the meanings and mysteries of places – Dovey

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Declaring himself to be “fascinated by the meanings and mysteries of places – rooms, buildings, streets and cities…” (p.xii), Kim Dovey wrote a book, Framing Places, in which he “investigates how the built forms of architecture and urban design act as mediators of social practices of power.” (book blurb) It’s one of those really interesting reads which is written in simple language but manages at the same time to share complex and interesting ideas. He introduces Framing Places with some of the following provocative statements:

What do justice, democracy or liberation mean with regard  to built form?” (p.xii)

Architects and urban designers engage with the articulation of dreams – imagining and constructing a ‘better’ future in someone’s interest. This optimistic sense of creative innovation largely defines the design professions which are all identified with constant change. Yet architecture is also the most conservative of practices. This conservatism stems from the fundamental inertia of built form as it ‘fixes’ and ‘stabilizes’ the world – space is deployed to stabilize time. It is this antinomous quality – coupling imaginative innovation with a stabilizing conservatism – that makes the interpretation of place so interesting yet problematic.” (p.xii)

“Social theory has turned its attention towards spatial issues in a major way since the 1980s and scholars such as Foucault, Derrida, Eagleton, Giddens, Lefebvre, Habermas, Bourdieu and Harvey are widely cited in architectural discourse. Yet these theorists rarely write about the specifics of built form and the ways in which their work is applied to design practice, and public debate is generally superficial. Theory can be used as a form of insulation from the world as easily as a tool of engagement. How does such theory help us to engage in the invention of the future? How does one articulate the ‘public interest’ or decode the meaning of the latest grand project for a public audience? What, if anything, is wrong with another shopping mall, suburban enclave, theme park or corporate tower? The bridge between theory and built forms, between academic dialect and public debate, is crucial to the task of changing the world.” (p.xiii)

“As human interests are more clearly articulated so are the possibilities for new forms of design and discourse.” (p.xiii)

Architecture and urban design ‘frames’ space, both literally and discursively. In the literal sense everyday life ‘takes place’ within the clusters of rooms, buildings, streets and cities that we inhabit. Action is structured and shaped by walls, doors and windows, framed by the decision of designers. As a form of discourse, built form constructs and frames meanings. Places tell us stories; we read them as spatial text. The idea of ‘framing’ contains this ambiguity. Used as a verb, to ‘frame’ means to ‘shape’ things, and also to ‘enclose’ them in a border – like a mirror or picture. As a noun, a ‘frame’ is an established ‘order’ and a ‘border’. ‘Framing’ implies both the construction of a world and of a way of seeing ourselves in it – at once picture and mirror. In each of these senses, the design of built form is the practice of ‘framing’ the places of everyday life. A frame is also a ‘context’ which we relegate to the taken for granted. Built form can ‘frame’ its subject in a place where not all is what it seems – as in a ‘frame-up’. Through both these literal and discursive framings, the built environment mediates, constructs and reproduces power relations. The ambiguities of ‘framing’ reflect those of the nexus between place and practices of power.” (p.1)

“The nexus of built form with power is, at one level, a tautological truth – place creation is determined by those in control of resources. Placemaking is an inherently elite practice. This does not suggest that built form is inherently oppressive. However, it does suggest that places are necessarily programmed and designed in accord with certain interests – primarily the pursuit of amenity, profit, status and political power. The built environment reflects identities, differences and struggles of gender, class, race, culture and age. It shows the interests of people in empowerment and freedom, the interests of the state in social order, and the private corporate interest in stimulating consumption.” (p.1)

“The relations of architecture to social behaviour are [-p.2] complex and culturally embedded interactions. Like the frame of a painting or the binding of a book, architecture is often cast as necessary yet neutral to the life within. Most people, most of the time, take the built environment for granted. This relegation of built form to the unquestioned frame is the key to its relations to power. The more that the structures and representations of power can be embedded in the framework of everyday life, the less questionable they become and the more effectively they can work. This is what lends built form a prime role as ideology. It is what Bourdieu calls the ‘complicitous silence’ of place as a framework to life that is the source of its deepest associations with power.” (pp.1-2)

Ref: Kim Dovey (1999) Framing Places: Mediating power in built form. Routledge: London and New York.

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