13 / The Responsibility of Form: The spatial form and practice of arrival

Introduction

“I can eat a sandwich in any size of room.” James Gowan[1]

This paper takes its cue from the implication in Gowan’s statement: human agency can overcome spatial form. The sentiment is innocent enough and can hardly be denied. Yet it was necessary to utter it because some saw the built environment as a determinant of human behaviour. This latter view can be seen, in varying forms, in the writings of Le Corbusier, Jane Jacobs and Oscar Newman, to name a few. Few hold this view today and the absence of proponents would imply that the debate between environmental versus social determinism has been settled. I deliberately conflate social determinism and agency driven approaches as ones that either play down or deny the influence of form on behaviour. In spatial discourses these approaches are illustrated by an emphasis on users over form. For example, Jonathan Hill establishes two types of architectural occupation, one by the architect (through design) and the other by the user (through occupation). Both occupations leave out the physical fact of space and form.[2] In the last couple of decades architectural form has taken a back seat to all other concerns.

Yet the grounds of this former debate were founded on shaky ground – a binary opposition between space and practice, object and subject. If we follow Ed Soja’s suggestion, however, that space comprises a trialectic involving physical, social and mental dimensions, then the opposition becomes difficult to maintain. Moreover the idea of giving priority to one criteria over another is also undermined by Soja’s suggestion. The root of Soja’s proposition is Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space.[3] This text along with his development of the everyday as a theoretical concept are both critical for understanding a non-oppositional relationship among space, form, and practice. Such understanding also weakens arguments that see an interest in form as automatically resulting in formalism. However, the concepts of space and the everyday, as found in Lefebvre, though useful, remain abstract. In contrast, Michel de Certeau’s conception of the everyday provides what I see as a useful model for teasing out the specific role of form in relation to practices. I will argue that, while sometimes overlooked and often mis-used, de Certeau’s definition and use of the everyday is particularly relevant to the unresolved debate on form and practice.[4] A series of brief reviews of applications of the everyday to architectural situations will highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the theory. This will be followed by a few examples of the role played by form in a 1970s London housing estate. The aim will be to establish the potential of the everyday as a way of understanding form while also demonstrating that form cannot be ignored in understanding user’s actions, occupations and appropriation of built things.

Before moving on it is necessary to comment on the use of the terms ‘form’, ‘space’ and ‘practice’. For the purposes of this paper ‘form’ and ‘space’ will be linked as ‘spatial form.’[5] Until now they have been used interchangeably and meant to coincide with Lefebvre’s category of physical or natural space.[6] That is, it refers to real or actual space, as opposed to mental (conceptual) or social space. My use is most closely related to de Certeau’s ‘spatial order’:

“…a spatial order organizes an ensemble of possibilities (e.g., by a place in which one can move) and interdictions (e.g., by a wall that prevents one from going further)…”[7]

Following on this, form will refer to the physicality of built objects while space will refer to the voids defined by these. This simplification is necessary here but sits side by side with broader conceptions of both space and form.

‘Spatial practice’ is used to mean a less complex concept than found in the Lefebvre’s Production of Space. While Lefebvre provides a number of different definitions it generally refers to a system of practices which are unique to a culture and historical period. These include not only the acts that people perform but also the ways in which space is organised as a result of these.[8] It consists of those spatial performances that are linked and repeated so as to form a spatial realm within which these performances (practices) are contained. It is therefore a set of practices and its spaces. Again my usage is closer to de Certeau’s in that it refers to a more individualised and unique spatial acts. Whereas Lefebvre’s spatial practice inscribes a space that can contain many acts de Certeau’s is a specific performance which is contingent in time and place.

Flat Space

Ed Soja has often referred to the ‘spatial turn’ that took place in cultural studies, geography, and critical studies during the 1990s.[9] Without diminishing the importance of this development the result is often not spatial enough. That is, space remains either abstract or cartographic. For instance, in one study David Harvey notes that geographical differences contribute to the ability of workers to resist or protest exploitative conditions but takes no account of the role played by the spatially distinct spaces of New York and rural North Carolina.[10] Access to the media and the spatial dispersion of workers are conditions that distinguish the two arenas, yet the specific spatial configuration of each place is also critical. So although Harvey highlights space as a political battleground it is understood more as an arena or location rather than a specifically active participant. In Soja’s comparison of Los Angeles and Amsterdam[11] the spatial characteristics of each are given: ‘sprawling, decentred, polymorphic, and centrifugal’, versus ‘centred and historically centripetal’. The differences in the history and experience of each place are clearly described, but what is not explored is the extent to which the spatial configurations have formed or been informed by history and experience.

