Henri Lefebvre

“The spatial practice of a society secretes that society’s space…”

“The everyday can therefore be defined as a set of functions which connect and join together systems that might appear to be distinct.”

The work of Henri Lefebvre looms large in my thinking, though I have to be honest and admit that it has not been easy engaging with his work. Though he has influenced the way I look and think about architecture and space, I cannot claim to have mastered his work or even to be able to confidently summarise what he has done. The lack of my ‘mastery’ means that his work is more of a continuous challenge rather than something that I have read and absorbed. Here I will simply outline two areas, perhaps his two most well-known contributions, which I have incorporated into my own thinking. The first is his well-known contribution to the theorisation and philosophy of space. It is worth noting that my engagement with Lefebvre on this topic came via the work of Michel Foucault. This unlikely connection stemmed from my interpretation of Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge as a highly spatialised thesis. In discussing knowledge Foucault often invokes terms like grids, vectors and fields and I found myself drawing spatial figures in the margins as I read this book. I brought this up with Ed Soja after a lecture he gave at the Architectural Association in London and he said ‘if you think Foucault is spatial you have to read Lefebvre.’

The key work on space is Lefebvre’s The Production of Space translated into English in 1991, seventeen years after its first publication in French. It is not an easy text to get through and I relied a good deal on Soja’s interpretations. The main contribution is his development of space into three categories; physical, mental and lived. These are shorthand categories extracted from his more elusive labels spatial practices, representations of space and representational spaces. And to be honest the shorthand labels are not very precise translations. In short, physical space is what architects are generally concerned with, space as a thing manipulated, organised, and portioned to become useful in some way. Mental space refers to the ways in which we think about and conceptualise space such as infinite space, abstract space, gridded space, and so on. Lived space is the space as practiced, lived by its users and inhabitants. More important than the precise or correct interpretation of the categories is the way in which these different dimensions interrelate and affect each other. The main lesson for me was to see that physical space was always in relation to the other categories. In fact, what is critically important is that these aspects of space are not easily separated from each other. And it is this inextricability that reminds one that we should always question the way we have conceptualised space in the first instance while we pretend to focus on space as a physical material that we manipulate.

Overlaid on this is the realisation that space (along with its conceptualisation and lived aspects) is historically determined and therefore something that has not remained constant or fixed. For someone trained in the formalist tradition (seeing the space of the Parthenon or St. Peter’s in the same abstracted manner as one might look at the space of the Villa Savoye) this was a challenge. Lefebvre’s text was a critique of this historical flattening of space but rather than seeing this as a negation of the role of space in the development of the history of architecture, it actually strengthens it. What changes is one’s understanding of how space was thought, how it operated and how it was perceived and lived. And this only adds richness to the one understands architectural history.

His second key concept was that of the everyday. Superficially, this can be seen as a focus on the lived aspect of space, the ways in which our routines, rituals and habits both derive and simultaneously create our spaces. The aspect of Lefebvre’s ideas on the everyday which has most resonated with me has to do with his diagnosis of its emergence – or rather, how the everyday became something invisible or of lesser value than the extraordinary. While I have been engaging with this text for over twenty years the analysis has only become more potent with the emergence of reality TV, binge culture, adventure holidays, extreme sports, Twitter and Instagram to name but just a few ways in which the extraordinary has eclipsed the everyday. To be clear, what is disappearing or being denigrated is the idea that the more mundane aspects of our lives (cooking a meal, playing with our children, reading a book, going for a stroll, having a conversation, etc.) are no longer places where we construct the meaningful aspects of our lives. Instead the pursuit of the Warholian ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ has become the dominant means by which we construct our individuality, our sense of self, our identity. A meal is not significant unless it is Instagrammed, preferably with a retro filter to lend it some aura. In the realm of architecture it’s not difficult to see how the pursuit of the extraordinary fuels the iconology of buildings at the expense of how its spaces respond, enable and support everyday life.

