Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Analysis of initial question

This diagram is an analysis of my initial question I devised for the PhD interview. It shows how complex the question truly is and how many fields, theories and concepts I would need to understand, define and reinterpret.

It needs cut down.

Click to enlarge

The following is my initial research proposal. This has now profoundly changed, although the basic intentions remain. It is included for the sake of completeness as I draw a veil over these ideas.

TITLE – The structure of spatial experience and the symbolic in Northern Ireland

As our understanding of objects shifts from that of 'things' (i.e. 'stuff' that takes up physical space) to that of subjective 'commodities' which form a shared socio-political language in constant flux, what impact might such an understanding have on the planning process driven by largely economic factors and the concept of a contextually definitive aesthetic?

The understanding of architecture as ‘creating buildings’ has become increasingly more complex in the last one hundred years and now encompasses individual and social concerns along with the traditional spatial concerns. The relatively new interdisciplinary field of environmental psychology has augmented the marriage of architectural theory, sociology and philosophy in re-evaluating the ‘common-sense’ models of human understanding and the individual's place within the wider context of society. Fresh findings in the field of neuroscience have highlighted the need for a shift from the appreciation of physical space to a more dynamic contextual understanding.

These basic misunderstandings in conjunction with the political success of the peace process in Northern Ireland and the international 'financial downturn' have meant that many inner-city neighbourhoods have been left behind. Areas such as the Lower Shankill and Newlodge in North Belfast, Ballysally in Coleraine and the Waterside in Derry read as socio-cultural vacuums, which become filled with the age old rivalries, hatreds and prejudices which the political rhetoric would have you believe are all but extinct. These areas are the results of sectarian violence born out of two opposing rational belief systems, both in a state of hubris, forced to occupy the same social space.

Despite what our politicians tell us areas such as these remain emergent features of our current politico-economic climate due to the failure to evolve larger inclusive social constructs resulting from the  internecine strife created by the division of social potential. The re-evaluation of our understanding 'context' (coupled with it's integration with the larger political systems) based upon the findings of the diverse disciplines mentioned above will hopefully prompt a new understanding of society allowing these urban areas to be acknowledged and understood rather than simply ignored.

Both my undergraduate and postgraduate dissertations carried the subtext of the inadequacy of the ‘battle of the styles’ with regards to gaining a universal and definitive architecture. My 6th year MArch dissertation is particularly relevant to these issues, examining ‘common sense’ attitudes to human understanding stemming from the inquiries of René Descartes. I went on to investigate the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, a philosopher who is often cited by architects but whose theories are yet to have a real impact on the profession, as well as the recent findings of neuroscience as a rejection of metaphysical attitudes to the human mind. This could be considered as preliminary work for this PhD research, adding the work of thinkers such as Richard Rorty (with regards to wider existential and philosophical inquiries), Ian McGilchrist and Antonio Damasio (with regards to the findings of neuroscience).

In 2009 I took part in the Forum for an Alternative Belfast (FAB) 'Filling Up Belfast' project. As the team leader for the Shankill group, I came face to face with Belfast's inner-city deprivation. Inspired by this, I made the Lower Shankill the focus of one of the projects during my MArch, putting me in touch with the Participation and the Practice of Rights project (PPRp), a charitable organisation centred upon giving inner-city neighbourhoods a voice with regards to planning issues and decisions often made without their consent or even consultation. I attended several fraught 'consultation meetings' arranged by PPRp between local residents and the DSD.

I worked with Dr Taina Rikala during the writing of my postgraduate thesis and believe that we had a positive and productive working relationship.

What has not been fully realised is the possible impact these new concerns and fresh approaches to cognition and the human body’s relationship with environment can have on the legislative frameworks relating to the built environment. The planning process still appears to be focused on large-scale political economic concerns which actively oppose individuality and identity (shared or otherwise) and an outdated model of a contextually definitive aesthetic which only takes into account physical context, excluding social and existential concerns. These legislative frameworks need to be radically reassessed to combine their current preoccupation with entirely spatial concerns with this dynamic evolutionary concept of society to consider 'context' as an emerging socio-spatial relationship.

These problems and their impact on a considerable swathe of the Northern Irish population become glaringly obvious in the inner-city neighbourhoods discussed above. I believe that the work of PPRp and FAB could form a strong foundation of practical research which will hopefully support the theoretical and philosophical aspects of my research proposal.

These issues have far reaching consequences for Architecture, but with respect to the proposed research in particular I believe that it could begin to shape a new pedagogy within the University of Ulster. If newly qualified architects begin to understand what they do as creating prototypes for future action, then this should have a profound affect the way in which they work, which will in turn impact positively upon our built environment. 

  • Churchland, Paul M. ‘The Engine Of Reason, The Seat Of The Soul’ (1996, MIT Press)
  • Damásio, António ‘Looking For Spinoza – Joy Sorrow And The Feeling Brain’ (2004, Vintage)
  • Heidegger, Martin ‘Being and Time’ (1962, Blackwell Publishing)
  • Heidegger, Martin ‘Poetry, Language, Thought’ (1975, Harper Colophon)
  • Hillier, Bill ‘The Social Logic of Space’ (1984, Cambridge University Press)
  • Rorty, Richard ‘Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature’ (2008, Princeton University Press)
  • Schrag, Calvin O.  ‘The Resources of Rationality’ (1992, Indiana University Press)
  • Snodgrass, Adrian & Coyne, Richard ‘Interpretation in Architecture – Design As A Way Of Thinking’ (2006, Routledge)
  • McGilchrist, Ian ‘The Master and his Emmissary (2010, Yale University Press)


  1. This is more a comment on your blog in general, rather than on this specific blog post: I think it is a great idea to create a blog going hand-in-hand with your PhD research. I will be following with interest. Keep it up!

    1. Thanks Anna!

      I find that after reading a load of journals and articles I forget where specific ideas come from. This is way of hopefully keeping track of this and stopping inadvertent plagiarism! It also means that I'm always trying to communicate ideas to an 'audience' rather than a private research journal where ideas go unchallenged.

      Thanks for the support!