Comfortable // Uncomfortable Places: details of the SHU Space & Place Group’s theme and programme of events for 2019

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“The villa thus combined in a single unit of material production the general traits of Roman society (an order grounded in juridical principles), refined, albeit not very creative – aesthetic taste, and a search for the comforts of life.”

Henri Lefebvre (1991) The Production of Space, p. 252.

All cultures have their cults. A quick Amazon search for recently published books on “home” finds a plethora of user guides to life improvement through home rearrangement: Shearer & Teplin’s The Home Edit: Conquering the Clutter with Style, Walton’s This is Home: The Art of Simple Living, Rapinchuk’s Clean Mama’s Guide to a Healthy Home: The Simple, Room-by-Room Plan for a Natural Home and Blomquist’s Home is Where the Heart Is: How to Create a Home You Love, to mention but four works published over the last year. The message is clear: greater contentment, greater achievement and self-actualisation are there for the grasping through an explicit design and practice of dwelling. We may sneer at the programmatic optimism of such guides, but to at least some degree we all do it – we take active steps to dwell comfortably – we all arrange the place we live and work in, in order to (hopefully) achieve desirable effects and to eliminate, or hold at bay those things that might otherwise leave us feeling disorientated, and alienated from our surroundings. Matters of comfort and discomfort have profound effects upon our built and natural environments, upon our society and our economy (the UK ‘home improvement’ market is said to be worth £12 billion p.a.).

With these thoughts in mind, the SHU Space & Place Group’s programme of events this year will be enquiring into the comforts and discomforts of place.

The SHU SPG group promotes dialogue and collaboration across the full range of disciplines interested in matters of space and place, both within Sheffield Hallam University, and beyond. We have been active since 2012, each year running informal events which playfully explore relevant themes. Previous years have seen us focus on ‘the politics of space’, ‘infrastructure’, ‘soundscapes’, ‘seaside towns’ and ‘spaces of learning and doing’.

The SHU Space & Place Group will be running three events this semester, as warm ups for our Annual Away-Day in early July.

Details of our events are given below. Each event is free-standing (and free to attend) but each will explore an aspect of the year’s theme, through different angles and formats. The first two events are intentionally small, in order to maximise participant engagement, the third is a little larger and the fourth (our Annual Away Day) will feature a mix of sessions which – based on previous years – will attract around 60 delegates.

Booking for Events 1 and 2 is via email to me (l.e.bennett@shu.ac.uk) due to the need to keep an eye on participant numbers. An Eventbrite booking sites will be set up for Events 3 and 4 in due course. The links will be added here when available, as will further details of the Annual Away Day programme as it evolves over the course of the three warm-up events.

EVENT 1: a discussion workshop on “The afteruses of ‘Uncomfortable Heritage’ places”12-1.30pm on Friday 8 March (City Campus, Norfolk 503) [please note change of time]

This discussion will focus upon Pendlebury et al’s recent paper on the reuse of ‘uncomfortable’ heritage places (Pendlebury, Wang & Law (2018) ‘Re-using ‘uncomfortable heritage’: the case of the 1933 building, Shanghai’, International Journal of Heritage Studies, 24(3) 211-229). The discussion will be led by Carolyn Gibbeson, Luke Bennett and Simon Kincaid (all of SHU, Natural & Built Environment) who will each briefly explaining how their own research work touches on aspects of managing (or erasing) ‘difficult’, ‘dark’ or ‘uncomfortable’ buildings and places. This will then lead into a wider, open group discussion of Pendlebury et al’s paper in relation to themes such as:

i) Is re-use imperative for Uncomfortable Heritage? Can/should it be left to die? Is an imperative to utility maximisation and/or profitable reuse wrong?

ii) Is there a gap between studies of conservation (and its materialities) and heritage (and its focus on meaning making)? How better could this gap be closed?

iii) Do we see the ‘buildings of control and reform’ category as helpful in explaining why certain types of building are particularly hard to re-purpose?

iv) Isn’t academic writing about the (former) lives of buildings as much an example of narrative engineering and a selective memorialisation and forgetting as that of the redeveloper/marketer?

v) How helpful do we find Luna’s (2013) classification of reuse types as autonomous, symbiotic or parasitic?

vi) Is heritage preserved and/or revealed in the materiality, architectonic and experiential qualities of being within a re-purposed building? How important are those qualities and the atmosphere that they create, and is it always benign / something that adds value, authenticity etc?

Delegates will need to have read Pendlebury et al’s paper before the event and to have registered for the event (by emailing l.e.bennett@shu.ac.uk).

EVENT 2: a discussion workshop on “Getting comfortable with Lefebvre’s spatial triad”2-4pm on Wednesday 10 April (City Campus, Harmer 2401)

This workshop will be led by Yvonne Rinkart (SHU, Natural & Built Environment), and it will offer up an opportunity to explore Henri Lefebvre’s notoriously Delphic but ubiquitous ‘spatial triad’, The session will be based around a close reading of extracts from Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space (pages 33 and 38 to 43 of Donald Nicholson-Smith’s translation published by Blackwell in 1991) combined with an opportunity to ‘learn by doing’ by interrogating ‘concepts in space’ within the setting of the City Centre campus’ atrium. This active investigation of theory and research practice is in keeping with the SHU SPG’s interdisciplinary assay of the Southbourne Building in 2013. Big times lie ahead for the atrium space (it is soon to be closed for a 16 month refit). This makes it a great venue to think about the past, present and future weave of designed intentions, everyday uses and rhythms to be found in this busy University space.

Delegates will need to have the Lefebvre’s extracts before the event and to have registered for the event (by emailing l.e.bennett@shu.ac.uk). Delegates will also find it helpful to have considered the aspirations of the SHU Estates Masterplan for the refit [here] alongside the following critical article on the link between University design, comfort and productivity: Hancock & Spicer (2011) ‘Academic Architecture and the Constitution of the New Model Worker’, Culture and Organization, 17 (2) 91-106.