It’s worth pulling out two different ways of reading what Lefebvre has to say about the everyday. One the one hand he is critical of modernity and the way in which it carves our lives into bureaucratic and rationalised pieces that make its commodification easier. We buy packaged holidays, leisure is contained within the structure of the workweek and the weekend, holidays are parcelled out and codified in employment contracts, we buy lifestyle magazines to improve our homes, and so on. For Lefebvre, modernity is part of the process of emptying the everyday of its potential for spontaneity and meaning. But on the other hand, his analysis reminds us that everyday life is everywhere and that it cuts across the rationalised spheres we have constructed. We negotiate our way through contemporary bureaucracy with our personal routines, habits and rituals. And for architecture this offers a way to consider space and the design of buildings in a way that can resist the constant pressure to separate, label and commodify the messy fluidity of our lives.

Like his work on space, his writings on the everyday will not tell us how to design but it can change the way we think about what designs are for, how they might work, and how they can be absorbed into the fabric of lived and everyday life. It raises the possibility of producing architecture in which meaning can be constructed rather than represented.



“You can examine a poem as a ‘structure’ while still treating each of its items as more or less meaningful in itself. Perhaps the poem contains one image about the sun and another about the moon, and you are interested in how these two images fit together to form a structure. But you become a card-carrying structuralist only when you claim that the meaning of each image is wholly a matter of its relation to the other. The images do not have a ‘substantial’ meaning, only a ‘relational’ one.”

Terry Eagleton

I don’t want to spend too much time trying to define what structuralism is for those that don’t know. I’m certain Wikipedia does a decent job. But it’s worth noting that it is no longer a commonly used or valued theory. As Eagleton suggests, it is primarily concerned with the structure of things. Its founder, Fernand de Saussure (1857-1913), has since come under a lot of fire, along with the structuralism itself. It is claimed it is hermetic, overly scientific, that it doesn’t account for history, that it is overly concerned with form, and so on. A lot of the criticism is fair, except it is characteristic of lazy and poor uses of structuralism, and less accurate with respect to Saussure’s development of the theory. Architects tried to turn structuralism into a design method, when its roots – in linguistics – were to describe and define. That is, it was an analytical device not a creative one. That’s the first point I’d like to make about structuralism. The other is that a good deal of its misuse came from people who never bothered to read Saussure. For example, he doesn’t ignore history; he is quite clear that it an axis of knowledge that is perpendicular to structure. That is, history is concerned with change over time whereas structure is interested in how parts relate at any given moment.

So what is so interesting about this theory? For me it has been the emphasis on relationships – that is, not so much on parts and/or their origin, but on how various parts are relationally structured and to what extend this generates a context for meaning. Put in architectural terms, form and space, if understood as something you experience (move through, use, absorb), can only be appreciated as a set or series of relationships. For example, solid to void, movement versus pause, open versus closed, heavy versus light. Now here we have one of the problems with structuralism in that it often sorts the world into a series of polar opposites. But this is not necessarily a given characteristic of the theory. When Saussure says that ‘dog’ has the potential for meaning because it is different from ‘cat’ it is also simultaneously different from ‘dot’ and ‘cog’ not to mention ‘asparagus’. Similarly, a wall is related simultaneously to the space in front and the space behind and any other elements surrounding it (another wall, opening, column). Yet, the fact that structuralists have tended to analyse the world in terms of binary opposites has been enough for some to dismiss the whole enterprise, lock stock and barrel. Seeing the world ONLY as a series of binary oppositions is problematic, to say the least, but seeing the world as containing binary oppositions is perfectly legitimate.

Although another critique suggests that structuralism separates the object of analysis from the world its emphasis on relational structure means I never look at a work of architecture on its own. No matter how iconic and unique a piece of architecture sits in relation to its surrounding context, and in fact, it is this way of looking at it that exposes the weaknesses of iconic architecture. But we can take the relational analysis further. A particular work can have structural relationships to its predecessors, that is, to a historical context. I need not stop at looking at the work as a physical thing either – I can look at the structural relationships of use or occupation or of the rhythms of practice in space. The important thing to keep in mind is that it is one way of looking at the world – a rather incisive one, but only one.

