Inhabiting the Transition Space

We recently ran a project with the 2nd year BA (Hons) Spatial Design at the London College of Communication (University of the Arts London) where, in collaboration with South West Trains in Wimbledon station, students were asked to re-examine the way people inhabit a transition space.

As part of the project, students were introduced to research methods instigated by the Course leader, Valerie Mace. Valerie developed methods and techniques that facilitate the documentation of atmospheric qualities in spaces, the intangible world of sensory perceptions and subjective experiences. The objective was to enable designers to conduct sensory driven transformation into a wide range of spaces. The original research project was published in a paper called ‘Sensing the Urban Interior’ and presented at the [in]arch conference at Universitas Indonesia in Depok (Jakarta) in 2014.

This project started with a question:
How can we regenerate spaces by manipulating their atmospheric qualities?


The project explored the sensory relationships between the intimate space of the body and the interior of a transition space, the ubiquitous train station. Every morning, Monday to Friday, our cities experience an influx of people commuting towards their center to work and reversing their journey to go back home in the evening. This creates a social phenomenon whereby the experience many people have of the city’s urban interiors is transient. This experience is also impersonal as the design of the spaces that facilitate this daily commute is often constrained to performing specific functions such as moving people from A to B, with limited opportunities for people to interact with their surroundings and even less so with each other. So the train station is an interior commuters experience and inhabit on a daily basis yet very little of the design takes into account the way the space affects people, either psychologically or emotionally. Therefore, the objective of the project was to understand how these environments impact on people’s everyday life by exploring and identifying the processes in which sensory experiences are managed and controlled, in order to develop a human centred phenomenological approach to the design process and in doing so, offer innovative solutions that will alter the way people perceive, experience and inhabit these interiors.

So the project invited students to rethink the relationship between body and space in the context of a transition space, provide sensory driven transformations that alter the atmospheric qualities of the interior in a positive way and create a sense of place, thus making the experience of individual and collective journeys a more enjoyable one.

The brief
We used Wimbledon train station as the project site. Students were divided in small study groups and assigned to a specific schedule of visits agreed by the station management. Upon arrival, students met with staff to be briefed on health and safety requirements. Wimbledon station is a small but essential commuting zone in South-West London, with trains to Clapham Junction, Waterloo and London Bridge. It also offers direct access to the London Underground District Line. The interior of the station is designed for a very specific purpose, that of moving between platforms and entry/exit points, waiting for and boarding trains. The singularity of the interior means that people experience enforced boredom and are made to wait for trains in environmentally uncomfortable conditions. Spaces selected for the project are the main ticket hall and platform 9.


The task was to redesign the space or elements of the space (an intervention) to change and enhance people’s perceptions and experience of the station and of commuting, without obstructing the interior’s primary function and the constrains associated with safety and security within the station’s interior and platforms. For example, staff needs to retain total visibility from one end of the platform to the other and at peak times, the station accommodates a large volume of people moving in different directions. Students also needed to observe South West Trains branding requirements, such as their colour range.

As part of this project students were required to document existing spatial atmospheric conditions within the station in order to establish a set of desired spatial atmospheric conditions that will become the basis for a sensory design intervention. By using the site for primary research, they were able to explore ways to make people feel more positive about their experience and provide opportunities for them to engage with their surroundings. They could, for example, choose to soften the experience through a series of subtle changes, address the issue of waiting and the negative affect of delays, or aim to provide a friendlier environment. Whichever their approach, they needed to keep people moving at all times (no bottlenecks or overcrowding in any single area) and observe safety issues. In other words, this wasn’t a decorating exercise and students needed to provide a solution that considers all aspects of the site.


The project was structured into 4 stages:

Stage 1: Discover – Students were required to use phenomenological led design research methods to reveal existing spatial atmospheric conditions through the documentation of the interior architecture, materials and their relationships, actual and perceived temperature, objects, movement and time, thresholds and transitions, scale and distances in relation to the body, the light and corresponding shadows.

Stage 2: Define – Students were required to map, analyse and visualise existing spatial atmospheric conditions to understand how the design of the space affects people within it. Then they were able to propose a set of desired spatial atmospheric conditions that formed the basis of the development of design solutions.

Stage 3: Develop – Students generated design proposals using their research, analysis and initial design developments. They visualised and communicated their design proposals through drawings, prototypes and storyboards. They were encouraged to develop their own interpretation of what the design intervention could be although they were required to integrate at least one sensory attribute within its design that wasn’t visual. So the design would be something people can sense and experience in more ways than by just looking at it. It could also be in one place or made of a series of related elements across the site. The proposed design needed to alter the way people feel about being in the station and provide opportunities for alternative behavioural and emotional situations.

Stage 4: Deliver – Students were required to fully map, visualise and realise their design proposal for the project. As well as mapping drawings and diagrams depicting the changes in spatial atmospheric conditions, they needed to demonstrate the positive effect of the changes on behaviour and emotions, and evaluate how their design created a sense of place.


At the end of this stage students showcased their work to a review panel while some of the presentations were filmed and included in a short film of the project.

Why do we need primary research in spatial design?

Primary research is a process of documenting and understanding spaces, people and situations from their original source and through personal experiences. Unlike secondary research, which uses other people’s research found in books, magazines and websites as supporting evidence, primary research is about being there and experiencing the space and its occupants for yourself. It’s about immersing yourself in its atmosphere, observing how people behave and interact, finding out about how they feel, learning about the complexity and idiosyncrasies of the environment.