To be fair, it is perhaps too much to expect such spatial attention and interrogation within the context of geographical, critical or cultural studies. More problematic, however, is the attitude towards spatial form in architectural studies invoking the everyday.[12] Here we might expect a closer analysis of the relation between spatial practices and spatial forms. Yet, in his review of the architectural uses of the everyday, Dell Upton notes that for “an enterprise that exalts the concrete, the study of everyday life is remarkably vague about its object.”[13] Upton finds that many studies turn the everyday into an aesthetic category while those that avoid this tendency in turn fail to recognise spatial form:

“…neither Crawford’s arguments nor Ockman’s nor indeed those of any architectural theorist of the everyday, give adequate attention to the physicality of everyday life or to the materiality of Architecture.” [14]

Nevertheless, Upton sees the everyday as a viable vehicle for examining the specificity of spatial form:

“Architecture is inescapably concrete and it forms the fabric and the setting of everyday life…So architecture’s materiality makes it a natural conduit to the specificity of everyday life” [15]

Moves towards Spatial Form

While the lack of specific attention spatial forms has been somewhat overcome by more recent studies I would like to recall two examples in order to highlight the potential of a more detailed analysis. In Chapter 7 I noted Rachel Kallus’ study of the Gilo residential quarter in Israel[16]. I noted that the study stopped at the level of building typology and left out spatial investigations of the interior. I also cited Mark Llewellyn’s study of Kensal House in London which favoured human agency at the expense of an understanding of how the spatial forms of the units influenced or affected the inhabitants’ practices. In both cases space was either not treated significantly or it was assumed to be passive while criticised for simultaneously exerting the architect’s power over its occupants. The problem lies in identifying the architect as exercising power and privilege while portraying spatial form as if it were at the mercy of inhabitants. In the end the opposition between the conceptual space exercised by architects and the world of spatial practices inhabited by users leaves out the very thing that mediates this relationship. In other words, it acknowledges only two of the three spatial categories identified by Lefebvre in The Production of Space.

We have then in one case an example of an overly abstract conception of space and on the other an over-attentiveness to human agency. I suggest that this over-attentiveness is driven by a desire to reappraise the balance between architecture and people. While this is understandable as a corrective measure in the process subjectivity is often separated from the physical body. In contrast, Nigel Thrift’s concept of non-representational thinking provides us with a model that links subjectivity and the body.[26] As a theory of practice it sees apprehension as linked to activities, but also partially determined by them.

“…non-representational thinking throws a critical light on theories that claim to re-present some naturally present reality…Instead, it [non-representation theory] argues that practices constitute our sense of the real. […] it is concerned with thinking with the entire body.”[27]

Thrift links bodies and things: “…bodies and things are not easily separated terms, precisely because of their locatedness.”[28] Here ‘locatedness’ means the context of all things not as a neutral background context or container, but “a necessary constitutive element of interaction, something active, differentially extensive and able to probematise and work on the bounds of subjectivity.”[29] Context, as a specific place, is what links bodies and things – or, put differently, bodies and things are bound up in context; spatial form is therefore more than a conduit or relational space, it is an active ingredient.

De Certeau’s Everyday

The relatedness between spatial forms and spatial practices is at the centre of de Certeau’s understanding of the everyday. This is clearest in the following passage:

“First, if it is true that a spatial order organises an ensemble of possibilities (e.g., by a place in which one can move) and interdictions (e.g., by a wall that prevents one from going further), then the walker actualises some of these possibilities. In that way, he makes them exist as well as emerge. But he also moves them about and he invents others, since the crossing, drifting away, or improvisation of walking privilege, transform or abandon spatial elements…And if on the one hand he actualises only a few of the possibilities fixed by the constructed order (he goes only here and not there), on the other he increases the number of possibilities (for example, by creating shortcuts and detours) and prohibitions (for example, he forbids himself to take paths generally considered accessible or even obligatory).”[30]

