Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Forgetting Belfast

This was originally published in the December 2012 issue of 'The Ulster Folk.' This is a highly edited version of a previous blog post, found here.

Northern Ireland is booming. ‘Our time, our place’ screams the slogan from every billboard, television and radio, not only across the province but also the UK and Ireland (a Dubliner recently told me he’s sick of hearing it). My question is who exactly is the ‘us’ of this slogan. Who’s time? Who’s place? The motivation behind redevelopments such as Victoria Square and Titanic Quarter along with future proposals such as Royal Exchange and the new University of Ulster appears to be either tourism or big business, the citizens of Belfast apparently not taken into account.

Belfast has never fully recovered from the conflict, still reading as a cultural waste-ground, and the current bout of redevelopment and investment doesn’t seem to be helping. But how did Belfast become a cultural void; forty years of ‘The Troubles’? A cursory look at the history of planning decisions in Belfast reveals it hasn’t all been caused by terrorism.

In the early 1960s Belfast was experiencing significant growth leading to a strained transport network. The Belfast Corporation developed a series of large-scale planning proposals including a massive urban motorway encircling the city core and a new urban masterplan. The timing of these plans corresponded with the beginning of ‘The Troubles,’ the explosion of violence resulting in a sharp decline in Belfast’s population and essentially rendering the proposals irrelevant.

Thanks to ongoing resistance from residents coupled with the escalation of violence the majority of these plans were shelved. However, a significant amount of the ‘slum clearance’ went ahead, as did phase one of the motorway; albeit in the altered sunken version of ‘The Westlink.’ These measures were enough to significantly blight inner north and west Belfast to this day, which a suspicious person may suggest was the intention of the plans in the first place in order to fragment these ‘troublesome communities.’

At the same time, due to co-ordinated paramilitary violence against businesses in the city, the infamous ‘ring of steel’ began to take shape around the city core. Beginning with informal military checkpoints on major routes, security measures intensified over the 1980s to the point where citizens who wanted to access central Belfast were made to queue up to pass through turnstyles in ten foot high steel walls, only being granted access once they had been frisked by military personnel. This led to a negation of ownership with regards to the city. The city centre was owned by someone else, be they military or paramilitary.
This removal of people from the city centre has created the cultural vacuum that is Belfast city centre today. The physical conflict has gradually died out since the ceasefires of the early 1990s, causing politicians to hail the success of the ‘peace process.’ The neutrality of the city centre, sterilised so as not to scare off investors, along with the segregation of inner city neighborhoods suggests that the conflict is far from gone.

In Belfast we are proud of our past, particularly with regards to shipbuilding and linen, yet the city centre is totally devoid of any official memorials or markers for the appalling atrocities committed in the past forty years. Oxford Street bus station, a building that became synonymous with ‘Bloody Friday,’ has been scoured from the street and replaced with an office complex. The gruesome descriptions from eyewitnesses on the ground that day are comparable to reports coming out of Kosovo and Syria in recent years. Yet this traumatic event goes unmarked, consisting only of individual memory and official documents.
A culturally empty urban centre is but a small problem, however, when we consider the memorials and plaques outside the city centre; each community choosing to memorialise specific events within their own areas. This causes misremembered and editorialised versions of these events to be passed down the generations, reinforcing the ‘us and them’ tradition. Local urban geographer Peter Shirlow describes this as “The criminilisation of the ‘other’ community and the failure to recognise suffering was endured within both communities...”

What we need is a meaningfully cultural city centre that goes beyond gaudy tourist attractions, glass shopping centres and the halcyon days of linen and shipbuilding and begins to speak of what we’ve been through, confronting us with how awful it was in our day to day civic engagements. This will enable us to move forwards and mark off how far we’ve come.

More than this, it will allow us to reclaim the city before someone else does.

Monday, 28 January 2013

Laganside - Belfast Sonic Poetry App

This article was published initially on the PLACE blog and then in the December 2012 edition of 'The Ulster Folk.'
It seems all too easy to criticise Belfast’s tired looking Langanside development, perhaps this is because it’s all too easy to forget how bad the post-industrial wasteland the banks of the Lagan were in the late eighties. It’s also easy to forget how incredible the aspirations of the Laganside Corporation were, given that it formed almost a decade before the Good Friday Agreement.

A new smartphone app called ‘Laganside’ highlights this dichotomy, enabling users to engage with this at times forsaken area; an area where Belfast’s aspirations, past, present and future, are made flesh. Developed by PhD music student John D’Arcy, the app was  launched on Culture Night 2012.

