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On Architecture and the Making of Subjects

We shape our buildings, and afterwards, our buildings shape us.
— Winston Churchill, Speech to the House of Commons (1943)

This interplay between spatiality and subjectivity is precisely how Keller Easterling introduces her seminar, and the same manner in which she opens her recent book by the same title: Medium Design: Knowing How to Work on the World. Namely, by suggesting that objects in a room are performative, each projecting latent potentials.1 Subjects within a room are also  performing, as one is constantly doing things that reduce the potential for violence, such as changing the temperature, tending to a child, or putting away one’s shoes.2 This spatiotemporal performativity gives way to subjectivity—one is shaped by and made into who they are precisely because of, or perhaps even in spite of, a certain time and place. This paper is written in response to Keller Easterling's seminar, “Medium Design” presented at The European Graduate School in September 2021, and will further explore the intersection of architecture as the inhabitation of spatiality and subjectivity, performativity, and precarity—or why it matters.

To begin, space is broadly understood both in this paper as well as in Easterling’s lecture as: architecture in general, both public and private; space as dwelling, in reference to one’s home or living space; space as the commons, shared by or accessible to all; and space as infrastructure, concerning bridges, highways, landscapes, as well as cyberspace. For Henri Lefebvre, who’s written extensively on the topic, space is inherently social and tied directly to human experience, as subjects are situated within space as active participants. In his text, The Production of Space, Lefebvre writes: “space is not a thing among other things, nor a product among other products: rather, it subsumes things produced, and encompasses their interrelationships in their coexistence and simultaneity — their (relative) order and/or (relative) disorder."3 Arguably, space as it’s used here cannot be understood apart from subjectivity. At the very least, it is difficult to locate discourses on space as such. For the Swiss-French architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, known as Le Corbusier, “The purpose of construction is to make things hold together; the purpose of architecture, to move us.”4 Elsewhere in the same text, he writes “The house is a machine for living in.”5 Alain de Botton, although not architect but philosopher, writes on the happiness of architecture and shares a similar sentiment:

We depend on our surroundings obliquely to embody the moods and ideas we respect and then to remind us of them. We look to our buildings to hold us, like a kind of psychological mould, to a helpful vision of ourselves. We arrange around us material forms which communicate to us what we need — but are at constant risk of forgetting what we need — within. We turn to wallpaper, benches, paintings and streets to staunch the disappearance of our true selves [emphasis added].6

Even Heidegger writes that the domain to which building belongs is, in fact, dwelling.7 He is quick to clarify that not every building is a dwelling — bridges and roads are obvious in this regard, serving more as the liminal spaces in-between dwellings. Lastly, Elizabeth Grosz writing on the nature of the architectural space that is cyberspace affirms subjects who, while spatially dispersed, come together in a shared environment. Indeed, cyberspace as such invites participation.8

What becomes clear is that there is an undeniable interplay between the making and re-making of space, and the subjects and objects therein. As an entanglement of performativity — interdependencies, chain reactions, relative potentials, processes, assemblages and affordances — it is the task of the designer, indeed the task of everyone, to design with this mode of interplay in mind. For the physicist, all matter exists only through ongoing entangled relationships. As Karen Barad suggests, “All bodies, including but not limited to human bodies, come to matter through the world's iterative intra-activity—it's performativity.”9 To make this more succinct, in research conducted on a public housing project, Lisa Henry Benham opens with the statement: “Crown Heights, Brooklyn is created and recreated in the speeches and gestures of its occupants. It is one of the most graphic examples of the negotiation of identity and place.”10 The moment to moment identity of Crown Heights — much like the moment to moment identity of all public spaces — is constantly in flux due to the movement of very distinct communities throughout the shared public space.

Architecture as the space of inhabitation has always been tied to the making of subjects; more particularly, to our understanding of identity, performativity, and precarity. Before women were allowed access to the public sphere, to be female was to be posited within the home. Women constituted our interior understanding of space as domesticity, whereby men were allowed to exist and constitute their existence outside the boundaries of space. As Jan Smitherman states, “The subject, then, understood through the lens of spatial performativity is constituted through and named in space-acts, which in effect mark the subject position within spatial relations, and outside the norms of the discipline internalised within the domestic.”11 We are shaped by space as much as space is shaped by us. Identities are constructed within certain places. We are who we are precisely because of the spaces we've inhabited. Benham utilizes David Brown’s work on “Sonorous Urbanism” to define subject formation and place-making as, “the enacting of identities [or spaces] in fact brings those identities [spaces] into being, rather than expressing some predetermined essence.”12 Judith Butler is a forerunner for using the theory of gender performativity as a point of departure for considering precarious communities and the spatiotemporal assembly of bodies in the public sphere as a performative enactment.13 This theory of performativity is one of becoming, emphasizing the repetition of stylization and acts over time which produces an “appearance of substance.”14 More recently, Butler has defined performativity as “that characteristic of linguistic utterances that in the moment of making the utterance makes something happen or brings some phenomenon into being [emphasis added].”15 While Butler does not explicitly locate performativity within a particular spatiotemporal context, it is nevertheless implicitly present throughout their work.

