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Technology and the Body Public

Stephen Read

Arakawa and Gins are concerned with the configuration of life in intentional-
attentional frames that locate the subject. But the procedures and
technologies of this construction of an ‘Architectural Body’ involve us in a
collective interrelationality and co-construction that takes us beyond cognition
and the subjectivity of points of view and requires we account for the order
and sense already built into our surroundings and the way this is part of our
practical action and inhabitation. This demands we take account of both the
historical dimension and the public ‘objectivity’ of this co-construction. A key to
this publicness and objectivity are the historical technologies that penetrate
deep into our lifeworlds and are even the means to our seeing and knowing
things. The ‘procedures’ and ‘technologies’ of this space are not just means to
control the body but also, as Foucault discovered, means to freeing it, but the
space established is not only one of being and action but also one of
appearance and politics (Arendt). We live immersed in collective and historical
constructions that are power regulating architectures that gather and
coordinate different scales of being and action. We find ourselves in need of a
theory which accounts for the way we live between things and other people.
Such a theory will however not transcend the historicity and contingency of
procedures already performed, actions already taken and the coherencies
and rationalities already embedded in the built surround. This paper explores
these issues of a public order that binds and enables in order to begin to
outline such a theory and fill in some necessary background for further work
on the Architectural Body.

Seeking the ‘Architectural Body’

Arakawa and Gins speak not of people but of the bio-tech creatures we have
become. Or, rather, the bio-tech creatures we have always been since we
have had technique – because the most basic forms of technique are of
course architecture and speech. They speak of an ‘architectural body’ that is
located, and a constitutive factor of its own existence. To be human is to be
“an organism that persons” in situ. We have moved on here from imagining
ourselves as Cartesian ‘thinking subjects’, free to focus on other things from
outside our emplacement and embodiment in a real world. This leaves us as
‘knowing bodies’, without the certainty of absolutes, and makes the
‘biotopological’ space this uncertain body occupies the subject we need to
unfold. Where we are matters as much as or more than who or what we are,
and it is on this ‘where’ that I want to focus. What is this ‘biotopology’ Arakawa
and Gins speak of? What is it made up of and where does it come from?
These questions don’t join seamlessly with Arakawa and Gins’ research
however, so much as add some problems and questions, along with the
warning we need to understand something more about the spaces of our
inhabitation before we can manipulate them or use them as architects and
urbanists. While sympathising and joining with their aims, therefore, I want to
try to open up some more of the substance and difficulty of this problem, to
expose more about what it is, really that we are dealing with?
What Arakawa and Gins attempt to do is extend our powers as architects and
urbanists by finding the procedures which facilitate the knowing body. It is
through procedures that we gain possession of our worlds. It is through
procedures, which is also to say techniques, that we inhabit the world and
make it our own. But this possession stands on no absolute ground; there is,
from the perspective of this possession, no absolute space or time as a
foundation for possession. Possession is an attainment and an activity in time.
At the same time it is an attainment outside of our own individual times; it
belongs at this foundational or grounding level to the time of cultures and of
‘mankind’. This possession of the world is essentially public: a common sense
of the world. And it is a common sense that we have in common because it
depends on the historical-material trace and residue of processes of
inhabitation that go back to the beginnings of our cultural being. We are not
just thrown into a world; we are wrapped into the folds of a world which is not
perceived because it is the ground of our perceiving.
I will be dealing therefore with history and convention, knowing full well the
words do not often appear in Arakawa and Gins’ writings. Nevertheless, to
become the beings Arakawa and Gins’ address in Architectural Body; to
become the beings we might become; we need to pass through this essential
historicity of our own experience. Arakawa and Gins attempt it seems, like
Helen Keller, to awake each day to make the world anew. They attempt to
escape history. What we cannot escape is the fact we do this environed in
history, and where, like it or not, possibilities for escape may emerge only
from this historical background. We are bound not just by the chains of
constraint but also by the supporting threads of enablement in locations and
situations which are a constitutive factor of our perceptions and existence. I
see what I am doing here therefore as necessary background to a search for
procedures for making environments which enable – and for a theory of action
we can operationalise in architectural and urban practice. By being clearer
about the procedures which have formed existing built environments we come
closer to being able to see what are the ones we need to invent.