I said at the outset that structuralism doesn’t have much active currency today, supposedly because things like post-structuralism and deconstruction have superseded it. The idea that theories ‘replace’ one another in chronological succession, however, is suspect. Structuralism has its problems, as does phenomenology, but it doesn’t stop one from learning about your object of inquiry by looking at it from a particular perspective. What is the point of looking at a calendar and deciding that because one came after the previous one is now useless? Yet this is largely the reason for the lack of interest or understanding of structuralism. It is passé, its time has passed, and it has expired, gone sour. I believe that the current lack of understanding of, or interest in, architecture as a spatial discipline and as one which is concerned with dynamic relational issues is due to popularity of theories limited to those which are newest. The emphasis on materiality and technical experimentation of surfaces has largely taken us back to a way of seeing architecture as merely and exclusively symbolic. And overly relativistic interpretations too often end up saying that architecture (and film, art, culture, society, subjects and objects) is fluid, ever-changing, fragmented, and relational. To what effect and for what purpose is of no interest. Note I’ve used the term ‘relational’ just now – but this is in the sense that one says ‘everything is dynamically related to everything else and so there is no point in trying to make sense of it.’

In the hands of Roland Barthes structuralism became something that taught us that detergent advertisements were slippery, yes, but also ideological and one could unpick and describe some of the multiple meanings that images and words were carrying. Barthes never claimed such meanings were the ultimate or absolute ones, but his analysis of the structure of the advertisements were compelling because they revealed underlying structures. They were describable if not permanently fixable. In a lot of ways the way I use and think about structuralism sounds like what others call post-structuralism – but though they are related if also somewhat opposed in the world-views they engender, I never found post-structuralism satisfying. This is probably for the same reasons that structuralism itself fell out of favour; the lazy and sloppy misuse of its best ideas by too many critics, theorists and historians (not to mention architects). But even amongst its most talented advocates there was always a tendency to make things evaporate through post-structural analysis. Architecture becomes the fluid and constantly shifting sum of all its discourses (drawings, words, images, buildings, texts, experiences, memories). Yes, all of these are part of architecture, but they don’t all work in the same way all the time. There are moments when the physicality and thingness of a work of architecture has an impact and in which photographs and words and text have no bearing. Again, it is from Barthes that I learned to be very attentive to the detail, grain and texture of things, not because they contain truth or ultimate meaning but because there is content there. It does something.

For me structuralism simultaneously roots me in the real world while pushing me to see the invisible threads of the many relational vectors that pass through any object. It, in the least, provides me with the possibility of beginning to speak about things even if only to question the very words and ideas I am saying.

Other notes:

There is whole area of architectural semiotics and even a design school called ‘structuralism’. The first suffers a great deal from both a visual bias (what things look like rather than what they do) and a tendency to claim ‘absolutes’ (‘this is how it is’). The second is not without interest – there is much to admire in the work of Hertzberger, Candilis et.al., and others – but it’s easier for me to take it as a design approach that happens to share the same name. It is important to be attentive to the shifts in the theory when it moved from linguistics to anthropology to architecture. My interest and use of structuralism can be seen in my appreciation for Bois (see this) – for example, when he asks what it is that cubism does that no other previous art practice did before or when he does the same for de Stijl. This exemplifies both the relational approach and interest in specificity that I found valuable and illuminating. My understanding of structuralism also underlies my unease with the way subjectivity and unhinged notions of creativity are privileged today (see this) and are linked to my critical attitude towards interdisciplinarity (and this). It’s not a recipe and I don’t use it as a formula – Bois reflecting on Barthes death wrote: “I am indebted to him for what painters call ‘studio techniques.’ No, not a method, but a thousand practical formulations, which may eventually become ideas, but are general enough to address all contexts…”

Architectural Thought or the Theoretical Object

“What does it mean for a painter to think?” – this is the old question to which Hubert Damisch has returned in connection with the art of this [20th] century, and which he alone in France seems to take seriously. Not only what is the role of speculative thought for the painter at work? but above all what is the mode of thought of which painting is the stake? can one think in painting as one can dream in colour? and is there such a thing as pictorial thought that would differ from what Klee called “visual thought”?

