Monthly Archives: November 2011

What Used to be Called Public Space

As I delivered my nominations for the 2012 European Prize for Public Space, and as the classic thinker of the corresponding sphere was suddenly raging, I felt the urge to go back to a book that reassesses, if not indeed upturns, the fashion in which architects and planners regard urban space and its public dimensions.

It’s only in appearance that the recently published Urban Maps is about establishing a cartography of the city. Unless, of course, one considers that the practice of mapping the city is nowadays becoming itself highly performative.

The investigation’s subtitle is eventually more enlightening: Instruments of Narrative and Interpretation in the City. Even so, the academic overtones hide the fact that this exciting read is all about grafitti and street art, film and underground flâneurs, pixadores and new modes of psychogeography – as practices that should now be taken as referentials to occupying architecture.

As my own endorsment prints in the back cover:

Fifty years ago, Kevin Lynch offered us a classical reading of ‘the image of the city’ based on a waning ideal of clear built landmarks and distinct urban signs. Now, through inspired insights and an in-depth inquiry into a vast array of contemporary urban practices, the authors of Urban Maps reveal us how the complex narratives currently converging in the appropriation and redefinition of an eroded urban space require a totally revamped cognitive mapping… From the readings of cinema to the interventions of street art, from the markings of graffiti to the identities of brandscapes, and from the wanderings of contemporary art to the fictional drives of theory, architecture is confronted with the need to review the cartography of its references when facing the ascendancy of the urban condition – and the prominence of new networked, information-augmented realities – as substituting for previous conceptions of the city.

Like the most interesting charts of new territories, Richard Brook and Nick Dunn’s publication presents us with insights into the least seen spots of the current urban condition, into the borders and hidden spaces of varied forms of intervention within the city landscape.

As an appropriate side dish, we are ultimately offered a thorough reflection on how architecture now competes for an expressive space in this sign-invaded, market-dominated, narrative-filled urbanscape.

Image by RE_MAP, Manchester School of Architecture’s design research lab

After we turn these pages and practice stories we’re left with the pertinent and resilient concern on how “a critical understanding of the evolution of art in the environment can be translated to a discourse concerning the production of architecture.” And the more we take to the streets,* the more such concerns are to overcome any remaining delusion of architecture’s conventional autonomy.

Autonomy should still be there, yes. But, if you want, in a kind of Hal Foster version in which culture practice is still able to relate to social and political reality, while it manages to sustain its ability to be critical and somewhat exempt from the demeaning effects of external (and peer) pressure.

Performance Towards Participation

This week I take part in the El Arte és Ación/Performance & Arquitectura multifaceted event in Madrid. With an amazing array of participants, this will present, instill and again put to discussion the emergent connections between current practices of architecture of engagement and Performance Art.

After one or two posts on this, the event impels me to finally announce here that the international open call for Performance Architecture within the 2012 European Capital of Culture is now up and about, ready to be propagated like a benign virus to whoever might feel challenged to set out ideas, programs and architectural concepts that may win the streets back to the people.*

This open call for five temporary urban interventions in the city of Guimarães will offer kick-start prizes of 12.000€ to concepts that are able to promote the appropriation (or occupation?) of controversial public spaces by city inhabitants. Proposals are to be submitted online until January 6th 2012.

Implying that anyone who wants to contribute to the reconstruction of current notions of public space has to somehow become a full cultural producer, the competition invites multidisciplinary teams of artists, architects, designers, etc., to send out ideas that can reactivate performance strategies and simultaneously (re)invent participative architectures in the urban realm.

A one-day seminar on the theme will follow on the 25th February 2012, involving members of the juri Santiago Cirugeda, Didier Fiuza Faustino, A77, Raumlabor, and Office for Subversive Architecture, inbetween other special guests. At that occasion, the five lucky winners – who may be entitled to a one month residency in situ – will also be publicly announced, together with further 25 proposals selected for a small exhibition and catalogue.

On the Drive of Writing (and Reading)

             © Pedro Gadanho, Untitled (Tallinn Winter, 2011).  Soundtrack here.


Translator Richard Howard writing on Roland Barthes reminds us of the latter’s fierce determination to assert “the pleasure we must take in our reading as against the indifference of (mere) knowledge.” Barthes, himself, evoked the writerly bliss as that which “unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions,” a specific event that “brings a crisis to his relation with language.” Meanwhile, it sounds like architecture only recently has come to be seen as a form of knowledge, a language that is related to something more than just erecting buildings. Now that its erogenous zones have been reallocated, maybe the bliss of writing (and reading) on architectural matters can be about something else. It may now be about merrily upturning our liaison to architecture’s very foundations, instead of further tying us down to its fundamentalisms, its recurring institutional incarcerations, its plain unfortunate downturns.”

in “On Experimental Architectural Writing and Its Media”

This is one of sixteen sections in a text I have recently contributed to the catalogue of the exciting Archizines exhibition, opening this Friday November 4th at the Architectural Association, in London.

While Beyond was chosen as one of the 60 independent architectural magazines on show, Elias Redstone was also so kind as to challenge me to dwell on “why it is again critically imperative for creative, fictional and personal narratives to be inventive in regards to architectural discourse and practice” – as related to media where this is still possible, as against the general (main)streamlining of culture.

The resulting exploration was an opportunity to finally weave together some wandering ideas on the pleasures of writing and reading architecture, especially after my participation in the On Experimental Writing panel debate, at the CCA, back  in February. (The podcast is still available on that link).

Beyond criticism, press releases and other boring reports on what’s up in the world of architecture, I specially wanted to focus on how writing can and should be a practice on its own terms, one that nonetheless only accomplishes itself when it reaches the reader through what Barthes appropriately called bliss.

Being an avid, curious reader, I tend to consider any text that fails to sustain my attention simply badly written. Fiction itself is about the precise technique with which one delivers a story, more than about the inventiveness of the narrated facts. Good writing is one that captures its reader through both idea and form.

This being said, there is a considerable difference in between the baroque complexity of one Pierre Bourdieu – in which the sheer strength of the ideas surmounts a decided, purposeful difficulty imposed on his readers as a sort of initiation rite – and someone whose thoughts are simply insipid and unclear.

Texts must want to communicate. They must want to communicate ideas, or emotions, or even straightforward information. In an age of information surplus, texts that lack such inner, initial desire, become merely superfluous. Vain. And the same should be said of any form of communication, architecture included.