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Archive for November 2011

Re-thinking Urban Space

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From: http://birmingham.academia.edu/HollyPrescott

Holly Prescott

Thesis Title: Re-thinking Urban Space in Contemporary British Writing

Handed in for first submission in September 2011, my AHRC-funded doctoral research focuses fundamentally around the relationships between affect, memory, narrative and spatial agency in the urban spaces featured in a cross-section of contemporary British literature.

The thesis starts from a critique of the Marxist historico-materialist spatial theory, like that of French philosopher Henri Lefebvre, widely adopted in literary studies to give ‘spatial readings’ of texts. I explore the limitations of such theory however, including its neglect of those spaces which lie outside of, have been obsolete by or experience an ambivalent relationship with dominant modes of production and social relation, and also the inability of such theory to entertain the notion that spaces might achieve their own agency, beyond their actualization through human action and appropriation.

As case studies, I elaborate these ideas by looking specifically at abandoned spaces, subterranean spaces and transient (hotel) spaces, investigating how the representation of such spaces allows authors to explore city-space in ways for which Lefebvre’s scheme cannot sufficiently account, such as in the transmission of affect between spaces and human subjects, in which the urban space becomes an agent and subject in its own right. I cover a range of novelists from the more acadmeically ‘popular’ such as Iain Sinclair, Ali Smith and Monica Ali, to those who have attracted very little previous critical attention, such as Nick Royle, Conrad Williams and Tobias Hill. Overall, my project draws attention to the issue of theory in ‘spatial readings’ of texts, asking that we carefully consider the context and relevance of a spatial theory like Lefebvre’s before inflicting it upon the porous, uncontainable and often unruly urban spaces of the contemporary British novel.

In general, my research interests include: Contemporary British and American Fiction; literature and the city; London writing; Literary Birmingham; literature and memory; literature, space and time; psychogeography; cultural geography; postmodernism; urban exploration photography; subterranean descent narratives. I have presented work at postgraduate, national and international conferences and have published essays on topics such as spatial agency in the fiction of Cheshire-born author Nicholas Royle, Contemporary London Descent Narratives and birth narratives and the photography of abandoned maternity wards- a topic on which I have had an article, ‘birth-place’, published by Feminist Review.  I also hold a B.A. (Hons) in English and an M.A. in Literary and Cultural Studies from Lancaster University, where I was awarded the Princess Alexandra Chancellor’s medal.

Here at Birmingham, I am co-founder of ‘Roles’, a Gender and Sexuality Interdisciplinary Research Forum, with which I have co-organised a series of postgraduate symposia on widely varied, cross-disciplinary work in the field of gender and sexuality studies. I am part of the review panel for the Birmingham Journal of Literature and Language, and also help to run the English Department’s weekly research seminar.
I am a teaching assistant in the department, and teach on the first year ‘Literature Foundation’ and second year ‘Literature in Britain after 1945’ modules. I am also co-ordinator and PGTA for an online research skills module in the School of English, Drama and American and Canadian studies, planning and running workshops and drop-in sessions for Postgraduate students in generic and research skills.

Elsewhere, I am actively involved in the annual Literary London conference, and in July 2011 was elected as Postgraduate and Early Career Representative on the committee of the new Literary London Society. I am also very interested in Outreach and Widening Participation in HE and in Postgraduate Recruitment and support provision for new and prospective Postgraduates, and currently work in both these areas at the University of Birmingham.

Written by James Thomas

30/11/2011 at 15:19

Posted in 003/ Space

Unmappable / Unknowable

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From: http://darc.imv.au.dk/publicinterfaces/?p=303

Mapping the Unmappable, Knowing the Unknowable

Posted on January 9, 2011 by gcox

Robert Brown
University of Plymouth

‘We need to construct multi-dimensional analyses which, rather than imposing monological coherence and closure, allow parallel and conflicting representations to coexist in analysis.’
(Shields 1996, 245)

