounter. (2) the instances: based on the spatial feature identified in stage 1, the reactions at a particular condition will be isolated to study and compare across different participants.

The data extracted from the footage will inform the research question of how users experience different spatial conditions, resulting in a matrix of spatial typology against user reaction. Findings from this analysis could be helpful to identify any blind-spot or under-utilized zone in the area, as well as to evaluate the effectiveness of different spatial features and how “user-friendly” they are. Projecting into potential future projects, this Space-Action matrix could be developed into a co-design toolkit, as a community engagement tool to explore the possibilities of public space usage.

Research output and Dissimilation:

1. Design/operation recommendation report

The finding of this study is planned to be published in a research paper and to be presented at an appropriate international conference, such as the that in urban design or cultural policy. It would include a recommendation report for the design and operation of cultural facilities and its public space, with potential readers such as managers and officials of public cultural institutions in Hong Kong or abroad.

2. Public video documentary

Video images can be a powerful tool for dissimilation and outreach. The experiential footage collected in this research would be edited into several thematic short clips, after being used as discussion material during focus group sessions, it would be made available on a public platform for the general audience. While this would create greater impact and raise awareness about the issues of this research, with expected public feedback and comments, in a long run it has to potential to become a platform of idea exchange.

  • Hong Kong Arts Development Council. (Sep 2018) Arts Participation and Consumption Survey – Final Report
  • Gehl, J. (2013). How to study public life. Washington, DC: Island Press.
  • Heath, C. (2010). Video in qualitative research : analysing social interaction in everyday life. Los Angeles: SAGE.
  • Lynch, K. (1964). The image of the city. Cambridge [Mass.]: M.I.T. Press.
  • McNaughton, M. J. (2009). Closing in on the Picture: Analyzing Interactions in Video Recordings. International journal of qualitative methods, 8(4), 27-48. doi:10.1177/160940690900800405
  • Sennett, R. (2018). Building and dwelling : ethics for the city. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  • Stevens, Q. (2007). The Ludic City: Exploring the Potential of Public Spaces. Florence: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.
  • Whyte, W. H. (1980). The social life of small urban spaces. New York: Project for Public Space.

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