Living in technologies
The basic form of my argument is phenomenological: that we exist corporeally
in coevolving states of knowledge and states of affairs, within perceptual and
empirical horizons that integrate these two dimensions in situ. Situation and
perception are primary and the world discloses itself to us within horizons that
are conditional on our situation and which condition what we may know and
do from such a situation. Versions of this argument also emphasise the idea
that we simultaneously build out from and ‘stabilise’ or ‘objectify’ those states
of knowledge/affairs in our surroundings. Here the principle of homo faber
(Arendt) emerges. Our building of a meaning-sphere or semiosphere
(Lotman) is artifice, architecture and technique. It is also a process in time
rather than a monument in space. And there is a basic publicness about this
which is not about our subsumption to any essence of ‘Mankind’ but rather
about a historical and contingent condition of this being and building between
others, and between the things and their meanings we construct and share
with others. The freedom of movement and of action we experience is
conditioned and constrained by public and material cultures: objective but
historically and contingently produced constructions beyond our individual
seeing, doing or making. These constructions both enable and constrain,
determining what we can and cannot do, but also what we see and cannot
see and even what we see and cannot see as being possible.
It is necessarily difficult to see clearly the conditions of our own seeing. Such
conditions though are central to any real understanding of environing or of the
nature and shape of a material culture. In these circumstances, the
‘architectural body’ we construct and inhabit in our individual techniques and
procedures cannot be taken as being open without some qualification. It will
itself be conditioned by these public and objective constructions: it will
incorporate a shape of the world into which we as bodies are thrown and
which will be the necessary starting point for any procedure for changing that
shape. We move beyond ‘points of view’ and into conventionalisms and
normativities which are the result of the workings of social history on the
spaces of our activities and possibilities. Structures of experience are linked to
the material structures of our ‘exterior’ world rather than to any subjective
‘interiority’. Fields of perception are shaped by public techniques and artefacts
rather than by private perceptions or interpretations, or even by the singular
‘points of view’ given by the geometries of classical optics. And rather than
there being different points of view on the world from simple singular places –
or from universal and displaced points of view for that matter – there are
different technically supported optics on the world (or on different worlds!).
The difficulties of thinking architecture and the urban through simultaneously
human and technical-relational lenses are for the most part due to our own
discomfort with the mixing of categories implied. Technology has been
associated with alienation and the distancing of ourselves from authentic
experience.1 Architecture seems at first to sit in an ambivalent mid-way
position in this argument over authenticity: on the one hand we accept certain
architectures as being part of the authenticity of human experience – witness
Heidegger’s hut – while other, mostly hi-tech or large-scale, architectures and
infrastructures occupy the other pole of alienation from a world becoming
increasingly technical. Peter Sloterdijk hints though at an intrinsically human
nested techno-relational order of the environment in artificial niches or
‘spheres’. We live, according to Sloterdijk, in self-made enclosed ‘spheres’,
these ‘spheres’ referring to the “inner spaces” (Innenräume) we inhabit at all
scales (Sloterdijk).2 In the philosophy of technology also, Don Ihde, and the

