Narrative Space: “Estranged Space; a study at the Roman baths, Bath”.
Narrative Space, University of Leicester, 2-22 April 2010.
Publisher's URL: http://www.le.ac.uk/ms/profdev/nspace.html
Paper delivered to the "Narrative Space" conference, organised by the universities of Leicester and Nottingham, April 2010.
In this presentation I will explore notions of spatial strangeness and estrangedness. Drawing on a study of the Roman baths, Bath, the presentation will examine the relationship between the curated public baths and a set of little-known underground vaults which lie adjacent to them. These pairs of spaces represent a public zone of conventional beauty/heritage, and their “other”. The contrast could not be greater – although just the thickness of a wall separates them. The project to be presented - undertaken by staff from the University of the West of England, Chelsea College of Art & Design and the University of Plymouth - is an exploration of the aesthetic value of forgotten, dormant and neglected spaces. Critically, the project examines the relationships between these spaces and the public realm, and provide clues, through art and design practice, of how they can be reimagined.
Building on the work contained within the book “Architectural Voices; listening to old buildings”, by David Littlefield and Saskia Lewis, the project at the Roman baths deploys a particular mode of viewing space – that of considering it as a void onto which meaning and narrative can be overlaid. “Estranged” spaces are typically back-of-house zones which have slipped from memory and use, and are merely there. The project at the Roman baths seeks aesthetic value within these spaces, and an understanding of the poetic, metaphoric and physical relationships these zones have with their more public siblings – as well as insight into the meaning of narrative, art, beauty and value. Through this pilot project the participants hope to develop a methodology through which other spaces can be understood, especially ones located within the heritage sector.
In a sense, the project is also a site study, but the analytical tools concern atmosphere, light, texture and the profundities of absence, as well as spatial measurement. What lends this project an extra dimension of interest is the fact that managers at the Roman baths are currently looking into ways of regenerating the vaults, bringing them into the public realm as an extention to the baths themselves. This will involve a complete rehabilitation, and the study has been designed to help site managers more fully understand the space they propose to develop.
What lends this project a particular element of visual and narrative excitement is the fact that the vaults function, incidentally, as a camera obscura, capturing images of the principal baths and their inhabitants. Images are not the only “artefacts” within the vaults; they function as an unarchived, uncatalogued store for the baths and contain vast quantities of Roman artefacts. The vaults – a Victorian structure set atop a Roman base, but cut off from the rest of the museum – becomes a place loaded with the potential for meaning.
Underpinning the presentation is the contention that space, and buildings, live most powerfully in the mind, and that all meaning and significance is projected on to them. It is the relationship between the mind and the space which lies at the centre of the presentation.
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