Architecture + Philosophy research seminar, ResArc, Sweden: Dr Hélène Frichot, Critical Studies in Architecture, KTH Stockholm


by thierry berlemont

TB_sense up and down

I revised the conceptual coloring-in book after the closing module of Philosophies. Besides some minor corrections in the texts, I modified the title from ‘Fragments’ to ‘Fragments of constructions’ and I added an ‘about’ at the end. The ‘about’ chapter contains the arguments developed during the presentation. The drawing visualizes the access to the revised version (published on 18 september 2013).

Theory Toolbox Semantics

by thierry berlemont


Is theory a tool? Is a collection of different theories a toolbox of theories or is a theory in itself a toolbox containing tools? If a theory is a toolbox, what kind of tools does it contain? Is a tool a part of a theory? How do we recognize or identify the tools in the toolbox? Are the properties of the toolbox representative for the tools in it? Are the tools mingled with other things that don’t fall under the same denominator? What can we do with the tools in the box? Do we have to figure that out or do the tools speak for themselves and their possible usage? Does the manipulation of the tools demand a certain degree of skill and do we have to learn to use them? How do we go about in this process of learning to use theoretical tools (or is it theory tools)? These questions keep puzzling me and I have some difficulty to make sense out of it. It appears to me that the connection of ‘Theory‘ to ‘Toolbox‘ is less straightforward than it appears to be at first sight.

My confusion may have something to do with a personal preconception and the related interpretations about what a tool is, or what I believe(d) it is.
I speculate(d) that a tool is ‘instrumental par nature’, that it is a facilitator, that it allows us to do something that would be more difficult or maybe even impossible to do without. I also reckon(ed) that it is something that lies outside of our body and is an addition, extension, strengthening, magnification or even replacement of it. I don’t believe that it has to be an object, because people and more immaterial things like software can be tools too of course. I understand that in this case ‘Theory Toolbox’ is a metaphor and not a real toolbox, like those we can see in the hands and vans of constructors, plumbers and carpenters. But the metaphor created by juxtaposition constructs a relationship between ‘Theory’ and ‘Toolbox’ that expresses a new significance of both terms together. The meanings of both get mixed and as far as I am concerned they also get muddled, especially for what the term ‘theory’ is concerned.
‘Toolbox’ makes a reference to two things: a ‘container(1)’ – a box, or maybe a bag, a basket or whatever – in which to put things, not just anything, but specific things labeled with the term ‘tools(2)’. A toolbox is a practical device used to store, protect, organize and carry tools and the use of that image as a metaphor will be bound to that meaning, i.e. the practical and instrumental nature, the *usability*. For the term ‘tool’ a similar mechanism applies, as the definition in Wikipedia (accessed 28/03/13) suggests: ‘A tool is any physical item that can be *used to achieve a goal*, especially if the item is not consumed in the process. Informally the word is also used to describe a procedure or process with a specific *purpose*’ . When we combine (1) and (2) the image of *usefulness* and *purposefulness* are added up.
I always thought of ‘Theory’ as being a ‘particular’ way of explaining the world or a part of it. The New Oxford American Dictionary (Version 2.1.3 on Mac) gives the following definition of theory: ‘a supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something, especially one based on general principles independent of the thing to be explained / a set of principles on which the practice of an activity is based / an idea used to account for a situation or justify a course of action’. These descriptions seem to me to be more about a context or frame of ideas and concepts, their structure and arguments, the discourse. But is this system of ideas per se *useful* and/or *purposeful*? I don’t know the answer to this question, but by connecting theory to toolbox, theory automatically gets connected to those two goal-oriented meanings. Stated in positive terms, we could say that in the metaphor ‘Theory Toolbox’, useful and purposeful action is associated to thinking, the practical to the intellectual and the contemplative, theory to practice.

So far so good, but nevertheless my doubt remains, because in the associative metaphor the connotation of theory being instrumental in achieving goals is made quite explicit and easy. Too easy I believe.

