Thursday, 22 November 2012

Turn Again - Ciaran Carson

Been trying to develop a phenomenological mapping style for Belfast when I encountered this piece by Ciaran Carson about mapping Belfast, handily enough. 

I've got a bit of a hill to climb.

Turn Again

There is a map of the city which shows the bridge that was
never built.
A map which shows the bridge that collapsed; the streets that
never existed.
Ireland's Entry, Elbow Lane, Weigh-House Lane, Back Lane,
Stone-Cutter's Entry -
Today's plan is already yesterday's - the streets that were there
are gone.
And the shape of the jails cannot be shown for security reasons.

The linen backing is falling apart - the Falls Road hangs by a
When someone asks me where I live, I remember where I
used to live.
Someone asks me for directions, and I think again. I turn into
A side-street to try to throw off my shadow, and history is

Ciaran Carson

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Dwelling and Habitus - Unifying the objective and subjective

The following paragraphs and diagrams are my first tentative steps toward a (hopefully) unified architectural sociology and a way forward into my research. The more I read about Pierre Bourdieu the more I see how I have misunderstood some of his terms (most notably that of 'the field') and unwittingly appropriated them for my own means. Now I am aware of this I can either embrace his definitions or accept them as a jumping off point for my own theorising.

The work of Heidegger has influenced architects since his work directly addressed architecture in the early 1950s. His description of subjectivity, I believe, is what has led to the nihilist stance of many of the postmodern designers of the 1970s and 80s. The ideas of ‘unplan’ and ‘equipotential space,’ while intriguing, have not helped us better understand how to design for a heterogenous society.

Sociologists have noted this trend within their own field, referring to this subjectivity as ‘reflexivity.’ Alternatively, sociologist Pierre Bourdieu developed the model of ‘Habitus’ to deal with how human beings subscribe to notions of collectivity and society. Recently, sociology has been attempting to deal with these two distinct models. It is becoming clear that a process of hybridisation is required to create a more complete, and ultimately more helpful, model of humans and society.

The individual’s (Dasein) world is comprised of projects which are made up of things, as distinguished from mere objects as they are defined and understood through use and their relationship to other things. These things are utilised by Dasein subjectively and of the moment, using them as she/he sees fit within a given project/context. Projects allow Dasein to shape his/her world, this shaping is referred to as ‘dwelling.’

The Habitus is a set of scripts (or habits) which are employed my Dasein as templates for projects. Dasein subscribes to several Habituses and as he/she goes about dwelling she/he will refer to the relevant Habitus to dwell in the ‘correct’ (efficient, moral, ethical) way. Habitus, then, can be said to be made up of a pantheon of Platonic projects we refer to as practices.

Dwelling and Habitus
On one hand there is the Habitus, a deterministic model of ‘how to act’; on the other hand there is Dwelling, a model of free-will and endless interpretation. Habitus is employed unconsciously and ensures that each new project encountered, Dasein has a precedent, a guide to doing things ‘correctly.’ Dwelling enables this model to be questioned, challenged and employed/adjusted creatively. Sociologists refer to this creative process as ‘reflexivity.’
Dwelling, Habitus and the Field
There is however, another factor to consider, that of the ‘field.’ The field refers to the external environment and the limits of possibility contained within it. Dasein has an ability to expand their world through reflexivity, however, this can only occur within the limits of the field. Reflexivity, therefore, is an ability to express a desire beyond the world as opposed to actually achieving it. 

Dwelling, Habitus, the Field and Power
Problems arise between different Habituses when two or more conflicting Habituses manifest themselves within the same spatiality. This will either lead to compromise or conflict. Conflict tends to create a sense of hubris and excessive defensiveness in each Habitus, causing the practices within it to become dogmas.

The constraints of the field will inevitably lead to one Habitus being able to control the field, or at least the position of individuals and other Habituses within the field, determining the reflexive mobility of others, usually to maintain their own status quo and increase their own power.

Dwelling, Habitus, the Field and Power in Belfast
I propose a mapping of the city centre examining the different Habituses at work. This would entail an initial mapping of the ‘obvious’ structures of Belfast; tribalism, memorialism, adjusted infrastructure, ‘gentrification’/’urban renaissance’ and demography. 

Using this as a tool and the social/mind model described above I hope to develop a more complex mapping of Belfast’s dominating and dominated Habituses and modes of dwelling to understand how they impact on each other, physical planning and life within the city.

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)

Thursday, 1 November 2012

The Cosmic Speculation of Charles Jencks

The following was published in RSUA perspective in May 2011.

The sense of panicked creativity and relentless production in the MArch studio of the University of Ulster took a break on the 10th of March 2011 as eminent architecture theoretician Charles Jencks offered the students a space for the contemplation of what we do as architects and of our position in the cosmos as human beings.

A guest of the Landscape Institute NI, Mr. Jencks visited the University as part of the Institute’s spring lecture series, but also spent the morning in the studio discussing several student projects and sharing his views on the field as he went.

During the discussions it became obvious that Mr. Jencks has a sixth sense for architectural discourse, incising projects in a way that exposes the lineage of the thoughts latent in a piece of architecture, certainly not employed knowingly by the student in question. One particular student was criticicsed for employing “nostalgic modernism,” an interesting contradiction whereby the atheistic, anti-aesthetic modernist movement becomes both dogmatic and an aesthetic in itself.

After several informal design reviews we were treated to a panel discussion chaired by Dr. Taina Rikala, who, like Mr. Jencks, studied under the great Reyner Banham. Dr Rikala touchingly began the discussion by producing one of Banham’s famous handkerchiefs, and her obvious friendship with Mr. Jencks led to an incredibly intimate and personal conversation. 

There was a poignant moment when the topic of the ‘Maggie’s Centres’ was raised. Mr. Jencks recalled the long commute with his wife Maggie for chemotherapy which sparked the idea of the internationally renowned cancer treatment facilities and described the story of the centers as a ‘story of friendships,’ where the great and the good of architecture pledged their time and talent with no promise of financial return.

Mr. Jencks’s evening lecture was dominated by his work as a landscape architect as opposed to the theorising he is perhaps more famous for. Beginning with his Garden of Cosmic Speculation in Dumfries, the designer described a landscape laden with symbolism relating to waveforms, fractals, particle physics, the locations of the planets and Scottish history. The story of the garden felt rather unconvincing, with much of the symbolism feeling rather clumsy and lacking subtlety. A similar design carried out for the site of CERN’s hadron collider in Geneva felt much more convincing, perhaps because it possesses a particular purpose and program, something which the Scottish garden appears to lack.

Returning to his discussion of theory, Mr. Jencks discussed the new paradigms created by theoretical science and the failure of scientific language to realise what these shifts entail for our understanding of ourselves. Illustrating this point, the final slide showed a computer generated image of the universe which Mr. Jencks had sketched on, connecting dots an highlighting patterns. He described this game as “examining a latent structure that may or may not exist. This is what society is, and this is what architecture tries to do.”

Andrew Molloy
Photos – Roy Fitzpatrick