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  • harmonising Human-Material-Interaction (hHMI) within transit spaces

Sahoo, Shalini, 2021, Thesis, harmonising Human-Material-Interaction (hHMI) within transit spaces PhD thesis, Royal College of Art.

Abstract or Description:

Harmonising Human-Material-Interaction (hHMI) within Transit Spaces addresses the documentation, research and development of urban transportation systems. It is an effort to analyse, understand and enhance the quality of Human-Material-Interaction in the interiors of public transportation, with the aim of generating a rational understanding of the elements that contribute to the wellbeing of humans in these shared public spaces. In this context, “wellbeing” is understood as balancing the physical, the psychological and the emotional state of commuters, providing a quality of life they otherwise reserve for leisure. Through self-driving cars, mobility apps and shared vehicles, society is moving towards a paradigm shift in the way we relate to mobility. Private vehicle ownership is disappearing from the urban landscape; the future of mobility is collaborative utilisation. The shared interiors of public transport will gain increasing importance.

This investigation, in moving forward from addressing the established issues of sustainability, is grounded in a vision of ethical design. It looks at the potential for design to enhance the qualities of the public realm. An enclosed space in movement is a complex composition of proportions, materials, surfaces, colour, lighting, sounds and smells. How can these elements be arranged in sensitive ways to create a space which positively influences the state of being? This research is an in-depth study of the semantics of these elements, indicating their symbolic functions and their connection to formal aesthetic aspects. The outcome includes a set of design principles – defining parameters to create a “quality-of-life” experience in urban mass transportation systems.

This research is practice-based, building on my widely contrasting experience: developing Phaeton interiors for Volkswagen and being a barefoot designer, working with craftspersons in India and Pakistan. Personal work experience on many automotive projects made me realise that the “idea of luxury” in the styling of automobiles is oriented less towards the wellbeing of the end user or the environment and more towards impressing others and increasing sales, “Thus making the automobile exercise power on society, more than any other utilitarian object of the industrial revolution”. In contrast to this, “interiors of public transportation continue to be largely designed on the basic rule of anti- vandalism”, with the selection of neutral colours and the materials and clinical lighting which define the environment of public transport.

I set my research activities within the tradition of “designing for a better world”, questioning at the same time the idea of “better”. Along with this my enquiry focused on a more systems-centric approach to design practice. This influenced the nature of the research in the way that I travelled in several directions over a wide field of disciplines, charting landscapes to understand them at various levels. These journeys have been enduring, involving and at times tedious. To enable them to bear fruit I had to back them up with a sound structure and discipline my approach. I have attempted in this work to find a balance between my natural inclination to work with the bigger interconnected picture and what may be realised in a restrictive framework of time resources. In the systems-centric approach, interiors of transit spaces are the nucleus, and the system around it is mapped, analysed and dissected in its various complexities. The ideal situation / solution is negotiated within a systems context. The multidimensionality of this work was supported by working with experts in fields of architectural theory, phenomenology, anthropology, material technology, interaction design and transportation policy making.

The anthropologists helped me deepen my insights into fieldwork. They guided the development of the Immersive Behavioural Observation (IBO) method by regularly critiquing it and comparing it with existing field research methods. The expert on phenomenology guided my use of phenomenological concepts to develop and understand the theoretical foundations of the work. This project has been enriched by my increasing awareness of Heideggerian phenomenology and its terminology. For material expertise I have been in contact with various suppliers, who supported my research by generously supplying me with material samples and updating me about the state of the art in materials, processes and techniques. The work on material semantics was carried out by documenting the textures of different natural materials of plant, animal and mineral origin with a Spectro-microscope at the Nature Lab, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence (a total of 317 scans were collected from 117 different natural materials). To understand architectural phenomenology in particular, I have been in constant exchange with an architectural theoretician and an expert on traditional cathedral architecture. Their guidance was important as they helped me gain an insight into the vast field of research in this area. They also introduced me to various projects and supported several of my research investigations.

