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Perception, Aesthetics, and Envelopment
Encountering Space and Materiality

This page is accompanying a chapter which can be read in full in the volume Encountering Urban Places – Visual and Material Performances in the City, edited by Lars Frers and Lars Meier, Ashgate, 2007: 25-45. The complete text is available in print only, but you can download the last manuscript version of the chapter: perception-aesthetics-envelopment.pdf. The (significant) parts that are left out on this page are marked with an ellipsis in square brackets: […], additions that are not in the printed text are also put in square brackets. Along with brief excerpts of the introduction and the conclusion, this page contains those passages that describe and analyze the multimedia content shown on this page, so that one does not have to switch between media all the time. If you have any questions regarding this article, feel free to contact me.

Author: Lars Frers (2007)

The video clip on this page is published under the
Creative Commons License.
Creative Commons License



In this chapter, I will get involved in the physicality of everyday life in railway and ferry terminals. The analysis presented here will wedge itself between people and what they encounter. Feeling for the pressures and pulls that are exerted in between people and their surroundings, an analysis that traces the relations between perception and social-spatial-material constellations will be developed, offering the term envelopment as a tangible approach to understanding the ambivalences of everyday life in the city.

In this in-between space, many things are happening in a constant flow of actions and events: people, things, and other people align themselves to each other, they collide with each other, sometimes changing in this process. Seen from a distance, these constant interactions between things and people can very well be interpreted as relations between entities of a similar status – as opposed to hierarchical subject- object relations. This perspective offers many opportunities for research into the relations between space, materiality, and people, as is witnessed by the numerous publications which make productive use of concepts like Bruno Latour’s actants (Latour 1993; Latour 2005) or Andrew Pickering’s mangle of practice (Pickering 1995). In my Ph.D. thesis, I am also working with these concepts to get a better understanding of the way architecture and technology interacts with people in terminals. In this chapter, however, I will take a different perspective on these relations. I will look at the in-between spaces, but I chose to look at them from the perspective of the actors themselves. How do they experience their interactions with the place, the stuff, and with the people they encounter? How do they perceive their environment and how may these perceptions find their way into what people actually do in places like railway and ferry terminals?


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Unease and Materiality

In this section, I will try to track the roots of the term envelopment, to allow for a critical appreciation of its possibilities and limitations. Ever since finishing my diploma thesis on the Potsdamer Platz area in Berlin (Frers 2001), I was looking for something that could grasp the unease that I feel in many urban places, some kind of name or term to grasp the feeling that grows when spending time in places like the Marlene-Dietrich-Platz in the Potsdamer Platz area, or in modern or refurbished railway stations. In my experience and in my analysis of the Potsdamer Platz it became quite clear that the perception of my surroundings, of the concrete ways in which they are designed, had a distinct impact on the ways in which I felt and acted.


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Aesthetics and perception

Before spelling out what exactly is meant by the term envelopment, it should be made clear how perception – one of the basic moments of envelopment – is understood in this context and what role is played by the other element of this chapter’s title: aesthetics. Aesthetics and aesthetical judgments are not understood as being striving for an ideal aesthetics, for beauty per se, or for a specific aesthetic quality such as Kant’s sublime (Kant 1952). Instead, the aesthetics of our mundane, everyday surroundings are of relevance here. How do objects appear to us, how do we like their looks, their texture, their smell, sound, and mass? Design as a feature not only of particularly artistic products, but as a feature of all the things we use and interact with is of much greater significance for this work. Some things attract certain people; others are repelled by the same things. The smells of a bakery in the terminal may make your mouth water; the stench of the toilets may make you look for some other place to stay. The sunlight that is entering through the terminal’s windowed ceiling may invite people to stand in its rays; shadows may make certain corners better be evaded in the late evening. The gentle curve of a bench and its wooden panels appear comfortable, while the iron grille and edgy corners of a metal seat may be perceived as cold and uninviting. These material aesthetics are the subjects of Böhme’s phenomenological approach to a philosophy of design and materiality (see Böhme 1995).

