Critical Spatial Practice

Introduction by
Brent Sturlaugson

Originally developed in relation to the work of artists and architects (Rendell 2006, 2011, 2012; see also Liggett and Perry, 1995), critical spatial practice has since expanded to include discourse among designers, geographers, planners, landscape architects, activists, and philosophers.

C

ritical spatial practice’ describes a broad range of activities that seek to reshape the built environment in counterhegemonic ways. Introduced by feminist theorist and architectural historian Jane Rendell, the term draws on de Certeau’s ‘tactics’ and Lefebvre’s ‘spaces of representation’ to describe acts that create friction within existing systems of oppression. Originally developed in relation to the work of artists and architects (Rendell 2006, 2011, 2012; see also Liggett and Perry, 1995), critical spatial practice has since expanded to include discourse among designers, geographers, planners, landscape architects, activists, and philosophers (Hirsch and Miessen, 2012; Miessen and Mouffe, 2012; Colomina, 2014; Easterling, 2014; Von Schlegell, 2014; Weizman, 2015; Scott, 2016; Magid, 2016; Miessen, 2016; Herscher, 2017; see also Awan, Schneider and Till, 2011 and Easterling 2017). Considered as a practice, in the singular, lends it a sense of cohesion that might escape a loosely collected set of practices, in the plural. At its core, critical spatial practice encourages active participation in shaping the spaces of everyday life that have been unevenly affected by capitalist development. Part method, part framework, it mobilizes a transdisciplinary following in search of methods for instrumentalizing theory in consequential ways.

The following essays join this interdisciplinary effort to catalogue the different forms of critical spatial practice at work in the contemporary built environment. Addressing social justice, cultural representation, climate change resilience, environmental sustainability, political violence, and economic inequality, these contributions offer a glimpse of how the production of space, critical of oppressive regimes, is undertaken in diverse contexts. Representing geography, planning, architecture, landscape architecture, and urban design, this forum engages multiple fields in an attempt to find areas of overlap, point to possible blind spots, question certain assumptions, expand relevant literatures, and sharpen methods of analysis. Ultimately, what brings these contributions together is a shared desire to advance discourse and learn from spatial practices that engage the lived realities of contemporary life.

Figure 1: Artists Timo Aho and Pekka Niittyvirta’s installation “Lines (57° 59′ N, 7° 16’W)” (2018) visually registers sea level rise (Image courtesy of the artists)

Theories of Action

In a recent essay, Rendell redefines critical spatial practice through a feminist lens as a “term which serves to describe both everyday activities and creative practices which seek to resist the dominant social order of global corporate capitalism” (Rendell 2018). Further, she speculates into the specific qualities of a feminist critical spatial practice, including collectivity, subjectivity, alterity, performativity, and materiality. Adding to the toolkit of what critical geographies in action might consist, each of these qualities is briefly summarized below.

First, documenting the work of several feminist design studios through the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, Rendell finds their organization as collectives to be instrumental to their critical modes of operation. Of note among these is muf, founded in 1994 by Katherine Clarke, Liza Fior, Juliet Bidgood, and Kath Shonfield, whose practice is underpinned by the assertion that “access is not a concession but the gorgeous norm” and for whom Rendell sees that “the design process is not an activity that leads to the making of a product, but is rather the location of the work itself” (2018). By enrolling a collective, critical spatial practice gains strength through its networked capacity, and is able to intervene with more agility than any single actor. In other words, building the network itself becomes the activity that creates resiliency to spatial oppression.

Second, it was also the work of feminist theorists and designers in the 1990s that Rendell credits with foregrounding the subjectivity involved in spatial production, particularly in architecture and interior architecture. For Rendell (2018), these insights highlight the “spaces both marginalized within gendered binaries in mainstream architectural discourse such as the domestic and the interior, and/or positioned as the term which exceeds such a binary distinction, such as the margin, the between, the everyday, the heterotopic and the abject.” By foregrounding subjectivity in the production of space, the actions serve to critique assumed orders.

Third, Rendell sees alterity as a dimension of critical spatial practice for its focus “on the other, and on an understanding of those practices which aim to change, transform or alter” (2018). In one example, the group atelier d’architecture autogérée (or ‘studio for self-managed architecture’) seeks to foster the “participation of inhabitants at the self-management of disused urban spaces, overpassing contradictions and stereotypes by proposing nomad and reversible projects, initiating interstitial practices which explore the potential of contemporary city” (website). Embracing the detritus space of globalized capitalism, alterity often runs against the grain of development and accumulation, thus reaching a critical status.