Taking on and surpassing the recent sonic arts trend in “digitised relational maps using embedded media,” ‘Laganside’ makes use of the contemporary epic poem of the same name, with a great reading by voice over artist Patrick FitzSymons. D’Arcy explains the reasons for choosing this particular piece by Belfast poet Alan Gillis. “Laganside doesn’t name particular places, but you know where he’s talking about, or you think you know and make your own connections based on your experience of Belfast, your personal history of it.” The app makes the academic fields of the sonic arts and poetry immediate and accessible, allowing the user to bridge the gap between the text and the space to which it refers.

The app’s unique design, by visual artist Gerard Carson, makes use of the smart phone’s ‘geo-location’ ability to track the user’s position along a three mile walk hugging the river. As the user approaches specific areas ‘soundscapes’ are triggered. A flurry of distorted music, sound effects and barely audible voices heightens the experience and lends further weight to both poem and locale. “The poem remains the same,” John explains, “but depending on your location your experience of it differs.” There are a number of other poems which can only be ‘collected’ by visiting locations along the route, something which should lend the app longevity, and perhaps suggesting that further routes could be added in the future.

The first soundscape I experienced was located at a platform jutting out into the river immediately behind the Waterfront Hall. As I ascended the short ramp to the platform a frenzy of noise overwhelmed me and the previously jovial voice in my ear took on a sinister air. I stood overlooking the river; several seagulls lined up along the steel balustrade eyed me resentfully before one by one taking off toward the lough; a train glided gently over the water; the city loomed behind. I felt consumed by sound, the  rhythm of the verse and my environment.

The meandering cadence of the poem, which describes a man’s walk along the regenerated riverfront with his ‘better half,’ gradually builds towards an understated yet profound climax. “Leaving me to find our way back to the streets, knowing I’ll never leave here, or come back again.” Fighting back the lump in my throat, the words resonated so strongly. From the grit and filth of the late eighties Belfast has surpassed itself, moving so fast the city is at times hard to recognise. The Laganside area is the embodiment of Belfast’s decline and regeneration; a city which never fails to impress and disappoint in equal measure.

‘Laganside - Belfast Sonic Poetry App’ is available for free on iTunes for iOS and Google Play for Android. Visit for information on the app or for other projects by John D'Arcy.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Critical Writing Part 2 of 2 - Belfast of New

The following was written as part of a critical writing workshop held at PLACE, run by art and architecture critic Marianne O'Kane Boal. This is a critical article on the new MAC theatre, meant as a companion piece to a critique of St George's Church, found here.

I remember watching the MAC being constructed from the architecture studio of the neighbouring University of Ulster. I distinctly recall the surface of my black coffee shimmering as the building’s piles were driven down into the sleech upon which most of central Belfast rests. I later remember observing the jutting cast concrete forms and, comparing them to the drawings and renders of the building, thinking ‘too complicated, too much going on, too busy.’ In retrospect I see I was becoming ‘Architect,’ and ‘Architect’ could always do better, ‘Architect’ is always cynical.

Now the MAC is open I am a regular visitor; be it for coffee with friends, visiting an exhibition in the galleries or informal tutorials and meetings as part of my research. It’s a building I make use of regularly, all of my initial reservations being erased by the elemental act of utility. In mid January 2013 I was lucky enough to be part of a group to receive a guided tour of the building by project-architect and associate of Hall McKnight (previously Hackett & Hall) architects Nigel Murray. This gave me opportunity to sort through my contradicting thoughts.

The new MAC (Metropolitan Arts Centre) replaces an older Georgian building referred to as the OMAC (Old Museum Arts Centre), updating the slightly beleaguered building while significantly expanding the theatre’s capacity as well as relocating to the Cathedral Quarter; Belfast’s greatest hope for a vibrant, bohemian district. The building’s brief fills a definite gap in the city, providing an alternative theatre space to the formality of the Grand Opera House, acting as a companion piece both architecturally and programmatically to affluent South Belfast’s Lyric theatre in not-so-affluent North Belfast.

The MAC is a hopeful building.

The theatre/galley, which completes the fourth edge of the much derided St Anne’s Square, has two entrances. The red brick mass which faces the university (in anticipation of a future adjoining development) wraps round the corner and steps back at a right-angle, inviting pedestrians of Exchange Street into the building. Facing St Anne’s Square, a black basalt mass gives way to a sliding glass door, enhancing rather than shaming the previously odd and uncomfortable plastic classicism of the plaza. Both entrances lead to a broad public concourse, providing an alternative, and arguably preferable, route through the square.

The MAC is a public building.