Yve-Alain Bois


This is the source of my obsession with the idea of disciplinarity as opposed to inter- and multi-disciplinarity in architecture. While Damisch is not speaking about architecture he sees art, and painting in particular, to have a specificity that allows it to have its own particular mode of thought. That is, not a way of thinking about painting, but that painting itself is a way of thinking. I believe that architecture possesses its own specific mode even though it is so obviously related and connected to many other fields (physics, drawing, representation, economy, culture, writing, etc.). Although architecture as a practice works across a set of distinct fields not architectural in themselves – but merely incorporated in order to make it possible – it has a characteristic that parallels that of pictorial thought in painting. That characteristic is spatiality or what I often call spatial form. This is the spatial or three-dimensional organisation of form through which use is made possible but which also contains its own mode of thought. By ‘own mode of thought’ what I mean is that it is possible for architecture to construct ideas which are not directly translatable into words, texts, drawings, or photographs (to name a few representational systems). Because we can think through architecture (and here I refer to the thing, the building, out there and not its drawings or any other transcription) we are able to ‘say’ or invent ideas which are not possible in other media, just like there are things that can be done in painting that words, texts, and photographs cannot do.  Damisch refers to this as having the capacity to be a theoretical object – it (in this context, painting and architecture) can generate theory rather than be simply an object of theoretical inquiry, that is, something to which theory is applied.

I am helped along in this by Damisch’s own attempt to clarify this with respect to architecture in his essay ‘Against the Slope’ in which he proposes that Le Corbusier’s La Tourette is a theoretical object. It is a building from which theory emanates.

“…La Tourette [is] a theoretical object par excellence, a model of its kind, understood not only as an object that gives pause for thought and opens the way to reflection, but also as an object that, when examined more closely, itself secretes theory, or at least directs it, feeds it, informs it – in other words, secretly programs it.” (p.30)

I can no longer recall where I became aware of the difference between the pictorial or visual aspect of architecture and its spatial conditions – but Damisch refers to this as well:

“…it does not suffice to borrow from Le Corbusier, himself inspired by Choisy, the concept of promenade architectural to exhaust its phenomenology, which his not limited to visual effects along – meaning the optical effects of which the building is host.” (p.31)

Damisch is suggesting that there is something other than what it seen in architecture – literally ‘I see this and that happening in this building’ referring to what is transcribable to a photograph. Here, there is a danger of confusing this other something, this specific architectural thought, as metaphor. This is too easy and has been done exhaustively in architectural writing, history and theory. This other something is the experience of physical space which may include metaphorical allusions but is not constructed visually. Again Damisch:

“Wherever the lumpy raw concrete walls make the strongest demands on our attention, it is their tactile aspect, rather than their optical one, that does so. And from the stairs of the residential floors to the inclined ramps of the conduits, another kind of experience imposes itself that we might describe as kinaesthetic.” (p.47)

“…travelling through the place is not reduced to a promenade across an essentially visual space but occurs through the experience of walking.” (p.48)

This last statement sounds like we are speaking about phenomenology – and that is nothing new. But architectural phenomenology is too often visually biased when not seen as existing entirely in the mind, nearly independent of external effects. This is likely not what philosophical phenomenology is meant to do but nonetheless its architectural counterpart is not as nuanced. Instead, I suggest that the ‘kinaesthetic’ and ‘experience of walking’ is closer to the idea of the everyday. What the high priests of phenomenological architecture too often do is put material expression in your face – they aestheticise, amplify and broadcast the tactile and experiential. This results in a kind of monumentalisation or extraordinariness of experience which lifts it out of the everyday.

Why the everyday? Because it is about ‘that which falls below visibility’ and it makes us think about things beyond the visual. But also because the everyday, particularly in de Certeau’s terms, links rather than separates the subjective (and internal) with the objective (and external). From this point of view spatiality includes the act of walking, its timing, cadence and rhythm along with what is walked on, through and around. I have always thought that space and spatial experience constitutes what Michel Foucault called a discursive formation – but that is probably best left for another paper.* This view of spatiality is difficult to translate – and that is my point – it eludes drawing, photographs, and words. This does not mean we cannot talk about it or try to grapple with it in drawing. It would mean that the idea of drawing, its purpose, changes – for example, it would be drawing whose intention was not graphic, pictorial or compositional.

I have written elsewhere about the work of De Vylder Vinck Tallieu (DVVT)– their work exemplifies an approach that understands architecture as something more than its visual content and for this reason their drawings are unlike those of other published architects. I have, for many years, tried to pin this ‘architectural thought’ on form – that is, argued that it was a property of form. DVVT and Damisch’s essay, however, has brought the idea of construction (of being constructed) to this. It is not just form but how it is made (again, ‘made’ needs to be seen in both sense, conceived and physically assembled).

