5 August 2011

Review: Spatial Agency: Other Ways of Doing Architecture

Architecture “as a profession…is based on the need for architecture (as practice and product) to be the protected domain of the architect” (2011: 28). In a new book, Spatial Agency: Other Ways of Doing Architecture, co-authored by Nishat AwanTatjana Schneider, and Jeremy Till, this narrow definition of architecture, and the limited discourses surrounding it, is restructured, providing an insight into the various approaches to the production of buildings and spaces that are separate, or external to, mainstream architectural practice. Part of a wider research project into ‘Spatial Agency’, that includes an online database and map, the book sets out the theory and practice of these ‘other ways of doing architecture’ in four extended essays and documents, in a partial lexicon, over 130 examples of these other practices. Across the essays the authors establish three main themes: that architecture should not only be left to architects; ethics should not be abandoned for aesthetics; spatial agency is open to multiple operations. The authors are keen to avoid “the temptation to ditch the architectural skills of design and spatial intelligence” but rather look to how these skills “might be exploited in different ways and contexts” (2011: 26). By reapproprtiating the 'traditional' skills of architectural practice the authors claim that spatial agency is capable of empowering others so that they can "engage in their spatial environments in ways previously unknown or unavailable to them, opening up new freedoms and potentials as a result of reconfigured social space” (32).

Spatial Agency: Other Ways of Doing Architecture (Routledge, 2011)

Defining the ‘centre’ of architecture is notoriously difficult, and as such it is equally difficult to define the margins around this centre. There is a danger, however, that if the practices explored in this book are described as ‘alternative’ it raises the question - ‘alternative to what?’ Realising the potential for the word 'alternative' to further marginalise these practices, running contrary to the book’s core idea (highlighting and attempting to raise the profile and credibility of these practices) the authors have opted to describe these practices as 'other'. By using the term ‘spatial agency’, the book “radically expands” (29) the number of actors usually taking into account when discussing contemporary architecture. The debate about architecture, the authors claim, should neither be restricted to the actual built environment nor to the “limiting” title of architect. Architecture should not be left to the architects. Running contrary to the current trend for a narrowing of scope in the services an architect offers, the book thus explores “how the role of the architect can be extended to take into account the consequences of architecture as much as the objects of architecture” (33). They do so by looking at alternative practices currently in the margins of architectural practice such as the Iquique Housing project by Elemental, where the architect has designed only 'half a house', allowing residents to appropriate and develop the space over time, as they required. In traditional production the professional (architect) envisages the end product, fully realised, however a key part of spatial agency is accepting that the citizen expert (and their practical wisdom), not just the professional, should take part in spatial production and is in fact key for the success of that production.

In an essay on the sites of spatial agency the authors outline where the actions of these groups or individuals takes place: knowledge, organisational structures, physical relationships and social relationships. The definition of the sites expands the traditional site of action in architectural practice, taking spatial “in the widest sense of the word – physical, social, metaphorical, phenomenal – and rarely limited by externally determined instructions and conventions” (55). Each of these sites point to “not just the possibility, but the real necessity of seeing that architecture can be played out through a multiplicity of settings, and that this gives new opportunities for architects and other spatial designers to work with” (65). This multiplicity is, in itself, reinforced through the difficulty in defining, as previously discussed, what constitutes architecture. Practice itself can be the site of spatial agency, which includes collaborative and interdisciplinary structures, as well as how the knowledge held by individuals/groups within these practices is disseminated, from DIY publications to other web-based formats. The attention given to both structures and processes, and the opportunities for design they present, is markedly different to the traditional physical relationships that architectural discourse focuses on. Spatial agency is seen as a way to expand the professional role, including the education system that has remained relatively unchanged since the 19th century, but also challenges the protection afforded to the professions. Furthermore spatial agency has the potential to more fully engage with the networks and structures that, due to the limited scope of the ‘profession’, others have claimed (30) and have reduced the architect to a technical facilitator “with decisions effectively made by others” (31).