The building is comprised of three forms; the imposing block of the main theatre and ‘Upper Gallery,’ the floating wedge of the smaller theatre and ‘Tall Gallery,’ and the residual space caught between the two which forms the public concourse. It was this third space which concerned me the most when gazing out from the University or pouring over the drawings and images made available online. The space seemed too awkward, the angles too severe; a space already complicated by the difficult site further abstracted by the positioning of the two hulking forms. Ironically, this is the part of the building that, for me, works the best. The vaulting brick piers and long, high windows lend a vaguely religious aspect to the building. The subtle material changes, from bare concrete, slick terrazzo, warm wood of an almost burnt hue, suggest but don’t prescribe journeys and activities. The seating areas feel like intimate retreats from the bustle and business of the cafe and box office; a range of booths allowing you to step away for a moment while the low ceiling height of the open-seating area offers a sense of enclosure.

The MAC is an intimate building.

As we wind our way upwards, the obtuse angles become quite disorientating. We walk up the main stair, across a landing overlooking the bar and up a more intimate set of steps and for a moment I feel lost. This feeling, however, is never unpleasant. As our journey ribbons through the building the building wraps around us. We enter the tall gallery and all feeling of disorientation is exploded as we are confronted with a huge picture window. Where another designer would have centered this window on the squat yet majestic bulk of St Anne’s Cathedral, Hackett & Hall invite us to look beyond it. The church features on the periphery of a magnificent view of the city itself.

The MAC is a civic building.

The rest of our tour reinforces these initial impressions. Stepping out from the dark warmth of the main 350 seat theatre, a large window reconnects you with the square. Ascending the stair you note the feeling of warm leather under your palm, enclosing the industrial handrails. The confusing warren of corridors connecting the teaching spaces, offices and dance studios are relieved by occasional, sometimes tantalising views of the city or neighbouring buildings. These dichotomies, public - private, warm - cold, light - dark, lost - found, all brought forth by the difficult site and complicated brief, are reconciled harmoniously within this envelope; achieved by the delicate balance of spatial requirements, careful consideration of thresholds and impeccable detailing.

The MAC is a complex building.

Critical Writing Part 1 of 2 - Belfast of Old

The following was written as part of a critical writing workshop held at PLACE, run by art and architecture critic Marianne O'Kane Boal. This is a critical article on the listed St Georges Church, meant as a companion piece to a critique of the MAC, found here.

Sometimes I get a peculiar feeling when I walk down High Street. I imagine the Farset bubbling away beneath my feet from it’s source high up in the Black Mountain, now demeaned to flowing through a sewer pipe to join the Lagan. I imagine the broad avenue as it would have been; a dirt track running along the south bank of the stream connecting the motte and bailey of Belfast’s original castle and the ‘Chapel of the Ford’ situated at the sandbank formed by the confluence of the Farset, the Blackstaff and the Lagan, giving Belfast it’s name.
Map of Belfast in 1300 (showing Castle and Chapel)
compared with 2008 map
The peculiar feeling intensifies standing in front of St Georges Church at the top of High Street, at what would have been the site of the original Chapel. The city of Belfast is around four hundred years old; there has been a place of worship on this site for over seven hundred.

The original building was demolished in the late 18th century after a checkered and colourful history, from becoming the choice of church for town officials to being used as a Cromwellian stockade, and the current building’s foundation stone was laid in the early 19th century when the newly constructed St Anne’s church was deemed too small. Despite this lively past, the church itself is a tranquil oasis from the traffic-heavy junction of High Street and Victoria Street. Set back from the road, I would assume the building goes largely unnoticed most pedestrians (and certainly motorists). The church is designed in the classical style popular in the early 19th century and was originally intended to be a simple rectangular plan with a slightly curved facade at the entrance, perhaps looking similar to the First Presbyterian Church in Rosemary Street. However, the entrance was further enhanced by the introduction of the portico, acquired from the house of the Bishop of Derry, in Ballyscullion, after the Bishop’s death. This lends the building a much more grandiose air, an imposing and proud presence on Belfast’s oldest thoroughfare.

Stepping through the front door, the visitor finds themselves in an octagonal porch full of the periphery of worship, stacks of hymnals, prayer cushions, boxes of candles, etc; reminding the architectural tourist that this is still an operating Anglican church. Flanked on either side by winding staircases leading to the gallery the porch also acts as a final threshold between the city and the sanctuary of the nave. Stepping through the double doors into the space of worship beyond is a significant act. ‘The silence is deafening,’ goes the cliche. The total absence of the incessant sounds of urbanity is at first disconcerting.

As I walked up the centre of the nave my footsteps felt incredibly conspicuous. I settled into one of the timber pews and allowed myself to relax. Only then could I begin to observe the interior without that feeling unease. The nave itself a simple rectangular plan surrounded by squat, round-headed stained glass windows. A U-shaped gallery, supported on columns with ornate composite corinthian heads painted gold. Tall upper windows left unstained allowing bright natural light to flood the space, also allowing glimpses of sky (and the occasion modern apartment block). The room is lined with timber pews, all pointing toward a grand, and rather fussy, chancel.