EVENT 3: a seminar on “Feeling comfortably at home: Four investigations”, 2-4pm on Wednesday 15 May 2019 (Collegiate campus, room tbc)

This event, which will be led by Jenni Brooks (SHU, Sociology), will draw together a cross section of researchers and creators who have as their core concern the design, use and enjoyment of comfortable dwelling, both in domestic and other settings. Giving 15 minute presentations, each speaker will range across questions such as: Where is home? What does it mean to dwell comfortably? How can different groups’ (and individuals’) needs for comfortable dwelling spaces differ? To what extent can design that pursues homeliness be divisive or discriminatory? Speakers will include:

  • Jenni Brooks presenting on how people with dementia articulate their sense of home and community in their blogging activities;
  • Jonathan Took (SHU, Natural & Built Environment) on the inclusive design of school environments to better address the needs of autistic learners:
  • Joanne Lee (SHU, Institute of Arts) on the strange correspondence of the Danish hygge home-aesthetic and UK notions of cleanliness and anti-immigration sentiment; and
  • Anja Uhren (freelance illustrator, anjauhren.com) talking about the inspiration for, and her execution of, her graphic works Home: Forgotten Places Remembered and What Is Home?.

There will then be an open discussion of ‘comfort’ across all sense of ‘dwelling’. All welcome. Further details on venue and how to book will be provided nearer the time.

EVENT 4: the SHU Space & Place Annual Awayday 2019 “Comfortable and Uncomfortable Places”: 9am-5pm Wednesday, 3rd July 2019 (provisional date – and venue tbc, probably Sheffield’s (former) Head Post Office)

The Awayday will pull together (and/or extend) strands emerging from Events 1 to 3 within its more expansive and playful format. Therefore the content for this event is likely to emerge over the months ahead, and we’re happy to receive any expressions of interest from colleagues (within or beyond SHU) who would like to do something to contribute to exploring the comfort // discomfort of place at our event in July. We already have a keynote presentation by Amanda Crawley Jackson (French Studies, University of Sheffield) who will speak on discomfort from the perspective of plasticity, post-traumatic landscapes & difficult urban memory, drawing upon Lefebvre and Georges Didi-Huberman to do so.  If you would like to offer any suggested contribution please email any ideas to me, at: l.e.bennett@shu.ac.uk.

Booking and venue details will be confirmed by an announcement here in due course.

Image credit: Page from Anja Uhren’s What is Home?: (https://anjauhren.myportfolio.com/what-is-home-) – reproduced with permission.

 

[NB: This page will be updated from time to time: last revised on 19 February 2019 to change start time of Event 1 to 12noon]

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Back in the Grotto: elf ‘n’ safety, providence and thrill

 

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“law is a project aimed at manipulating, governing and channelling senses into precise categories, boundaries and definitions; at the same time, it is a process emerging out of the sensorial intermingling of human and nonhuman, tangible and intangible bodies, as such inseparable from this continuum.”

Andrea Pavoni, Controlling Urban Events: Law, Ethics and the Material (2018) Glasshouse/Routledge. p.159

All around me elves and safety, as we walk along the winding path at the come-and-pet-a-goat-this-used-to-be-a-working-farm-once-y’know attraction. I’ve been here before – to this place and to this theme – I didn’t come here as research. A mid December family outing saw us rock up. The place is near-empty, slightly too cold, and not quite close enough to Christmas to have any air of anticipation. It would also make more sense if there was snow. Too much ex-farmyard scrub and scrap remains in view, a blanket of white would knit everything together nicely. But that cold unity would create problems of its own – paths to be cleared and gritted to ensure maximal circulation of this place.

We are given a map – cartoon style (as everywhere) it carves up this place into zones, allocating themes, promises of particular atmospheres and colour-coded do’s and don’ts. The design of the map, and the topography that it represents, assumes that we will walk at a certain place, along particular routes and have particular sensations and experiences along the way. The places we are not supposed to go – the backstage, attraction-enabling, zones – are shown only part-drawn at the periphery. No colour-coded lines of movement run through them. These places are meant to look so unexciting that they will be entirely uninviting. A subtle form of prohibition based upon an engineered reversal of desire – an aversion-lite. It is sufficient for most, though risks a beguiling counter-attraction effect for some contrarians.

It all gets me thinking again about how places are parsed and encoded in the name of ‘health and safety’, and how some of the resulting normative orders are clearly contributing to that goal, whilst others seem simply the modern – acceptable – way of saying, “this is private”. And also that in “attractions” like this place, there is a dual encoding, a conformity to the curator’s perception about provident risk management sits alongside a staging of thrill, simulated jeopardy, or authenticity.

I ponder the tensions between these as I stoop to bend my lanky body into the mesh, caged frame of a sheep trailer and set off on a jolting tractor ride around the site. We stare out at the park and its uncaged patrons, who stare back sometimes envious (we were ahead of them in the queue for this experience) and others who view us as entertainment – a cage of strangers trundling around the petting zoo. Human flesh, in a pen-on-wheels that smells like it was host to an incontinent flock earlier that day. Then the highpoint, first the three-point turn in the otherwise off-limits backstage storage bay, then being sprayed with water jets as we meander down dedicated tractor-only trails amidst the motley assortment of inflatable santas, elves and snowmen. They also stare at us, except for the ones who have fallen over or twisted away in the flatland winds, now facing obstinately elsewhere.

This wet smell-fest assault is hardly the glass skywalk in Shinuizhai National Geological Park, China, where an exposure to fear is the raison d’etre of the place, but clearly we are meant to be destablised by this tractor ride – and we might leave unfulfilled were there to be no simulated jeopardy at this place. We’re we to be feeling entirely safe and certain here would mean that the place had failed as an “attraction” – a place that offers the promise of an encounter with something non-standard, and not entirely under our control.

So, having obediently washed my hands and (having brought our own picnic) not eaten it in the warm cafe area but instead in the designated cold, outdoor shame-benches of the frugal, I decided to offer-up the following conference abstract to the ‘Practising Legal Geography’ session at RGS-IBG 2019 (London, 28-30 August) – see last month’s post for details of the CFP:

Providence in place management: can critical legal geography account for zonal risk assessment?

