Walter Benjamin commented that, “Buildings are appropriated in a twofold manner: by use and by perception”. On the “use” side of Benjamin’s stance is Heidegger, who writes that architecture as experienced in everyday life revolves around the act of dwelling and is best understood through it. Again, I’m thinking about works of fiction, and again it seems that a fictional account of a real place is a rich way of examining the ways in which the spaces represented are used. “A novel is a figurative mapping,” writes J Hillis Miller in reference to Heidegger’s work:
The story trances out diachronically the movement of characters from house to house and from time to time, as the crisscross of their relationships gradually creates an imaginary space. This space is based on the real landscape, charged now with the subjective meaning of the story that has been enacted within it.
There is value, too, to examining the way place is described by characters with no pretence to architectural or academic credentials. They are Lefebvre’s producers, Heidegger’s dwellers. Jane Rendell starts to pick apart texts as a means of reflecting different architectural experiences in her work To Miss The Desert but acknowledges that this is only a beginning. She brings an intersectional feminist angle to the investigation, recognising that the cultural diversity of the voices in the work and the foreign-ness of the situation is key to developing a cross-cultural understanding of architecture. Writing about architects writing, Rolf Hughes calls on us to “investigate through a close engagement with genre and style, related questions of voice and subjectivity, point-of-view and perspective, gender and embodiment”. Engaging with a greater range of writings is one way to begin. It offers us a way of seeing identities formed within architectural environments and, crucially, allows us to hear otherwise marginalised voices.
There are contemporary designers and architects and theorists, perhaps best exemplified by Jeremy Till, who argue that appreciating the way architecture is understood by those outside the insular and somewhat artificial sphere of the profession is key to designing good places. This has led to a growing interest in the “everyday” aspects of architecture. Some explorations in this area have used field-study techniques to observe and analyse how people act in various spaces, but rarely focus on how the place is viewed (‘produced’, in Lefebvre’s terminology) in other ekphrastic sources. It leads me again to ekphrasis, to creative reinterpretation; to the way a place is captured on a map, framed in a photograph, explored through film; the shifting connections between a fictive city and its real counterpart; the half-known, half-knowable influences of past events and ideas. Each serves to illuminate some aspects of the relationship between architecture, place and people.
Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. H. Eiland and K. McLauchlin (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1999)
Rolf Hughes, ‘The Drowning Method’, Critical Architecture, ed. by Jane Rendell, Jonathan Hill, Murray Fraser and Mark Dorrian (Abingdon: Routledge, 2007), pp.92-102
Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, ed. by Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991)
Jane Rendell,‘Site-writing’, in Critical Architecture, ed. by Jane Rendell, Jonathan Hill, Murray Fraser and Mark Dorrian (Abingdon: Routledge, 2007), pp. 150-162
Katherine Shonfield, ‘The Use of Fiction to Interpret Architecture and Urban Space’, The Journal of Architecture, 5 (2000), 369–389