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Curiosity in Action with Manchester School of Architecture

Manchester School of Architecture brought to life their curiosities in a public exhibition and urge architects to become more curious in the world.

Zena Moore and her friends and colleagues, Amy Pearce, Esther Frimpong and Aleks Hayward share their experiences of being curious about curiosity.

Architects are responsible for creating places for people. For that reason, architects need to understand the environment of all those who inhabit the city. A collaborative project between students of Manchester School of Architecture and The Curiosity Bureau emerged as we began to establish a shared fascination with what it means to make places ‘for’ people and how important it is for us to be more aware of people, with people. Being curious is a natural human endeavour, which becomes an interesting concept when embodied in an artifact. We find ourselves asking: as architects, what happens when we are aware of curiosity? Can we realise our curiosities in an artifact? How will we articulate being curious in or through our choice of materials?

To sense-make the world in which we are creating places for people, we grew curious of ways of experiencing places, spaces and materials.

Mentoring Curiosity

Our process began with discussions with The Curiosity Bureau’s Becca Taylor and Beth Knowles. We shared an interest in the formation of public space from social, political and architectural perspectives.

In the midst of our Master’s of Architecture at Manchester School of Architecture we were tasked with mentoring first and second year architecture students through a project. We decided to design and facilitate a project that involved a two-week workshop in which we could experiment with being curious and, what it means to realise our curiosities as architects through any kind of physical form. We also wanted to experiment with being able to provoke curiosity in others, this culminated in an exhibition on a rooftop in Manchester’s City Centre.

Having studied architecture for a number of years, we had grown to realise the importance of considering the everyday of public space. We were also becoming aware of the responsibilities of architects and conscious that our discipline should be more curious of our surroundings. To test what ‘being curious of our surroundings’ meant to us, we worked with twelve undergraduate architecture students in a project that we hoped would enhance their outlook as young architects.

Focused on the Northern Quarter, Manchester - an area currently undergoing a lot of building and development - we encouraged students to participate and engage in being curious of public space – the streets, the car parks, the spaces and places of the local area that people congregated in or walked through.

We wanted to provoke a deepened level of inquiry from each student. We encouraged the inquiry to focus on the human aspect of architecture and our local environment, and we did this by motivating students to question their own curiosity in an artistic manner. For example, to become aware of the vast array and range of materials and equipment they could access and play with to represent their experiences and observations. We also stimulated them to consider a range of sensory experiences – asking, what did the city and the interactions they were focused on feel like to them and to others, what could they hear, see, smell, touch?

Through focusing their efforts and conducting a site-specific study, they practiced thinking with a new deeper level of curiosity, which we hoped could be applied to any future design projects.

Making Artifacts of Curiosity

Aware that people had individual views on what they defined as natural curiosity, we chose not to define this or what their artifact should be. We wanted to leave the navigation of such terminology to unfold through the materials they would choose to use, and the decisions they made. In doing this they were left to decipher what sparked their curiosity and how they felt best to define this. They each came up with an assortment of artifacts through which they focused on different aspects of the Northern Quarter that were particularly curious to them.

The workshop culminated in an exhibition of artifacts, which took place at the rooftop garden of 24 Lever Street - an experimental private/public space created by The Curiosity Bureau. Each artifact became a representation and an expression of something they each zoomed in and focused on. The artifacts ranged from paintings, drawings, sculptures, soundscapes, films, fabric prints and more.

The titles and descriptions of each artifact capture - and hint at - the range of perspectives and how each student found themselves inquiring more deeply into particular areas of focus.

Destination by Hettie Wellington – a representation of the journey of a new visitor to the Northern Quarter and the familiarities and differences of experiencing the toilets and tea of each establishment.

Exploration by Tom Prendergast – an investigation into how buildings have found their use, using data bending techniques the facades are subverted to disorientate the viewer. An expression of the severe lack of real public spaces.

Discovery by Andreas Maragakis – an invitation to look a little closer through a spyglass. The spyglass is presented with an anarchistic intent to reclaim the streets.

Interaction by Angelo Thanthiridge – a moving image study into urban landscapes and the portrayal of the daily life of individual’s actions and exploration into the human and spatial network of the area.

Forgotten by Ozzy Aygunoglu – a series of drawings to challenge initial assumptions of who frequents the streets of the Northern Quarter. The study reveals the invisible demographic and how they use the area.