Recent discourse recognises the city as a multi-layered construct, from Marcuse’s “layered city” to Kahn’s “many cities in one city”. (Kahn 2002; Marcuse 2002) Further deliberations range on the nature of social space through an understanding of perception as occurring through a series of filters. (Borden 2002; Lefebvre 1991) Evolving thoughts on urban histories echo these pluralistic readings, as do emerging discussions in ecology and
landscape urbanism. (Czerniak 2006; Girardet 1999; Huyssen 2002) Extant in the above is the proposition that the city is comprised of a plurality of layers formed by cultural, ecological, economic, political and social actions, agents, forces and structures1. Within this context traditional notions of the city as a collection of people inhabiting some contiguous space and thus having common concerns are suspect. What was once spatially constituted locally has been subject to significant shifts in connectivity brought on by the accessibility of physical and virtual networks of exchange; concurrently, both mobility and diverse and dispersed opportunities have fostered disparate groups overlapping across multiple spaces. Moreover, this multi-layered condition is not a predetermined absolute, static, homogenous or singular, but rather is constructed, changing, heterogeneous, and operates at multiple scales simultaneously. Furthermore, it does not exist as distinct stratum; rather the layers interrelate, with overlaps, gaps, adjacencies, conflicts, connections and fusions that exist or lie potent between them.

This conceptualisation affords a joined-up approach to the making of the city. This approach grows out of an experience of community development and urban regeneration, recognising that people and/or organisations behind projects can, through working together, achieve enhanced results. (Brown 2011) Such practice echoes other emergent shifts towards “‘pluralistic’ and ‘organic’ strategies for…urban development as a ‘collage’ of
highly differentiated spaces and mixtures, rather than pursuing grandiose plans based on functional zoning of different activities.” (Harvey 1990, 40)

Working within this condition presents however two notable and interrelated challenges. Firstly, the city’s spatial and temporal complexity render it unmappable and hence unknowable. The danger is of course that the subject falls back into totatlizing conceptualisations. Yet while recognising that we can’t ever totally map or know the city, in order to operate in this context we need some mechanism that allows us to frame the city as a space of simultaneous multiplicity, and from which one both construct knowledge and carry out subsequent action. Secondly, the conventions that we have inherited are based on a Cartesian geometry – one that is fixed and singular. What are needed are new tools that will enable us to operate with the dynamic nature of the city. Within this paper I will consider these questions, and draw upon recent work within the Master of Architecture design studio at the University of Plymouth to explore a praxis of multiplicity which I have called “palimpsest”.

inherited practice
Urban representations have historically operated within a dialectic of the strategic and the experiential. The strategic is characterised by both pictorial representations and diagrammatic drawings, each aimed at giving a panoptic perspective and a sense of metacognition. The experiential in contrast is marked by graphic mechanisms aimed at conveying intimate and immediate spatial experience, notably as encountered through vision or touch. While also using the pictorial and diagrammatic, the primary intention is to simulate something of the richness of the actual experience of place.

This dialectic, while offering useful frameworks within which to operate, poses significant limitations. They are of course inherently exclusive of the other. More significantly, they each fail to engage with the full range of multiplicity that the city represents. The panoptic overview tends toward the reductive, prioritising selected viewpoints and marginalising others, while homogenising all into totalizing visions. The immediately experiential is by
contrast fragmentary, limiting connectivity between individualising narratives. Each equally fails to engage fully with the temporal; their depictions are static, frozen in place that delimit their validity. Such a representation “automatically freezes the flow of experience and in so doing distorts what it strives to represent.” (Harvey 1990, 206)

In juxtaposition to such representations, we recognize that place is subject to multiple interpretations from multiple perspectives. Further, these are malleable and permeable, shifting and evolving dependent upon the prospect taken and its underlying attitudes and values. No totalizing nor fragmentary representation therefore can truly capture and express the manifold interactions occurring between people and place which accumulate over time. Like comparable observations on the fluidity of culture, actions and events within the city are not part of singular condition, but rather exist as multiple strands which are in a constant state of flux in relation to one another.

What is needed is a wider conceptual framework in which to formulate discussion. Yet in so doing we are confronted by a vast plurality. This is a challenge echoed by Frederic Jameson in questioning whether a comprehensive knowledge is elusive, even unobtainable. (Jameson 1999) How then to make sense of this condition and articulate some accessible account? How can we build upon this to generate a field in which we can act and which will inform the design process? What are needed are not only new tools, but equally new conceptualisations that underpin them. Practitioners and theorists have called for a reconsideration of traditional praxis, and new “techniques that engage time and change, shifting scales, mobile points of view, and multiple programs.” (Allen 2002, 40)