The Victorian chancel almost stands in direct opposition to the clean, classical Georgian nave, almost demanding your attention. Adorned with paintings dating from the early 19th and 20th centuries and paying host to a grand pipe organ, the space is dominated by a full height stained glass window, enhancing the exuberant decoration and giving everything a slightly ethereal glow. This makes the space seem like an add-on to the simplicity of the
nave and the styles seem to clash nosily, once the urban visitor's ears have got use to the silence.

Walking around the nave, the engaged visitor will once again be put in direct contact with the very roots of Belfast as a city. A number of memorial plaques flank the chancel, the newest dating from 1938, the oldest being 1856. This oldest plaque is a memorial to Sir Henry Pottinger, who’s family played a prominent role in the establishment and development of the city of Belfast. Again, walking in the churchyard and examining the scattering of headstones, one gets an acute sense of the church’s embedded nature in the history of Belfast. While all relatively new when compared with the church building itself, the earliest one I could see was dated 1968. This year will resonate with a few as the year the idea of the ‘Westlink’ was conceived, and many others as they year the most recent incarnation of ‘The Troubles’ began; two events which have fundamentally defined the contemporary city of Belfast.

Despite it’s hotchpotch nature, an inevitability given the age of the building, St George’s Church is not only an important piece of architecture but is firmly embedded in the urban history of Belfast. It’s history is Belfast’s history, something which sends a chill down this otherwise level-headed architect’s spine.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

To Belfast - Alan Gillis

I happened across the following poem which sails scarily close to the application of my theoretical model to the city of Belfast, published in 2004. My entire PhD project summed up in four succinct, profound and distinctly Northern Irish verses.

To Belfast

May your bulletproof knickers drop like rain
and your church-spires attain a higher state of grace.
My lily-of-the-valley, the time is at hand
to ring your bells and uproot your cellulose stem.
I bought hardware, software, and binoculars to trace
your ways of taking the eyes from my head.

And none of it worked. We've been coming to a head
for too long; aircraft prick the veins of your rain-
bow as they shoot you in soft focus to trace
the tramlines of your cellulite skin. But with the grace
of a diva on a crackling screen, you never stem
to their cameras, you're forever getting out of hand.

Once in school, on a greaseproof page, we had to trace
the busts and booms of your body, and I was ashamed to hand
mine in because it lacked what Da called grace.
And I wish I was the centre of a rain-
drop that's falling on your head, the key to your hand-
cuffs, the drug that could re-conjugate your head.

For Belfast, if you'd be a Hollywood film, then I'd be Grace
Kelly on my way to Monaco, to pluck the stem
of a maybell with its rows of empty shells, its head
of one hundred blinded eyes. I would finger your trace
in that other city's face, and bite its free hand
as it fed me, or tried to soothe the stinging of your rain.

Alan Gillis - taken from 'Somebody, Somewhere' (2004)

Friday, 18 January 2013

The Model To Date - Part 2 of 2

What about other people?

We are social beings and most of what we do, and particularly architecture, is for and with other people. Therefore, formulating a model of an individual’s experience in the world must take into account the interface with fellow sentient beings.

My own particular route into this topic is through Karl Marx, and in particular the opening section of Capital Volume 1. Here, Marx explains his concept of commodities which are key to Capital as expounded in it’s opening sentence. “The wealth of societies in which a capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an ‘immense collection of commodities." He goes on to describe them as “an external object, a thing which through it’s qualities satisfies human needs of whatever kind.”

While Marx explains this term purely as a way of explaining how money and capitalist society operates there is a broader philosophical application, and I believe it is key to understanding how these internal phenomena become communicated to fellow human beings. Commodities, as Marx describes them, are comprised of three main properties. These are value, use-value and exchange value. Value suggests that all commodities are the products of human labour; use-values suggests that commodities satisfy a human need or want (which relates to Damasio’s homeostatic tree); exchange values place the commodity in a relationship with other commodities in a similar way to the relational properties of phenomena in Heidegger’s model of ‘Dwelling.’ An object which is the product of human labour and a use-value (which Heidegger would refer to as a thing) is not automatically a commodity. A commodity is rendered a social ‘thing’ by it’s exchange value, that is a “use-value for others, social use-values.”

While Marx was discussing exclusively the physical products of human labour, it is here that we can observe the commodification of the internal phenomena discussed by Heidegger and Damasio, although we need to redefine some of Marx’s terms. Value, defined by Marx as the products of human labour, can be redefined as the product of human physiological homeostasis. Use-value can be defined as the interpretation of action required to satisfy the value. Value plus use-value therefore equals a phenomena. Our ability to relate this phenomena to another human being in a way that they can relate to one of their own internal phenomena allows the phenomena to become commodified.

