Toward the end of last year Suzanne Ewing, Jérémie Michael McGowan, Victoria Clare Bernie and myself edited together selected papers from an AHRA Conference held in Edinburgh a year before:
The conference and subsequent book dealt with the role that Fieldwork has played in the work of architects and landscape architects and the many forms of associated scholarship, from the site visit to the grand tour to the social survey. As the sites of design work and scholarship have become increasingly complex and mediated, the questions as to what and where the field is, how we collect data, how we ensure its reliability, and how it informs design work have renewed theoretical and practical significance.
Hosted at The University of Edinburgh and Edinburgh College of Art, the conference was developed in collaboration with colleagues at The Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, and VARIE (Visual Art Research in Edinburgh). The conference call for papers outlined an ambition to examine the question of field/work in its historical, contemporary, disciplinary and inter-disciplinary terms. The conference addressed conventions of praxis/action in architecture and landscape architecture in particular, across media, scales, cultures: to articulate current discourses on the topic, and to identify critical dilemmas and opportunities for future practices of design and research.
Keynote speakers – Professor Andrea Kahn (New York), Professor Sarah Pink (Loughborough), Alan Dein (London), Can Altay (Istanbul) – were invited to draw attention to, and to enable articulation of, a range of theory-practice knowledges, discourses and hi(stories): architectural, visual, sensory, oral, spatial. 56 parallel paper sessions from the disciplines of architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning, art history, visual culture, sound design, geography, education and digital technology.
The edited book is available on Amazon of course:
The papers extend the focus of the conference and identify and critically discusses the key terms, techniques, methodologies and habits that comprise our understanding of fieldwork in architectural education, research and practice. The book compiled the papers into three sections: Field/Work Practice, Field/Work Site and Field/Work Techniques. I co-edited the Site section and provided an introduction that framed the papers. Having written it a year ago, whilst stuck on the small island of Gozo as volcano Eyjafjallajökull was disrupting european airspace I thought that it was worth revisiting the text:
Field/Work and Site
“Once the whole social world is relocated inside its metrological chains, an immense new landscape jumps into view. If knowledge of the social is limited to the termite galleries in which we have been travelling, what do we know about what is outside? Not much.” Latour, B. (2005:242).
In the last ten years contemporary communication mediums have fostered a rich awareness of many dimensions of local and global environments that were previously abstract. Social, political and economic factors that affect how designers interpret the concept of context and audience are being fed back through digital networks in real-time. This constant feed from people, devices and environments is contributing to a new interpretation of ‘field’, one that may be better understood as a ‘cloud’ with indeterminate temporal and spatial dimensions.
In seeking new methodologies for interfacing with these magnetic fields, a series of practical and theoretical design processes are beginning to emerge from a wide variety of industrial, academic and creative contexts. These new methodologies are collapsing previous distinctions between science and art, and are constructing new inter-disciplinary vocabularies for not only understanding what, when and where the contemporary site is, but also how we understand our place inside and outside them. As site’s open themselves up to being interpreted and examined from many new perspectives, we are able to extend our opportunities for reading them. As demonstrated through this chapter we see how we are able to trace historical connections across landscapes through social connections, understand how conversations about a place offer themselves as ‘semantic web’s’ for interpretation, and use ‘top down’ maps alongside ‘bottom up’ experiences to better understand the movement of urban material. In this context, visions for architectural initiatives and strategies for research projects cannot remain the property of a designer or researcher, but adopt a reciprocal quality within of an entire web of social and environmental relations.
The chapters in Part II offer a breadth of understanding of site, and through a recurring theme of the social, encourage the architect to relinquish any fixed representation of space and accept that site is subject to a constant process of transformation, negotiation and reinterpretation. In this way Field/Work and Site embraces an interpretation of site as something indeterminate in form and closer perhaps to a network, a field of oscillating priorities in which difference between time and space, outsider and insider, top down and bottom up views, all become artificial distinctions.