Materiality by Finian Reece-Thomas – extracting information about buildings in their materials and textures and recording the process in three stages of documentation, editing and composition.

Palimpsest by Angharad Jones – an investigation into the regeneration of a former textile industrial area. Exhibited using layers, each layer representational of experience and how the area has changed over time.

Phones by Cecilia Mak – a project that uses water-colours to visualize the observations of the non-physical interaction between users and how they are preoccupied with their mobile devices.

Soundscape by Andrea Popescu – a project which invites the viewer to experience a different source of information, sound. Using footage and personal observation the soundscape can be listened to and the detail has also been visualized using string on black foam board.

Routine by Emanuel Sanchez-Pinela – a focused study on the everydayness of behavior, activities and movement that are present in the Northern Quarter studied through photography, drawings and wire mesh.

Experiencing the Exhibition

The rooftop exhibition was an event of curiosity in itself. As people gathered on the rooftop we also programmed live music performances. The crowd and interest in the exhibition grew throughout the afternoon and into the early evening - people who worked and lived in the local area as well as students of the architecture school attended the exhibition.

The students exhibiting were also interested in observing the curiosity of attendees in the artifacts. Having created an interactive installation, Andrea was encouraging interaction from attendees of the exhibition by creating a soundscape of the Northern Quarter. She observed how people had reservations in interacting with her artifact, Andrea said: “some of the people were too shy to pick the headphones up, which I think is a shame. It all works together: you can experience my Northern Quarter by listening and looking at the pieces all around you.” This makes us wonder if we had the opportunity again, what would we would do differently to encourage people to engage more in the artifacts?

All the artifacts encouraged people to be curious in some way, although some admitted, like Andrea, that people might have been too shy to interact with them. We believed that in choosing the rooftop as an exhibition space we were inviting people to become curious about their own surroundings. We found using the rooftop as a space for public activity in this way was unusual and offered us a welcomed break from the norm of the city. Emmauel, one of the students of the exhibition said, “the rooftop exhibition was a clear example of how curiosity can easily break a boring daily routine, and consequently, let our innate impulses interact with our surrounding spaces.”

Calling All Curious Architects

Curiosity in Action evolved over the time and continues to be a consideration of ours and others’ application of curiosity – particularly its importance to the discipline of architecture and the process we are experiencing as we are trained to become architects.

As we worked with the undergraduate students we have consolidated what Curiosity in Action means. In the early discussions of the project, we were excited about our own curiosity in the undergraduate students’ curiosity, which only grew as we worked together with the students.

It is an interest in people in place, which drove the project and is reflected in the output of a public exhibition of Curiosity in Action on the rooftop. By the end of the project and in the reflection thereafter, it has become clearer to us that curiosity has been the process as well as the input or output.

By adapting the project as we worked on it – live - with students, ‘action’ came alive in and of the project, and for us over time this became a stronger, more poignant realisation. Inviting the public to engage in forms of inquiry that were alive, and surrounding them became really interesting for us, because the processes of an architect’s curiosity are often undisclosed or hidden amongst conventional consultation methods.

The artifacts created by Curiosity in Action could not have been predetermined. For curiosities to be seen and experienced by others’, each student is required to ‘action’ their curiosity, realise it in some way, shape or form.

We sense we have only scratched the surface of what is possible when we bring to peoples’ attention the different ways in which curiosities can be revealed, focused upon and brought to life. Embodying our curiosities in an artifact is just one way. For our discipline to be more considerate of what is actually happening in the world, we would urge architects – emerging and established - to become more aware of curiosity and their experiences in the process of being curious.

Link to Manchester School of Architecture events blog:

Event organisers postgraduate MArch architecture students from MSA:

Esther Frimpong

Aleks Hayward

Zena Moore

Amy Pearce

Participating undergraduate BA architecture students from MSA:

Ozge Aygunoglu

Shokirie Clarke

Angharad Jones

Cecilia Mak

Andreas Maragakis

Andrea Popescu

Thomas Prendergast

Finian Reece-Thomas

Emanuel Sanchez Pinela

Angelo Thanthirige

Hettie Wellington

Bismah Zafar

Thank you to all those at 24 Lever Street for hosting and being open to our exhibition on the rooftop. In addition, a huge thank you to Greg Ashton from Reason Digital and Greg Dwyer for all your help with installing the exhibition.

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