Michel de Certeau’s Everyday

“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).”

The Practice of Everyday Life (1984), p.98

I can’t count the number of times that I have referenced this quote. It is one of those essential nuggets that both summarise and define something while opening up and allowing for its appropriation. It takes several passes to get the gist of what de Certeau means. It is straightforward but not simple or easy. What is important to me about this passage is that it defines the very centre of what I see as the role of architecture while also explaining how architecture works. If you replace ‘spatial order’ with ‘architecture’ it may make more sense. For the walker, imagine the user and all their possible actions, movements and activities. What is critical about this passage is that it balances the ‘spatial order’ (or architecture) with the user’s choice, free-will or what is sometimes called ‘agency’. In one fell swoop de Certeau wipes away all those arguments that would see architecture, or space, or form, or all three, as determining social, subjective, political or cultural conditions. That is, architecture does not make people bad or good. Architecture neither forces people to commit crimes nor prevents them. On the other side, de Certeau says that human free will, agency or subjectivity is not independent of space, form or architecture. It challenges those views that say that architecture doesn’t matter because it’s people who make meaning, that create communities, that use and appropriate things and make them what they are.

De Certeau’s point is simple, obvious, but largely ignored: neither architecture (spatial orders) nor free will is sufficient to explain how we exist in space. There is a dialectical relationship between the two. This makes architecture relevant and important but not sufficient. It also means that social conditions, norms and patterns, along with individual free will and desires are also important but that they do not exist outside of space. Instead, it is a dance between the two. You cannot walk through walls, but you can choose to not enter a building. You must use streets to get from one place to another (generally) but you do not need to cross at intersections. There is everywhere structure, order, patterns, choices, individuality, and collectivity.

Again, this may sound obvious once it’s pointed out, but architects (pretending to be theorists) churn out books arguing one side or the other rather than seeing a relationship and an interdependency. Jonathan Hill’s idea that ‘architecture is made by the user’ is just one example. On the other side, housing scholars (those that deal largely with the social science and policy end) continue to argue that it’s policy and social conditions that result in either good or bad housing. The space and form of the housing matters little if at all.

I will likely write elsewhere about space and form, their history and definition, but from de Certeau I have developed the term ‘spatial form’ to refer to both terms while including the idea that they are intrinsically structured with sets of prohibitions and possibilities. It is largely equivalent to de Certeau’s ‘spatial order’. On the agency side I use ‘spatial practices’ which is borrowed from de Certeau and refers to what is done in ‘spatial orders’ or ‘spatial forms’ by people.


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