Jill Seddon’s chapter investigates the work of the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association (PMSA), in and around the town of Brighton in Sussex. Providing a critical analysis of the limitations of recording and documenting the many forms of public sculptures, Seddon identifies the deeper temporal significance of monuments in the site. Here, the sculpture and the monument operate as ghosts, their material and formal absolutes dissolved, only to configure as pertinent markers in an indistinct historical narrative. Seddon offers stone statues a form of agency within the definition of a site. Familiar markers in the urban landscape, monuments, loaded with historical significance, become over time part of an integral, mnemonic vocabulary of a place, activating and reactivating the temporal and spatial consciousness of its inhabitants.
Architectures acknowledgement of the (relational and) network qualities of site allows the naturally contingent dimension of the social to place further value on the role of Field/Work and the need to get out of the studio. Contingency of the social to activate and exit from the studio and a return to the field. Miriam Fitzpatrick’s analysis of William ‘Holly’ Whyte’s Street Life Project recovers a model of Field/Work that places people at the centre of an interpretation of how spaces are produced. Whyte’s preoccupation with people led him to adopt time-based media as a method of recording the transactions that define the quality of an environment. Fitzpatrick uses this focus (amongst others) to demonstrate the sensitivity of the ‘leg work’ that ran counter to the planning of the high-Modern sites under investigation. Concentrating on people and actions in and around Mies Van der Rohe’s Seagram Tower and the Seagram Plaza on Park Avenue, the Street Life project laid the ground for practices of urban design analysis, and a contemporary concept of Social Navigation, a precursor to and subsequently defining characteristic of contemporary experiences of the digital networks.
Kelly Shannon’s chapter uses water and water mapping as a mechanism to demonstrate the need to study site coincidences, reflections and actualities from both the ground and from the air. Whilst reconciling the split between top down and bottom up is a common theme in spatial discourse, Shannon’s identification of how water as a medium that binds the disparate representational frames with an environmental, cultural and economic complexity is an underdeveloped trajectory. For Shannon, understanding water from above and below leads to a synthesis of ‘vision and strategy’, of imagined potential and pragmatic solution. She interrogates water as a catalyst for formal change in the water system of Hanoi, deploying chronology, political analysis and participatory practices.
Exploring the theoretical and practical characteristics of ‘Open Form’ developed by the architect Oskar Hansen during the late 1960s and early 1960s, Renata Tyszczuk draws attention to the interconnection between theory and practice (relational necessity) that Hansen asserted for architectural design practice and the interpretation of a site. In this relational mode non-hierarchical methods‘play-out’ in an emergent and unstable manner to inform a unique and ‘open’ production of space. Revisiting Hansen’s use of film in a contemporary architectural studio context, Tyszczuk provides evidence of the ways in which Open Form techniques can encourage relational understandings that refute the closure of any architectural reading of site.
Ella Chmielewska and Sebastian Schmidt-Tomczak’s text embodies the reciprocal characteristics of a network in order to understand a sense of site that is located within collaboration. Here, two writers exchange and negotiate readings of the particular in the urban. Where the site as object slips between the geographical frameworks of space and language, between Warsaw, Berlin, the artist and her studio. Sensitive to (the relational qualities of) vocabulary and translation, Chmielewska and Schmidt-Tomczak identify a Field/Work that is temporal, discursive and definitely in-between.
Field/Work and Site reconfigures ‘site’ as a social, environmental and economic contingent from the perspective of architectural design. Contingent because the very term Field/Work is presented as a process of reflection and action, in which subjects sustain perspective whilst developing engagement. Such a position, or perhaps better understood as a disposition, offers fluid interpretation and an openness to what might be considered as context. An openness that anticipates that no coordinates for site are fixed, and are subject to change according to a multitude of metrological conditions.
So that was the intro – I do love the Latour idea of metrology and it’s implications for an internet of things. On the Sunday – as part of the conference a few of us demonstrated some of the technologies that support the ‘digital field':
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