In Eyal Weizman’s Lethal Theory (LT), the story is narrated in such a way that a certain theory of architecture and urbanism is used as a catalyst that generates new strategic concepts and subsequent practice, and it is suggested that the theory was an effective means to an unfortunately ‘lethal’ end.
It seems to be a confirmation of the metaphor and I have no reason, nor information that allows me to question the truth or fact about this version of the story.
However, the story could be told in another way as well. For I am sure that creative (architectural) minds don’t need to know any of the theories the military refer to in order to be able to develop that specific (lethal) spatial strategy. We could as easily state that it is the result of acute spatial imagination and re-interpretation, containing a high degree of creativity and speculation, regardless of theory: ‘This space that you look at, this room that you look at, is nothing but your interpretation of it. Now, you can stretch the boundaries of your interpretation, … the question is, how do you interpret the alley? Do you interpret the alley as a place to walk through or as a place forbidden to walk through? This depends only on interpretation…’ (quotation from LT). A blogpost on the subject bearing the title ‘Alice’s Wonderland Battle Space’ (, viewed on 10/03/2013) even makes an overly explicit reference to those aspects of creativity and interpretation by making a far-fetched connection with Lewis Caroll’s beautiful story, simply by seizure of it’s name.
In this context it seems fair to ask whether theory is a part of a referential context that serves as a justification for completely crazy and amoral, though extremely fascinating spatial ideas? In this B-version of the story, the IDF’s practices can certainly be regarded as an audacious appropriation of architecture’s spatial mechanisms but not necessarily as the use of architectural theories as purposeful and useful tools that enable to construct a strategy. Does the metaphor allow for this B-version to be considered? The relational space that is created in the juxtaposition/combination – or should I use agency? – of words is not neutral, not merely a code or tool for identification, but also a conveyor of meanings and a catalyst for interpretations. I understand the problem as being not merely one of representation, but also one of orientation and maybe even guidance. Metaphors contain assumptions – with varying degrees of visibility – and implicitly privilege certain perspectives over others. In so doing they subtly invite us to orient our view in particular directions. It reminds me of the relevance to take good care of words and their precious relations.

relations and agency – verbs and doors

by thierry berlemont

agency > agencement (fr.) > agencer (fr.)

put in place

verbs describing actions to induce/provoke/make/shape/modify/intensify/attenuate/transform/extend/… ‘relations’ between people, places, spaces and things, in order for them to hold together
and in order to articulate affinities (or aversion) between/from/towards/into/through/… them. A bit like the 6 doors giving the verbs good company.

1. The Pleasures of a Door (Francis Ponge)

Kings never touch a door
It is a joy unknown to them: pushing open whether rudely or kindly one of those great familiar panels, turning to put it back in place – holding a door in one’s embrace.

… The joy of grasping one of those tall barriers to a room by the porcelain knob in its middle: the quick contact which, with forward motion briefly arrested, the eye opens wide, and the whole body adjusts to its new surroundings.

With a friendly hand it is stayed a moment longer before giving it a decided shove and closing oneself in, a condition pleasantly confirmed by the click of the strong but well-oiled lock spring.

(from The Nature of Things, Red Dust New York 2011)


2. Doors (Georges Perec)

We protect ourselves, we barricade ourselves in. Doors stop and separate.
The door breaks space in two, splits it, prevents osmosis, imposes a partition. On one side, me and my place, the private, the domestic (a space overfilled with my possessions: my bed, my carpet, my table, my typewriter, my books, my odd copies of the Nouvelle Revue Française); on the other side, other people, the world, the public, politics. You can’t simply let yourself slide from one into the other, can’t pass from one to the other. You have to have the password, have to cross the threshold, have to show your credentials, have to communicate, just as the prisoner communicates with the world outside.

How to be specific? It’s not a matter of opening or not opening the door, not a matter of ‘leaving the key in the door’. The problem isn’t whether or not there are keys: if there wasn’t a door, there wouldn’t be a key.

(from Species of Spaces – The Apartment, p.37 – Penguin Twentieth Century Classics)

3. The act of making an opening raises the question of how to close it – an opening enables connections, but does not prevent them, so protective or filtering components such as doors, gates, windows, shutters and sun control elements are created to do this. These allow the opening’s function, form and the impact it has on a space to be altered.
Doors and gates are components used to close or open a passage through a wall. They allow rooms to be closed off from other rooms or from the outside area, while allowing people to pass through. The difference between doors and gates is a matter of dimension: while a a door approximates to the size of a human being, gates are used to close off larger openings.Doors and gates can be constructed to permit entry to certain users and to exclude others.

