Cluster 1: Relations and Agency

by evaminoura

My research has recently come to hover quite a bit around this notion of spatial agency, something akin to the definition as ”effecting change through the empowerment of others” by opening up new potentialities (Awan et al.). This leads for me to a number of interesting questions in terms of how agency emerges, and can be sanctioned or compromised by spatial properties (both configurational and material). Of course, there is a relational component to all this, but to deny the material entanglements risks abdicating what responsibility architects do hold. Which is why I am a bit skeptical of an overemphasis on the relational component. For instance, where Lefebvre claims (social) space to be a (social) product, I fear this places the role of architect in the arena of facilitator rather than agent (cited in Awan et al.). Similarly, Latour’s Actor Network Theory (ANT) seems to reject the idea that we operate within spatial totalities by claiming that any event or object is only understood as ”embedded in a set of associations” in effect, ”buildings are not seen as determinants of society” (Awan et al). I see a danger in seeing the architect’s role so marginalized. It undercuts the scope of action for the architect that comes out of making material decisions in practice which actually can have a powerful effect on the end-user (resident) and the incentive to participate in enacting change. That is not to deny that there are many aspects of spatial production we cannot control, only that we shouldn’t be blind to the ones we do control.

Harvey describes the urban dream as a vehicle for capitalist surplus, citing Hilde Nafstad: ”This is a world in which the neoliberal ethic of intense possessive individualism, and its cognate of political withdrawal from collective forms of action, becomes the template for human socialization” (Harvey). And yes, unfortunately, this tendency is also played out at the material and configurative scale. I’ll illustrate this with some examples (what Ian Hodder calls material entanglements) at the interface between open space and building. Why is it that some zones at this interface are intensively appropriated and some invite little or no user action, essentially withdrawing from stewardship of the public realm? Is this individualism expressed as built form?

Underappropriated interfaces.

Underappropriated interfaces.

The images above represent ’urban’ design approaches which for various reasons do not impart agency on the end-user or resident. Doina Petrescu, by way of  temporary/reversible installations promoting ”re-appropriation and reinvention of collective space in the city through everyday life activities”, conceives of critical practice as challenging prescriptive ways of living (Petrescu). My focus is on the zones where agency is formally sanctioned yet not asserted by those living there. For instance, in some residential estates in the Stockholm suburbs, gardening is more likely to take place at a nearby allotment garden than in the collective space earmarked and programmed for residents. Why?

Spatial agency in which the end-user invests the space with practices, presumably producing and reproducing social arenas as neighbors converge on space and negotiate it’s uses may also function well. When it does, appropriation traces are everywhere, the collective space becomes a site of personalization and becomes ”place”. Agency here is not independent of the structure of it’s context , but I would say that some structures impart agency more than others. The question then becomes, why (or perhaps where) is agency asserted, what patterns or logic can be discerned? Petrescu refers to the temporary appropriation of underused spaces of the city. The images below show another, more permanent appropriation of spaces.

Appropriated interfaces

Appropriated interfaces

Even something as banal and informal as a flower pot placed on the (public) sidewalk or paving bricks removed to allow for a plant indicate an emergence of agency, an expression of relating to a place in a permanent way. Once these traces emerge, once agency is taken, more actors tend to get involved and follow suit. I believe the differences in asserted agency rely on potential for privacy control and whether public space is fronted by formal or informal sides of buildings (fronts vs. backs). My research seeks to address these spatial underpinnings of the relational component. While the ’urban tactics’ approach advocated by Petrescu has validity as a way to engender social emergence and collective action, doesn’t the need for such installations mean that the more permanent spatial production has failed in some respect? And if so, how should we address this shortcoming in future practice? My hypothesis is that boundless or oversized spaces are difficult to appropriate (although we may use these spaces!) and that we must reconceptualize boundaries as edges where events may occur and as sites of agency not reducible to mechanisms of inclusion/exclusion alone.