Reply to Kati Blom, by Christophe Bruchansky

It seems that the history of the skyscraper and their relationship to commerce is overlooked or ignored. Is there a reason why these aspects do not come into play in your work?

I wrote my study on verticality while I was in Hong Kong in 2010. The history of skyscrapers from the Chicago of the late 19th century seemed far away from the boom that Chinese cities are currently experiencing. However, both have in common the phenomenon of concentration. Skyscrapers are impressive in scale, but what is more impressive is what they represent: the value that citizens give to urban concentration. New skyscrapers are built mainly because of the proximity of other skyscrapers. Thousands of people want to take the same lift and cross the same door only because many other people do the same nearby. In the case of Hong Kong, concentration is driven by its port and commerce, followed by its financial institutions. Banks and the port still play an essential role in the city, but I am not sure that the density of Hong Kong is justified solely by commerce anymore. It has become self-sustaining, and the mere density of its population attracted new businesses, which then attracted more people. I wonder then if commerce still sustains the current density or if it is the density itself that maintains the commercial activity. After all, do we still need urban density to fulfil most of our commercial goals, especially in an economy of information and services? Is concentration becoming a value in itself and skyscrapers its monuments to worship?

Augé’s non-place describes a highly commercial global environment (e.g. airports, petrol stations, etc.) with one-dimensional and straightforward appropriation making it easy to ‘travel’ or ‘eat’ or ‘get petrol’ in a non-individual way, not a physically unpleasant place, nor historically shallow place per se. How is this taken into consideration in your work?

According to Marc Augé:

If a place can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity, then a space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity will be a non-place (1995: 77).

Historicity plays thus an important role in what differentiates a place from a non-place. The definition doesn’t involve commerce, but supermodernity and its advertisement are encouraging the emergence of non-places:

Supermodernity produces non-places, meaning spaces which are not themselves anthropological places and which […] do not integrate the earlier places: instead these are listed, classified, promoted to the status of ‘places of memory’, and assigned to a circumscribed and specific position (Augé 1995: 78).

A characteristic of non-places is that they allow the execution of a task for which the visitors are willing to lose their identity:

A person entering the space of non-place is relieved of his usual determinants. He becomes no more than what he does and experiences in the role of passenger, customer or driver […] he obeys the same code as others, receives the same messages, responds to the same entreaties (Augé 1995: 103).

I think however that this characteristic is only subjective. Some drivers feel that motorways are their true home, and some business people feel less anonymous in an airport than in their home town. At the same time, some residents barely take any time making their house or flat a home, and are more than happy to apply a pre-packaged home identify using IKEA furniture for example, which they can apply again wherever they go. These different methods of appropriating space are natural in my opinion. And Marc Augé describes them marvellously well. But I do not think they are characteristic of our times. What is new is the reshape of space by supermodernity.

Your reading appears to be post-modernist, believing that we are free to choose whatever reading we like. This raises the question as to whether place has got any say in the discussion. If this is the case, then it does not make sense to use the distinction place versus non-place, if any place can become a non-place, re-readable for a nomad or a meaningful place for a ‘sedentists’.

I am a postmodernist and I have at heart to demonstrate that it does not necessary lead to nihilism and inaction. Yes, any space can be perceived as a place or non-place depending on the context and the perceiver. But that does not mean the distinction does not make sense. It manifestly does, if not, we could not speak about it. We cannot classify objectively space into places on one side and non-places on the other. But we can debate it. The concept of non-place is a conceptual tool among many others to negotiate our environment. Seeing ourselves as pure ‘sedentists’ reduces our perspectives. Sure, most of us feel attached to certain places and organise their life around them. But we are also nomads, we are mobile, we can probably make any place our home and can change it the next day. We are willing to do so if it fits our ambitions, either in terms of career, freedom or cosmopolitan ideals. I believe that urbanism and architecture would benefit in recognising more often the ‘sedentist’/nomad duality of our human condition.

Would you agree that your work suggests Augé is reactionary?

No. I do not know about the author himself but I do not think that his book Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (1995) is reactionary at all. His description of historic places is far from being consensual. Cities have been turned into museums: restored and exposed areas, listed monuments that are illuminated like Christmas trees and pedestrian precinct. As Jean Baudrillard describes it in Simulacra and Simulation, disneyfication transformed our cities into theme parks ([1981] 1994). Marc Augé does not defend either places or non-places. The reactionary movement on the other hand insists on the supposed authenticity of places over non-places. They appeal to the authentic in order to preserve the market value of their real-estate assets, and the touristic attractiveness of their monuments. The paradox is that they also need non-places such as airports and motorways to maintain the attractiveness of their assets, yet still denigrate them.