constructed practice
As Denis Cosgrove suggests, ultimately it is impossible to represent all spatial-temporal conditions fully, but mapping as a tool allows us this illusion. He further contends that it provides a fertile way of both knowing and representing the world. (Cosgrove 2003) The goal of the mapping as proposed here, i.e., palimpsest, is not however a singular representation. Rather, it embraces plurality and aims to give presence to this. This intention thus engages intrinsically not only with spatial form, but more ephemeral considerations of meaning perspectives. Thus, it is not so much a matter of getting any supposed reality “right”, but in drawing on Andrea Kahn’s discussion of site representations, is more of a process of knowledge formation; that is, it is a way of “constructing forms of knowledge that can cope with multiple realities.” (Kahn 2005, 289)

There are several aspects key to the process of mapping in palimpsest. First is the identification and analysis within differing thematic and/or attitudinal viewpoints (i.e., various layers within the city, for example cultural). Such a focus can of course have limitations if uncritically considered; it does however enable a more incisive view and can also reveal hidden conditions, whether dormant, marginalized or neglected. A second key move is the use of juxtaposition, in which individual mappings are brought together. This operation has its intellectual roots in Edward de Bono’s arguments on lateral thinking. It offers a way of engaging with seemingly known information and phenomena with a fresh perspective, and is particularly useful “as a way to restructure existing patterns of thinking and provoke new ways.” (de Bono 1970, 11) As de Bono further suggests, this approach helps to raise awareness of alternatives, including those that may not be so obvious. (de Bono 1970) Juxtaposition equally owes a debt to discourse on “unlearning” and “transformative learning.” Though this action we can expose the constraints and limitations of our existing attitudes and ways of working. Moreover, it enables us, as Saskia Sassen might suggest, to reveal the connections of the seemingly unconnected. (Sassen 1996a; Sassen 1996b) The third key aspect is the use of narrative. Stories help us to remember and make sense of our experiences in time and place, the wider forces at play and those places themselves. They make accessible patterns, linkages and contingencies that inform the relationship between personal thought, action, experience and memory, and broader, shared narrations. Most significantly to the discussion here, these stories can be mapped, revealing boundaries, trajectories, intersections and fields occurring in time and place. (Potteiger and Purinton, 1998) The use of multiple media plays a distinct role in this mapping process. The documentation of narratives in particular draws upon a mixing of film, photography and writing to record the diversity and flux that marks inhabitation of place. The use of various digital and graphic techniques equally supports the act of juxtaposition; a creative play with the information recorded through the thematic mapping affords a simultaneous manipulation at both strategic and tactical levels, allowing various permutations and possibilities to be revealed.

The construct of palimpsest is the subject of an on-going investigation in the Master of Architecture design studio at the University of Plymouth. This inquiry has three primary aims: firstly, to explore the construct of the city as a multi-layered representation. Secondly, to test the means by which we represent this construct. Thirdly, to frame discussion for later project work (this third point is not the focus of discussion here). This exploration reveals, maps and tests how the city’s different layers synthesise, overlap, touch, reflect, displace, erase (i.e., relate to) each other. In one recent project students worked in the context of the city of Riga, exploring specific neighbourhoods which reflect particular attitudes towards city planning in place at the time of their inception. These were examined within a framework of ecological, political, socio-cultural and socio-economic layers. Two
of the neighbourhoods examined are briefly examined here. One group’s study of the Jugendstil neighbourhood, a gridded 19th Century ‘new town’ known for its extensive number of Jugendstil buildings, revealed an overlapping of cultural, economic, political and social forces, less strategically planned but no less present within the current landscape. Though seemingly one continuous part of the city, distinct disparities were found. In some
areas a convergence of high levels of car ownership and high car values, a predominance of Latvian and English signage and even menus, and well-refurbished street facades wasidentified. In other areas where Russian signage and text was found, fewer cars and of lesser value were present, and the building frontages were in a noticeable degree of disrepair. This mapping not only reflected pro-Latvian government strategic policies, but
equally revealed the extent to which the intentions of those policies had permeated through even to non-government related actions and spatial conditions. Another group’s study of the medieval Old Town unearthed a similar convergence of the cultural, economic and political. Notable in this was a coalescing of ‘tourist-friendly’ shops, restaurants and bars, officially sanctioned by the government tourist board, with ‘suggested’ tourist routes. Seemingly omitted from the authorised narrative of the Old Town were any inhabitants of Riga, whose connections with the area were limited to acts of consumption (whether as buyers or sellers). The apparent shift from a once-diversified city fabric to a singular space of tourist, leisure and retail consumption is reflected in the government’s intended longterm strategic agenda for the Old Town.

