Cultural Decode #4 - Space

Cultural Decode #4 - Space

This is part of the Nine Cultural Decodes collection

In the last decode, we considered rhythmic motion, now we turn to the spatial considerations of our lived environments.

We can think of space in four ways: poetics, politics, production and practice.

Poetic Space: reflect on emotional topographies

What if, instead of looking at spaces through their physical properties, we understood them poetically?

When we read a poem, we encounter two types of spaces:

  1. Geometric space: the spatial arrangement of the words on the page
  2. Inhabited space:  the mental space these words occupy in our mind

White space within a poem symbolises silence. Words often surpass their spatial constraints, spilling over into the next line. Writing a verse can be a way to hold space.

This affinity between the physical and psychological brings us neatly to the practice of psycho-geography, which examines how our surroundings mould our minds and direct our bodies, through a playful exploration of our environment.

Technique: Practice a psycho-geographic research approach: walk around, observe, experience, discuss and write down how people's emotions and behaviours are shaped by the environment

Politicised Space: consider who owns land

Walking, which lies at the core of psycho-geography, has a rich history, redolent with both poetry and politics:

  • The 18th century Romantic poets who famously spent hours strolling through the pastoral countryside in the Lake District.
  • The French writer Baudelaire who coined the concept of the ‘flaneur’, a dandy-like figure who wanders the city streets observing urban life in 19th century France.
  • The Situationists, a group of revolutionary radicals and avant-garde artists active in the 1960s, who started taking part in derives, a form of aimless drifting which attempted to disrupt regimented capitalist rhythms.

Case Study: London, William Blake

If you read William Blake’s prescient poem, London, aloud you will notice it has the rhythm of a walk. This is a poem that perfectly encapsulates the tension between the poetics and politics of walking:

I wander thro' each charter'd street,

Near where the charter'd Thames does flow

Today, the space around us is becoming increasingly privatized. As our collective right to roam is being curtailed, how might we transition from making sense of space to making space itself?

Blake created beautiful illustrations to accompany his poems

Produced Space: Reclaim your right to the city

Space can be produced in the following ways:

  • Conceived
  • Created
  • Constructed

This production of space offers an alternative to the privatization of space. Designing new spaces can be a way to manifest new sensibilities and mindsets, reclaiming our collective right to the city.

As Marxist geographer David Harvey puts it:

“The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.”

Practice of Space: Appreciate the art of architecture

So how do we translate theoretical conceptualisations of space into practical applications?

One way to do this is through architecture.

Architecture is one of the few forms of art always viewed in a state of distraction. We walk across it, cycle around it, climb up it, but rarely do we contemplate it. However, anatomising the architecture around us can offer incisive psycho-geographical insights, shedding light on our emotional bond with the environment.

Let's take two examples.

  • A modernist building that embodies function and purpose may give rise to a sense of sombreness in a person
  • A postmodern building which is brightly coloured and unusually shaped may infuse a sense of playfulness into the inhabitant
The famous Barbican Centre in the City of London

Sometimes, there can be discrepancies between the aesthetics of architecture and its underlying principles. Brutalism, a predominant post-war style of architecture, is often disparaged for its bleak appearance. Brutalist buildings have a number of recognisable features:

  • Rough surfaces
  • Unadorned exteriors
  • Monolithic structure
  • Heavy use of concrete
  • An overall 'raw' aesthetic

Such buildings did indeed resist contemporary ideals of beauty, instead opting for a form of anti-beauty. Brutalist architects sought to transform urban space by introducing an ethical dimension to ward off the privatisation of space and atomisation of people. They maintained living should be communal and living spaces should be publicly owned. The architecture they designed can be seen as physical imprints of their ethical convictions.

Case Study: A tale of two estates

Two Brutalist estates in East London offer an interesting case study: the Barbican Estate, constructed in 1965 to attract affluent city workers and Robin Hood Gardens, built as social housing in the 70s. Whilst the former stands tall against the London skyline today, the latter has been demolished.

The incongruous treatment of both buildings speaks volumes about spatial inequalities entrenched within society. It also serves as a potent reminder that spaces are not just materially built but also socially produced. The infrastructure provides a place for people to dwell in. People, through inhabiting that space, then imbue it with meaning. Recognising this regenerative and reciprocal relationship should lie at the heart of spatial design.

Interview questions to prompt thinking about 'space'

  • Can you tell me about a place or space that has changed from how you remember it?
  • What are your favourite spaces in your city/town?
  • What places are important to you? Why?
  • Are you more a city or country person? Why?
  • Do you ever go to festivals, carnivals etc? How do they feel?
  • The spaces we occupy can shape our minds and direct our bodies. Describe how this applies to the places you frequent?


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