For example, a delicate chemical change in my blood triggers a series of related reactions throughout my body which is in turn translated as the need for sustenance. I then am able to tell my friend ‘I am hungry,’ and my friend understands this as she has experienced a chemical change within her body at one time which she has also translated as ‘the-need-for-sustenance.’ The internal phenomenon may feel entirely different for my friend, but I can never know as I cannot experience things from her perspective. The only thing I can understand is the agreed word for a phenomenon translated as ‘the-need-for-sustenance,’ that is ‘hunger.’

...and everybody else?

In this introduction to his seminal work ‘Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature,’ Richard Rorty describes culture as “an assemblage of claims to knowledge.” It appears to me this has a strong link to Marx’s opening sentence of Capital where he describes the wealth of societies consisting of “an immense collection of commodities.” We can equate the commodity-as-socialised-phenomena as a claim-to-knowledge, that is an understanding of what a phenomena means for us and the agreed socially accepted reaction or interpretation thereof.

This brings us to the work of Pierre Bourdieu, a sociologist heavily influenced by Marx. Bourdieu describes different social groups as ‘fields,’ which is another name for these assemblages of commodified claims to knowledge. Fields are fluid things, with individuals being able to take part in them, or not, as they wish. Each individual will partake of a host of fields at any one time. It is important to to note that, in a given context, it may be expected or ‘socially necessary’ (to borrow another of Marx’s terms) for an individual to partake in a particular field.

The commodified claims to knowledge within a field organise themselves into relational projects, much like Heidegger’s notion of dwelling. These projects, however, are Platonic. They do not exist in lived experience like Heidegger’s projects, but exist as a social script for how-things-should-be-done in a given context. Bourdieu refers to this collection of Platonic, commodified projects as the ‘Habitus.’

This pantheon of Platonic projects provides a ‘best practice’ which often gets caught up in moral and ethical judgements. The ‘best way’ becomes the ‘right way,’ and anybody who does it otherwise is viewed in a negative light. Performing in the ‘correct way’ within a Habitus bestows the actor with cultural or social capital, which, much like Marx’s description of capitalism, all subscribers of the Habitus are striving to achieve for both themselves and their Habitual construct. Different Habitual constructs will ascribe different values to particular cultural practices.

As we always fall back on the enlightenment model described earlier, the subscribers of a Habitus assume that their Habitual construct provides the objectively correct way to be. They will therefore promote and defend it with any alternative Habitus quite often being viewed as a threat or an affront. This is when political discourse comes into play, resulting  in either compromise or conflict.

What can also happen in this instance is that one Habitus can exert power over another Habitus, much like Marx’s description of class struggle, ensuring that the cultural values of the dominating Habitus are assumed, or have a direct effect on, the dominated Habitus. This does not remove the cultural values of the dominated Habitus, but ensures that their notion of cultural-capital is widely seen as inferior to the dominating cultural-capital.

In Summary

Value can be attributed to anything which stimulates the human senses; a product of human homeostasis.

Use-value can be attributed to anything that directs our action on the world; an awareness of a human want or need.

Phenomena possesses both value and use-value.

Projects comprise of linked together phenomena and are aimed toward the satisfaction of the identified want or need.

Exchange-value is a communicable use-value; something which identifies the want or need of more than one person.

Commodities possess value, use-vale and exchange-value. They are socialised phenomena.

Habitus is comprised of commodified sets of projects, the Platonic way-of-being of a collection of people achieved through an agreement reached using social discourse.

Cultural-capital is achieved by subscribers to a Habitus who perform or act within the Habitual guidelines in an exemplary fashion.

Political discourse occurs when two or more Habitual constructs occupy the same space enabling more than one way-of-being to exist simultaneously utilising conflict or compromise.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

The Model To Date - Part 1 of 2

The following was written before my 100 day viva in order to clarify things for myself. It is basically a more long-winded and detailed version of my viva presentation.

The problem with the Enlightenment...

Ever since the enlightenment our understanding of how we exist and act within the world has remained much the same. Cartesian coordinates, Newtonian physics and the mind-body dichotomy have defined the ‘commonsense’ paradigm amongst rational and logical human beings.

Post enlightenment thinking describes us being in the world much like any other object, with the exception that we possess that ‘something else’ that bestows us with sentience, that is a mind with the ability to perceive the world around us and allowing us to act appropriately. This ‘something else’ has been described in many ways including the religious concept of the soul, the ‘ghost in the machine,’ or Descartes’ notion of the pineal gland, ‘angel in the head’ or ‘animal spirits.’ When explaining his famous ‘I think therefore I am’ Descartes defined us a ‘thing which thinks.’ By this he does not mean that our body thinks but rather that the mind/soul/knowledge/understanding exists as a substance that lives within but is also separable from the substance of body.