Whereas Lefebvre’s everyday is often seen as a combination of the routines of daily life and bureaucratisation of spaces and practices, we can see here, in the ‘freedom’ that the walker exercises in choosing among spatial elements or in the invention of new ones, a more optimistic view. But, it is not entirely like this, since, according to Mike Crang, de Certeau considers the agency of the walker as ‘constituted against a monolithic vision of power.’[31] If we see this ‘monolithic power’ as a version of Lefebvre’s formulation then de Certeau’s everyday is not a replacement for Lefebvre’s everyday but another aspect of it. In de Certeau’s example the constructed order is always the field against which all the plays of the walker take place whether they are frames (possibilities, interdictions, accessible paths, etc.) or inventions (‘the walker actualises some of these possibilities’, ‘he also moves them about’, ‘shortcuts’, ‘detours’, etc.). We have, therefore, an acknowledgement of the larger system within which spatial practices take place. And while he references the subjective realm (the walker makes certain spatial elements ‘exist’ or ‘emerge’) this is set against the concrete reality of the spatial order. To be clear, though the walker invents narratives and carries out ‘speech-acts’ which resist the spatial order that order nevertheless exists. This is why I see the reference to making elements ‘exist’ or ‘emerge’ as a subjective matter – it is in perception, or through shared practices which may reify into cultural norms, that a spatial element is made to ‘emerge’. Practiced another way, different conditions emerge or ‘exist’, but the original spatial order which is being manipulated remains until physically changed. Crang supports this interpretation:

“For him ‘[t]he world of objects is there, terrible “real” in resisting human modification…Their irreducible “thinginess” renders them resistant to representation.”[32]

In the Practice of Everyday Life De Certeau intends both a literal and metaphorical interpretation of walking practices; one can understand spatial difference as a conceptual matter as well as physical. However, I wish to focus on spatial forms as defined earlier and to clarify de Certeau’s attention to the importance of fully three-dimensional space. De Certeau’s interdiction, a barrier around which one must walk or which stops one from progressing, presupposes that it is too high to jump over or scale in some way. Similarly, de Certeau’s use of the World Trade Centre as a voyeuristic position is not only conceptual – the view of Manhattan below is not simply a substitute for a map but a spatial position of privilege. One ‘looks down on’ Manhattan, and to attain that view one must be physically ‘lifted out of the city’s grasp.’ Further, the body ‘is no longer clasped by the streets’[33] and pedestrian movements are not ‘localized’ but instead ‘spatialise.’[34] While offering up the importance of agency or subjective concepts such as walking ‘speech-acts’ de Certeau constantly returns to spatial forms. As architects, critics and theorists turn their attention more and more to the experiences of users and inhabitants one would have expected that de Certeau’s particular formulation would have caught their eye.

Spatial Forms and Practice in Alexandra Road

The outline above has tried to both reveal a gap in spatial awareness while also arguing for the importance of spatial forms. What follows is a sketch analysis of the entry sequence of one of the blocks in Neave Brown’s Alexandra Road housing project in Camden, London (1968-78). These notes are part of a larger study which articulates the reasons for examining this particular estate as well as others. There is no room here to go into detail – I will only note that the position this project occupies between the replication of traditional forms of housing and access and their reinvention provides a unique opportunity for examining spatial forms and practices. The method employed is not intended to represent a fully formed analytical approach. I hope, however, that it is suggestive enough to demonstrate the importance of some of the issues raised above.

The entry sequences of Alexandra Road Estate (AR) are one of the more significant design elements of the estate. A brief look at block B will highlight the interrelation between forms and practices as well as establish the extent to which they reproduce or depart from traditional forms and practices. Block B consists of two stacked maisonettes with individual entries to each dwelling (Fig. 1). Each of the lower pairs has two entries: a parallel set of stairs and bridges leading to an upper level landing and a shared entry leading to the lower level (Figs. 2 & 3). One can easily identify a stair-bridge combination with an individual dwelling. However, there is nothing to prevent someone from using an adjacent path and crossing over to their front door on the landing, thus interpreting and practicing the entry sequence as shared access.

AR Block B
fig. 1 View of block B, Alexandra Road. Red arrows indicate individual and shared entries to lower and upper maisonettes. The wider space below demarcates the shared ‘forecourt’ space of two units while the expressed cross-walls of the upper units identify individual units. One can also enter the lower level of the bottom unit in the gap between the parallel stair-bridges.