Finally, to close this short journey, I return to the issue of disciplinarity. I can sympathise with the desire to work with architecture and ________, but each instance of this seems to me to displace the opportunity to think through architecture and its spatiality. Instead, we decode, code, and re-code architecture through film, photography, philosophy, cybernetics, software architecture, scripts, and so on. Meanwhile, the art of architectural thinking, as demonstrated by projects like the Laurentian Library by Michelangelo or Le Corbusier’s La Tourette is slowly atrophying if not dying out altogether.  


*In my hypothesis statements consist of acts of walking, the structure of space, the forms that define the space, the rules of use of the space, and so on. Per Foucault, a discursive unity can be understood to include differences as well as similarities among individual statements.

Roland Barthes: Mythologies

mythologiesThis book has become such a classic that it is quite difficult to write about in a number of ways. For one, it has garnered so much attention and analysis that it is difficult to say anything new about it. From another point of view it may be seen as dated and surpassed by post-structuralist theory and so is considered by some to be passé. Yet, we still find many people misunderstanding language, form and meaning. The book is known in design circles but not always read or studied. In advertising it is a standard text, the starting point for understanding their discipline, even if they then move on to more sophisticated techniques and theories. The book is a collection of reprints of a series of monthly essays with a theoretical overview (Myth Today) tacked on to the end. I’ve taught the book fairly often – it’s an ideal book for this for many reasons. The essays are very short, most are two to three paperback sized pages long (only one exceeds this at 11 pages, still rather short). The essays can be read in at least two ways, as critiques of their subject matter and as examples of a theory at work (semiotics). Their length makes them easy to re-read and examine his arguments and theory step by step, sentence by sentence. They are amazingly efficient essays and they have to be given their size. The only way in which I think the book is dated is in some of their references, common in their day (the mid-1950s) but obscure today. Each essay untangles the structure of a piece of writing, advertisement, film or object to demonstrate how its specific form means more than its surface message contains. Essays can be taken individually or as a whole. As a whole it is interesting in that the idea that myth construction – hidden or smuggled meanings – exist not just in texts but in designed objects. The idea of things as signs goes beyond those things we might normally see as signs, like advertisements, and extend into objects not normally assumed to be part of a sign system. It is also interesting to see the range of meanings that can be constructed, from militaristic ideology (Soap-powders and detergents) to cultural myths (Steak and Chips) to rhetorical sleights of hand (Operation Margarine) to race (Myth Today).

From a design standpoint it was significant to learn that forms can mean something beyond their visual content – what they look like or evoke visually – but that it is also how things are structured that constructs and communicates meaning. Here I’ll stick with simpler understanding of the 1950s and 1960s and say ‘constructs’ rather than ‘situates’ or ‘suggests’ and also use the singular ‘meaning’ rather than ‘meanings’. We know that meaning doesn’t reside entirely in the form with a passive interpreter and we also know there are multiple meanings (interpretations) rather than author determined single meaning. We too often pick up on the postmodern twist to all this and mistake it for a structure-less fog of meaning and interpretation. There is something useful in understanding the underlying structure that Barthes reveals in his little book – more, I think it is essential. The more complex language and meaning models we have at our disposal (e.g. deconstruction) make no sense if you don’t understand the basics. The recent history of architecture has proven what happens when ‘new’ theory is ingested without proper understanding of context and background (e.g the deconstructivist architecture that architects are too embarrassed to refer to now).

Barthes book is important in this way – as an entry level text – but it is also important in that it shows that these operations that construct meaning cut across many disciplines (even if the mechanisms must change). It therefore becomes a simple way of starting to connect design with ideology, economy, politics, culture, and so on. It is, as I say, an entry level text that too many people entering the field of design, unfortunately, never read.


 I should say that this book was only the starting point, but maybe the most important starting point, for a journey into a whole set of other readings, not least of which were Barthes other wonderful books (Camera Lucida, Empire of Signs, The Eifel Tower). From here I could understand Eco, from there Derrida and Panofsky and on to Clement Greenberg, Alan Colquhoun, Hubert Damisch, Fredric Jameson and Henri Lefebvre, just to name a few. This is not to say that these authors are connected theoretically (some are) but that Barthes also taught me to read and to write (though that remains a struggle to this day).