This idea, referred to as Cartesian Dualism, has dominated science and philosophy ever since it was conceived in the 17th Century to the point where it seems intuitively true. The ‘stuff’ of the mind appears to be extremely different from the content of the world. Yet, on deeper examination this idea appears incomplete, relying on the pineal gland to process the input from our senses and produce this mind-substance, or on an ‘angel in the head’ to whisper to us the knowledge and meaning of the content of our senses. 

Enter Neuroscience

Neurologist Antonio Damasio attempted to refute this assumption in his book ‘Descartes’ Error’ (1994). Here, Damasio outlines his alternative take on the mind-body problem, using a series of examples of people with brain injuries or diseases to show how feelings and emotions are entirely dependent on body-state. 

Damasio’s model consists of three major points.
  1. The brain and the body consist of an indissociable organism, integrated by means of biochemical and neural circuits.
  2. The organism interacts with it’s environment as a whole, neither the body nor the brain has sole responsibility for this
  3. The mind is a process which occurs inside the organism, mental phenomena can only be understood in the context of the organism’s interaction with an environment.

The third point is the most important and the most profound. To use Damasio’s language ‘The physiological operations that we call mind are derived from the structural and functional ensemble.’ Damasio clarifies this in his third book ‘Looking For Spinoza’ (2003) where he outlines his ‘nesting principle' which relies on the analogy of the ‘homeostatic tree.’ At the trunk of the tree are basic metabolic processes and immune responses, things which rely on subtle chemical differences within our bodies such as digesting food or fighting off the cold. This then separates into branches containing basic pain and pleasure behaviours, or the reactions of approach and withdrawal from a situation or environment. Further up we get drives and motivations also referred to as appetites such as hunger, thirst, sex, etc. In the upper branches we get emotions, which Damasio separates into background emotions, primary emotions and finally social emotions.

As you can see, as we go up the tree the processes get more complex and nuanced. The simpler processes are nested within the more complex ones and all are dependent and affective on the others. Phenomena which occur within the environment have an affect on cells within the body (which can be separated out into our senses, although it is important to note that these are part of a linguistic game, more on this later) which cause a change in body state in the same way subtle chemical processes within the body have an affect on  body state. The components of the homeostatic tree create a map our body state letting us know how we’re getting on in the world. In this model the idea of separating the mind from the body becomes an absurdity.

Perceiving Reality

Cartesian Dualism, seen as the commonsense model, tells us that there are two clear worlds; external objective reality and internal subjective consciousness. The objective world of stuff exists outside us in the three dimensions of Cartesian coordinates and our internal consciousness perceives this through our senses and internalises it so we can make judgements about how to act in the world. Despite the myriad of possible responses of consciousness there exists a definitively objective and universal externality from which everyone’s subjectivity must derive. Reason and logic always refer to this externality whereas emotions and feelings reside within, inspired by our perception of objective reality.

Damasio fundamentally challenges this idea in ‘Descartes’ Error,’ suggesting that without emotion reason cannot come about, and in fact emotion is evolutionarily prior to reason. This is supported by the work of psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist in his book ‘The Master and his Emissary.’

Here, again using a large body of research conducted on people with brain disorders, McGilchrist resurrects the idea of the divided brain; a popularised way of describing modes of thinking as either logical or emotional, left-brain and right-brain thinking. Despite being widely exaggerated and seized by management training pseudo-science, the lateralisation of brain function reveals much about our interface with reality.

McGilchrist uses a range of language to describe the differences between these two modes of thinking, belying a complexity much greater than ‘reason versus emotion.’ The key part of McGilchrist’s model, at least for my own thesis, is that of the understanding of the whole against the understanding of the part, or abstraction against metaphor. Abstraction removes things from their context and examines them as a discrete and autonomous objects. Metaphor refers to contextualisation, looking at the whole picture of reality in a relational and interconnected fashion. 

McGilchrist describes two modes of thinking, “[One allows] things to be present to us in all their embodied particularity, with all their changeability and part of a whole which is forever in flux... The other was to step outside the flow of experience and ‘experience’ our experience in a special way: to re-present the world in a form that is less truthful, but apparently clearer, and therefore cast in a form which is more useful for manipulation of the world...explicit, abstracted, compartmentalised, static, lifeless.”