“You can go there, but not there, and only there if accompanied”. Risk assessment is a fundamental place-making technology, one which often results in the parsing of sites into zones of normative differentiation. How is this zonal arrangement brought about? This paper will examine the practices by which law’s concern for managing the risks of injury to recreational visitors is spatialised. These practices involve the pragmatic translation of law’s abstract fears into site-specific judgements by lay-actors, principally site managers, who as neither lawyers nor professional geographers must perform delicate normative encodings of their places. This deployment of law into place by managers is a two-step process, requiring first their reading of the features and circumstances of a site and secondly, their devising of locally workable rules of being-in-place. The paper’s analysis of these lay legal geographical translation practices will be based on a comparative survey of risk assessments prepared by hosts for visitors to ‘awkward’ heritage sites. The study will show how key ‘risky’ features of those sites are identified, evaluated and presented through the managers’ mediation between safety legislation and other ‘attraction’ priorities, such as thrill, authenticity and affordability. In interpreting this data the paper will explore how well-suited critical legal geography, and its customary focus upon tracing power relations and subaltern identities, is to examining and understanding the spatial aspects of risk assessment and its resulting place management, and whether alternatively Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos’ (2015) and Pavoni’s (2017) more acceptive legal geography can offer additional opportunities for investigation and insight.

RGS-IBG 2019 CFP: Practising Legal Geography (deadline 7th Feb).

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If my time spent as a practising lawyer taught me anything it was that the law only makes sense when it is actively applied to a particular situation – when it is used tool-like to achieve something. There’s a similar, practice-focused, sensibility in theories of space and place: that delineation of bodies within space, and identification with defined ‘places’ only really happens as part of some pragmatic project or other. Just as law is activated by doing, so the material, extensive world is only parsed and invoked as part of doing or being something.

I’m not involved with the following CFP, but its aim to focus on the role of practise within legal geography (that intersection of two normally unrelated seeming modes of delineation)  potentially raises some interesting opportunities for unpacking the ways in which law and geography each borrow from the other in the doing of their worlding…

Call for Papers: Royal Geographical Society with IBG Annual Conference, London, Wednesday 28 to Friday 30 August 2019.

Session convenors: Katherine Brickell (Royal Holloway, University of London), Alex Jeffrey (University of Cambridge), and Fiona McConnell (University of Oxford).

Session sponsorship (pending): Geographies of Justice Research Group and Political Geography Research Group (POLGRG).

In the sessions we are interested to bring together papers from across the natural and social sciences which engage in practising legal geography. While the legal geography project has grown and strengthened in the discipline since the 1980s, it has lacked sustained discussion of practice, variously defined.

Practice includes questions of methodology and approach (i.e. feminist, participatory etc.) in the ‘doing’ of research. The sessions seek to reflect upon and expand the methodological diversity and playful experimentation called for in legal geography (Braverman 2014). Practice also encompasses the use of findings from research (perhaps initially unrelated to the legal realm) in impact-work which can take diverse and unanticipated forms in a plurality of legal settings. These include, but are not limited to: acting as an expert witness, giving testimony, assisting individuals or groups facing legal challenges, and/or advising those seeking to change the law.

Our call seeks papers which speak to one or more elements of practice. As such, we are keen to foster critical discussion on the making of, and inter-relationships between, geographical and legal knowledges, performances, and expertise.

The sessions build on a national survey of geographers (findings forthcoming) by the conveners and Fiona Nash from the RGS-IBG “Using Geographical Expertise in Legal Settings: An Exploratory Survey”.

We are looking for titles and abstracts of up to 250 words to be sent to Katherine Brickell (katherine.brickell@rhul.ac.uk) by Thursday 7th February 2019.

We are also considering proposing a special section for the journal Area. A special section normally consists of 5 to 7 papers. Please let us know if you would like your abstract to be considered as one of the papers when you submit your abstract to us.

Reference: Braverman R (2014) Who’s afraid of methodology? Advocating a methodological turn in legal geography. In Braverman I, Blomley N, Delaney D and Kedar A (ed) The Expanding Spaces of Law: A Timely Legal Geography. Stanford: Stanford University Press, pp.120-141.

Image source (added by me): a land surveyor’s chain. The chain is a unit of length equal to 66 feet. It is subdivided into 100 links or 4 rods. There are 10 chains in a furlong, and 80 chains in one statute mile: 3.bp.blogspot.com/-SpSYznV0XZs/TXFXr318cLI/AAAAAAAAAAU/zefhcO_q3oE/s1600/

 

From the bottom drawer: on rescuing three old thoughts about law’s quiet presence in place

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“…spread the parts out on the table and try to work out the relations between them.”

Nick Papadimitriou (2012) Scarp, Sceptre: London p. 254.

A rejection arrives. A colleague grabs for some consolation: “You’re not alone, I have a bottom drawer full of papers that never got anywhere”.

This is a strange sport – offering up sacrificial items to the shape-shifter known as Peer Review. It makes sense to have quality control, but it can produce strange effects. A line of analysis developed across a number of linked intended papers becomes thwarted when a component part is struck dead by The Arbiter. A major rewrite then ensues for the project, to swerve around the carcass now thrown down from Olympus.

Arguments can be refined this way – their salience improved in the astringent logics of truncation. But what is to become of these thrown off, defeated pieces? You place them in the lower drawer, and quickly (for the sake of your ego) turn you mind to other things. But those fragments still haunt. They remain a key, formative part of your other still-living components and their rejection gnaws at you. Over time those voices variously murmur away: speaking of the dead time still locked in them and of the things you really would still like to be saying publically. But you know that starting something new is a safer bet.

So what to do?

Well, for me I’ve managed the murmur over the years through this blog – for every potential project that springs to mind whilst out walking the dog only 1 in 10 is every going to have the luxury of a formal investigation and write-up. As time ticks by (“you’re not getting any younger Luke” comes another murmur) the best I can do is fire off an approximate sketch of WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN. Perhaps in a parallel universe somewhere, a different me catches the idea and does something proper with it. I wish him well.

But sometimes the murmurs niggle away because one or more of the pieces discarded to the prison of the bottom drawer need to live – because its siblings, still in play in various stages of review or public circulation depend implicitly on ground mapped out in the hidden fragment. Here comes the need for reanimation: to stew up the bones of the discarded papers, to extract the vital juices and DO SOMETHING with these fragments.