As Easterling suggests, design is necessarily teleological.16 Space matters because it affects how we live our lives. How might we conceptualize the interplay of social change, architecture and spatially-embedded subjects? We might start with a consideration of what this means for the different types of non-place spaces — liminal spaces, the in-between of places, thresholds, edgelands, or deterritorialized landscapes — what, in sum, we might refer to as the negation of place as such, or negative space, in a time of hyper-mobility wherein we might be in any of such spaces, and particularly when taking modes of transit. I am also thinking here of the non-place spaces occupied by those whose spaces now cease to exist, the displaced refugees of war, or the sans papiers who are considered alien to the places they now find themselves. How interstates and highways are made to cut through Black and brown neighborhoods, quite literally separating whole communities and families, sometimes without the addition of a crosswalk to bridge the gap. Easterling spoke on the irony of how roads which are meant to connect people often increase the distance between people, causing further segregation.17 This disproportionately affects Black and brown communities who are continually losing access to the commons. Decimated infrastructure, more often than not, goes hand in hand with precarious lives.

The call of political action requires that we reconfigure contemporary spaces. As Easterling suggests, we must take note of what we see when we enter a space, and ask who is the “we?” The people who live there are the best theoreticians and livers of the space they're in.18 Still yet, I am reminded of Judith Butler’s profound claim in Notes of a Performative Theory of Assembly: “‘We the people’ the—utterance, the chant, the written line—is always missing some group of people it claims to represent.”19 Butler has written extensively on the notion that a politics of alliance depends on an ethics of cohabitation. For Grosz, “The place of the destitute, the homeless, the sick and the dying, the place of social and cultural outsiders — including women and minorities of all kinds — must also be the concern of the architectural and the urban just as it has been of philosophy and politics.”20 Where the politics of architecture fails is when people lose access to the commons and precarious lives are being made and remade in decimated infrastructures.

Medium Design, as proposed by Easterling, is a strategy of response to infrastructure, perhaps especially failed infrastructure, and a working towards alternative futures. It is a dispositional modality that emerges in liminal spaces, and within a time of hyper-mobility, as a new kind of commons. With regard to this new commons, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri write:

[Those] who cross borders and nations, deserts and seas, who are forced to live precariously in ghettos and take the most humiliating work in order to survive, who risk the violence of police and anti-immigrant mobs, demonstrate the central connections between the processes of translation and the experience of "commoning": multitudes of strangers, in transit and staying put, invent new means of communicating with others, new modes of acting together, new sites of encounter and assembly — in short they constitute a new commons without ever losing their singularities.21

Here is a sort of mobile commons, or a commons in-transit, a topic taken up by Mimi Sheller, in her recent text Mobility Justice: The Politics of Movement in an Age of Extremes: “What if the commons were not just about the sharing of a territory, a space, a resource, or a product, but could also refer to the affordances and capabilities for practices of moving, traveling, gathering, assembling, as well as pausing and being present? What if we conceived of mobility itself as a commons, and the commons as mobile?”22 Sheller’s conception of the commons as mobile is a response to, or the aftermath of, failed and failing infrastructure and spaces of inhabitation. Considered in light of Stavros Stravides’ work on emancipatory spatialities and potentials of cities, he writes: “The aftermath has to be a new spatial experience. For an aftermath to be experienced as a rupture in the sequence of habits, new conditions of dwelling must emerge.”23 Medium Design, then, becomes about what we do and who we become in light of spatiotemporal ruptures.

The politics of architecture matters precisely because spatiality gives way to subjectivity, forging a direct link between the types of subjects who emerge from places of decimated infrastructure. There is a certain responsibility that must be taken here, as it is no longer first nature to imagine cohabitation with the precarious; so often they are forgotten. Medium Design asks that we reconceptualize our work within the inhabitation of space and the performative potentials of the making of subjects, especially among the precarious.

1. Keller Easterling, Medium Design: Knowing How to Work on the World (Brooklyn: Verso, 2021), vii.
2. Keller Easterling, “Medium Design,” (seminar, The European Graduate School, September 12, 2021).
3. Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1991), 73.
4. Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, (New York: Dover Publications, 1985), 19.
5. Ibid., 107.
6. Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness (New York: Vintage, 2008), 107.
7. Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 143.
8. Elizabeth Grosz, Architecture from the Outside: Essays on Virtual and Real Space (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001), 42.
9. Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 39.
10. Lisa C. Henry Benham, “Diversity in Architectural Process: Identity and the Performance of Place,” in 20 on 20/20 Vision (Boston: AIA Diversity Committee and Boston Society of Architects, 2003), 90.
11. Jan Smitheram, “Spatial Performativity/Spatial Performance,” Architectural Theory Review, 16:1, (April 2011): 60, DOI: 10.1080/13264826.2011.560387
12. David P. Brown, “Sonorous Urbanism: Spatial Implications of the AAMC,” in Sites of Memory: Perspectives on Architecture and Race, ed. Craig E. Barton (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2001), quoted in Benham, “Diversity in Architectural Process,” 91.
13. See Judith Butler, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015).
14. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1999), 41.
15. Butler, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, 28.
16. Easterling, “Medium Design,” September 26, 2021.
17. Ibid.
18. Easterling, “Medium Design,” September 19, 2021.
19. Butler, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, 28.
20. Grosz, Architecture from the Outside, xvii.
21. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Assembly (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 152-53.
22. Mimi Sheller, Mobility Justice: The Politics of Movement in an Age of Extremes (Brooklyn: Verso, 2018), 161.
23. Stavros Stravides, Towards the City of Thresholds (Brooklyn: Common Notions, 2019), 60.