Indexical Architecture: A Synthesis of Subtleties

07 July 2017

The nature of an index lies in the qualities of things. Indexical Architecture frames architecture as a set of latent qualities, revealed only by the proportions and senses of the body. A Synthesis of Subtleties dives deeper into the nature of an architectural index understood as a series of subtle spatial qualities that structure experience: a sense of place, the interplay of light and shadow, layering of space, material details, varying thickness of transparency, and surface texture.

These subtle conditions have an immediate engagement with the body, invoking memory, emotion, and visceral sensation. Understanding places through a process of phenomenal subtleties allows an architecture that communicates with the body, crafted to hold memories and structure identity.


I spent four months learning how to feel architecture while studying in Vicenza, Italy. Questions of site, culture, time, and memory collided with overwhelming force. It was during this time that I began to see architecture as fragments of architectural qualities. I found the liquid streets of Venezia providing a new sense of depth, the clouded Venetian plaster simultaneously measure and reflect the body, and Piazzas preserving culture within their shapeless space. I began to understand architectural projects for their qualities of the body. Documented through a fixed 50mm camera lens, the tool itself would not allow for wide-angle composition, but instead a focus on light, materials, joints, spatial intersections, people, textures, details, shadows, movements, atmospheres…

The collection of these fragmented views proved more accurate to the memory of the experience. Instead of trying to understand the project as an architectural object, I was able to process the project as a series of fragmented architectural experiences that could be re-organized, re-understood, and re-collected to choreograph a memory. I had learned to feel a space.

UN-LOOKING / The Value of a Veil

The sense of vision has dominated our world with the advent of digital technologies and cultural transparencies. From increasing popularity in public viewpoints and open-plans to sheets of glass that transcend human proportions, the sense of vision is influencing the built environment. Recognizing architectural qualities beyond the realm of vision prioritizes the acoustic and haptic dimensions within a space. This prioritization of the non-visual sense acts as a veil concealing prejudice of the eye, allowing a more reflective and spiritual relationship to place.

My research seeks to contend that in order to perceive the atmosphere of place, the rhythm of light, and the weight of shadows, one must not look but learn to feel a space with the entirety of the body through a synthesis of architectural subtleties.

BETWEEN GROUND AND SKY / Questions of Site, Non-Site and Interstitial Spaces

We occupy a thin line along the surface of the earth. Between ground and sky we socialize, think, develop, and dwell. To mark the ground of this place requires a reflection of the delicacy of our situation and creates the responsibility of imagining a place that will reflect our necessity to dwell. My inquiry into site proposes questions of site perceptions. Just as basic perceptual givens of gravity, up, down, light, texture, and balance apply to body in physical space; horizon, surface, ground, sky, weather, and atmosphere are perceptual givens at the scale of the site.

I look towards Robert Smithson’s 1968 essay “A Provisional Theory for Non-Sites,” where Smithson defines a non-site as a three-dimensional representation of an actual site. The non-site, experienced inside a traditional gallery, is composed of fragments and artifacts from the actual site re-understood in the non-site. I am interested in the interstitial space between the site and non-site – the interstitial space for thoughts, dreams, and emotions. Indexical fragments of drawings, models, surveys, photographs, rubbings, materials and recordings compose a non-site in that they are materials of the site but not the site actual. The travel between site and non-site becomes a metaphoric in-between that connects memory, indexical fragments of experience, and spatial reality.

“An architectural work is not experienced as a collection of isolated visual pictures, but in its fully embodied material and spiritual presence.”1 An authentic experience of architecture exists in the interstitial space of visiting a work (site) and recording the work (non-site). I intend to provoke the idea of non-site by developing indexical fragments from each project visited, creating a dialogue between material and memory.

INDEXICAL ARCHITECTURE / Communicating Experience

Subtleties in architecture are delicate gestures to the body. Gestures are a form of communication – a subtle gesture with the eyes can inform a world of emotion. The presence of gestures in language, music, painting, walking, and sexuality are only a few instances from the human day. Continually changing, human relationships are a collection of fragmented gestures that form the permanently incomplete perception of who we are. The communication between architecture and the body is the same – architectural subtleties form incomplete perceptions of spatial experience and our perceptions of space continually change as new fragmented experiences reform into memory.

Italo Calvino states that “in trying to account for the density of the world around us, language is exposed as lacunose, fragmentary; it always says something less than the sum of what can be experienced.”2  Often times, what we are trying to say is beyond the ability of language to capture it and we are required to understand each other beyond language. We are able to do this through our constructed experiences – the collection of fragmented subtleties that allows us to communicate perceptions.

I contend that the architectural subtleties of place, light/shadow, layers, detail, transparency, and texture are inherent subtleties within any spatial circumstance and therefore serve as initial points of departure for my research. Through collected memories of site and fragmented recordings of non-site, these subtleties become a part of our sensual perceptions and shape the gestural relationship between body and earth.


I understand architecture as a way of communicating culture and emotion; it offers the opportunity to communicate and understand our relationship to earth, ourselves, and each other beyond the barriers of language. The function of architecture is to make space that enables an experience for the body, recognizing the vast and subtle qualities that structure individuality.

The SOM Prize and Travel Fellowship will provide the opportunity to discover, reflect, and interrogate meaningful spatial works through methods of subtlety. By visiting multiple regions, scales, and programs, I intend to cultivate an architectural process that prioritizes sensory curiosity between person (body) and place (site). I recognize that our thoughts, our dreams, and our emotions dwell inside the body; we must understand architecture in terms of the bodies’ subtleties.

The thoughtful reflection of atmosphere woven with the complexities of site provides a collection of subtleties that structure an indexical architecture, a continually changing self-reflective collection of the bodies’ enigmatic relationship to place.

DOCUMENTATION / Making, Reflecting, re-Making

To share my findings and disseminate my research to the larger architectural community I intend to construct an exhibit that will hold all indexed articles of the travel for each project visited. This inquiry will index fragments of architectural subtleties documented through: painting, audio, video, sketching, drawing, photography, writing and textural rubbings to construct an atmosphere that is of the place (site) but experienced by the body in an entirely different location (non-site). I aim to challenge Smithson’s theory of non-site to reconstruct the experience and atmosphere of each place.

In addition to an exhibit, I intend to contact my local AIA Chapter as well as civic arts groups to propose a lecture series to connect with academics and professionals within my local community. These lectures will prelude a publication that will stitch together my research in parallel with interviews and professional discussions about the necessity of sensory curiosity in architecture.


1. Pallasmaa, Juhani. The Eyes of The Skin: Architecture and the Senses (Great Britian: Wiley-Academy, 2005). 49.

2. Calvino, Italo. Six Memos for the Next Millenium, translated by Geoffrey Brock (New York: Mariner Books, 2016). 91.


2017 SOM PRIZE | copyright Zachary Wignall 2018