And so – it seems – I’m currently in a soup-making phase. I presently have on the hob (sorry – this metaphor is getting rather loaded) three reanimated papers which I’m bringing back into the light of day for a combination of reasons. First, because we all have to be seen to be productive and leaving things unpublished is just not playing the game. Secondly, because what I want to write next (about law, ruins and haunting) needs these precursors publically in place, otherwise only I will know why I’m saying what I’m trying to say and thirdly, because the opportunity has arisen to get these reanimated papers published.

So, what I have coming soon is (with the caveat that these re-workings of old rejects might yet be potentially re-rejected, but hopefully not):

The remix: I’m working on a comprehensive reworking of my ‘tentative steps towards a legal psychogeography’ chapter from Tina Richardson’s Walking Inside Out: Contemporary British Psychogeography 2015 edited collection). The aim here is to reposition the argument so that it is addressing legal geographers rather than psychogeographers, and urging them to be more attentive to the approximation and messiness of law’s presence and prominence in mundane situations. In the recasting of the paper I try to show using passages from Nick Papadimitriou’s Scarp how attentiveness to law and other formal framings of any spatial situation are present but often at a comparatively low level of appearance than other less formal normative influences. What I will be seeking to show is how a half-thought of law may quietly – but only quietly and approximately – contribute to the making of and action within a place. If my minor corrections are accepted this will appear as an article in French geography journal in 2019.

The reanimation: the second item, also awaiting confirmation that minor corrections have been cleared, is a write up of a study that I did back in 2009. A couple of years later I tried to get it published in a built environment law journal. The proposed article outlined my early thoughts on the mechanism of law’s haunting: how places and people (and their entanglement) replicate in dead-hand fashion established normativities for a site, and perpetuate them long after their original purpose has disappeared. The key issue in the study was how (and why) precautionary signage was maintained by successive owners of a field attached to a countryside pub. The journal’s reviewers hated it. One said that “it was the kind of postmodern clap-trap that passes for research these days”. You have to choose your outlet and audience carefully in this game. The editor suggested some major rewrites to make it more conventional, but I felt this would make the paper miss its own point. So I pulled it and placed it gently in my bottom drawer. But over the years I’ve kept on needing to cite it in my subsequent work, and haven’t been able to. After a few years I tried to get it into an edited collection but that project fell through. Then I saw a call from an online journal. This was never going to be a way of keeping my institution’s REF police at bay in terms of high quality outputs – but getting it published would mean that I could at least reference it in future, more ‘top drawer’ REF-focussed outputs. So, I retooled the paper for the special issue and have my fingers’ crossed that my 2009 research will finally see the light of day soon.

The redux: the third item, never even made it into peer review, it was spat out by a journal’s editors after I had the temerity to submit a semi-fictional account of the making and abandonment of a place to a history journal. Major suggestions were offered for how I might re-present the material in a more conventional and evidence-based manner. But I sensed that meeting their requirements would have destroyed what I was trying to depict – that the life cycle of a ROC Post could only be presented in aggregate, by stitching together fragments of prosaic place-life that I’d found in Air Ministry archives for 100 sites. No single real site allowed the entire story to be presented: the story of what happens at such places of exceptional purpose but of very mundane assembly. Essentially what I wanted to preserve was a view of a very mundane legal element (based upon standard agricultural property dealings) at work at the heart of the UK’s provisioning for the Third World War, and also of how those law processes jostled for place-structuring influence alongside a host of other material and parochial concerns. Again, this is an attempt to write of law’s quietness, of its co-dependence with some much else in its vicinity in any instanciation of place. So, now I’m reworking the ‘story’ (and its contextualisation) for a forthcoming international legal geography anthology.

The above is not to suggest that nothing should ever be consigned to my bottom drawer to die: there is still plenty there which deserves to stay there. But to move wider projects forward I’ve need to heed the niggling voices because sometimes future developments need the early building blocks to be deployed. No one sets out to write papers that they intend not to be of good REF standard – but on second pass, those that have been passed over for the premiership may still have an important role to play in paving the way for more ambitious stuff ahead.

Image source: https://www.masterfile.com/search/en/messy+file+cabinet

After darkness (a Halloween special): How undead places find their after-lives within architecture’s shadow identity.

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“The temporality of architectural obsolescence is quite varied. It can happen incrementally, detail by detail: a room whose assigned use is forgotten, a window whose insulating capacities no longer meet new standards, or an ornamental schema whose time has passed. But it can also happen suddenly and emphatically, as when a purpose-built building is left abandoned when intended occupants never materialize, or move on soon after they arrive. The market, technology, taste and fashion all play their part in the making of obsolescence. They do so through architecture’s shadow identity as real estate.”

Stephen Cairns & Jane M. Jacobs (2014) Buildings Must Die: A perverse view of architecture. The MIT Press: Cambridge MA & London.

During daylight hours I teach – and help manage – undergraduate and postgraduate real estate degrees at Sheffield Hallam, a vocationally focused university. I came here straight from legal practice as an environmental lawyer, brought in to teach the legal side of property management practice. But something happened shortly after I arrived. Stranger shoots started to grow, and step by step I ended up writing much more about bunkers, modern ruins and weird materialities than I did about real estate law.

But – in my head at least – it’s never been a contradiction, or an abandonment of the ‘day job’. Fundamentally my research is all about understanding the life-cycle of place formations, and looking to the wilder extremes of place and life-or-death purpose in order to bring processes of place making, operating and abandonment all the more into sharp relief. Such investigation finds nuances and complexity where others might assume simplicity: and whether their distain is of the “building managers are only interested in profit” or “urban explorers are childish” variety. Extreme places are good to study to tease out these logics of being and doing, because they tend to be better documented and their existential tensions and motives tend to be more explicit.

Everywhere is somewhere, and most places have affinity to other places of their type. Indeed, extreme places often reveal an underlying commonality when given a lingering look and my research has often found that there’s a prosaic dimension that lies at the heart of even the most unique-seeming place formations.

