Space is the Place

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Let’s do some space-talkin’. I’m copy-pasting some of the notes for the lecture I gave this week for first year Global Studies students.

How can we define space? We can see space as a surface upon which we, human beings, move from A to B, in an X amount of time. In geographies prior to the spatial turn and the rise a humanist branch, space was primarily seen as a physical, mathematical and geometrical issue, expressing the surface of cities, regions, etc. We can see it as something measurable, tangible, even as a parceled product where 1m2=X €. We can see space as a matter of distance and mobility, too.

Secondly. It is a matter of distance not only between different administrative centers but also between persons. We can talk about a personal space, about the distance between the student and the teacher and how that affects their interaction. If I, the professor, stay on the stage, I’m positioned higher which symbolically increases my power as the professor, my superposition in the hierarchy between students and the professor. However, if I come closer to you, or if I sit among you, we are closer to establishing a relationship among equals. Or, for example, if we had met for the first time in a bar, and if I’d asked you for permission to join you at the table, if we’d engaged in a conversation, you might me more likely to intervene or oppose my ideas. Or change the topic. However, right now, in this situation I choose the topic. And, amongst other aspects, it is the space that configures our interaction.

This leads us to the third point of view of space. The spatial environment  modifies our behavior as space embeds social relations. According to the socio-spatial dialectics, space is produced by social organization and production and, in the meantime, the way space is constructed shapes our social relations (Ed. Soja).  So we can speak about social space and the production of space. Briefly speaking, the novelty of a social view of space is that instead of seeing it as a mere surface that we step upon, it is a multitude of stories and histories that compound a complex matter that we, as quotidian travelers must have in mind in our dwelling.

Spatial turn

The term social space was coined by the sociologist George Simmel who positioned social interactions in a spatial context, being a pioneer at the time (end of the 19th century). However, the proper spatial turn took place around the 1960s-70s in the Humanities and Social Sciences that were opposing the dominating way of analyzing past events in a historiographical Hegelian key, seeing History and the past as something linear and ever-accumulating. Intellectuals such as Gaston Bachelard, Lefebvre or Debord contributed to the construction of a new body of analysis of past and present events, focusing primarily on their spatial aspect.  Why was the New World colonized? Why was Tianmen square the center of protests and bloody State oppression? This was a new type of approach, until the spatial turn space was seen as a lateral element of historical events.

One of the main scholars that contributed to the spatial turn and the tripartite division of space was Henri Lefebvre. Lefebvre was a sociologist and philosopher coming from the Hegelian and neo-Marxist tradition, in his early career he was a member of the Communist party and he also showed interest for the avant-garde movements such as Surrealism and Situationism and their somewhat utopian urban interventions. Funding his theory of Moments, he believed that ‘revolution’ either arrives in the everyday or it’ll never arrive. A Moment is, according to Lefebvre, a revelation that may arrive unexpectedly and never be repeated, however, one can recall the experience. Moments cannot be captured nor ‘ruined’ by the capitalist mode of production and are thus crucial instants for seeking and provoking a change. In his three-volume Critique of the Everyday Life he critiques…the everyday life of the consumptionist culture, similarly to Guy Debord’s Society of Spectacle. In the midst of his critique of the everyday life, Lefebvre wrote his obra magna, The Production of Space, where he introduces the spatial triad, dividing space into perceived, conceived and lived space. Posterior authors such as Ed Soja and David Harvey have re-developed it and given it new or perhaps more convenient names, Soja dividing space between first, second and thirdspace; Harvey speaking about absolute, relative and relational space. Here you have a little explanatory table.

 

 The tripartite division of space

Edward Soja First space Second Space Thirdspace
Henri Lefebvre Material space/

Perceived space

Representation of space/

Conceived space

Space of representation/

Lived space

David Harvey Absolute space Relative space Relational space
Characteristics Measurable

Tangible

Physical

Administrational

Geometrical

Designed/planned for a purpose

Representative

Symbolical

Space of power/control

 

Imaginable

Appropriated

Political

Analytical

Utopian

A space “that will be”

Examples –        Euclidean geometrics

–        Cartesian coordinates

–                 €/m 2

–                 Built environment and physical  structure of buildings per se

–        Centre Cultural del Born and its surroundings as a space of power

–        Statues/monuments representing past events

–        Artworks that use a representational language to depict lived spaces

–        Domestic space projected for a determined family structure

–       15 –M

–       Urban interventions

–       Graffiti

–       Street performance (unauthorized)