These two projects, and similar ones by their colleagues, reveal an understanding of the city that embraces the simultaneous multiplicity present there. By bringing together distinct observations, and working with them through juxtaposition and a narrative framework, they prompt us to look again through propositions underpinned by the juxtaposition of spatial and temporal narratives, and both panoptic vision and direct experience. Manoeuvring around any singular, reductive formal representation and attributed meaning, they direct our focus to the linkages between layers of time and place.

some cautionary and concluding notes
In positing palimpsest, it is crucial to recognize that what is being proposed is not the generation of some unitary theory or “new meta-disciplinary category” as Greig Crysler warns us against. (Crysler 2003) Rather, it shares more in common with de Certeau’s notion of tactics, i.e., a calculated action in the context of a terrain that already exists, in which it is but just one of many different players acting on it. (de Certeau 1984) It is critical to highlight however that the working methodology proposed is not a positivist model. Echoing Marc Treib’s critique of Ian McHarg’s ‘Design with Nature’ methods, analytical overlays might help to reveal certain criteria but they do not autonomously generate subsequent design strategies. (Treib 1996) Nor is this approach intended to reveal some sense of an absolute truth. Moreover, it recognises that any approach carries with it a certain bias; as Corner observes, ‘how one “images” the world literally conditions how reality is both conceptualized and shaped.’ (Corner 1999, 153)

The intention of palimpsest as a practice is to expose junctions and voids between spatialtemporal layers that might provide a site in which to act. This conception does not mean to deny that the city is ultimately is unmappable and unknowable as a totality, but rather that the city consists of a multiplicity of narratives, each composed of a range of performances, perspectives, processes and relationships. It acknowledges that these at times coalesce and at other times conflict in place. The intention is to explore how these layers relate, and the potential their convergences and divergences offer as site of design. Ultimately, it is not about defining some singular vision, but rather ‘the primary aim…is to pull out the positive threads which enable a more lively appreciation of the challenge of space.’ (Massey 2005, 15)

1. Actions refers to tactical operations and events in the everyday, carried out by agents (whether as individuals, institutions or organisations acting separately or communally) in the context of wider forces of contextual conditions and as influenced by structures of institutional legislation and policy or socio-cultural norms.

