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Philosophy of space

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  • Mary
    This is a piece I wrote about architecture and philosophy when my interest was briefly sparked by watching two documentaries, one about Maya Lin, the other
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 3, 2012
      This is a piece I wrote about architecture and philosophy when my interest was briefly sparked by watching two documentaries, one about Maya Lin, the other about Frank Gehry. Both these architects caused controversy, and I suppose that is what drew me to discover more about their work. In the process I came across the concept of architectural activism and learned of some of the philosophies which direct architecture. I think oneiric spaces are critical for children and other creative spirits.

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      Pablo Picasso once said that all children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.

      Career artists often express frustration about the disconnect between themselves and the greater populace; the distance between their work and experience and the experience of the mainstream consumer. I believe a large part of this condition can be blamed on how the non-artist inhabits his space, or rather how people become maladjusted to the private and social spaces they are forced to inhabit by inadequate, non-environmental, and aesthetically dead architecture. Writers, visual artists, singers, musicians, and especially film makers are very keenly aware of their work and living spaces. People are not merely consumers but beings who need time and space for stress relief, contemplation, and yes, reverie.

      Gaston Bachelard, in his "The Poetics of Space," introduced the concept of the oneiric house, filled with special spaces for recalling pleasant images and memories, to connect them with language and creativity. In "Of Other Spaces-Heterotoptias," Michel Foucault expands upon Bachelard's unique phenomenology of inhabited geometry:
      "In any case I believe that the anxiety of our era has to do fundamentally with space, no doubt a great deal more than with time. Time probably appears to us only as one of the various distributive operations that are possible for the elements that are spread out in space."

      Now, despite all the techniques for appropriating space, despite the whole network of knowledge that enables us to delimit or to formalize it, contemporary space is perhaps still not entirely desanctified (apparently unlike time, it would seem, which was detached from the sacred in the nineteenth century). To be sure a certain theoretical desanctification of space (the one signaled by Galileo's work) has occurred, but we may still not have reached the point of a practical desanctification of space. And perhaps our life is still governed by a certain number of oppositions that remain inviolable, that our institutions and practices have not yet dared to break down. These are oppositions that we regard as simple givens: for example between private space and public space, between family space and social space, between cultural space and useful space, between the space of leisure and that of work. All these are still nurtured by the hidden presence of the sacred.

      Bachelard's monumental work and the descriptions of phenomenologists have taught us that we do not live in a homogeneous and empty space, but on the contrary in a space thoroughly imbued with quantities and perhaps thoroughly fantasmatic as well. The space of our primary perception, the space of our dreams and that of our passions hold within themselves qualities that seem intrinsic: there is a light, ethereal, transparent space, or again a dark, rough, encumbered space; a space from above, of summits, or on the contrary a space from below of mud; or again a space that can be flowing like sparkling water, or space that is fixed, congealed, like stone or crystal. Yet these analyses, while fundamental for reflection in our time, primarily concern internal space. I should like to speak now of external space. The space in which we live, which draws us out of ourselves, in which the erosion of our lives, our time and our history occurs, the space that claws and gnaws at us, is also, in itself, a heterogeneous space. In other words, we do not live in a kind of void, inside of which we could place individuals and things. We do not live inside a void that could be colored with diverse shades of light, we live inside a set of relations that delineates sites which are irreducible to one another and absolutely not superimposable on one another.

      These two philosophers, as well as others, have inspired a whole generation of architects who view space much more radically "natural" than their predecessors. Their aesthetic vision has produced activist students of architecture who seek to sensitively and conscientiously combine their art and science for the environment, the homeless and the other disadvantaged, on a global scale heretofore unimagined. Activist & student blogs have sprung up over the Internet to raise awareness; to promote design competitions; to rally volunteers; and to procure funding.

      While we more fortunate inhabitants struggle to survive the stresses of modern society, others live in unsanitary slums or have no home at all. The poverty and natural disasters that exacerbate the need for housing have gained the attention of some very creative and socially conscious architects. Architecture For Humanity, Design Corps are among the vanguard organizations.

      Architect & UC-Berkeley professor Sam Davis's understanding of low-income housing, though not conceptually new, is definitely relevant. In a 2002 interview he cited the failed and now demolished housing projects of New York and Chicago which clustered people into high density towers. Davis said those designs weren't appropriate for families. Children especially were separated from play areas, and there was no "observable, controllable, and secure outdoor space." There is ambivalence about helping the poor; and when housing is finally addressed, it is implemented with minimum design standards. His "view has always been that the goal of affordable housing should be to supply as many of the amenities of the single-family house as you can, even if you have to increase density (number of units per acre). So the housing that we and many other affordable housing architects design tries to include private space immediately adjacent to the public areas, with transitional space in between, and a semi-public space like a central courtyard that's controllable and viewable. You don't want to detach people from the ground, you want them to be able to know their neighbors, you want to make space that's viewable just like you would in any other neighborhood. We went out of our way to make sure every single apartment there has its own front door. They don't share a vestibule or a corridor, every resident has their own address and front door."

