st louis double exposure

Lorens Holm, photomontage of downtown St. Louis, 1990

Place-making – still popular amongst planners in search of a legitimate and certain practice – is derived from a watered-down phenomenology. We attribute the failure of place-making to the phenomenological concept of place as a locus of qualities. In other words, to the place bit of place-making. The making bit is potentially ok. There is an unspoken but underlying phenomenological approach to city thinking that privileges sense experience and has led directly to thinking about places as if they were constituted of qualities. This has led to city planning full of places with terrible qualities because they fail to engender any genuine engagement with the architectural environment. It is precisely the attempt to build qualities that screens or cuts off the occupant from its environment. Think of all the plaster-board Il Redentores that clutter our cities. What is missed is thinking the environment as a grammar-like construction for subject-object relations. Grammar is the structure of a language. The idea of subject-object is borrowed from grammar and grammar is theorised in linguistics. Subject-object only exist in so far as they are positions in a grammar. They exist only within a structured system, the more highly structured, the better. If we want to understand the conditions under which can obtain a genuine, resilient, enduring engagement with the architectural environment, we could do worse than look to the ways we structure our environments and the objects in them. We could do worse than to look sideways at both linguistics and psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis is where subject-object are most fully worked out within the realm of human affairs.

We need to start thinking the city as a structured space in which subject-object are defined as positions relative to each other. How can we talk about a grammar of space, of which the city is an emergent property? How can we talk about the city as a system that has a position for a subject? Film studies talks about the film-goer, which film addresses generically, and which has certain attributes that film is designed for [the 24 frames per second subject]. The economy has its labourer and its capitalist, which exist entirely as functions of the money system. Literature has its reader and its author, such that Barthes could proclaim the death of the author [1967] and Foucault could ask what is an author [1969]. Architectural thinking is not completely bereft of the subject, but it needs to be developed. City studies has the flaneur [1863] for instance, the detached man in the crowd who watches people flow by. This subject is invoked or called into being by the boulevard and its multitudes. For Geddes, the city is an interactive knowledge-scape that invokes, like the agora, the informed voter or participant in democracy. In this view, you cannot have an informed participant of democracy without a certain type of city, not because you cannot vote in the countryside, but because the informed voter is a position defined by a type of city that functions as a knowledge landscape for its inhabitants. [Note – the flaneur is invoked by the boulevard; the agora invokes the participant in democracy] We need to be able to ask of any space, who is its subject?

The phenomenological concept of place, as it is used by architects, is infantilising. If a place is thought as a container for qualities, then the question about places becomes a question about the qualities you like (do you like red? a fountain for the missus?). The subject of place is reduced to a grasper after qualities. Consensus becomes impossible because everyone likes something different. And no one really cares what you like, anyway. Architecture is not about what you want, but about living a good life. As soon as we get away from making places and instead start making structure, we will find that the architectural environment is full of good places to be.

Lets pretend that posts can have footnotes.
In architects’ phenomenological discourse, place is always singular. It is always place, never places, even though place is a ‘thing’ word like car or hat, and not a ‘stuff’ word like, e.g., space, hair, or water. This tends to elevate its status: place becomes an abstract and hallowed concept that sometimes deigns to touch down upon the surface of the earth and bless us with an infusion of its metaphysical content. Imagine if we had hat, which sometimes infused the things we put on our heads with the quality of hatness. We can help to undermine phenomenological discourse amongst architects simply by attending to our language. Always use places [plural] rather than place [singular], in cases were we are not referring to a particular place, but to places generally.


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