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Writing Architecture: The Lived Experience of an Emerald Hill House
by GOH Pei Yun, Joanne
In architectural journals, books and magazines, the prevailing mode of textual representation focuses primarily on the sum or parts of a typical formula – describing a building, the context of the building, that is, who the architect is, when the building was built, its location, site conditions, etc. What are the limitations of these representations? Is there any other way of representing architecture apart from focusing entirely on its built form? As other representative media like drawings and models show the built form, perhaps writing should present a more complex spatial experience of the building. How then is this spatial experience expressed? This dissertation aims to look at how a more evocative spatial experience can be depicted in the writing of architecture.

It develops arguments made by Pierre-Alain Croset on the importance of the narrative mode and how this mode may supplement the image in architectural publications. This dissertation proposes that texts become representative of ‘accidental architecture’ —where the agenda is not architectural in particular, but still manages to evoke spatial experiences. Studying various narrative modes used by Katja Grillner and Karen Bermann, this dissertation aims to reveal how architectural spaces are evoked using alternative techniques of textual representation. Taking Emerald Hill Road as a site of study, I will explore social, cultural, historical and fictional accounts of Peranakans and the houses they lived in. Known for their meticulous approach to detail from cooking and sewing, to traditional rites and rituals, this dissertation will attempt to draw from the studied accounts, a method of representing a richer experience of space.

Architecture can be represented not by its own merit (and these are readily accessible in photographs), but also by the value it has gained through its users. For example, houses of writers and poets like Sylvia Plath, William Wordsworth, and William Shakespeare have gained their value because of the very presence of these occupants. As viewers inspect Wordsworth’s kitchen, the location of the pots and fireplace may attract added interest because visitors want to know how the poet and his family lived. Likewise, though the dissertation is not studying houses of famous people, the importance of the ‘lived detail’ and the bodily occupation of its users can be translated to a closer reading of space. The ‘lived detail’ encompasses an occupant’s traces of dwelling, and is not so much a critique on his tastes and habits. All these form components of ‘accidental architecture’, that is, representations of architecture without a deliberate attempt to do so.
From this, the dissertation will propose an alternative way to ‘write architecture’ through a narration of the ‘accidental architecture’ mentioned above.
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