Relating back to Damasio’s statement that emotion precedes reason, McGilchrist proffers that metaphor precedes abstraction. Art, so often seen as a frivolous and expendable endeavor, is vital for our understanding and knowledge of the world around us. Reason and logic simply augments this feeling of the world, as McGilchrist suggests creating a re-presentation of the world, affording us a perceived ontological security that our feelings and emotions are correct or letting us know that they’re not and they need to be altered. From here we can therefore suggest that what we consider ‘objective reality’ is in fact a construct we create to shore up our own subjective understanding of the world, a fine-tuning device for our body-state map.

While the mind/body distinction remains useful linguistically, if we are to proceed with any kind of profound psychological or sociological model, we must abandon it as an analogy.

So if it doesn’t work like that, how does it work?

When describing Damasio’s model I suggested that things occur to us as affects on cells within the body, through what we refer to as the senses, which alter our map of our body state. Philosophy refers to these affects as phenomena, and indeed an entire branch of the field has flourished around this idea, the field of phenomenology.

Martin Heidegger makes a key distinction between ‘objects’ and ‘things,’ the key difference being that objects become things when we can ascribe particular phenomena to them and thus we understand them, or have knowledge of them, through their use. The idea that objects are known by way of their utilisation also entails that they can only be known through their relationship with other objects and phenomena, which in turn are connected to further objects and phenomena. A hammer relates to a nail which relates to a wall which relates to a picture frame which relates to an image which relates to a place which relates to happiness etc, etc. Sets of relationships are described as projects in that they contain projections of desired phenomena which will satisfy a want or need.

Our world, according to Heidegger, is therefore comprised of projects pointing toward a desired way of being. The deployment of these projects and the positioning of the objects contained therein is referred to as building. Building is not just the construction of a physical structure, but the positioning of objects to allow a mode of living directed at producing a specific pattern of phenomena, which Heidegger refers to as dwelling.

Here we can see McGilchrist’s model at work. We can break a project down into it’s discrete chunks and consider, for example, a hammer on it’s own. But behind this consideration lies an understanding of what a hammer is used for which invokes thoughts and memories of other discrete objects, for example nails, walls and picture frames. But in lived experience a hammer could just as easily be deployed for different projects. It could be used as a paperweight, doorstop or a weapon. The object itself does not define ‘thingness,’ but rather lived experience and utilisation.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

100 Day Presentation

This is my first attempt at Video Blogging. I thought some of the concepts and diagrams would benefit from genuine human intonation, as opposed to dry text. It's also an attempt for me to get over the hatred of my own voice.

This is the presentation I prepared for my 100 day viva, held on 11 Jan 2013, thankfully I passed. Feedback welcome!

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

A Research Proposal

I'm sure some of you have wondered what the hell most of what I discuss has to do with architecture or, or indeed how I can reconcile the architectural thinking with this nonsense. we go...

The following is a report on what I hope to accomplish. More in depth material to follow.

Introduction - Context

The question ‘What is Architecture’ has never really been adequately answered, at least not in the contemporary era. The answer ‘Architecture is a social art’ comes pretty close in my opinion. This phrase, however, raises yet more questions, asking us to delve into what the word ‘social’ really means. It was this line of thinking which lead me to write ‘The Destruction of Architecture’ as my MArch dissertation, bringing me into contact with the work of Martin Heidegger and the new field of Social Neuroscience.

This gathering of ideas has allowed me to interrogate my own feelings and intentions as a designer. Being able to interrogate the sociology of the client or prospective users of the design enables the production of a more precise design brief. Additionally, having an awareness of my  own attitudes towards a client or possible user allows me to adjust these feelings should they be unbalanced. 

It is my intention to develop these ideas into a cohesive multi-disciplinary model which can be used to critique acts-of-design. As it has enabled me to become more aware of my motivations and prejudices (latent or otherwise) I believe it could be used to investigate the motivations and prejudices of other designers. In short, I would like to develop a model of ‘reflexive design.’

When I began to expand the model I realised that the smaller the piece of deign the more nuanced it’s social properties. On the other hand, the larger the piece of design, and the more diverse social groups who use/interact with it, the more explicit the social effects should become. It was this, along with a pre-existing interest, which lead me to a critique of urban planning in the city of Belfast. 

As a city which can be perceived as divided, conciliated, ripe for regeneration, or a cultural battleground, Belfast is a city of multiple spatial interpretations and should therefore provide a fascinating testing ground for this new sociological model.

Methodology (Aims and Objectives)

Develop Model
The model is still in a relatively basic form. In order to develop it further I propose an extensive lit. review and interpretation of ideas. There is a significant amount of literature on sociology and philosophy and it’s application to architecture/urbanism, not to mention the emerging field of Social Neuroscience which few design theorists have considered.