On Form: Under the Shadow of Postmodernism

This year’s Brighton Festival features an installation ‘Under the Shadow of the Drone’ by James Bridle. The installation consists of a full scale outline of a drone, reminiscent of the chalk outlines of murder victims we used to see in crime and detective dramas. Below is an image of a previous installation and text accompanying the work in the Festival catalogue.

 In the Shadow of the Drone

“The unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, has become one of the most potent weapons of contemporary warfare. Remotely controlled by operators thousands of miles away, drones carry out aerial attacks which leave hundreds of people dead. They are one of the most controversial weapons of war, and Under the Shadow of the Drone makes them visible on our streets.”

“The stark marking out in an unexpected public space of a drone’s silhouette forces us to consider the implications of a drone attack on our own community. It raises questions about how military technology can obscure, conceal and distance us from the political and moral responsibility. It also continues the long tradition of artists bearing witness to events that governments and the military would prefer we did not see.”

I have not yet seen the installation in Brighton; however, while I find the issue and timing pertinent, the first thing that struck me was the relationship between the text and the installation. The work relies on being stumbled upon and perhaps being surprised at the scale and form of the drone seen in the context of a familiar urban surroundings. Yet, the idea that it ‘forces us to consider the implications of a drone attach on our own community’ is a stretch. It may lead some observers to do so but I cannot see how it is implicit in the work through its specific form and execution. This work, like much artistic production today, does not take form seriously enough. The ideas that underlie artworks today are perhaps more political and critical than they have ever been yet it seems that too often it is the words describing the art that does most of the work. One could argue that seeing the drone outline could lead one to think about this or that specific idea, but only in the sense that word association games can link any one thing to another. I see the installation and think ‘drone’, then ‘scary’, then ‘could it happen here?’ and so on. But I could also think, ‘drone’, then ‘dome’, then ‘Brighton Dome’, then ‘Brighton Drone’ and enjoy the word play for its own sake. Maybe this makes the work that much more meaningful – each of us starts from the installation and ends up somewhere different. But this is a now an all-too-common postmodern red herring. Anything, constructed or not, is the starting point for a set of subjective associations (think of a cloud). Clouds, however, are not art, but this drone installation is. Note that I am not disputing whether this is or isn’t art, but trying to understand how its form relates to the generation of meaning. If we buy the word association game, then anyone can make anything and it would all be of equal value. But if making something, particularly art, implies the forming of something, a construction, organisation, and putting into specific relationships forms, spaces, materials and viewpoints, then the specific form of a work is decisive. This does not mean that it says one thing and one thing only; it does mean that it sets up specific parameters and suggestions about where you take your imagination. The drone, for me, is as minimal as it can possibly be and therefore as open interpretively as it can possibly be. It constructs the loosest of possible relationships and it leaves the least amount of room for the form of the thing to add other meanings or values. About the only thing that I can think of that makes use of the specific form is the relationship between the outline and the idea of the chalk outline, relating one form of murder to another. It is possible that its precise position and orientation suggest other ideas – but by now I have become too distrustful of art to imagine it does (not at all because of this particular work but because of the general culture of art). I keep imagining what the work would look like if it were actually rendered like a shadow. How would we react stumbling across it then? Would we look upwards to see what cast it? Could the cast shadow relate to the position of the sun at a particular time of day? What would it mean at night? Anything I imagine about this work only reveals how limited it is as conceived and executed. But I could live with that if it weren’t for the text – perhaps it was not written by the artist and not his fault. But we have to accept that artworks live amongst the words they generate though critics, academics, scholars, the press and Sotheby’s.



“It raises questions about how military technology can obscure, conceal and distance us from the political and moral responsibility.”

No it doesn’t, it simply doesn’t. There is nothing in the way that the work is designed or executed that logically leads to such questions. If there is a link it is so weak and tenuous that if I stencilled the words ‘Drone Attack’ on the pavement I could lay claim to the same statement in exactly the same way. If such weak links are sufficient then it suggests that there is no real difference between the outline and the pair of words – any starting point can lead to any finishing point.


Consider this:

Disabled Parking

“This work compels us to consider the prejudices that disabled people face in everyday life.”