Heidegger, Jaspers, Ellul and Mumford, all propounded a variant of what
can be called the 'thesis of alienation' More recently Borgmann has done the
see Lemmens
rest of the philosophers he calls ‘instrumental realists’3 also acknowledge the
central role of technology in human life. What I am suggesting here is that
technology is integral with the practices and normativities of experience and of
being human.
We don’t just use technologies to access an environment already known or
directly perceived – we rather become environed in the technologies
themselves! We feel a sense of subjection to technology in the London
Underground, where we in a sense inhabit a working diagram of the city with
gates and moving parts which engineer access to any specified place. But this
suggests also we are not just payload here in a technology of conveyance,
but integrated into a rationale and an optic that defines and reveals the city as
perceptual field. There is something bounded and limited but at the same time
complete in the way the system is organised and set up, and in the way we
see and do things through a system like this. This suggests the architectures
and infrastructures we build do more than ‘overcome’ an already constituted
space; they are themselves spaces. But they are immersive spaces and they
also incorporate the places where the shapes and horizons of those spaces
reveal themselves to us. These places are not arbitrary and usually also have
a history both as real places and in terms of their normative relations to other
places. I am thinking here of the way, for example, a stop on the London
Underground relates to another in the same terms that an urban place or
neighbourhood relates to another place or neighbourhood in a larger
construction where all these places together relate to the thing we call
London. We get a sense of these built structures as fundamentally spatial
organisation (rather than subsidiary to and acting on space) and medium,
structured to a rationale and pattern that is historical, normative, and that
supports and is background to specific practices or sets of practices. The
work that is going to be needed to build an idea of a techno-relational
environment out further will prioritise the historical, the contingent and the
empirical over the abstract and theoretical.
To be clearer: the abstractions and the ‘theory’ that are likely to be relevant
are those which have already been embedded in historical-empirical
constructions by way of the purposes and practices they embed and embody.
We will need to understand techno-relationality in its spatial and historical
specificity, in order to understand how we have constructed the worlds we
inhabit, ground and all, and how it may be possible to construct it further to
support practices and mediate experience in the future.
We may attempt, as Soren Riis has for example (Riis, 2010), to look at
architectural technologies one by one for the ways they mediate the human-
world relation. He identifies the ‘transparency’ and ‘natural’ and ‘atmospheric’
qualities of some of these relations, but there is a clear problem if, as I am
going to argue, technologies, architectures and other material infrastructures
may themselves constitute human worlds structured for perception and action.
In this case we clearly cannot start with a ‘world’ as already given. In fact, a
feature of technologies in the human world is that they precisely, and with

Ihde mentions Robert Ackermann, Robert Crease, Hubert Dreyfus, Peter
Galison, Ian Hacking, Patrick Heelan, Don Ihde, and Bruno Latour.
intent and purpose, constitute and integrate our worlds at the same time they
enable our practical actions. They seldom if ever act alone, and some may be
foregrounded while others are backgrounded while they are necessary parts
of the human activity being described or investigated. This is particularly true
of architecture where different systems are coordinated precisely so they don’t
appear to us in practice. Arakawa and Gins make a point of subverting some
of this coordination (in the Bioscleve House for example) but this only really
highlights the point that we depend most of the time on a profoundly
integrated – and for the most part invisible and background – organisation to
support our everyday practices. How many times a day do we think of the
floor or pavement we walk on, or the door we may close, or the equipment
that serves to maintain an ambient temperature. A feature of this background
is maintenance and upkeep, and occasional renewal.
An example Riis uses, the Panopticon, is exemplary however of the
‘spheropoietic’ process, realising a world with its own operational logic and
within which parts and wholes make sense in relation to one another. An
engineered spatial organisation and bounding sustains this interior world with
its own internally embodied reason; the guard and the prisoner are parts of
the Panopticon, needed there to complete the circuit of seeing and being
seen. This particular example reinforces the idea we are imprisoned in these
materialised logics – but this is only part of the story, the other side of which is
that it is these sorts of materialised and situated logics which allow us to do
the things we would otherwise be quite incapable of doing – or even perhaps
see the possibility of doing. These bounded inner spaces and architectures
may in fact be the condition of our doing anything human at all.