Teasing out the logics that see the pragmatics of real estate management intersecting with the rich desire-worlds and/or anxiety-worlds of those who strive to enter them (with or without permission) also remains a fascination for me, for whilst very different in their logics, the vivid – and fantasy based – worlds of the anxious building manager and the desiring visitor only really exist because of (and in symbiosis with) the other.

My interest is in particular how tension between the real and the imagined plays out across the full life cycle of any place – from its inception to its obliteration, but in particular in its final stage: the way place dies. This is probably borne partly of some sublimated gothic taste laid down in my youth, but it also has a more abstract and necessary root, for as Cairns & Jacobs note elsewhere in Buildings Must Die, built environment practitioners and academics alike are obsessed with beginnings of buildings and pay scant attention to their endings. Understanding the material and cultural factors that play out across and between an array of actors (some human, some not; some corporeal, some existing only in the realm of the symbolic) is both an act of pure and applied inquiry.

The utility of property is axiomatic to both professional real estate practice and to its study in academia. Real estate is a system of practices aimed at maximising utility and understanding the creation and transfer of value imputed to material places and structures as a quantification of that utility. Thus you’d think that studying the problematic of how things fall out of a chain of gainful use would be a core area of research. But it hasn’t been. Instead most research scholarship in the real estate field is fixated on examining how development schemes (at a variety of scales of analysis) come into being. This field’s research is often econometric in method (and profit-seeking in ideology). In seeking to study the end of life portion of the property use cycle I take a different methodological stance, one informed by my own research training in interpretive socio-cultural analysis. Due to this being a rather alien style for built environment scholarship, I have had the good fortune to find outlets for my work in cultural geography. Thank you geographers for letting me shelter in your (very) broad church.

And it is cultural geographers and contemporary archaeologists whose work I have found most helpful. Tim Edensor’s (2011) work on the mutability of St Ann’s Church in Manchester as it passes through time, and Caitlin DeSilvey’s writings on palliative curation have given important insights into the processual (and inevitable and universal) character of building deaths. Rodney Harrison’s writings in critical heritage studies on the force of contemporary urges to unquestioningly preserve ever more of the remnants of the past – and the ensuing crisis of accumulation that it creates – has helped me realise the importance of heritage effects in causing some sites (for good or for ill) to become stuck in an undead state, trapped by the heritage valourisation’s infinity. To be saved is to be kept alive, in a weak, low-utility state in perpetuity. The work of heritage scholars looking at the slow-death fate of notorious, “Difficult Heritage” (MacDonald 2009) sites has also helped me to consider how the death-stage of a place can troubled and prolonged, and scholars of “Dark Tourism” (Lennon & Folely 2000) have showed me how the emotional attachment of some to the remnants of such (former) places of malign purpose affect the ability of the site to be reborn as something new. Meanwhile Mélanie Van der Hoorn’s (2009) work on the apparent indispensability of certain eyesore buildings has opened up an important insight into the symbolic necessity of waste, of disorder and distaste in order to balance both the built environment and the moral universe that is imprinted upon it as symbols of heritage and culture.

In questioning why certain abandoned or undesired places haven’t been erased and replaced in the ordinary course of urban churn I am not seeking to valorise change for its own sake – mine is not an anti-heritage standpoint per se. But, working within real estate’s concern with utility it is a concern to understand how and why underused sites (wasteland, modern ruins and so forth) come into being and survive despite the logics of repurposing that swiftly re-orientate most other sites.

I’m appreciative of the latitude given to me by my multi-disciplinary department that allows me to plough these strange furrows. I work in long arcs that don’t readily display their directionality. But I usually know where I’m trying to reach and why I’m taking the winding and obscure route to get there. After years of obstinately doing what felt right (but also rather out-on-a-limb) I’m delighted that a small team of likeminded colleagues is now coming together at SHU, each of us peering into the darkness of extreme and/or terminal places in order to tease out a better understanding of the latter stages of the life cycle of place-formations, and the logics by which their change to new uses, and/or new meanings comes about. In particular by colleagues Dr Carolyn Gibbeson, whose research looks at the afterlives of former mental asylums (link) and Simon Kincaid (link) who studies how fires present the limit-conditions for the continuation of historic buildings, and how systems of material things and people assemble in order to try to keep conflagration at bay. Where others of a terminal persuasion have gathered around their provocative sub-disciplinary banners of “dark tourism” and “difficult heritage”, we have started to gather threads for an “awkward real estate” battle flag (and maybe in time we’ll pluck up the rebellious courage and go the whole way: declaring for “dark real estate”).

With this thought in mind I’m delighted to announce that Carolyn and I have proposed related papers for the Thrill of the Dark: Heritages of Fear, Fascination and Fantasy Conference at the University of Birmingham, 25-27 April 2019 (Call For Papers details here) – with both of us taking that conference’s premise of investigating the fascination of some with dark places to its limit – its own terminal condition. For each of us is exploring through case studies of two different place-formations (mental asylums and bunkers) how such darkly encoded places, over time and awkwardly, transit to becoming less dark and prospects for new uses and new meanings. Here are our abstracts:

Something slowly emerging out of the dark: how former mental asylums journey towards new uses are affected by their dark heritage

Carolyn Gibbeson, Department of the Natural & Built Environment, SHU

Mental asylums are often depicted as dark, feared places. Since their mass closure in the 1990s, these imposing now abandoned and decaying sites have commonly been presented in the media as nightmarish places of torment and scandal. Yet slowly the negative perceptions (their “darkness”) appears to have receded. But, asylums have always been on a journey – with their meanings being reinterpreted over time: once considered as places of sanctuary and cure, asylums then passed on to being signifiers of confinement, disorder and care failings. But now, in abandonment they are increasingly valued for their heritage value and are being turned into luxury residential properties (Franklin, 2002). And yet some still chose to frame these places as dark: staging there macabre photo-shoots and other atmospheric engagements. The asylum seemingly can be both resolutely dark and becoming-lighter at the same time. This paper will explore the semantic and material changes in historic former asylums sites that have influenced the evolution and co-existence of these multiple frames of reference for these structures. In doing so, it will examine how we make these places meaningful by asking who the “we” in this question refers to. It will suggest that different people see former asylums as dark in different ways; that this is a subjective response and varies over time. In short, we must study why, and by whom such places are framed as dark – rather than simply taking that as a given quality. To explore this “multivalence” (Bennett 2013) I will examine three former asylum sites, their different pathways of after-use and redevelopments, showing how different stakeholders have viewed, valued and negotiated these spaces differently, how this framing has changed over time and how it has affected the individual after-use path of each of the three sites.

