Visitors walk through Richard Serra’s Band and Intersection II at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, during the exhibition “Richard Serra Sculpture: Forty Years, May 2007. Serra’s use of form and experience to shape perception inspires often extreme human responses. In this case, the constrained torus shapes, made of weathered steel, are, in some ways, evocative of the sensations first felt when entering the cave.
[E]xploratory experimentation has been relatively neglected by historians and philosophers of science. Room decor Its defining characteristic is the systematic and extensive variation of experimental conditions to discover which of them influence or are necessary to the phenomena under study. … Exploratory experimentation typically comes to the fore in situations in which no well-formed conceptual framework for the phenomena being investigated is yet available; instead, experiments and concepts co-develop, reinforcing or weakening each other in concert.53
While Goethe’s explanation of the physical properties of color may not be fully defensible today, it does remain valid as a phenomenological analysis of the way color is experienced by human beings. Scientific exploration of perceptual phenomena does not claim to explain underlying operational mechanisms, such as the photons and waves that compose light or the neurons in our brain, and the laws underlying such science are less relevant to design. Stated differently, the exploration of experience itself is as valid a scientific underpinning for design as is the study of physics.
Over the next two centuries Goethe’s work stimulated a whole range of new systematic color investigations, ranging from, for example, Schopenhauer’s Vision and Color, which appeared in 1816, shortly after Goethe’s Theory of Colors, or the perceptual issues of influences of colors on each other, as in the twentieth-century work of Josef Albers and some of his students.54
More recently, numerous artists have created three-dimensional installations that explore human perception in different ways. The viewer is no longer a passive spectator of these artworks, but enters them as an active participant. Artists like James Turrell, Olafur Eliasson, and Richard Serra are celebrated for having tested the boundaries of perception in such participatory installations, and, more than designers, have been able to investigate specific phenomena. They have explored perceptual experiences with a singularity, precision, and rigor that would not be possible in practical environments but are very useful in pointing out how similar exploration might benefit designers and design students, and their work.
Their work is not just about color but also about the sense of enclosure and the experience of space. Serra, for example, often constructs forms from rugged, weathered steel, which elicit a visceral, perhaps atavistic, reaction. Serra’s most infamous work is his 1981 Tilted Arc sculpture, commissioned specifically for New York City’s Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan (see pages 152 and 153). A 12 foot (3.65 meter) high, 174 inch (3 centimeter) thick rusted steel wall bisected the public space, forcing pedestrians to consider how they would navigate the plaza in relation to a wall that appeared, from some angles, to be in danger of imminent collapse. This sculptural manipulation was, according to Serra’s own description, intended to force those who encountered it to become aware of their perception of the physical surroundings:
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