Phenomenology is probably the most central tool for this analysis or, put differently, it is the lens through which the unfolding of human agency is observed here. Böhme in his ‘new aesthetics’ focuses on the role of nature in our life and the possible implications of a phenomenology that takes our relation to nature and the ecological movement into account. For this article, perception and processes of perception are crucial, therefore I will take a different turn in phenomenology than Böhme does – a turn that is going into the direction that Merleau-Ponty takes us in his Phenomenology of Perception (1962). […]


[An] ethnomethodologically informed attention to detail, to the fine-grainedness of human agency is the way in which I can delve into the in-between spaces and situations that happen when people align themselves with their material and spatial surroundings. Looking at the way someone will turn her or his head and shoulders for a brief moment while passing through a door, looking at short stops and phases of re-orientation, at irritations that happen when following a course of action, all of this reveals the subtle ways in which we align ourselves to our environment; at the same time, we shape our environment – depending on what we do we alter the circumstances, we make certain actions more salient to co-present others, we challenge the social order. This constant production, re-production, and challenging of social, spatial, and material order will be examined with the analytical tool that is being developed in this chapter: the term envelopment. Taking the perspective of the actors themselves, following the permanent and live unfolding of actions and events, inspecting subtle but powerful details, the term envelopment should make it possible to follow or re-feel (nachfühlen in German) how social-spatial-material constellations we enter in concrete places work, and how these constellations order our everyday lives.

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Building the envelope

For the following part of this chapter, I chose one concrete situation – leaving a train at Kiel Hauptbahnhof (Kiel’s main railway station, a stub terminal) – as an instance which is helpful for understanding the characteristics of envelopment as will be shown in the following. Since printed text is a linear medium, I will have to proceed in an analytical way. First, I will present the details that make up the setting which people enter when leaving this train: the material, spatial and social organization of the platform. Doing this, I will stage an interplay between text and pictures – to escape some of the linearity of a narration, to show some of the richness and complexity of the setting, and to give you as much raw stuff as I can in this context.

[On this page, I present the video clip in full, instead of single video stills that have been extracted from the video sequence like in the book. I would recommend that you watch the full clip (3:11 min) at least once before reading on. In the following text, I have replaced references to video stills with references to time codes in the video, displayed as mm:ss.

Often, video shown in a browser does not display the time code – in that case it would be best to dowload/save the video, and then watch it in a dedicated application like the open source player VLC or Apple’s QuickTime Player. I have also slightly modified the text to adapt it to video instead of stills.

I am using modern web standards (HTML 5) to present the video on this page. For the best experience you need a standards compliant browser like Firefox (version 3.5+), Safari (version 3.1+) or Google Chrome (Version 3+).

Leaving the train, the recoring shows the presence of others passing by in the sunlight outside on the platform (00:04). On the platform, I turn left after leaving the train (00:04–00:08), following others, who carry bags and pull trolleys. They pass by to the left of two obstacles, one a flower pot, the other a sand storage chest (00:06). It is between these moving people and the static, solid obstacles that I have to find my way, following others who want to get to the exit of the platform.

The obstacles make it even more evident how much management is involved in walking down the platform. Not only is it necessary to navigate one’s own body through the moving people, in case of the woman on the picture it is also necessary to pay attention to the child that accompanies her – all of this while holding a sweater and keeping the trolley case under control (00:08). The slowdown that is caused by the simultaneity of these actions contrasts with the straightforward movement of the man who is at the same height with the woman, and seven seconds later is several paces further down the platform (00:15). Additionally, the information that is given on the displays might capture some attention, as witnessed by my camera glance upwards (00:08–00:12) – even though it could be hard to read against the bright sky reflecting on the glass of the display. During the first 20 seconds it also becomes apparent that the light is changing while walking down the platform. It begins with very bright sunshine that fades in a twilight zone into until we enter the shadowed and electrically lit passage along the platform. (Of course, the camera adapts to the different light conditions.)

Some of the more immediate dangers that have to be taken into account while moving down the platform are visible: the train itself might start moving; its doors may open or close. There is a gap between the platform and the rails, opening to a space of lethal danger: the rails and the wheels of the train – the deadliness of this particular combination has been pondered by most users of subway systems or railway lines. Most people will keep a significant distance between themselves and this gap.