Figure 2: Ahead of the Copenhagen Summit (2015), government officials from the Maldives held a meeting underwater in protest of proposed agreements that would inundate their country (Image courtesy of the Presidency of the Maldives)

Fourth, Rendell uses her own work to describe how performativity constitutes a feminist form of critical spatial practice. Called ‘site-writing,’ her work is “an active writing, composed of a constellation of voices that spatially structure the text, constructing as well as tracing the sites of relation between critic and work” (Rendell, 2018). Here, Rendell attributes to the act of writing, of producing literary or discursive space, the capacity to affect material relations. Treating the text and its performativity as a spatial practice adds yet another dimension to what might be considered critical geographies in action.

Fifth, materiality describes the final tendency of a specifically feminist critical spatial practice. Like many other feminist theorists, Rendell ascribes to materiality opportunities for considering counterhegemonic practices, describing one example from the architect Sarah Wigglesworth as capable of “maximis[ing] the environmental potential of architectural materials” (Rendell, 2018).

Figure 3: Still from Ursula Biemann’s film “Deep Weather” (2013) which juxtaposes sites of extraction with sites of forced resilience (Image courtesy of the artist)

Now more than ever, Rendell argues that these activities rely on methodologies rooted in feminism. She writes, “The modes of working characteristic to a feminist approach to critical spatial practice are highly appropriate for tackling the three-stranded collapse of ecology, energy and economy that faces us now” (2018). Documenting the work of artists and architects, Rendell’s ongoing research offers an informal archive for scholars and activists seeking to intervene in the production of space, to which this forum further contributes.

Figure 4: Artists Olafur Eliasson and Minik Rosing’s installation “Ice Watch” (2014) features chunks of melting arctic ice (Image courtesy of UN Climate Change)

Theories in Action

This collection of essays, which began as a conversation at the 2019 AAG Annual Meeting, features the work of Emma Colven and Dian Tri Irawaty, Nate Millington, Lizzie Yarina, and Marcus Owens, and it documents elements of their research that might be considered critical spatial practice.[1]

Colven and Irawaty discuss the organizing of residents under threat of eviction in Jakarta and the litany of actors involved in the fight against the uneven effects of urban flooding. In their richly illustrated essay, they outline a context of confrontation between residents of marginalized communities and the urban authorities tasked with their eviction in the name of resilience. To the expanding archive of critical spatial practices Colven and Irawaty contribute a community-led design process of creating flood-resilient housing, the results of a local housing design competition, and examples of grassroots greening efforts in flood-prone areas.

Millington dwells on the concept of repair as a continuously unfolding spatial practice that, by its very nature, maintains a critical edge. Citing examples from his extensive fieldwork in South Africa and Brazil, Millington also examines the effects or potential consequences of repair, suggesting that an uncritical spatial practice might further exacerbate the inequality it sought to mend. From autoconstruction in deeply divided urban landscapes to the habitual occupation of an elevated highway for unstructured leisure activities, Millington’s essay offers a glimpse into collective efforts of maintenance in contexts of wildly disparate experiences of a wildly changing climate.

Yarina identifies a paradox in many climate resilience efforts; that state- or corporate-led efforts are incapable of empathizing with affected populations, and that many bottom-up efforts, no matter how numerous, are underequipped to deal with the realities of climate change. From this analysis she points to a meso-level within micro- and macro-scale actions seeking to adapt to the changing climate. Between these scales, Yarina sees productive terrain for enacting systemic and enduring change through collaborative design efforts that lie somewhere between the massively scaled climate engineering projects and the slow accumulation of grassroots resilience efforts. Inflecting the theme to capture this in-between space, she notes examples of ‘critical resilient design’ that include the creation of a public corporation and community land trust that seeks to relocate residents within their community, the manual disassembly of a dike by residents threatened by its water displacement, and meaningful collaborations between design professionals and community members.

Owens addresses the threats of disenfranchisement in San Francisco by showing how various community organizations are mobilizing resistance. Specifically, he illustrates how the processes and products of design are used to leverage this resistance while remaining vigilant of the potential conscription of these designs for further disenfranchisement and gentrification. His essay includes examples of critical spatial practice rooted in architecture, landscape architecture, and urban design, including a proposal for a series of parks using the elements that participants sketched at a public meeting, a design for an event space to host an improvised night market that occupies vacant parking lots, and a project that reclaims portions of the street for public gathering and cultural events.

During the panel and in subsequent discussion, several themes emerged among these contributors that align with Rendell’s characterization of feminist critical spatial practice. Much of the featured work grapples with the tension created by the massive undertaking required to stem the effects of climate change (e.g. decarbonization, energy regime transition, green new deal) and the everyday resilience measures that many people are forced to live with (e.g. evictions, evacuations, green gentrification). Articulating this tension, Yarina notes, “You cannot see everyone from the bottom, but you also cannot see everyone from the top.” The glimpse offered by these accounts resembles a constellation of seemingly small yet interconnected practices that, when drawn together, begin to form a more coherent image of more sustainable climate resilience.