Joining subjects with objects

The question of boundaries has also exercised minds in thinking about
scientific experimentation and measurement in a hermeneutical philosophy of
science. According to this viewpoint science is a practical affair that includes
the apparatus and instruments that explicate and measure and the body that
knows and does. What is embodied is not just the object of the experiment but
also the seeing, knowing and doing. The observer is part of the machinery of
experiment, needed there to complete the circuit of knowing and being known.
I will look at scientific experimentation as a specialised account of human
practice to show eventually how ‘context’ or ‘environment’ is structured around
that practice, and then generalise that account by looking at a city at three
moments in its history.
Patrick Heelan, physicist, hermeneutical phenomenologist and philosopher of
science, has argued that experimental science as it is practised is essentially
hermeneutical, incorporating, as he puts it, a “hermeneutical shift”, or the
displacement of the cut between the subject and the object as part of its
practical method (Heelan 1977: 11). Heelan rejects objectivism – the belief
that objectivated knowledge represents its object, without any participation of
the knowing subject or human intentionality-structures. The practice of
science needs to be understood first, according to Heelan, from a point of
view given in the subject’s lifeworld4 and Heelan proceeds to search for the
conditions that make the particular subjective structures and modes of
givenness of experimental settings possible (Heelan 1977: 25). Heelan adopts
what Ihde has called an “expanded hermeneutics” which practices a ‘material
hermeneutics’ and questions strong distinctions between human and natural
sciences (Ihde undated). All science is about interpretation: all knowledge,
scientific and cultural, must be derived from a human ontology. In Husserl this
meant referring knowledge practices back to the lifeworld; in Heidegger the
objects of science derive from praxis – and what science produces is
practically, hermeneutically, and crucially technologically constructed (Ihde
undated). Scientific (or more generally, regularised) observation and practice
involves firstly the setting up of the context of action or practice. This prepared
setting sets the horizon of what is both possible and expected, and it is within
this horizon that regularised and repeatable observational acts will be made
and interpretations drawn. The prepared setting is both physical, including all
the apparatus necessary to prepare the object for observation, and
intentional, embodying the intention of the subject in the equipment.
It extends the intention, perception and practice of the subject outwards
beyond what is conventionally understood as the limit of the subject. Scientific
experimentation involves the human subject therefore in a technically
maintained relation with the scientific object, through equipment set up to a
particular purpose. The purpose embedded in the equipment is in a sense
diagrammatic, even explanatory, in its material embodiment because the
observer-scientist understands the set-up and can manipulate and adjust the
appearance of phenomena through adjustments to the equipment. The setting
is an artifice: as Heelan characterises it, nature is not present in the
experimental setup, what we have is a humanly-contrived phenomenon in a
well-prepared setting Heelan 1977: 34). And it is this artifice that is the
condition of possibility for the scientific object to reveal itself to the scientist-
observer. It constitutes an optic on the matter at hand. Heelan shows us how
objects, and our knowledge of them come about together: the experimental
equipment is a machine for objectification; this objectification has a peculiarly
‘optical’ character, and things come to be the way we see them in the
Scientific seeing (observation) is not achieved by passively receiving an
impression, it is something prepared and learned. It involves framing a
horizon of expectations of outcomes and the way these may vary under the
control of the apparatus. With trial and error and with training, the scientist
builds an expertise with instruments that transforms his relationship to them,
so that with their help, scientific objects can manifest themselves to him in the
doing of experiment – and he can stabilise this manifestation in a finely-tuned
The notion of Lebenswelt or lifeworld was introduced by Husserl (1970: 48).
The lifeworld is identified as “the only real world, the one that is actually given
through perception, that is ever experienced and experienceable.” He
opposes it to the ideal world of Galilean science where there is a “surreptitious
substitution of the mathematically substructed world of idealities for the only
real world.” Heelan argues that the observable scientific entities of
experimental science do belong to the lifeworld.
set-up so that the object may reappear at will. This practical observability of
scientific states of affairs means the relation between language, observation
and things is being negotiated and interpreted in practice and that there is in
fact no hard distinction to be made between observational and theoretical
entities. “[T]heory says what observation can see” (Heelan 1977: 30) and
abstractions, including models and theories that embed those abstractions,
are for making those states of affairs that science speaks about observable.
What this suggests is that physics is not trying to attain a model of the world
so much as construct models for the purposes of seeing and knowing
(observation) and measurement!
Apparatus incorporate and embody theory and models in action and are used
hermeneutically as equipment for framing and manipulating data. The active
perception and intention of the scientist is mediated by the use of instruments
and this use involves both manipulation and interpretation. So that, Heelan
concludes, the subject side of the subject-object divide includes the
instrument and its practiced use, and the instrument becomes an active
means of the manipulation of the scientific object from the subject side. The
boundary between subject and object is displaced outwards and we are no
longer looking at theory as an abstract disembodied component of science,
but as a materialised interaction between an intentional subject-equipment
complex and a scientific object that is disclosed or produced in that
interaction. Scientific observation involves therefore the use of equipment in
which the intention of the scientist and the horizon of what he or she may see
is embodied. This is what Heelan means by the displacement of the cut
between subject and object and this practical and material hermeneutics
involves successive displacements, embodying an expanding sphere of
theory and meaning in material arrangements and apparatus.
Heelan begins to explicitly relate the lifeworld of the observer or experimenter
with a practical, historical and collective process of meaning construction and
with the embedding and embodying of that meaning in an evolving praxis and
technology. This interpretative character of experimental science shows itself
historically in two ways: firstly in the way the meaning-field of the lifeworld is
being refined and transformed by theorising – an exercise whose practical
nature is easily misconstrued if the role of interpretation is misunderstood; and
secondly in the way meanings change in the lifeworld as it is transformed by
new technological praxes (including instrumentation) embodying new theories
(Heelan 1998: 176-7).
Science is therefore not an accumulation of and systematization of factual
information about the world, but involves the successive construction of
causal frames capable of being operationalised (literally, by being embodied
in models and equipment), that transform our view of the world, constructing
new realities. This is not about models substituting for reality, but about reality
interpreted through the use of models. There is a full interdependence of the
notions of theory and observation – reminding us of the etymological root of
theoria (seeing) – as observation itself comes to depend on the way things
are ‘seen’ theoretically, as well as on the apparatus and instrumentation in
which a particular theoretical ‘optic’ is maintained. And what Kuhn tells us is
that the continuity in the relation between successive theories or models is not
to be found in the comparable syntaxes of successive models, but in their
empirical horizons (Kuhn).
Science is ‘dialectical’ according to Heelan, since any anomaly that
persistently frustrates the intentional act of observation calls for adjustment or
renewal of the causal frame (and its embodiment in equipment) that
articulates subject and object sides of the problem. Science progresses by
hermeneutical steps, and reality, as it is articulated in different theories and
models, is therefore also historical. But as Kuhn also emphasises, the
hermeneutical movements which comprise these efforts exist not within the
lifeworlds of individual scientists but in those of scientific communities – who
maintain theoretical, equipmental and other standards and hold knowledge
and practices in common.