There is also a choice available between entering the upper public level (kitchen, living & dining) or the lower private level (bedrooms). The use of one or the other may depend on habit or personal preference; for example, arriving home from work or school some may find it preferable to enter the lower level to change or shower before engaging with the rest of the family. Alternatively, if arriving with groceries others may use the upper route leading to the kitchen. Some might restrict entry to the upper level through habit or social convention. That is, the upper level could be coded ‘front’ and the lower level ‘back’ and reinforce this interpretation though use. As such some users may ‘abandon spatial elements…’ by not taking ‘paths generally considered accessible or even obligatory’.[35] The spatial configuration is significant in allowing both traditional as well as divergent readings and practices.

We can see how inhabitants have interpreted these possibilities in different ways. Some have positioned potted plants to permanently claim their half of the landing and by consequence the stair and bridge leading to their dwelling. In other cases the shared landing has been used for storage in a manner that does not clearly establish ownership or a boundary (Figs. 4, 5 &6). Others have been left in their original state.[36]

 

The lower level accesses have also been modified with screens, gates and partitions (Fig. 7). These different treatments provide different levels of privacy for the lower court. Some are full height while others are low and flimsy sheets of plywood that act more as symbolic barriers. In a few cases tenants have installed gates which have some affinity with the surrounding metalwork.[37] Here we could read the form of the additions as constructing new but precise relationships between the lower court and street. That is, some block access and views, while others only prevent access. Low and flimsy barriers block neither access nor view but make a clear statement which entry is primary and to be used by visitors.

The overall spatial form of entry results in two types of modifications which in turn call for different kinds of negotiation between neighbours. While the upper screens can be put in place without discussion, modification of the passage to the lower level entry requires face to face negotiation since it affects access to both dwellings. The specific form, then, contributes to the kind of interaction required for the modification to occur. It should be noted, however, that these modifications are not only signs of appropriation but can also be points of conflict.

AR Grid Photos
fig. 7 Examples of modifications to the passageway leading to the lower level shared courtyard in block B. The first image (top left) is an unmodified passage.

These sequences and their articulation are not wholly new or unique. We can recognize them in Georgian and Victorian terraces in varying levels of complexity (Figs. 8, 9 & 10). As mediators of public and private realms and as part of the daily rituals of arrival and departure their specific configuration are of great importance. In contrast to the flexible and interpretative relationship among arrival, dwelling and stair the trajectory from street to dwelling is highly structured. That is, there is deliberate layering of differentiated spaces and practices in order to exaggerate the sense of threshold. We can define the sequence as:

Stair/lifting/framed–>bridge/crossing/exposed–>landing/arrival/contained

At the same time the relationship between entry and the dwelling as an identifiable unit is deliberately blurred. While the cross walls of block B identify individual dwellings for the upper maisonette the lower maisonette is demarcated to a much lesser extent. In both cases the axis of entry is along a boundary line (Figs. 35, 36, 37 & 38). This produces an axial shift in the relationship between the stair and dwelling avoiding one-to-one relationships between them.

Different relationships are established so that while the upper dwellings are more easily identified, they share access, while the lower maisonettes are less identifiable but have more individualised entries.

To be clear, this is not a visual or compositional game. The act of climbing the stairs to the upper dwellings of block B inscribes with one’s body the shared thick boundary between two units. To cross the bridge to one of the lower dwellings is to express your individual trajectory to ‘your’ dwelling while passing through the shared space of a pair of units. As suggested by Thrift, it becomes difficult to separate out bodies and things, practices and spatial forms. The meaning and experience of arrival cannot be found by looking at spatial forms or spatial practices in isolation. Rather, it is possible to conceive of spatial forms and practices as an irreducible figure in itself.

Conclusion

These notes are not intended to describe or to unlock the ultimate ‘meaning’ of any aspect of Alexandra Road. It is also not an attempt to describe everyday life on the estate. There is nothing here to suggest a re-evaluation or re-definition of the everyday. What was intended was to replicate the balanced attention to spatial forms and practices suggested by de Certeau.