The authors establish the motivations of spatial agency, in the first essay, and begin with the common reasons for students entering the architectural profession - 'to make the world a better place' - based on the belief that “there is a casual link between designing a building and making the world a better place, and it is this link that architects cling to through the thick and thin of practice” (37). This initial motivation can, over time, be replaced with “the more simple, and more controllable, motivation of making beautiful stuff” (37) and in so doing loose other motivations, with criticism from the authors about the relationship of ethics and aesthetics, “as if a beautiful thing will lead to a beautiful life” (52). The primary motivations of spatial agency are described as: ecological, ethical, pedagogical, political and professional.

The loss of political motivation in architecture is of particular interest in the development of the metamodern attitude, highlighted in the authors by the transition from modernism to postmodernism. Comments made by Charles Jencks about Pruitt-Igoe, in ‘The Language of Post-modern Architecture’,  are said to draw “on the myth that design was primarily responsible for the societal collapse on the estate…and so at a stroke demonises architecture’s association with social issues” (38). They acknowledge recent interest in “architecture’s complicity with prevailing political and economic forces” (39) but that these pragmatic laissez-faire theorists also fall into the postmodern trap of focusing on style. Spatial agency then relies on a complex combination of visions and solutions: "The conjunction here of practicality and imagination is important, because it brings two operations that are sometimes kept apart, and so asks spatial agents to be at the same time realist and visionary. This leaves the door open for architectural intelligence, founded as it is on the intersection of the creative and the real, to operate in a wider field.” (39). The political motivations are closely intertwined, in many cases, with the professional motivations and how professional bodies “are torn between public service and private protection, awkwardly criss-crossing the line between the learned body and subscription club” (43). The authors propose a new approach to the ethics of architecture (another trait of metamodernism): "The conjunction here of practicality and imagination is important, because it brings two operations that are sometimes kept apart, and so asks spatial agents to be at the same time realist and visionary. This leaves the door open for architectural intelligence, founded as it is on the intersection of the creative and the real, to operate in a wider field.” (39).

The ‘other ways of doing’ are presented, in alphabetical order and generously illustrated, make up the remainder of the book. Each of these approaches is as "proactive as they are practical” (82) and, contrary to what might be expected, examples are drawn from the last 50-100 years, although the majority are more recent. That the authors are able to highlight the trend for spatial agency over time shows how these practices are not new but have not been taken into the mainstream of architectural practice. The examples also highlight that spatial agency is not restricted to one country or region but is global. Spatial agency then, as the book shows, is part of the wider architectural landscape but if it is to make the transition from being an ‘other’ to being an accepted part of the mainstream there will have to be concerted effort to maintain the profile of these practices. What may pose the biggest challenge though is how easily these practices are accepted outside of architectural circles judging by the examples presented here though, it would appear that there is appetite for them.

If architecture is widened to include spatial agency, and if ethics regain a more prominent position in the social production of social space, the following operations can be discerned and are hence put back in the centre of architecture. The authors do not set out to provide a manual of the operations of spatial agency, with the authors stressing that these ‘other ways’ are not “limited to a specific scale or to a particular position” (69). This last statement is important if the ‘other’ is to not be marginalised as something different or only applicable to a certain type or way of work, but that the approaches have the potential to be taken and applied to any situation, which may or may not be mainstream practices at present. These operations are roughly defined as being: appropriation, dissemination, empowerment, networking and subversion. The book elaborates on the process of brief making/writing can be subverted to empower individuals. The current set up “tends to fix the building at a stage before the architect can contribute to the act of briefing in a creative way” and restricts the ability of architects (and others) from going beyond the restrictions of a prescriptive list of rooms or spaces (69-70). Furthermore the brief “presented as a technical fait accompli” disguises “the fact they determine social relations in a profound way” (70). Closely linked to brief making is the issue of project initiation and new methods for producing space. Once space has been produced the authors emphasise the benefits of returning to examine the consequences of the initial decision making process (including the design). As with brief writing, post-occupancy analysis is no longer seen as part of the architect’s role, and spatial agents undertaking this analysis may find similar difficulties in undertaking this as those who are trying to move beyond the restrictions of the brief.


This piece was originally prepared for Notes on Metamodernism, on the 2nd August 2011 here.

Awan, N., Schneider, T. & Till, J. (2011), Spatial Agency: Other Ways of Doing Architecture, 1st Edition, Abingdon, Oxon, UK: Routledge