      Between 1953 and 1954 I lived in Milwaukee's newly built Westlawn housing project. While not quite as progressive as Davis's vision, it nonetheless was a marked improvement over the stacked boxes design. Each building was a small cluster of townhouses, each home with upstairs' bedrooms and a basement suitable for inside play, private entrances and a young treeless park commons surrounding all the units. I was newly resituated from the Milwaukee County Children's Home, a sprawling institution not unlike a prison or dormitory on a vast campus which we shared with the county's mental institution buildings. We children weren't even allowed to wear our own clothing but dressed in ill-fitting starched cotton sacks and only allotted formal play periods or recesses. I would wander off into deep gulleys filled with autumn leaves, become covered in burrs, and then reluctantly return from my reveries to the beckoning recess bell. But Westlawn was paradise for a child. If small enough, we could escape through the milk chutes out into the new playgrounds to meet friends. This tiny family ideal wouldn't have been possible without the vision of Frank Zeidler, the last socialist mayor of a major U.S. city. Zeidler wisely fought to have the city acquire land from adjacent unincorporated communities, before white flight and urban sprawl became rampant, to avoid creating an "iron ring" around the city's poor. He led two annexation battles and doubled the city's size from 46 square miles to 92. During his tenure, 3,200 units of low-income and veterans housing were built in five projects.

      Unfortunately, after 5 decades, there is still much need for low income housing. The projects are much older, and most families are still trapped in a relentless cycle of poverty. Sally Lundeen, Director of SSNC Family Resource Center writes: "located on the northwest side of Milwaukee, Westlawn, is the largest federally subsidized housing development in Wisconsin, and the surrounding community. Of the 726 housing units in Westlawn, 89% receive public assistance and 80% are headed by single female parents. Ninety percent of the residents are African American, 5% other minorities, and 5% Caucasian. It is a young population, with almost 70% of Westlawn residents under 29 years of age; 51% 17 years of age and under, and 10% birth to 3 years of age. In the northwest side community which surrounds and includes Westlawn, 43.8% of the residents are African American and 51.7% are Caucasian." I'm willing to bet that children who grow up in single family dwellings that follow Sam Davis's architectural sensibilities have a much better chance of breaking out of this cycle.

      But isn't this contrary to the goal of contemporary authoritarian politicians, the social designers, buttressed with their studies of human behavior? They would consign all but an elite to the architecture of productive ant-farms; sleeping tubes like those designed for Japanese businessmen; and to workspace cubicles without windows and fresh air, where those who can't survive or cost the health care system too much are pragmatically booted out the door of the American dream of middle-class comforts.

      It was there on Westlawn grounds, in the grass and dirt that I discovered at eye level the world of grasshoppers and honey bees. In that house, I'd sit on the bedroom steps where I would daydream, avoid taking naps or going to bed at night. I remember the new school; paved parking lots where we'd climb onto cars and `adjust' windshield wipers; and the unpaved roads with new sewers, and a particular one where I once threw my new shoes to avoid impending displacement back to the children's home. It proved only a temporary stall tactic. It would be 35 years before I could buy a house for my own large family.

      Additionally, if I hadn't been fortunate enough to experience the affluence of American middle-classed architecture in the family foster homes of my childhood, I don't know if I'd have survived. The stability of place and a space to dream is a human right. A half-century of serious instability of space has increased the fomenting and prospects of violent political movements. It's difficult to think and interact freely in communities in which even the humblest home is in constant jeopardy. The very least urban and governmental developers can do is responsibly choose and construct designs that afford families even better spaces to dream.

      I stumbled across the concept of architectural activism while studying two controversial artists: Maya Lin, who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and Frank Gehry, who is coincidentally a former advisory board member of Architecture For Humanity. Yes, responsible architecture implements holistic function and environmental stewardship; but just as importantly it converts the utopian idea of space, which has no actual site, into practical places amenable to the kinds of creative thinking that might develop strategies to protect our planet and species from further catastrophe. I greatly enjoy the grand spectacle of architectural sculpture, which certainly fulfills the heterotopian ideal; but I also appreciate that we can't only eat cake. Architectural bread can be produced in urban grassroots, in the forests, alongside levees, or near the shore. The homeless, more than any other, need this bread first. They need oneiric space where they can contemplate their place now and in the future.
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      Mary
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