Revisiting ‘Critical Spatial Practice’

Critical spatial practice is concerned with expanding the purview of architectural practice. It’s a form of practice that operates between theory and practice, public and private, and art and architecture.

© Occupy Frankfurt photo by Armin Linke

What is Critical Spatial Practice?

The term critical spatial practice, as coined by architectural historian Jane Rendell, refers to an understanding of design not just as a means of providing answers but of asking questions. Practitioners in this field consider social complexity and agonistic encounters as things that can be designed. In discussing this topic I am not concerned with revising the practices that constitute the architectural profession as it stands, but in expanding the purview of this profession. The purpose of this text is to explore how the ways of thinking, the skills, and the tools of the architect might be put to use in a way that more closely resembles art practice. According to Markus Miessen, who runs the Architecture and Critical Spatial Practice program at Frankfurt’s Städelschule, critical spatial practice should also be understood ‘as a means of rethinking one’s professional practice and codes of conduct. In this text I will explore the methodology of critical spatial practice by addressing examples from Alfredo Jaar, Andres Jaque, and Cooking Sections; practitioners that each function at the periphery of architectural practice. But first the question is what deficit within the architectural profession does this particular form of practice address?

What lack in architecture does this form of practice seek to amend?

In 1889 Friedrich Nietzsche understood architecture as ‘a way for power to achieve eloquence through form’. Yet by swapping the word power for money we find here an apt description of architecture in the context of today. According to OMA partner Reinier de Graaf ‘architecture is now a tool of capital, complicit in a purpose antithetical to its social mission’. If we take this to be true, if buildings are made to generate the highest possible return on investment, then this complicity vastly diminishes architecture’s capacity to be critical, to politicize space. For theorist Roemer van Toorn this amounts to architects constantly creating images of freshness in a way ‘that disguises the highly conservative nature of the constitutive processes and values’. The field of architecture is rife with this fresh conservatism; with novel forms that disguise traditional modes of living. If fresh conservatism clings to established values, critical spatial practice seeks to interrogate those values. Its space designed as provocation, as a tool to break through ‘deadening and mechanical habits of conduct’. Yet this is not the shock of the new for the sake of shock alone. Critical practice takes us beyond spectacle, but it is no use if over-intellectualised; it must involve political vision based on real struggles in contemporary daily life that anyone could identify with. For Rendell, who introduced the term in 2003, critical spatial practice is informed by the concepts of Michel de Certeau and Henri Lefebrve. Both theorists drew a distinction between practices that operate to maintain and reinforce existing social and spatial orders, and those practices that seek to critique and question them. In 2011, Markus Miessen and Nikolaus Hirsch started a book series with Sternberg Press called Critical Spatial Practice, which sought to further clarify what exactly this form of practice entails. One artist and architect whose work is emblematic of this type of practice is Chilean-born Alfredo Jaar.

© Skoghall Konsthall by Alfredo Jaar, image compiled by author

Alfredo Jaar’s Skoghall Konsthall

In one particular work, Skoghall Konsthall, Alfredo Jaar uses the construction and destruction of architecture as a vehicle to provoke a desire for change. In 2000 Jaar was invited to the Swedish town of Skoghall to produce an artwork, but when he arrived he found the town lacked any visible cultural or artistic spaces. In response to this lack he built an art gallery (konsthall), organized an exhibit to be shown in it, and then 24 hours later he had it burnt down. The gallery was made of paper from the town’s paper mill which remains the largest employer in the area. Clearly Jaar had recognized a real cultural absence in Skoghall because as soon as he created the gallery, a group of citizens asked him to save it. Yet as planned the gallery was burnt down, with Jaar noting that he didn’t want to impose on Skoghall an institution they had never fought for. Thanks to Jaar, Skoghall witnessed a small glimpse of what art can be and what it can do to unify a community. In then burning the gallery Jaar made Skoghall’s lack explicit — he produced a void. Long after the embers cooled and the ashes were swept away, this absence was still felt. So much so that eventually a group of Skoghall’s citizens got together and invited Jaar back to create the town’s first permanent konsthall. The beauty of this work is that thanks to its sacrificial nature it is not impositional. The konsthall does not enforce a particular ideology, nor does it involve sermonizing or officiousness. In a strict sense it is useless as it cannot be bought or sold. Yet through the sacrificial spectacle of this work Jaar encouraged the people of Skoghall to imagine how things could be otherwise.