How and when does darkness fade? Exploring fear, fascination and ambivalence with Hitler’s Bunker

Luke Bennett, Department of the Natural & Built Environment, SHU

Within days of Adolf Hitler’s suicide in his subterranean command bunker deep beneath the Reich Chancellery, the Führerbunker came to be framed as an object of dark fascination and illicit access. First Red Army looters, then Allied investigators, and a few months later Winston Churchill all came to pick over the remains of this place. Then in 1947 Hugh Trevor Roper, propelled this cold, dank underground bunker into a symbol of thwarted meglomania, the stage for a Götterdämmerung, in his account of his search for Hitler’s missing corpse. Through such framing the site has sustained a lure for Anglo-American war veterans and tourists ever since. Yet to Germans (East and West) this site was a place of political contamination, the tomb of a potential contagion that had to be kept contained (by successive demolition action and cycles of banalisation and profanation). Almost forgotten, the site was ‘rediscovered’ in the early 1990s scrubland of the Berlin Wall’s death strip, and amidst the subsequent redevelopment of that now prime real estate a questioning of the site’s meaning, and of its potentialities, started to emerge: oscillating between calls for the primal darkness of this subterranean lair to be constructively co-opted into holocaust memorialisation and (more recently) in an increasing co-option of the site as part of heritage tours. Cultural representations of this place have become increasingly decontextualised and denatured, transformed by the generational passing of time into a more free-floating, titillating glimpse of a darkness that once was. Through this case study this paper will interpret this semantic decay, showing that ascribed darkness, fear and moral-coding for a site are not eternal givens but rather that they ebb and flow over time, and that studies of attachment to dark places need to be able to account for this, by becoming more processual.

References

DeSilvey, Caitlin (2017) Curated decay: Heritage beyond saving. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis & London.

Edensor, Tim (2011) ‘Entangled agencies, material networks and repair in a building assemblage: the mutable stone of St Ann’s church, Manchester’. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 35(2): 238-252.

Harrison, Rodney (2012) Heritage: Critical approaches. Routledge: London.

Lennon, John & Foley, Malcom (2000) Dark heritage: The attraction of death and disaster. Cengage: London.

MacDonald, Sharon (2008) Difficult heritage: Negotiating the Nazi past in Nuremberg and beyond. Routledge: London.

Van der Hoorn, Mélanie (2009) Indispensible eyesores: An anthropology of undesired buildings. Berghahn Books: New York & Oxford.

Image source: Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane, Buffalo, NY: https://backpackerverse.com/10-most-haunted-insane-asylums-in-america/

The android’s empty gesture: OOO, irony and the drug dealer’s watch

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“Irony is like a wink from an android. You think you know what it means, until you realise the signal you took for meaning emanates from a source for which meaning is meaningless.”

Ian Bogost (2016) Play Anything. Basic Books: New York.

We’ve met at conferences a few times. He’s always distinctively dressed. He appears to pay considerable attention to how he presents himself to the world. Like a roadie for Hot Chip, he favours a gauche retro ’80s stylee. He comes up to me and poses the question.

“So, what’s with the drug dealer’s watch then?”

I look down at my wrist, and he does too. We both stare at my Casio F-91W. He assumes that I mean something ironic by choosing to wear it. I find myself unable to account for my sartorial choice. Not because I can’t find a reason, but because I can think of half a dozen rationalisations, but I can’t remember whether any of them were ever the real reason why I started wearing this retro-watch:

  • I’m anti-flashy in intention, I’d never wear a watch that declares ostentation. So maybe I chose the cheapest watch I could find for that reason.
  • My last watch broke. And I couldn’t decide what watch to replace it with (I’d been wearing that one for 15 years). So, I decided to wear a neutral, statement-less watch in the meantime.
  • My first watch was a Casio F-91W. It was an object of delight and wonder when I got it as a teenager in the early ’80s. It’s hard to summon a sense of that wonder now – but digital watches were the smart phones of their day. Look at all of the functions. And the buttons. And its so multi-functional that it needs instructions etched onto its face. Maybe I’d hoped that wearing it again (and marvelling that it’s still being made) would connect me to that childhood wonder. Maybe it did in abstract – but I only use it to tell the time. It’s other functions are ignored. I’m served for those needs by even more complex 21st century consumer prostheses.

I mumble an explanation (I forget which one I selected) and offer a knowing laugh. It does the trick and the conversation ends. In my mind the knowing laugh is an acknowledgement of the irony that opting for the most lo-tech option nowadays can single you out as having illicit intent. As I laugh I recall the image of a colleague stopped at airport customs because he had two mobile phones, and one of them was of the near-disposable, plain-vanilla variety. An unsmart phone. He was released after explaining that the suspiciously nondescript bland-phone was a University pool-mobile, issued for use during his field trip. It was not a phone for receiving drug orders.

These intertwined stories – of consumer devices and the intentionality assumed for them – came to mind as I read Ian Bogost’s Play Anything. Bogost’s is an odd book. I’d loved his Alien Phenomenology, or what it’s like to be a thing (2012, University of Minnesota Press) and I was hoping for more of the same. What I got instead was a strange book that seems to be trying to be two books at once. At one level it’s a continuation of his mapping out of his own take on Object Oriented Ontology (OOO), through a focus on the pleasures realisable through an active exploration of the possibilities of objects. But this line of argument seems overlaid by the book’s attempt to appeal to a wider, more general readership via its appearance as a (sort of) ‘self-help’ manual – an appeal to engaged worldliness as more outward looking alternative to (or augmentation of) mindfulness. The book’s rather longwinded subtitle, shows this direction of travel: “The pleasures of limits, the uses of boredom, and the secrets of games“. In pursuit of this Bogost ruminates on the positivity of ‘play’ and ‘fun’. He productively argues that play is not (necessarily) an opposite to work, but rather is a state of interaction with objects that seeks to explore their full qualities, rather than just a “things-for-us” instrumentality. But where it then gets a bit messy is in trying to then destabilise traditional understandings of “fun”.