Up to this point, I have only written about the visual and the bodily-material aspects of the setting. In the video clips, another sensual layer is added to the experience: sound. Walking down the platform, many different sounds are recorded by the camcorder; the most prominent being announcements made through the terminal’s public address system and, more and more with each step that brings us down the platform, construction noise consisting of the screeching and hammering of metal working its way through other hard matter. This construction noise drowns almost all other sounds when it is at its peak.

Taken together, and not even paying particular attention to other aspects of the setting like temperature, wind, moisture, and smell, it becomes apparent that a multitude of perceptions is or can be made while the walking, rushing, standing, generally navigating through the setting is accomplished by the co-present actors in this setting. This is still not the whole experience of walking down the platform. Other thoughts cross the minds of those walking down, and one is not only attentive to the things present in the current field of sight, one is also aware of presences and actions that happen out of sight, behind your back, above the roof, or at the other side of the train.

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Being enveloped


People who enter a setting envelop themselves too – the expression to brace myself for something refers to a similar experience or act. Other tangible examples are the pulling together of a cloak, wearing of sunglasses, and listening to music through headphones. Generally, a central aspect of enveloping oneself is the directing of one’s attention. By focusing on a specific task like leaving the train station, changing trains, or looking out for others waiting on the platform, supposedly non- relevant perceptions are not allowed to pass through. This active filtering is more complex than it may sound.

Changing trains may require simultaneous attention to time, the way from one platform to another, possible announcements regarding changes in schedule and platform, and so forth. Meeting others may require a very different stance if one is looking for a lover than if one is looking for a business partner or even a stranger one has never met before. Bodily posture, facial expression, and the way one feels may vary on a wide spectrum. Nonetheless, people’s attention will be directed to specific things, and the envelope will be shaped accordingly. My look to the clock (00:42–00:44) and the man in suits arranging his stuff (00:44–00:52) are hints at what may occupy one’s attention and thus shape the envelope.

The shape, texture, and especially the circumference of the envelope will generally be influenced by the mood one is in. Being in a hurry shapes the envelope in a way that shuts out as many things as possible that (again, supposedly) have nothing to do with the reaching of the goal, opening it to certain perceptions in front and keeping it dense in all other areas. Being frightened, one produces a very tight envelope, which may even feel like a clasp. However, other moods can also open up the envelope; taking one’s time allows for perceptions that are usually not made, giving attention to details or aspects that would not be let through normally. An interesting case would be absent-mindedness – some vague, general attention is being paid to the surroundings, but there might also be sudden openings in the envelope.


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Passage through envelopes

The last characteristic of the envelope that I will sketch out in this chapter is that it can consist of multiple layers – layers that are acquired and that will fall off, be shrugged off, or just slowly erode. How this moving through different kinds of envelopes can take place will again be demonstrated using stills from the video that I captured after leaving the train in Kiel.

One particularly remarkable aspect of the setting is the construction noise that has already been mentioned. Stepping out of the wagon, this noise is very much present, only to get even louder when one walks down the platform. Since the construction happens in the area at the end of the station’s hall, where it opens up to the outside, the further one goes down the platform and into the hall, the less one hears the construction noise. As I argued above, for protection from the high-volume screeching and hammering an envelope is generated, perceptions related to hearing are being reduced, a general awareness of potential hazards coming from above, and a tightening of the envelope are some of the features of an envelope that would be produced in interaction with the noise. When one walks away from the noise, it becomes less audible with every step. The process that accompanies this growth of distance could be characterized as a slow erosion of the envelope – it becomes thinner and wider until it fades away completely. At the same time, other things happen and other perceptions are made, producing their own envelopes

The change of light and the widening of accessible space are also changing the envelope’s layers. This dynamic process can be perceived if one sees walking through the terminal as a sequence: walking down the platform to its end (01:10–02:00) and entering the reception hall, new perception-activities are available, grasping these, some people’s heads are turning from left to right (man on the left, 02:00–02:03), the pace might be reduced or increased, looking up becomes more appealing because of the texture of the freshly renovated wooden ceiling, and because of the main display of departures that is hanging at the wall above the main entrance. At the same time it has to be decided if the seductions of the stores surrounding the main hall are being ignored or inspected. Depending on the outcome of these decisions, depending on the intensity of the bakery’s smells, of the person’s current mood, and on the presence and behavior of co-present others, another layer might be produced that shuts out all of these attractions, reducing the options, and leading the way to an exit or another platform.