(from Open/Close, Birkhäuser 2010, Introduction – theoretical foundations p.8)

4. When the building was finished he seemed particularly happy with what to some might seem a small detail: a raised door sill between the spaces of the house. While at first sight this is clearly an unconventional detail that might cause a distracted visitor to stumble, these raised sills also form a spatial threshold that, to a certain degree, makes a door unnecessary and makes you conscious of the action of entering a space. An ambiguous threshold that negotiates between accessible and yet secluded.
A parallel can be drawn with the Japanese Noren, the short split cotton or linen entryway curtain that is traditionally hung in a doorway and makes us bow a little and pay tribute to the space we enter. ‘It wasn’t long before Katsuyuki arrived, making a poetic entrance as she gently lifted one side of the noren curtain, bowing her head slightly as she floated through it’.

(from Substantiating Displacement, Arnaud Hendrickx, 2012, p.188)

5. De Drie Hoven, Amsterdam (Herman Hertzberger)


6. hide and see

peek a boo

play peek-a-boo
look out
look in
wipe ones feet
take off ones shoes
put them on again
go out
lift ones feet
turn around
sit (in the doorway)
bring in
turn the key
give a hug

verbs describing some actions induced/provoked/made/shaped/modified/intensified/attenuated/transformed/extended/… by ‘relationships’ between people, places, spaces and one of many (material) agents of architecture.

Thierry Berlemont

by thierry berlemont

TB_fotobooth_27 05 2010

In a previous life I used to be an architect and partner in a Brussels based architectural firm named RAUW. We started in 1998 as a collaborative practice. The name ‘RAUW is both a word and an acronym. RAUW is the Dutch word for ‘raw’, while RAUW also stands for ‘Realisatie van Al Uw Wensen’ (Realisation of All Your Wishes). The name was chosen to be a constant reminder of the task that lay ahead of us when we started. To respond to a duality, a short-term and a long-term view, a problem solving and an explorative approach, a smooth, rational, politically correct side and a rough, ‘uncooked’ spontaneous side…’. Besides our architectural activities we also focused on architectural graphics and drawing. This was an activity that we developed with a certain degree of autonomy from our architectural practice. Some digital traces remain and can be found on the outdated websites and

In 2008 I took a break from architectural practice to be able to focus my attention on aspects of architecture that I could not develop in the context of the office. As a consequence my activities shifted towards architectural education and research. In 2011 I started a PhD at Chalmers. The project I am working on bears the (provisional) title ‘Invisible Things, a journey through organizations of matter in architecture’.

The project focuses on architecture’s built and tangible reality and how to bring that about, i.e. the construction subjects of architecture. It is concerned with the processes and acts of fabricating, assembling and shaping architecture, with understanding matter and the inexhaustible possibilities to transform it into architecture, as well as with getting your hands dirty and going into the action of making architectural things.
In order to be able to construct architecture we need to understand the theories of making as well as the practices of it. Unfortunately, when it comes to learning about making and constructing architecture, we almost automatically and exclusively end up in the realm of technology (and science). However, both fields of knowledge are not well equipped to deal with all facets of making, since they are primarily oriented towards producing certainty, control and prediction and acutely lack sensibility for aspects that are not quantifiable, calculable and certain. Aspects of making that are characterized by doubt, mess, imprecision and ambiguity are absent, avoided or solved.
It is necessary to complement the traditional instrumental and quantitative approaches of architecture’s physical making with qualitative and interpretative one’s. The existing paradigms must be put under critical scrutiny and questioned with regard to their explicit and underlying thoughts, methods, systems, organizations and theories.
An attempt to do this is what the Invisible Thing’s journey is about, at least for an important part. Valuing and dealing with apparently simple though often neglected underlying questions – how to make/construct/materialize architecture? How to understand the richness, complexity and organization of making? How to learn about it and how to teach it? – is another part of the challenge. I will try to create keys to interpret and understand ‘making’ architecture in a more comprehensive and exhaustive manner – one that is complex, interpretative, approximate, sensitive, particular and ambiguous besides being exact and abstract. Hopefully this can lead to a certain degree of (re)-identification, (re)-framing and (re)-formulation of principles, (re)-consideration of theories, (re)-telling of stories, (re)-construction of pedagogy, de-familiarization of familiar approaches and consequently their (re)-discovery.