But, hats’ off to Bogost for getting an OOO book positioned and presented as a mainstream paperback offering. And beneath some of the chatty, discursive filler (that the genre requires) there are a number of interesting, and provocative ideas playing out.

Most importantly, for the purposes of making sense of my ‘drug dealers’ watch’ moment, Bogost offers up a very interesting cultural diagnosis: something that he calls ‘ironia’. He argues that contemporary culture embodies a retreat from commitment to ideas, social positions and material things. Ironia causes us to cloak what we mean, align to or physically do by spraying out a trail of counter-statement and counter-actions. In ironia, our aim is to confound, to slip out of certainty, to defer finality or decision. In my case, to wear an anti-watch permanently because I can’t bear the weight of choice that the multitude of possible watches (and social-symbolic messaging) poses.

“Irony is the escape from having to choose between earnestness and contempt”. Through irony you can appear to align to both, simultaneously. Bogost argues that retreat to irony feels clever, it seems to let us have our cake and eat it,  it leaves us thinking that we are able to live in a permanent deferral of choice and/or action. You can be all things to all people. But this oscillation and indeterminacy produces headaches, and Bogost goes on to show that the ironic stance ultimately produces nothing, except alienation.

Bogost points out that whilst paranoia tends to be a condition of scarcity – a manifestation of (real or mistaken) glimpses of power at work over appropriation of finite resources, ironia is a condition of overwhelming over-abundance – of choices, of matter and of awareness of the possibilities of things going wrong (i.e. risk). Ironia is a syndrome of those lucky enough to be weighed down by an over-abundance of material and symbolic choices, and of knowledge of “how things bite back” (to adopt Edward Tenner’s (1997) Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the revenge of unintended consequences. Vintage: London) and can hurt us or at least fail to satisfy our expectations of them.

Bogost also argues that our retreat into ironia flows fundamentally from a state of fear, in which (in terms of politics, culture, material-relations): “we’ve trained ourselves to see commitments as affectations, and only to pursue a commitment ironically so that we can cast it aside if fear overtakes us.”

In diagnosing ironia Bogost makes a interesting link to nostalgia – by arguing that a turn to embrace of a thing-in-the-past is a control strategy, for appropriating a former thing is helpfully selective and controlled. Thus my remembrance of my first watch is fond – but only based on a few of its qualities and my experiences with it. Nostalgia enables us to keep at bay the enormity of things (material objects, cultural formations, social relations) and their risks of disappointing us. Fundamentally it is a simplifying strategy, and achieves its effect through temporal distancing – just as a holiday to a far off place where things seem simpler is a function of (social and spatial) distance from the complexity of the present at hand. As he puts it pithily, in this pillaging-to-simplify-and-keep-at-bay we “are all grave robbers now, even while mistaking ourselves as preservationists”. And the rise of social media has accelerated the pillage, giving us all and excuse [and perhaps also a fundamental need] to “abscond with objects, people, and situations by arresting them into assets imprisoned between sincerity and contempt. Online, we become digital poachers, stealing things’ souls in order to elevate ourselves above them, until we destroy those very things via incorporation or disposal. [Today’s] Safari spoils are made of pixels rather than ivory.”

Bogost’s book (as characteristic of most OOO based argumentation) is full of delicious mobilisations of aberrant mundaenity (as provocative poetics and metaphor are OOO’s analytic method), with Bogost here meditating on the act of sofa-covering in order to make his point:

“Rather than accept either the protected or the exposed state of the plastic sofa cover, irony celebrates the buffer—the plastic—as an alternative. Where grandma deployed the plastic cover out of paranoia that some mishap might befall a piece of furniture meant to last a lifetime, irony deploys it for the sake of experiencing the cover as an alternative to the cheap, crappy sofa that doesn’t warrant protection in the first place. Irony sells plastic sofa covers from the back of a truck in the IKEA parking lot.”

Having persuasively diagnosed ironia and its problems, Bogost then attaches the argument that play (as a fulsome, exploratory and committed engagement) leads to a more fulfilling (and authentic) relation with both material objects and socio-cultural objects.

So, regarding my watch. Bogost summons me off the fence: for “irony keeps reality at a distance”. He exhorts me to “pay close, foolish, even absurd attention to things. Then allow their structure, form, and nature to set the limits for the experiences”. In other words I need to declare for my watch, to accept that it is my watch, and that I have already made my choice of it. I then need to fully get to know it – to explore its affordances (as they assist me), its resistances (as they oppose my desires for my watch-tool) and play with my watch in a way that also touches the other qualities that it has – the ones that are not revealed to me by use or purpose but rather which exist none-the-less. Examples here might include, feeling the warmth of its face after exposure to the sun, exploring its crevasses and their grime-ecologies, embracing its scratches, chips and weathering as they unfurl over time.

My watch travels with me through time and space. It goes most places with me and is usually to be found resting upon the surface of my skin. It is a quiet but helpful (and reliable) companion. There are things I’ll never know about my watch – how it works, where its components have come from, who made them, or what lies in store for my watch, and how it will disassemble someday. Even with playful effort my relationship with my watch will be shallow and largely instrumentalist. But armed with OOO I can be a little more attentive to it and committed to its proximity to both my body and my social presentation of self to the world. I’ll give it a try and try and pass our time together in a more satisfying, connected way.

 

 

 

Withdrawn bodies: into the lawscape with Andreas, Keith and Candice Marie

“Bodies embody the law, carry the law with them in their moves and pauses, take the law with them when they withdraw”

Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos (2015) Spatial Justice: Body, Law, Atmosphere. Routledge: London.

“Shall we watch a film?”

I realise it’s not really a question. I put down my book and search for something that we might both be in the mood for.