The following sequence (02:05–02:44) demonstrates a remarkable change in the process of envelopment. The very bright light outside the exit (02:12–02:28) prepares for what is to come: a sudden change. However, more than the amount of light changes when one leaves the eastern exit of Kiel’s Hauptbahnhof. A completely new scenery or field of perception becomes available (2:39–02:43). This profound change from a closed, interior space with artificial lighting, reduced extension to the sides, and relatively clear options for action (standing and waiting, shopping, consuming, or passing through), to an open space with a wide horizon – in the direction of the harbor limited only by the curve of the globe – with many different things and people, a stairway that leads down into the scenery, wind that is blowing, and a change in temperature and humidity – perceiving and being part of this field causes several layers of the envelope to either change or fall off completely in a matter of seconds.

This sudden change, this shedding of layers and widening of the remaining envelope is accompanied by and displayed through behaviors that I could frequently observe at this location: people stop or pause (innehalten would be a proper term for this in German). They became part of a significantly different spatial-material-social constellation, requiring a reorientation on their part for me and the man with the bicycle, this process takes more than 20 seconds (02:40–03:02). On the video recording, I myself stop right after passing through the exit too. I let the camera scan over the surrounding area and zoom it in on the ferry, which will depart with me for Oslo a few hours later.

In itself, such a change in scenery does not necessarily cause a stop. To reiterate the point: the condition for this pausing is a change in perception, not a change in environmental factors or the sensitivity of a physical organ. If one is familiar with the setting, knows about view and weather, is in a real hurry, or otherwise preoccupied, the things one perceives might well not change so drastically, the perception focusing instead on potential hazards like wind, other people, and the stairs that have to be descended. My pausing in the video can, to some degree, be attributed to the lack of pressure that I felt at the time of recording – even though I knew the setting, knew that the harbor was outside of this exit and that the ferry would be moored to its berth, the sunlight and the attractiveness of the scenery enticed me so much that I changed my intention of producing a straight recording of the passage from the railway station to the ferry terminal – opening a gap for enjoying the view and breathing some of the coastal atmosphere.

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Envelopment and encounters – risk and safety

The images, the descriptions, and the small stories that I have presented in this chapter serve to show that envelopment is both a tangible and concrete, and an imagined and fleeting process. Some of the bollards to which the concept of envelopment has been tied are the concrete material, spatial, and social features of the actor’s environment. The design of places, their aesthetics – relating to all of the senses – and the potential field of activities that they offer, enters an intimate relation with the people who are present in this place, who are using it and thus participate in its production. Other ties are less tangible, relating to the moods and feelings of the people that are enveloped and that envelop themselves. These ties I have tried to show too, by telling about my own feelings and reactions, and by paying close attention to the subtle adjustments displayed by others whom I have recorded, making their activities available for detailed and repeated scrutiny. Both solid and fleeting aspects of the process of envelopment have been inspected and, taken together, they produce envelopes of specific characters, relating to the design of the places which people encounter in their everyday lives. Understanding the envelope as something that is co-produced by actors and their surroundings evades the traps inherent to concepts of passivity, enabling the analyst to untangle the different strands that are woven into the envelope. Following, I will again list some of the potential features of envelopes – again, the list is neither exclusive nor complete. It is intended foremost as an impulse for the imagination and, to some degree, as a guide to reflection on the ways one feels when walking through everyday life, encountering people and places, acting in certain ways, not following other paths of action.


[…] Walking the line between comfort and excitement, between efficiency and leisure, between protection and risk is an everyday affair. This chapter argues that this everyday affair is based on perceptions of the aesthetics of the city and its places. In interaction with these aesthetics, with the design of places and with their uses, envelopes are generated which regulate our perceptions, thus regulating our involvement in our surroundings. The concept of envelopment is both inherently ambivalent and intended as an image or imagination, not a technical term accurately describing a measurable process. It should evoke a sense of what we experience and help understand why we do certain things, why we are complying with specific orders that are established in space, matter, and social rules – and when and why we might find opportunities for challenging these orders.

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