Various methods are available. They are carefully selected depending on the focus of the documentation and the purpose of the design. Irrespective of the method however, it is important for the designer to develop the ability ask questions: who? what? when? why? and how? So when conducting primary research, the designer becomes a curious investigator, looking for clues on site, documenting the space, mapping its environment, listening to people, making connections and noticing things that others would overlook.

Sketch by Natalia Ivanova, BA Spatial Design student year 1 

Techniques vary depending on the focus of the investigation. On the BA Spatial Design, students are first introduced to primary research techniques through a series of workshops. One of them encourages students to consider place making and identity through the study of London riverscape and cityscape. In order to do this, we take them on a boat trip, from Embankment to Greenwich, and ask them to identify and capture the uniqueness of the urban landscape and the elements that imbue the cityscape with a distinctive sense of place. The objective is to capture these characteristics through a series of drawings while travelling form East to West and back.

09 IMG_018808b IMG_4397 copy08 IMG_018907 IMG_019005 IMG_013704 IMG_013803 IMG_019202 IMG_019301 IMG_0140      
Sketches by BA Spatial Design students year 1

Another workshop requires students to consider the different types of users in Spitalfield market, record and reflect on people’s movement, levels of interaction within the space. We also take students to the South Bank and ask them to consider the interior of the Royal Festival Hall as a curated spatial environment and, using drawings and mapping techniques, explore and documents this multi-layered and multi-experiential interior and its organisation.

Sketches by BA Spatial Design students year 1

Developing a sound knowledge of a space and its characteristics is important but insufficient on its own because spaces are designed for and used by people. Therefore, students are also introduced to interview and survey techniques as a mean to find useful and relevant information directly from the people who are using the space. Beyond the survey, we also borrow from other disciplines such as service design, a practice that focusses on designing for people and often also with people. So, as part of their primary research, students are introduced to co-design techniques such as storytelling and character profile.

IMG_0169 IMG_0170 IMG_0171 IMG_0172 IMG_0173 IMG_0174 IMG_0175 IMG_0176 IMG_0177 IMG_0178 IMG_0179 IMG_0180 IMG_0181 IMG_0182 IMG_0183 IMG_0184 IMG_0185 IMG_0186
Sketchbook by Natalia Ivanova, BA Spatial Design student year 1 

Another important aspect of primary research taught on the course are techniques used to document, capture even, the more elusive attributes of space, its atmosphere and our sensory perceptions. Atmosphere is intangible and our perceptions are often subjective yet they are essential components of space. The atmosphere of a space affects the way we feel and consequently, our emotions and sense of belonging. In order to construct atmosphere and manipulate sensory perceptions, it is important to understand them and so, to develop the ability to document them.

IMG_0043 IMG_0112 IMG_0116 IMG_0117 IMG_0118 IMG_0119 IMG_0126 IMG_0148 IMG_0149 IMG_0164 IMG_0165 IMG_0166
Sketches from various BA Spatial Design students year 1

Students on the BA Spatial Design are taught a rich palette of methods and tools that enable them to fully immerse themselves in the environment they are designing in, understand the context they are working with, connect with the people they are designing for and develop a sustainable and inclusive approach to spatial design. No matter what kind of space they are designing, effective primary research enables spatial designers to create positive and meaningful experiences for people, foster a sense of belonging, human attachment and scenarios that will enable occupants to imbue the space with meaning. The way spaces are designed affect the way we interact, behave, work, play, learn; the way we feel, the way we live and even our health. As Iain Borden, Professor of Architecture and Urban Culture at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London, underlined at the 2011 Royal Academy Forum “Spaces of Memory”, “we make space and space makes us” (Bartlett UCL, 2011, 1:15 [Video file]) and so it is essential for students of spatial design to develop into perceptive, mindful and thoughtful designers, and this is why primary research is so important.

IMG_0039 IMG_0040 IMG_0041
 Primary research intervention by Kajsa Lilja, BA Spatial Design year 1 student

IMG_0045  IMG_0046 IMG_0047
Primary research intervention by Wenjing Luo, BA Spatial Design year 1 student

Sensing the Urban Interior

Valerie Mace, presented her paper  ‘Sensing the Urban Environment’ at the [in]arch 2014 International Conference that took place at Universitas Indonesia, Department of Interior Architecture, Depok (Jakarta) on 10th and 11th September 2014, where she showcased techniques she developed to document sensory experiences in interior environments, to uncover a connection between the way we feel and our sense of belonging by investigating the correlation between the interior’s embodied atmosphere and its perceptual affect on the body. She participated in what was the first conference of its kind in Indonesia and attracted international researchers from South East Asia, the Middle East, the USA, the UK and Europe.


Valerie was able to engage in the many opportunities for discussions amongst conference participants for collaborations at a networking event at the end of the conference to discuss how to take new insights into design research forward including future conferences, disseminations through publications as well as the formation of an international network to include existing and emerging researchers in this new and exciting area of design research on interiority. This marks the start of a new research chapter for Valerie across interior design, spatial design and interior architecture, one that links theory and practice and creates opportunities for the advancement of knowledge in interiority and wellbeing and, in the words of Professor Yandi Andri Yatmo “enrich our practice and pedagogy, experiment with concepts and ideas beyond the existing knowledge, and… establish further network and collaboration beyond the event of this conference.”

The paper is available from


Valerie Mace is a joint Course Leader for BA (Hons) Spatial Design at London College of Communication. She is a multi-disciplinary designer working across branded spaces, exhibitions and events, identity and information.

Follow Valerie @ValerieMace