We find Mike Leigh’s semi-improvised black comedy Nuts in May (1976). Originally broadcast as a TV play, the low resolution, 4:3 projection fails to fill our 16:9 flatscreen. The image sits withdrawn into the centre of the screen, with black bars either side of this broadcast that curiously seems deeply, from within the TV, like a time capsule signal beaming in from a different era.

And yet as we watch it is an era that increasingly rings true – awkwardly so at points. Keith and Candice Marie are earnest vegetarians, venturing out from the metropolis to rural Dorset for a camping and hiking break. The film is squirm-inducing account of the breakdown of their calm, assured and ordered orientation to the world. Here, communing with the great outdoors it all goes a bit awry. And as I watch I find myself reading the film simultaneously from two angles. First, there’s a bitter-sweet nostalgia. I remember this milieu, a childhood remembrance of mustard coloured fisherman’s jumpers, folk songs and amateur industrial archaeology. But the second angle is a frame set by not having given my head time to adjust from book to TV watching…

The book I put down was Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos’ Spatial Justice. It’s a challenging read, Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos takes no prisoners in his synthesis of Deleuze, Object Oriented Ontology (OOO) and Affect Theory. Technically it’s a legal geography book, but for vast tracts of the book’s dense, but productive prose the law side of things disappears from view, and this is intentional. Refreshingly Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos wants to show “what happens when the law is nothing more than just one part of an assemblage with other bodies”(59) in space.

This is not a work that plays to the hegemony of critical legal geography, law’s presence (or absence) is not being explicated in order to show and/or challenge power-at-work. Instead it attempts a post human reformulation of “justice” and “spatiality”, and ends up with a conceptual product (“Spatial Justice”) that bears little relation to its otherwise next door neighbour, “Social Justice”. Indeed I’m left feeling simultaneously elated and uncomfortable that it so fully abandons a role for programmatic critique. Instead Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos uses OOO (and Deleuze) to frame Spatial Justice as the processes by which things (physical objects, ideas, emotions) do (or do not) accommodate to other things to which they find themselves adjacent. And in this flat ontology, Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos shows (perhaps) what happens when more-than-human ecological concerns are asserted over a human-centric ethics.

And a key element of Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos’ theorisation here is that the world is made up of myriad things: humans, oysters, table cloths and money (to use a classic OOO list-painting ploy) and that none of these things are ever fully revealed to any other thing – there is always a surplus hidden in the shadows. In short, all things withdraw. And for his purpose (as a spatio-legal theorist) law itself is one of those things that just loves – needs – to recoil into the ontological shadows.

His book seeks to account for this withdrawal – and to show its effects. In particular, he argues that where a situation is working well, its space (and other measures of its form) will appear smooth. In other words, the situation will appear straightforward, “obviously” arranged the way it is “just because”. In this slickness the resulting milieu manifests as atmosphere. Thus a romantic restaurant meal is all cosy, and (positively) emotionally charged. None of the legal infrastructure that enables the restaurant to register for VAT, to contract with the supplier of those Oysters, or the licensing requirements shaping the harvesting and dressing of that seafood will rise to the surface. But if the situation – its atmosphere – breaks (perhaps through the awkward agency of microbial contamination and resulting bodily distress) then this legal architecture – what Andreas conceptualises as lawscape – will suddenly reveal sufficient of itself, reframing the situation.

And so, with this in mind (and as I search for down-to-Earth scenarios with which to process Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos’ arguments), I sit watching Keith and Candice Marie as they wander the battlements of Corfe Castle, Keith doggedly “mansplaining” – squeezing the stones, the stories and the view into a totalising, instructive narrative. He’s making it all worthy, assimilating it into their holiday-making. Keith then takes them off to a quarry, and insists on interrogating the sole quarryman about his noble craft. Keith thus strides across Dorset, assimilating the actuality of the space he passes through into his already well-ordered worldview.

By all of this we see Keith (and the subordinated Candice Marie) in control.

We see this also in his hyper-ordered setting up of his pitch at the campsite.

But this is all prelude, for it is in the proximity to others that the ‘object’ Keith/Candice Marie  starts to come unstuck. First they must accommodate to the presence of Ray, a reticent (but harmless) student camped nearby. Keith finds that he cannot control the proximity of Ray, and emotionally and physically withdraws. Meanwhile Candice Marie seeks to engage Ray and to find common ground with him.

Then the arrival of Honky and Finger, on a noisy motorbike finally tips Keith over the edge. Honky and Finger are (by Keith’s judgement) the embodiment of uncouth. They are noisy and disorderly. Keith (at Candice Marie’s insistence) approaches Honky and Finger to ask them to be less noisy. First his approach seeks to active a dormant (withdrawn) civility – that surely Honky and Finger would know how to behave. But when he realises that seemingly there is no civility to re-activate, Keith takes a second line of interaction: he starts lecturing them about the “Countryside Code” and (in the face of Honky and Finger’s blank faces) then summons the image of the campsite’s rules against bonfires, painting a picture of rules signed up to by each guest at arrival, and how those strictures map on the space and specificities of this increasingly awkward encounter. When this strategy fails (when the lawscape has been summoned out from the shadows and even this has failed to bring forth a means of coexistence between these two objects: Keith/Candice Marie and Honky/Finger) Keith snaps and chases Finger around the campsite trying to reign blows upon him with a large stick.

Vanquished, the next morning Keith and Candice Marie conclude that they themselves must withdraw – they decide to leave the camp site and seek out somewhere where they can camp alone, arranging their affairs in a state of solitude. Here they can have things the way that they want theme to be. But they are visibly shrunken. They have gone into the world. They have actively and confidently sought to find its correspondence to the ideas and ideals that motivate their living, but the world (social and physical) has pushed back. They went seeking an immersion in an atmosphere (that of a calm and enriching rural idyll) but instead experience a rupture of that continuum. Friction through encounter with other semi-withdrawn objects, created a moment of crises in which the lawscape was glimpsed (and found wanting in terms of its conflict solving potential). And so, the solution – the route to Spatial Justice – was a withdrawal.

Image credit: http://lightsinthedusk.blogspot.com/2009/12/nuts-in-may.html