© PHANTOM. Mies as Rendered Society by Andres Jaque

Andres Jaque’s PHANTOM. Mies as Rendered Society

Similarly, in the work of Andres Jaque, there is a clear commitment to space as both provocation and political engagement. In the exhibition entitled PHANTOM: Mies as Rendered Society, architect Andres Jaque uncovers the hidden inner workings that allow Mies’ Barcelona Pavilion to appear timeless and pure. The phantom that the exhibition title refers to is the basement hidden beneath the pavilion. For the intervention Jaque placed the assorted contents of this basement on display. When formerly useful pieces of glass became cracked or broken, they were taken down into the basement and replaced. These elements that were once a part of the upper floor are now once again re-positioned above ground. Pieces of broken glass and chipped travertine, sun-faded curtains and worn-out seats are all placed on display. These elements are material witnesses to the passage of time. By putting them on display Jaque makes visible the temporality of the building; seeing a vacuum cleaner reminds us of the daily acts of maintenance and care. The pavilion is still cleaned after visitors go home, but the cleaning items are no longer retrieved from the basement below.

© PHANTOM. Mies as Rendered Society by Andres Jaque

The building is a permanent reconstruction of a temporary pavilion, and the basement is a new addition introduced to facilitate certain functional aspects that were not originally necessary. Importantly, the history of the reconstructed pavilion has involved a process of trial and error. As interesting as this process is, evidences of it are hidden so as not to spoil the appearance of being a perfected object frozen in time. The pool in Mies’ 1929 pavilion housed water lilies in it, but the new pool was filled with chlorine. When it came to light that the original pool had water lilies growing in it, one gardener filled these glass boxes with fresh water in an attempt to reintroduce the lilies into the pool. While the lilies grew, they would die as soon as the petals touched the chlorine water beyond the box. These glass boxes piled up in the basement chart this failed experiment; they contribute to the ongoing process of making the Barcelona Pavilion.

But how are projects such as these funded?

In the case of both Skoghall and PHANTOM, Jaar and Jaque were invited as established practitioners. But how exactly do you get started when practicing in this way, how do you become established? How do you develop a critical mass and thus become someone that other people or cultural institutions would be willing to fund? For Daniel Fernández Pascual and Alon Schwabe of Cooking Sections, their spatial practice developed out of a shared interest in food that the duo explored in the MA Research Architecture program at Goldsmiths. After graduating, the duo spent two months as residents in The Politics of Food at the Delfina Foundation in London, which helped to further cement their methodologies and interests. By going on to exhibit their work in a variety of prestigious galleries and as part of various biennials, Cooking Section garnered attention in relation to their chosen area of interest; namely the intersection of food, politics and infrastructure. Their work responds to a theme both specific enough that they can become known for their niche, and yet broad enough that there remains much to be explored.

In the case of both Skoghall and PHANTOM, Jaar and Jaque were invited as established practitioners. But how exactly do you get started when practicing in this way, how do you become established? How do you develop a critical mass and thus become someone that other people or cultural institutions would be willing to fund? For Daniel Fernández Pascual and Alon Schwabe of Cooking Sections, their spatial practice developed out of a shared interest in food that the duo explored in the MA Research Architecture program at Goldsmiths. After graduating, the duo spent two months as residents in The Politics of Food at the Delfina Foundation in London, which helped to further cement their methodologies and interests. By going on to exhibit their work in a variety of prestigious galleries and as part of various biennials, Cooking Section garnered attention in relation to their chosen area of interest; namely the intersection of food, politics and infrastructure. Their work responds to a theme both specific enough that they have become known for their niche, and yet broad enough that there remains much to be explored.

© Cooking Sections, a conversation held as part of their Climavore project in Skye

Unlike typical architects, Cooking Sections mostly receive funding in the form of grants from cultural institutions or as support from patrons. Their capacity to succeed in applying for grants or in developing relationships with patrons was not something that they were taught but rather something they developed for themselves through trial and error. Often when a client funds an architect to complete a project, the outcome of the project will presumably solve a problem that the client has. Alternatively, the support of a patron is generally given on the basis of one’s prior work, in order that the practitioner may continue to expand and experiment. They are not funding you to solve a problem or complete a certain task, but to continue exploring a certain theme with which both you and they have a certain affinity. In the case of their project Climavore: On Tidal Zones, Cooking Sections were commissioned by contemporary art commissioner Atlas Arts to produce a work in the public realm that would respond to the unique conditions of Skye. The result is a project, developed in collaboration with Atlas Arts and the people of Skye, that examines how forms of eating might be adapted to better mitigate or at least cope with pressing ecological challenges. Indeed what we see in the work of Cooking Sections, as with that of Alfredo Jaar and Andres Jaque, are the qualities of self-reflection and social transformation applied to the practice of spatial design.