For a period of eight weeks I worked very closely with specialists in UX and UI design for the Hochbahn Hamburg project. This helped me identify the nuances of a technology-centred interaction between human and material, within the context of a smart station. In this same phase of work, I worked with the architectural office of Hadi Tehrani, who had won the initial tenders for the first stations on the Hochbahn Hamburg U5 line. This revealed to me the real-life restrictions within which architectural offices work on projects. The main praxis part of the work was carried out on the U5 project, Hochbahn Hamburg. This work extended over a period of one year and has been very valuable for the development of this research. Otherwise, this project has benefited significantly from exchange with UITP, Brussels; RATP, Paris; NS, Netherlands; and MTR, Hong Kong, amongst others.

Apart from this, the work has also been enriched from my three main geographical and philosophical standpoints – India, where I was born and brought up; Germany, where I have primarily lived and worked for the past decade and England, where I physically undertook this PhD. Along with this, my personal background of growing up with three languages – Oriya, Hindi and English, and later, as an adult, learning German – means that language has played an important role in this research. It became for me a tool for investigation, for discovering what was communicated with it now, and the more subtle information that words have carried within themselves, both since their origin and in different cultures. In this work I have often followed the ancient meaning of words in order to rediscover their nuances and understand them in their totality. One such word has been ‘harmony’. During a masterclass with Stylidis, he meticulously pointed out all the words in my research and shared with me their meanings in an etymological context.

The word “harmony” originates from the Greek word harmos. As Stylidis pointed out, the word harmos means “joint”, referring to the space between two planks of woods that are brought together in boat-building or the space that is between pieces of rock that are placed upon each other during architectural construction. On Stylidis’ advice I went to Delphi and spent a day at the temple ruins understanding the harmos. This was an important experience. I was working with the word harmony from the beginning of my research, and it was only in the third year with Stylidis, at Delphi, that I had the satisfaction of having grasped the deeper meaning in the word. On this I agree with Martin Heidegger, who writes, “The way is a way of thinking. All ways of thinking, more or less perceptibly, lead through language in a manner that is extraordinary”. Following languages and immersing myself in a word to discover its breadth of meaning has been a valuable experience during this PhD. The seminal readings in this work move through a wide topography, ranging from philosophy, architecture and design to biology, management studies and sociology. In the selection of the works I followed the Norwegian mathematician Niels Henrik Abel’s strategy: to study the masters and not their pupils. I have spent many slow hours engaging with the original writings of Heidegger in German and their English translations. I found Heidegger’s writings to be an amazing mental stimulus. I read him with fervour and doubt, knowing that he supported the Third Reich’s ideology and never fully broke with it. Despite this conflict, I have made my peace with him, and Heidegger has indeed been an important influence in this work. This I primarily owe to Emmanuel Levinas’ work on alterity. Levinas had been a student of both Edmund Husserl and Heidegger, and after realising the ethical conflicts his teachers’ philosophy brought with it, he devoted an important part of his work to understanding the ethical implications in dealing with the Other. Levinas’ work builds the ethical foundation in my research. Apart from this I also read the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein to understand how language influences our shared intersubjective perception of the world.

Although developing new knowledge is integral to the PhD research tradition, this work was never motivated by the idea of novelty, but rather by the search for answers to questions I had been carrying in me as a practising designer in the German automotive industry. The one constant in this research has been the veracity in (re) searching. The work at the meta-level investigates the interaction between the Self and the Other and at the object-level the interaction between the human and the material within transit spaces. The human and her perception is thus the starting point for all the interactions and all the interpretations. Thus in many ways the Other, that is the materiality that surrounds us in the first place, is investigated by the perception of it via the sensory and cognitive apparatus of the human body. That is, starting from where we are in the human body. This is in no way an irreducible anthropocentricism, but rather, as Ezio Manzini refers to it, “an acknowledgement of a limit: humbly recognizing that whatever we think and do, we cannot but think it and do it from the point where we find ourselves”, and, as Emmanuel Levinas writes, alterity is how we find (our) Self.

Qualification Name: PhD
Subjects: Creative Arts and Design > W200 Design studies
Creative Arts and Design > W200 Design studies > W290 Design studies not elsewhere classified
School or Centre: School of Design
Funders: AHRC [1772778], Heinrich Böll Stiftung (Berlini)
Uncontrolled Keywords: Digital-Transformation; Human-Material-Interaction; Urban-Mobility; Design Ethics; Systems Design
Date Deposited: 14 May 2021 15:17
Last Modified: 14 May 2021 15:17
URI: https://researchonline.rca.ac.uk/id/eprint/4792
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