ENGAGING CONTEXT > COGNITIVE MAPPING AND GLOBAL POSITIONING
Because architectural representations inevitably become tools for thinking about cities and urban projects, it is relevant to examine the prevailing models for engaging social and spatial interactions, exploring the realm between culture and form to understand contextual relationships.
Recognizing the shift toward fragmentation, postmodern architects struggled to redefine the contemporary conditions of society and to establish architecture’s relationship to those conditions; as such the crisis was in finding a methodology of working that could address the gap between cultural analysis and form. As the cultural environment became confined within artificial, staged realms, there was an alienation of the individual from her surroundings—a symptomatic loss of connection. In finding a methodology that addressed the superficial relationship between alienated self and environment, some members of the discipline turned to language, treating architecture as an indexical act of creation, meant to be read and thus to some degree disengaged from active social life. However, some architects wished to pursue anew the physical environment as a medium for relational systems that emphasized subjectivity. These architects focused on the invention of tools for analyzing characteristics of social space, which offered new opportunities for forming relationships within architecture and social life. Specifically, by starting to map the interactions between people and the environment, architecture could begin to foreground an idea of activity or contingency, prioritizing the subjective self-conscience and empowering people in an environment of growing artificial ubiquity.
This specific concern for analyzing interaction with context beget the strategy of cognitive mapping. Kevin Lynch with Gregory Kepes investigated new ways of understanding spatial relationships in the city based on the fact that there was a ubiquitous visibility to the city and its architecture that could link visual perception directly to the formation of mental maps. For them, the primary preoccupation was legibility and the main concern disorientation. Lynch hoped simultaneously to educate citizens to be able to read visual cues in their environments and to guide urban design in producing comprehensible, unalienating—“good”—forms.
“Lynchian thinking” spawned a variety of urban diagrammers in the 1960s, all of whom followed his anthropocentric phenomenological-behaviorist approach, which first assumed city views to be part of the everyday narrative of urban life and second relied upon the mental processing of direct, conscious sensory input.1 While many of these were one-to-one, static representations of moments of experience, some recognized the city as an environment of continuous change, looking to capture the “chance occurrences and happenings which are so vital to be aware of—the strange and beautiful which no fixed, preconceived order can produce.”2 Along with temporality, these architects also entered by various means into the realm of the non-fixed viewpoint. Refuting the objective method and omniscient viewpoint of the axonometric drawing, they offered through analysis of inhabitation, observation, and interaction ways of capturing the multiplicitous viewpoint of the urban citizen.
However, this approach lacked the capacity to document any political agency or historical process. Fredric Jameson suggested instead that representation of the city focus not only on form but also more broadly on collective perception, the “social and global totality we all carry around in our heads in variously garbled forms.”3 He distinguished between “Real” and “Imaginary” relationships to conditions of existence, and called for a map “of a new and global type” that could bridge city experience and the transcendent reality that “transcends all individual thinking or experience.”
Because phenomena other than our senses became involved in the formation of architectural and social relationships, the search for analytical tools then shifted to capturing “networks of flows” operating within the city. Rem Koolhaas then led the transformation of subjectivity-mapping, making instruments of “research” into aesthetic ends in themselves in order to capture process. He and others looked to represent moments of intensities and possible scenarios through the use of datascapes and diagrams. These attempts to map the “invisible” effects and manipulations of global networks on the subject could be termed global positioning, taking on a much larger conceptual scale in seeking to describe the “machine that is operated by no one.”4
Thus our mode of understanding social relationships to the environment underwent the same major break, driven by the emergence of global capitalist forces, that occurred in the social relationships and environment themselves. The paradigm shift from cognitive mapping to global positioning demonstrated a recognition of the fact that new strategies had become necessary in order to quantify the intangible social, political, economic—cultural—forces affecting the relationships between people, objects, and environments. The data fetish, however, has left new gaps to close. In global positioning, the architect relegates himself to the same cool surveillance of the tourist gaze, totalizing global conditions while remaining detached from local intervention herself. Moreover, the Koolhaasian technique is highly reliant on hyperbole and irony, offering a critical viewpoint but not necessarily a synthetic positive project, or a way to insert local subjectivities and constraints into the analysis. Global positioning suggests that the spatialization of these invisible forces is irrelevant, when in fact the global economy absolutely requires “places” to hit the ground and to spatialize its flows.
Together, cognitive mapping, a topographic representation, and global positioning, a power project, relegate entities to either the physical or non-physical realms. Thinking of the physical and non-physical as mutually exclusive “filter[s] out the possibility of mediating conditions, thereby precluding a more complex reading of the impact of digitization on material and place-bound conditions… Digital space is embedded in the larger societal, cultural, subjective, economic, imaginary structurations of lived experience and the systems within which we exist and operate.”5 There must be a way to better understand and intervene in our environments by “recognizing the ongoing importance of the material world even in the case of some of the most dematerialized activities.”6
We are at a moment in which we must ask, “how do we reintroduce place in economic analysis?” Ignoring this relationship will only continue to marginalize architecture and tectonics to the act of object-making rather than empowering materiality to contribute to the larger concept of urban experience.
1 Giuliana Bruno, “Haptic Space: Film and the Geography of Modernity,” Visualizing the City (2007), 21.
2 Lawrence Halprin, Cities (New York: Reinhold Publishing Corporation, 1963), 9.
3 Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991), 415.
4 Manuel Castells referenced in NEXT Architects (2005), 279.
5 Digital space can here also refer to economic space or more generally, non-physical space. Sassen (2005), 148.
6 Sassen (2005), 150.
PLACE-MAKING > TECTONIC GROUNDING IN THE CITY
Having determined that architecture must reappropriate the border in order to make manifest the plurality of social relationships that can intensify in zones of access, we must determine a strategy. Specifically, in terms of tools for representing and thus for thinking about and designing urban environments, we must refocus on the connection between subject and environment. How do we reintroduce place as an intensified moment of connection between local and global socio-spatial relationships? And how can architecture temporally and tectonically ground these connections for a potential collective?
These questions emerge out of the understanding that the non-physical global economies, the motivating forces of bracketed space, must hit the ground and localize in concrete built environments in order to provide physical access. These forces spatialize somewhere, and these moments or zones are opportunities to strengthen and expand the local connections of an interface. Thus, although “place” has in some sense has disintegrated, in many ways it has become even more essential and transformative. Place-making then can be thought of as mapping the forces of culture into a locale and thus into direct interaction with people. This mapping is a combined facticity and subjectivity that grounds a sense of more global elements—environment, culture, community—and allows them to be affected, deformed, and transformed through the interaction of the subject. Given the pre-existing strategies of topographic analysis (cognitive mapping) and technological analysis (global positioning), this is moving toward a new strategy deploying the synthesis or confrontation of the two through a temporal and tectonic grounding.
Architecturally this translates to spatializing the enclave border and its areas of access as “microenvironments with global span,” creating a shared territory between the political and economic life of a city.1 By reconfiguring the interface of bracketed spaces with other programs, privatized space can be leveraged to empower and connect democratic, civic spaces. The borders themselves then become zones of connection that not only makes manifest cultural forces but also through these connections allows for productive interaction and participation in the constant restructuring of society. Las Vegas as a city can escape its own bordered conditions to become a unique and sustainable site for innovation and change.
1 Sassen (2005), 149.