–       Appropriated public spaces (Forat de la Vergonya)

–       Squats/invading uninhabited buildings

And some final quotes:

“ Space is not a scientific object removed from ideology and politics; it has always been political and strategic. If space has an air of neutrality and indifference with regard to its contents and thus seems to be “purely” formal, the epitome of rational abstraction, it is pre- cisely because it has been occupied and used, and has already been the focus of past processes whose traces are not always evident on the landscape. Space has been shaped and molded from historical and natural elements, but this has been a political process. Space is political and ideological. It is a product literally filled with ideologies.” Lefebvre, La Revolution Urbaine (1970)

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Blow my whistle, baby (from Medellín’s contemporary fortresses)

Browsing through Medellín: guía de la transformación ciudadana. 2004- 2011  (Alcaldía de Medellín, 2011) I stumbled upon some interesting pieces of architecture that were constructed with the aim of providing peripheral areas of Medellín security and protection. What seems like a fortress at first sight, was allegedly conceived as a lighthouse meant to “illuminate and orientate man in dark lands”.*

Commissioned by EDU [Empresa de Desarrollo Urbano de Medellín], the architect of the seven security buildings [CAI-s periféricos], John Octavio Ortiz Lopera describes their conception in the following way: “these buildings are designed based on communal imaginary that allow us to recuperate and strengthen the positive image of the police and the state in peripheral developing territories. The physical investment is accompanied by social programmes and integral policies of security and cohabiting that seek the comprehensive transformation of the city.”*

The first thing that comes to my mind is how very awesome it is when architects know how to turn whichever piece of construction into a nearly sublime lived experience thanks to their well developed rhetoric. Secondly, what bullshit! Take a look a the building below (and check this video if  you don’t get the picture) and you’ll also be asking where is it that the interaction with the citizenry takes place. I mean, sure, the hillside areas need a stronger police presence because of the high crime rates, but must the surveillance system really be made so very obvious?

1328198424-cai-perifericos-6-referente-en-el-dia

1328198531-cai-perifericos-23-edificios-amigables

9 CAI-s were projected covering pretty much the whole hillside periphery of the valley of Aburrá (in which Medellín sits), leaving only the area corresponding to the district of El Poblado outside the surveillance network. El Poblado is Medellín’s high-end neighborhood where the majority of the city’s wealth is concentrated in tall vertical buildings equipped with private pools, gyms, etc.  The location of the buildings corresponds to areas that have been difficult to access and where the state has been absent thus far. Offering security through the 24h presence of policemen, the CAIs pretend to lower crime rates in areas where the arrival of police officers used to be nearly impossible or simply too time-demanding to correspond the necessities of the residents. As the architect contends, “during the daytime the CAIs have a friendly, colorful image, opposing the conventionally cold and monochromatic look of surveillance buildings.”*

Mapa ubicación CAIs periféricos.png

Both through Henri Lefebvre and Michel Foucult’s work, the idea of panopticism and the use of architecture as a means of social control has been disseminated. Going back to medieval times, hospitals, jails and orphanages were located in the peripheral areas of the city to maintain the ‘contagious’ at a safe distance to avoid them infecting others with diseases or malicious behavior. The church was naturally the center of the urbanization (and the Universe) as that is where good behavior and moral is taught. While Foucault speaks of panoptical architecture as structures with a central element that allow a special someone to observe his surroundings from above; Lefebvre revealed the dangers of  sublime architecture, especially the type that makes man feel small (churches, towers, skyscrapers, etc.) as according to him it serves the interest of making man obey those in posession of the construction.

Despite residents’ smiling faces that appear in the video commissioned by EDU, confirming their neighborhood becoming safer, I question the inclusivity of these buildings that are mainly designed as watching towers, including beds and a kitchen to allow the 24h presence of police officers. Despite its aims of representing “illuminating” architecture, the holes in the superior part of the building are more similar to medieval fortifications’ arrowslits that allowed shooting the enemy whilst remaining in safeguard.

 

*All quotes were translated by the author of the blog and taken from this article, just like the images. The video is courtesy of EDU.