Perception

One thing that has struck me as I’ve been starting to think about analysing fiction for my dissertation is the fundamental subjectivity of architectural experience, and the questions of perception which surround it. There are architectural theorists who have written about this, of course. Phenomenologists like Pallasmaa posit that architecture is always vague and can only be framed through subjective experience: its boundaries are indeterminate, and it should be recognised that architecture is not an absolute set of conditions. It is individual and changeable, sensory and temporal. Given this, it’s easy to consider that there are elements of architectural experience which are captured in prose – in fiction – in a way which can be related to architectural discourse. The smell of the air, the appearance of the material in a certain light, the atmosphere; each is recorded in a particular way to create or enhance a particular impression. The representation is selective yet complete. It both records and creates a perception of space.

A perception of space. This – the ways in which places are perceived and understood – is a core concept of architectural theory. There are swathes of argument about place and narrative, place and context, place and identity. One key analysis is Henri Lefebvre’s 1974 book The Production of Space, in which he contrasts the perceived space (‘le perçu’) of everyday public life with the conceived space (‘le conçu’) of planners, cartographers and architects and with lived space (‘le vécu’), which is imagined, fuelled by arts and literature. In this conceptualisation it’s clear to see the contrast between place as understood (and as described) by professionals working with the built environment and place as described by the general public. His writing frames the production of space as a profoundly political act, multiplicitous and complex, a set of social and cultural forces acting on a physical environment.

He goes on to emphasise the role that creative description has to play in our relationship with places: ekphrastic representation adds layers of meaning and experience to a place precisely because of what it conveys about the way in which that place is lived. It enables us to build narratives around a place and those narratives shape it just as much as any formal architectural element. Space is, in his thesis, a projection of our mental life. It exists as it is imagined (literally made into an image). It could be argued, therefore, that a novel can make a space exist through representing it – not make it exist in a physical sense, but in that it gives it a social reality it would not otherwise have had. It is this imagined reality with which architects can – but sometimes fail to – engage.

Another Marxist-humanist theorist, Walter Benjamin, notes that, “Buildings are appropriated in a twofold manner: by use and by perception”. In so saying he supports the Lefebvrian view that there are ways of understanding a place which go beyond its spatial qualities. There is a recognition in his work that literature (the constructed metaphor) and architecture (the material form) are reciprocal, and that they are intertwined with identity. For Benjamin the construction of the metaphor (the act of mimesis or ekphrasis) is a linguistic act. Words allow similarities to be discovered and restated in new ways, and so reveal elements which may otherwise have been imperceptible. Among the theorists who have written about this relationship is De Certeau, who explains space as a fictional construct. He talks about the distinction between the “fact” of the city and its fictional or metaphorical counterpart – although for him the fact is the city inhabited by people whereas the fiction is the idea of the city constructed by institutions and authorities. Nevertheless, these analyses support the argument that the social and cultural contexts of a place are a fundamental part of how it is perceived.

Literary critic J Hillis Miller – a literary theorist of place badly overlooked in architectural circles – brings context further still to the fore when he posits that we cannot imagine space itself; what we imagine are the events which frame or form that space in our mind. There is always a context, a set of temporal or environmental conditions, a sequence of actions, a story. The unfolding narrative of the events which are, in a very literal sense, taking place. If narrative is key to our understanding of space then it seems that a novel, which is nothing if not narration, is a powerful vehicle for interrogating notions of space and place-making.

Walter Benjamin, ‘On the Mimetic Faculty’, in Reflections (NewYork: Schocken, 1986)

Michel De Certeau, The Practice of Every-day Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984)

J Hillis Miller, Topographies (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995)

Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, ed. by Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991)

Juhani Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses (Chichester: Wiley, 2005)