Another theme within these essays is the importance of collaboration in efforts to promote social equity and climate justice. From grassroots organizers enlisting design professionals and local politicians to community groups organizing design workshops and competitions, much of the documented activities rely on collective efforts, echoing Rendell’s characterization of a feminist critical spatial practice. For Colven and Irawaty, these collaborative efforts “have produced a set of counter-hegemonic imaginaries of alternative urban and ecological futures,” and in Owen’s account, a collaborative design process sought to capture the many desires of residents for enlivening public space.

A final commonality deserves mention, which is the reclaiming of existing infrastructure and urban space. In Millington’s account, this type of appropriation “is not a practice that can remake the ongoing violences of climate change and predatory speculation. Yet it is suggestive of the everyday politics of repair and maintenance that can render landscapes liveable.” As residents gather in the thousands in spaces that were perhaps designed to foreclose such gatherings, a renewed sense of collective identity and possibility grows.

Together, these essays join a growing body of work that seeks to expand the archive of critical spatial practices with methods and examples from diverse contexts. From this forum, we hope to encourage conversation among and between the spatial disciplines about what it means to be a producer of space in an age of climate change and structural oppression, and importantly, what actions can be taken in response and in solidarity.

Works Cited

Awan N, Schneider T, Till J (2011) Spatial Agency: Other Ways of Doing Architecture. New York: Routledge.
Colomina B (2014) Manifesto Architecture: The Ghost of Mies. Berlin: Sternberg Press.
Easterling K (2014) Subtraction. Berlin: Sternberg Press.
Easterling K (2017) Medium Design. Strelka Press
Herscher A (2017) Displacements: Architecture and Refugee. Berlin: Sternberg Press.
Hirsch N, Miessen M (2012) What Is Critical Spatial Practice? Berlin: Sternberg Press.
Liggett H and Perry DC (eds) (1995) Spatial Practices: Critical Exploration in Social/Spatial Theory. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE Publications.
Magid J (2016) The Proposal. Berlin: Sternberg Press.
Miessen M, Mouffe C (2012) The Space of Agonism. Berlin: Sternberg Press.
Miessen M (2016) Crossbenching: Toward Participation as Critical Spatial Practice. Berlin: Sternberg Press.
Rendell J (2006) Art and Architecture: A Place Between. New York: IB Tauris.
Rendell J (2011) Critical Spatial Practices: Setting Out a Feminist Approach to Some Modes and What Matters in Architecture. In: Brown LA (ed) Feminist Practices: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Women in Architecture. London: Ashgate, pp.17-56.
Rendell J (2012) Tendencies and Trajectories: Feminist Approaches in Architecture. In: Cairns S, Crysler G and Heynen H (eds) The SAGE Handbook of Architectural Theory. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE Publications, pp.85-97.
Rendell J (2018) Only Resist: A Feminist Approach to Critical Spatial Practice. The Architectural Review 243(1449): 8
Scott FD (2016) Disorientation: Bernard Rudofsky in the Empire of Signs. Berlin: Sternberg Press.
Von Schlegell M (2014) Ickles, Etc. Berlin: Sternberg Press.
Weizman E (2015) The Roundabout Revolutions. Berlin: Sternberg Press.
[1] The AAG panel also included Renee Tapp, Elisa Iturbe, Gregory Marinic, and Christina Antiporda.

essays in this forum

Critical Spatial Practice And Urban Poor Politics: (Re)Imagining Housing In A Flood-Prone Jakarta

While flood risk management in Jakarta has effectively become a tool to dispossess the urban poor, evictees have not gone down without a fight. Working alongside activists and urban poor NGOs, these communities have organized to challenge state-driven displacement and resettlement, and to stake claims to land that are often not recognized by the state.

Critical Spatial Practices Of Repair

‍This text begins from a central question: what is a critical spatial practice in a contemporary moment marked by planetary breakdown, by the increasingly visible presence of climate change across a number of different scales, by the sense of a future and present gone violently awry?

Critical Spatial Practice And 'Resilient' Design

This essay explores the concept of critical spatial practice in the context of climate change adaptation: specifically, how can we integrate criticality into ‘resilient design’? Notions of the strategic and the tactical – and what lies between the two – help provide one frame for how those involved in spatial design practice might approach the complexities of adapting to climate change.

SoMa'S POPOS: Between Critical Spatial Practice And Productive Consumption

In this paper, a brief inquiry is made into the historical relationship between critical spatial practice and the design of privately-owned public spaces (POPOS) using the case of San Francisco’s South of Market District. The empirical case of San Francisco and the design of its South of Market District is useful as a unique individualizing comparison, a well-documented and extreme spatial manifestation of global urban processes.