Allen, Stan, 2000. Practice – Architecture, Technique and Representation. Amsterdam: G & B Arts International.
Borden, Ian, et. al. 2002. ‘Things, Flows, Filters, Tactics’, in, I. Borden, et. al., eds., The Unknown City, The MIT Press, Cambridge.
Brown, Robert, 2011. ‘Connectivity in the Multi-Layered City: Towards the Sustainable City’, in Open House International, Spring.
Corner, James, 1999. ‘Eidetic Operations and New Landscapes’, in J. Corner, ed., Recovering Landscape – Essays in Contemporary Architecture. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, pp. 153 – 169.
Crysler, C. Greig, 2003. Writing Spaces – Discourses of Architecture, Urbanism, and the Built Environment, 1960 – 2000. New York: Routledge.
Cosgrove, Denis, 2003. ‘Conclusion – Historical Perspectives on Representing and Transferring Spatial Knowledge, in M. Silver and D. Balmori, eds., Mapping in the Age of Digital Media. Chichester: Wiley-Academy, pp. 128 – 137.
Czerniack, Julia, 2006. ‘Looking Back at Landscape Urbanism: Speculations on Site’, in C. Waldheim, ed., The Landscape Urbanism Reader, New York: Princeton Architectural Press.
De Bono, Edward, 1970. Lateral Thinking. London: Penguin Books.
De Certeau, Michel, 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 155 – 172.
Girardet, H., 1999. Creating Sustainable Cities. Dartington: Green Books.
Harvey, David, 1990. The Condition of Postmodernity. Malden: Blackwell Publishers.
Huyssen, Andreas, 2002. Present Pasts – Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Jameson, Frederick, 1999. ‘Cognitive Mapping’, in A. Kumar, ed., Poetics / Politics – Radical Aesthetics for the Classroom. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Kahn, Andrea, 2002. ‘Imaging New York’, in P. Madsen and R. Plunz, eds., The Urban Lifeworld – Formation, Perception, Representation. London: Routledge.
Kahn, Andrea, 2005. ‘Defining Urban Sites’, in C. Burns and A. Kahn, eds. Site Matters. New York: Routledge, p. 281 – 296.
Lefebvre, Henri, 1991. The Production of Space, trans. D Nicholson-Smith. Malden: Blackwell Publishing.
Marcuse, Peter, 2002. ‘The Layered City’, in P. Madsen and R. Plunz, eds., The Urban Lifeworld – Formation, Perception, Representation. London: Routledge.
Massey, Doreen, 2005. For Space. Los Angeles: Sage.
Potteiger, Matthew and Purinton, Jamie 1998. Landscape Narratives. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Sassen, Saskia 1996a. ‘Rebuilding the Global City: Economy, Ethnicity and Space’, in A. King, ed., Re-Presenting the City – Ethnicity, Capital and Culture in the 21st Century Metropolis. New York: New York University Press, pp. 23 – 42.
Sassen, Saskia, 1996b ‘Analytic Borderlands: Race, Gender and Representation in the New City’,”in A. King, ed., Re-Presenting the City – Ethnicity, Capital and Culture in the 21st Century Metropolis. New York: New York University Press, pp. 183 – 202.
Treib, Marc, 1996. ‘Nature Recalled’, in J. Corner, ed., Recovering Landscape – Essays in Contemporary Landscape. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, pp. 29 – 43.
Shields, Rob, 1996. ’A Guide to Urban Representation and What to Do About It.’, in A. King (ed) Re-Presenting the City – Ethnicity, Capital and Culture in the 21st Century Metropolis. New York: New York University Press, pp. 227 – 252.

Written by James Thomas

30/11/2011 at 12:46

Posted in Uncategorized


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From: http://katmcmahon.wordpress.com/2011/04/04/stan-allan-mapping-the-unmappable/

Spatial Experimentations

Stan Allen: mapping the unmappable

Stan Allen’s “Mapping the unmappable on notation” addresses the important interconnectedness between the city and architecture. It further notates the architects role, procedures and methodology when constructing drawings, maps and plans of future projects and buildings. Throughout the essay the author makes comments on the changing roles of the importance of drawings within in the creative process. In the beginning of the design process the architect’s intentions are expressed through notated drawings, which ultimately act as the map to the design, and thus they hold all relevance. Allen states that drawings are “uniquely capable of producing something new from something else”. Thus, drawings mould the future architectural work. Despite this important point, drawings hold no relevance once the building is constructed, as the final material work trumps the construction drawings, plans and notations.

The main concept of the article is centrally based around the overall importance of notation, and how this acts as language in the architect’s world. The author ultimately states that drawings as themselves can’t represent everything- and hence notation is vital in order to address the unexpected and unpredictable in relation to the real and constructed work. Notation can address what drawings ultimately can’t through delivering the precise measurements and aspects of architecture. Drawings would not be complete without notations on materials, measurements and light aspects, and thus Stan Allen makes the point of how notation works as the architect’s language, especially seen on page 35 when he states that “notational language was developed in response rather to the need for participation of many hands in construction”. Allen divides the importance of architecture into separate points. He states that “notations always describe a work that is yet to be realised” meaning that notation promotes optimism and potentiality. “Notation goes beyond the invisible in order to engage the invisible aspects of architecture”, finding relationships amongst the various parts of the city. Thirdly, he addresses that “notation includes time as a variable” addressing the measurement of unfolding time. He lastly states that “notions presume a social context”, which help the designer map the complex and indeterminate theatre of everyday life.

The article also addresses the changing aspects of architecture, and how designers have to mould their works to the new city. Stan Allen juxtaposes the old and the new stating that “historically, architecture of the city embodied collective memory through a structure of finite definition…today the technologies of communication, information exchange and war…have produced a condition in which the urban site is not longer simply geographic”. This hence impacts the designer freedom as cities today are not separate in their entirety, and thus architects need to integrate their designs into the societal context and surrounding.
Allen thus addresses the changing nature of the roles of an architect throughout time.

Written by James Thomas

30/11/2011 at 12:42

Posted in Uncategorized