“This work raises questions about soldiers wounded in battle and the poor treatment they receive by their governments once they have returned home.”

Or maybe

“This installation addresses the relationship between man and machine and the emerging bionic world that awaits us with continuing technological infiltrations into the body.”

 We can think these things; there is nothing to stop us. But as a graphic or physical installation there is no inherent motivation that links the design and execution to such statements. When certain of Picasso’s forms suggest the curve of a woman’s body, a violin and a bottle all at the same time, these are not free associations but part of a deliberate context set up by the artist. If we wish to speak about challenges to how we perceive art suggested by the work of Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings this supported by the material, structure and composition of the work.

Picasso Reinhardt

This may sound like a return to the idea that meaning is determined by the author or the work itself, but that is not what is meant here. The fact that forms set up interpretative conditions and delimit field of exploration and thought does not mean that it controls what the viewer takes from the work. It also does not mean that unintended interpretations or meanings are not possible. The idea that meaning is either determined by the author/maker or that it resides in the observer is a false choice that simplifies the way meaning is constructed. If we accept that both parts, form and viewer, play a role then we should be able to ask questions about the conditions set up by the form, technique and execution of a work of art.

What I see at play in the Drone installation is a method whereby an idea or concept, rich in allusions and layers, is reduced to an iconographic presentation. The iconic presentation acts as a pointer to content that it does not actually contain – that is, the allusions and layers of meaning are not actually embodied in the work; it does not emanate from the work but from its supporting documents.

Brighton Drone Madeira Drive Geographica Imaginatins WordPress

Image from http://geographicalimaginations.com

All of this is not really meant as a critique of this particular work. There may a rich set of allusions and meanings that are directly suggested by, or emanating from, the drone installation. What is being critiqued here is the implication made by the text – that one can simply ascribe thoughts and meanings and that we are completely free in this regard. This has never been the role or purpose of art. If anything, artists have always strived to say something and to speak about something through their work. But the choice to do so through a visual medium has been because it can speak in a way that is unlike written or spoken language. Thoughts are not reducible to language. A visual medium has the capacity to transmit content that eludes language; it can step outside the linear transmission of thought and act of coding and decoding. Because of this it is sometimes able to be more precise than language or deliberately less precise. But like a language, you must understand the medium, be able to manipulate it, contort it, and use its rules and limits to your advantage. This means taking form-making seriously and makes form serious business.


Finally, my interest in form and the laziness with which it is treated lies in architecture. I use this particular installation because it is a conveniently clear demonstration of the problem. But imagine that most architecture today, as it is being taught and built is doing much of the same thing as contemporary art. Solutions are produced as iconographical exercises that bear no relation to place, use or inhabitation or form is simply a by-product of a process where meaning is said to reside in narratives, design processes or anywhere that is not the form itself. In both cases, close attention to, and care for, the physical thing as the place where body and building meet, where we meet the world physically and tactilely and in turn realise our own physicality, is avoided…and sometimes, I think, feared.

“…[T]he sort of individualism that scorns and fears connections with other people as threats to the self’s integrity, and the sort of collectivism that seeks to submerge the self in a social role, may be more appealing than the Marxian synthesis, because they are intellectually and emotionally so much easier.” Marshall Berman

Beatriz Colomina and the critic-architect.

“Greek legend insists that Daedalus was the first architect, but this is hardly the case: although he built the Cretan labyrinth, he never understood its structure. He could only escape, in fact, by flying out of its vortex. Instead, it may be argued that Ariadne achieved the first work of architecture, since it was she who gave Theseus the ball of thread by means of which he found his way out of the labyrinth after having killed the Minotaur.” Beatriz Colomina, ARCHITECTUREPRODUCTION, p.7

I’ve recently rediscovered this passage which comes from the second book of the Revisions study group – a group of academics and architects who met to discuss, debate and write about the changing nature of architectural theory and practice in the 1980s. The two books, Architecture Criticism Ideology and Architectureproduction, have fallen out of visibility but contain essays which are still benchmarks in the fields of architecture, politics and representation. This passage marks one of the earliest instances of a major shift in thinking about what constitutes architecture. The message is clear: the person who conceives or makes the building is not the architect, but rather the person who understands it, that is, the critic. It sounds outlandish when put so bluntly, but this idea is widespread, common and still extremely influential. Architecture has shifted from being about or focused around buildings to being writing itself, drawings, its representation or only in the mental and psychological experiences of the user or inhabitant, that is, it is anything but bricks, mortar, concrete, steel and glass; it is not walls, spaces, forms, sequences or anything so ‘banal’.