Apply Model - Belfast’s Planning ‘Habitus’
Once the model has been further developed I then propose to investigate planning in Belfast. These issues have interested me for several years now, first being brought to my attention when taking part in the first Forum for Alternative Belfast summer school. It became clear to me then that Belfast’s urban and social problems haven’t all been caused by ‘The Troubles.’

The model could be used to interrogate the intentions of Belfast’s planners, both past and present. I propose a literature review on Belfast's planning history which could then be developed into a speculative ‘Reflexive history.’ I then propose to carry out a series of interviews and critiques of planning maps to delve into Belfast’s ‘Planning Habitus.’

Test Model - Belfast Urban Analysis
I should now be able to define a series of study areas based on planning decisions and intentions past and present. Once defined I can  select an ‘Alternative Habitus’ within these areas, one which is embedded in the lived experience of the area.

A methodology for interrogating this Habitus will need to be developed based upon the context of the Habitus itself. This mapping of the ‘Alternative Habitus’ can then be compared with the ‘Planning Habitus’ and conclusions can be drawn. I will then return to the theoretical model and appraise it based on these conclusions.

The Model So Far

This model is based upon the rejection of post-enlightenment metaphysics and the idea that the subjectivity of the mind conforms to the objectivity of reality. It suggests that we can never be said to know objective reality, but that we conform to a socialised interpretation of it. The following terms are key to the model.

Value can be attributed to anything which stimulates the human senses; a product of human homeostasis.

Use-value can be attributed to anything that directs our action on the world; an awareness of a human want or need.

Phenomena possesses both value and use-value.

Projects comprise of linked together phenomena and are aimed toward the satisfaction of the identified want or need.

Exchange-value is a communicable use-value; something which identifies the want or need of more than one person.

Commodities possess value, use-vale and exchange-value. They are socialised phenomena.

Habitus is comprised of commodified sets of projects, the Platonic way-of-being of a collection of people achieved through an agreement reached using social discourse.

Cultural-capital is achieved by subscribers to a Habitus who perform or act within the Habitual guidelines in an exemplary fashion.

Political discourse occurs when two or more Habitual constructs occupy the same space enabling more than one way-of-being to exist simultaneously utilising conflict or compromise.

Recent research into the philosophical underpinnings of mapping reinforces the reflexive model outlined above. Long regarded as the objective representation of space, the underlying philosophy and sociology of cartography has been challenged by the interdisciplinary field of social geography over the past decade and mapping is now acknowledged as being closely related to the metaphysical conception of space and territoriality.

Maps, in the traditional Cartesian view, are accurate representations of objective reality. To use Heidegger’s description of the enlightenment model, if our relationship with the world is similar to that of water being inside the glass then mapping attempts to describe the glass which contains us. However, using our reflexive model we can now describe the production of a map as the commodification of a spatial understanding. In the introduction to the volume ‘Mappings,’ Denis Cosgrove describes this as the move from an objective view of mapping to “an opaque view...which takes account of the selections, omissions, additions and inescapable contextual influences which shape the outcome of such transfers.”

Maps, then, can be described as a representation of the spatiality of the Habitus to which the cartographer acts as agent.

Mapping and Territory
One of the primary reasons for maps appears to be demarcation of territory, often achieved through an agreement resulting from political discourse between two or more Habitual constructs. Demarcation of territory also manifests as a dominant Habitus exerting power over another Habitus and enforcing a particular conception of spatiality. The mystification of mapping as an objective representation of space has meant that most of the time this enforcement goes unchallenged.

This territoriality, agreed or enforced, is then represented on the map. In the lived experience of the space, however, territoriality appears more fluid. Boundaries are often arranged around commodified elements of landscape which have a use-value and exchange-value related to material or strategic resources. These social and political values are rarely manifested in physical space. We may be able to perceive a hill, river or vein of precious metal, but unless we are privy to specific social, political or economic languages we cannot relate the physical world to the social construct of the boundary, and different Habitual constructs will imbue these elements with different values.

Mapping only refers to the politicisation of territory. This negotiation is carried out on a daily basis within the city as people, as agents of a given Habitus, build and dwell in the Heideggerian sense. Belfast, as a conflicted city, forces this more nuanced social discourse into political discourse manifesting itself in tribal symbolism to signify territories not represented on any official map of the city. This language of symbols can be viewed as a sort of 1:1 mapping of the city, a representation of the city overlaid onto the city itself.

This sectarian manifestation of territoriality is an extreme example, however. The city is awash with Habitual symbols and indicators. No one person is voiced in them all, but the languages are writ-large in the city fabric for those who can read them.

Mapping allows us to re-present (as opposed to represent) the city, but as active agents within the space of the city we are constantly doing this ourselves as we build and dwell as part of Habitual groups. The re-presentation of the city has as much an effect on the space as the space has on it.