The point about the ‘narrative’ architect is a reaction against Augé’s supposedly reactionary idea of anthropological place, and being is composed as an opposition to ‘places impose a strong narrative’. Isn’t it so that the difference is rather quantitative?

As explained earlier, I consider myself a postmodernist and do not think that we can classify objectively spaces into places and non-places. The distinction is artificial, subjective, both qualitatively and quantitatively. I have found however that the concept is useful in our negotiation of space. There is a widespread believe in architecture and urbanism that people need to be given places. Often the lack of identity in buildings, such as skyscrapers in Hong Kong, is perceived as being a kind of failure. The concept of non-place helps us to reconsider this assumption. I would like to see sponsors, urbanists and architects argument more explicitly the ‘placeness’ of their projects. Did the population express a desire for strong identity and placeness in a project? Or does it come from other considerations such as economic attractiveness? Would inhabitants prefer an unfinished urban environment in which they could construct an identity, or did they ask for the help of a narrative architect to build a turn-key story of their vicinity? What is the political intention behind the project: encourage sedentism or nomadism? All these questions arise thanks to the concept of non-place. They can inform the architectural practice even though it will always be impossible to tell if a space is objectively a place or non-place.

Do you consider yourself an artist, a writer, even a philosopher?

Gaston Bachelard demonstrated in The Poetics of Space ([1958] 1994) the distinction between these practices is arbitrary. There is tremendous value in connecting art, architecture and philosophy. I feel comfortable being in-between. I take a pragmatic approach and change my role depending on the context and social expectations. Being a philosopher seems to raise the expectations that correspond the most to what I intend to do. But it can only be partial.

References:

Augé, M. (1995) Non-Places- introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity. London: Verso.

Bachelard, G. ([1958] 1994) Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press.

Baudrillard, J. ([1981] 1994) Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Harvard Citation Guide: Bruchansky, C. (2011) Reply to Kati Blom, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 27 Jan 2011, Available at: https://isparchitecture.wordpress.com. [Accessed: 01 June 2012].

5 thoughts on “Reply to Kati Blom, by Christophe Bruchansky

  1. Pingback: Post-modernism, skyscrapers and non-places | Material for thought

  2. Pingback: Welcome to My Place: Credentials | Curated matter

  3. This is a rich and nuanced conversation. (N.B: I must disclaim any knowledge of Augé’s work beyond what’s presented here, so I’m in no way attempting to engage his work per se.) I’m just hoping to sharpen one of the several important issues at stake in this dialogue.

    On History

    Bruchansky claims that “[t]he history of skyscrapers from the Chicago of the late 19th century seemed [sic] far away from the boom that Chinese cities are currently experiencing.” Of course there’s no challenging his personal impression that these two epochs seem distant from one another, but I can’t help but think that his impression would be different were a detailed and incisive history of the skyscraper available to us. Even in the absence of solid evidence, though, intelligent speculation on the subject suggests that the history of steel, the history of real estate (pace Hernando De Soto’s The Mystery of Capital), the history of trade b/w the U.S. and China, the history of immunology, and the unique position of Hong Kong between West and East, to name only a few, would be useful for understanding Hong Kong’s astonishing density. To modulate Carlos Cipolla, the Chinese had to become skyscraper builders before they could build skyscrapers. That they wanted to build them is only part of the story.

    I concur that urban concentration is a self-reinforcing phenomenon, but the fact that a phenomenon is self-reinforcing does not mean either that the phenomenon is without opposition or that it exists sui generis. Bruchansky’s subsequent speculation on the value of concentration, however, very nearly posits concentration as an autonomous human value. But concentration is not an autonomous human value. The conditions for the possibility of modern Hong Kong cannot be reduced to the mere fact that we humans wanted it to be so. Desire is, as late modern philosophy so often observes, fraught. Nothing ever turns out the way we want it to–indeed, in many instances, we hardly know what we want until we stumble across it. This is especially true in a phenomenon as highly negotiated as a modern megalopolis.

    I do not see how we can really understand density (as the urban planners call it) without understanding the architectural technologies that enable it. Blom’s question is acute and to the point, as is her sense that the question is fundamentally historical. She points to a crucial lacuna: without a grasp of the history of the enabling technology, Bruchansky’s insight about density remains, like Archimedes, in need of a place to stand.

  4. Pingback: Welcome to My Place: Credentials | Material for thought

  5. Pingback: Welcome to My Place: Philosophical Paper on the Appropriation of Space | Digressive Prospects

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