Architecture is very obviously a cultural product and as such it is useful to see how we speak about it and how that affects how we understand it. To see architecture as only the physical object detached of any cultural, social or political significance is reductive. But what has happened is that the object has been left far behind. If the thing, the building and its physical space, is of no importance then that lets architects off the hook. That might explain why this view has been embraced to such an extent. Architects do not make buildings; they construct critiques, enable events, and allow activities to emerge. And if such things do not work, you can always point the finger at the users for not making it happen.

Although extremely anecdotal I had heard long ago that the view that drawings and writing was architecture was propagated by critics and theorists who wanted to be architects but had no capacity for actual design. The solution was to redefine architecture in such a way that what you did was architecture. It’s far-fetched and maybe just a metaphor or vague quasi-psychoanalytic notion but then I think Colomina’s quote is also far-fetched. When I first read it, back in the early 90s, I went along with it because I believed that critical abilities and insight was crucial in making good architecture. So she wants to argue that Ariadne’s analytical take is an important aspect of doing architecture I think that’s fair. But it’s not what she is saying. The language is unequivocal in its denigration of the maker. But let’s dig into this legend a bit more – could it be just an accident that Daedalus conceived and made such a complex structure? It’s a bit disingenuous to think so. But even if Daedalus did not fully comprehend the complexity or meaning of the thing he made, this does not necessarily strip him of the title architect. The idea of the theorist-architect or critic-architect is a recent one. Manfredo Tafuri has argued that architects should just ‘do’ and ‘make’ and leave the historical and theoretical work to historians and theorists. This sounds a little too much perhaps, but the reason behind this is because of the way that architecture was turning into pictures of theory or critical sculpture rather than fully engaged socio-spatial objects.

I can’t say for certain that this specific quote or that this particular book was responsible for the shift in what architecture became. It is, however, very typical and indicative of the emerging discourse around the end of the 80s and early 90s. And, like many other statements and arguments along the same lines, it is deeply flawed.

Edit 21 February 2013

“The house, in a certain sense, is immaterial. That is, the house is not simply constructed as a material object from which certain views then become possible. The house is no more than a series of views choreographed for the visitor…”

Beatriz Colomina, Where are We? in Architecture and Cubism

Yet another example of the attempt to downplay, even deny, the physical existence of architecture. In this case she is speaking about the Villa Savoye, a project she has written about several times. What is wrong with accepting that the Villa Savoye actually exists as a physical things that takes up space in the world? And that it exists as a record of a series of concrete decisions taken about the brief, how one should move and what is seen? It is there, a material fact whose solids and opacities open up to allow the passage of individuals and which frame views. It quite easy enough to say that Savoye is primarily a house for choreographing views for visitors without insisting that there is no actual house there.

This critique of mine may seen utterly silly and pointless. You might counter: ‘Of course there is a building there, she doesn’t literally mean it doesn’t exist.’ I would agree. It is not that there is a serious assertion that things do not exist, it is that by continuously repeating it and shifting the emphasis to everything that is not material and physical (while simultaneously denigrating the physical) we stop asking questions about the role that the physical plays in architecture. We no longer see it as essential, necessary, certainly not of any importance. Yet, change any detail in Savoye and it ceases to be Savoye. Remove the cantilevers or regularise the irregular grid. Remove all the colour from the interior or change the materials, scale and grids of the various paving materials. Change the strip windows to more traditionally proportioned ones. Alter any of this and large swaths of what has been written about it falls away, is no longer true or relevant.

Architecture is a fascinating discipline because it can contain ideas and give rise to questions that have nothing to do with architecture. Architecture can be generated from concerns that ignore or downplay architectural interests. That is, it can be a theoretical or philosophical object, a mode of thought in itself. But what is it that contains those ideas? What provokes the questions? A thing, a building, a space and a configuration. And if it is able to evoke or ‘speak’ of such complex things then it’s physical ‘factness’ and the specific relationships and organisations made among all its elements cannot be irrelevant.