From this point of view we could re-imagine the history of housing as a series of transformation to the relationship between, and character of, spatial forms and practices. The break that the tower and slab block represented can be seen as more than a change in morphology, technology or method of production. Rather it can be seen as a set of changed relations between spaces and practices as well as a changed set of interdictions and possibilities (Fig. 26). The result of these changes can affect daily rituals, the potential for symbolic associations to be established, and the possibility for performing acts of appropriation in view of others.

I have tried to suggest that at AR issues of meaning, identity, appropriation, negotiation and representation are tied up in an intricate complex of forms and practices. Gowan’s statement is therefore not wrong but reductive and incomplete. To assert that one can eat a sandwich in any size room is to reduce a practice to a function and a space to a container. In the end human agency is not championed at all since too much is left out of the equation. There is nothing to gain or lose. It is curious that spatial form should be so played down in spatial discourses and especially by architects. For if we could indeed eat a sandwich in any size room and that was all that was necessary to know, then there would be little point to design. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, there is much to be won and lost in the spatial world. That we, as designers, determine the spatial form of this world is therefore an enormous responsibility.

(2009)

lmd diagram
Fig. 13 Diagram of entry sequences for slab block and traditional terrace.

[1] Fred Scott, On Altering Architecture (Abingdon: Routledge, 2008), 5.

[2] Jonathan Hill, Occupying Architecture (London: Routledge, 1998); Jonathan Hill, Actions of Architecture (London: Routledge, 2003)

[3] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991)

[4] I refer to the abandoned debate not because it should be revived in its previous form, that is, looking for proof that either architectural or social forms determine behaviour, but only in order to encourage thinking about the relationship between these two areas.

[5] Independent definitions of each term can be found in Adrian Forty, Words and Buildings: A Vocabulary of Modern Architecture (London: Thames & Hudson, 2000)

[6] Lefebvre, The Production of Space, 11

[7] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steve Rendall, 1988th ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 98.

[8] Lefebvre, The Production of Space, 33-38. We can see in this Lefebvre’s refusal to separate practices and spaces. The separation here is made only for the purposes of analysis and critique.

[9] See for example Edward William Soja, Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-imagined Places (London: Blackwell Publishing, 1996) and Postmetropolis (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Limited, 2000).

[10] “Class Relations, Social Justice and the Politics of Difference,” in Place and the Politics of Identity (London: Routledge, 1993.

[11] “The Stimulus of a Little Confusion: A Contemporary Comparison of Amsterdam and Los Angeles,” in The Global Cities Reader, ed. Neil Brenner and Roger Keil (Abingdon: Routledge, 2006), 180-.

[12] The key texts in this area are: John Kaliski and Margaret Crawford, eds., Everyday Urbanism (New York: Monacelli, 1999); Steven Harris and Deborah Berke, Architecture of the Everyday (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1997); AD Profile 134, The Everyday and Architecture (London: Academy Editions, 1998); Daidalos 75, The Everyday (Berlin: Redaction Daidalos, 1999).

[13] Dell Upton, “Architecture in Everyday Life,” New Literary History 33, no. 4 (Autumn 2002): 707.

[14] Ibid., 714.

[15] Ibid., 707

[16] “The Political Role of the Everyday,” City 8, no. 3 (December 2004): 341-361.

[17] Ibid., 353-5.

[18] “’Urban Village’ or ‘White House’: Envisaged Spaces, Experienced Places, and Everyday Life at Kensal house, London in the 1930s,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 22, no. 2 (2004): 229-249.

[19] Ibid., 240.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 230.

[22] Ibid., 239.

[23] Ibid., 240.

[24] tenant quoted in Ibid., 241.

[25] Ibid., 246.

[26] Spatial Formations (London: Sage Publications, 1996).

[27] Ibid., 7.

[28] Ibid., 13.

[29] Ibid., 3.

[30] Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 98.

[31] Mike Crang, “Relics, Places and Unwritten Geographies in the Work of Michel de Certeau (1925-86),” in Thinking Space (London: Routledge, 2000), 151.

[32] Ibid., 142.

[33] The Practice of Everyday Life, 91-92.

[34] Ibid., 97.

[35] Ibid., 98

[36] This is the point at which other studies might point to the inhabitants as exercising their subjective preference or as ‘producing’ the space. Yet what such studies miss is the extent to which the spatial configurations both suggest the possibilities of expression and configure their form.

[37] Although more of the lower passages have been modified in comparison with the upper ones, the majority still remain open.

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