The publicness of knowing and doing

The body of the scientist as object may be maintained within a definite
contour delineated by the skin; but the body as intentional subject starts to
‘leak’ into the observation equipment. The instrumentation and other technical
means become co-active and enabling as part of the practice of
experimentation. At the same time though the technical means is also part of
the organisational and institutional structures of the laboratory, research
institute and discipline – part therefore of public and organisational bodies
which decide on matters of the scope and content of research programmes,
the relevance or otherwise of theory, and the equipment of the laboratory. The
scientist is not autonomous: he or she is not simply personally responsible for
any of this. Equipment and organisational context – eventually the laboratory,
the institute and the community of scientists – remain conditions of
knowledge. But we begin to see also that the boundaries of a ‘spheropoietic’
logic have nothing to do with the boundaries between our established
categories of subject and object, or the biological and the technological, or
theory and practice. We see instead the subject merge with the object, bio
with tech, theory with practice, in practical settings that nevertheless establish
boundings crucial to the success of the operation.
Bounds are constructed that shield particular practices, like experimentation,
within controlled settings and behind closed doors. I have begun here with the
highly specialised place of the laboratory, equipped for the specialised
knowings of objects like magnetic fields, or chemical clocks, or morphological
heredity. But the door shielding the laboratory from the rest of the institute and
from interference that may contaminate data or otherwise disrupt the
experiment, also plays a role in the experiment. As does the rest of the
institute, the university and so on, as other factors like academic and
institutional bureaucracy, supply, maintenance and administration, are
accounted for. The laboratory and university are themselves situated in
structures of familiar places in our built environment that make them part of an
urban and regional division of labour, and places for certain practices and
actions and not for others. Many who don’t participate directly in these
practices know nonetheless where they are carried out.
The situation can be broken down into active and passive components: the
active part is embodied in practices and procedures; the passive context
comprises all those equipmental conditions that are necessary but are not
foregrounded in the search for, or recognition of an object. There is an
alignment of practices, procedures, organisation and equipment that is
constructed and maintained in situ. But both active and passive components
incorporate ‘cause’ or ‘intention’ or ‘power’. It is simply that some of the
factors supporting particular practices have been shifted so far into the
technology and material and organisational settings, we no longer see them
as intentional or power-related. What a phenomenology filtered through
Heidegger and Heelan gives us in the end is a practical-equipmental and
techno-relational inhabitation of the world by way of prepared or synthetic
situations (Knorr Cetina 2009), implying as well an historical and accumulative
expansion of a public lifeworld through hermeneutical shifts of intentional
structures outwards into (variably) shared equipment or technology.
There is a creeping spread of order and organisation in our environment. It is
shifted, a bit like the biosphere in the evolutionary theory of Stuart Kauffman,
to support orders or ways of life or of regularised activity. Things belong
somewhere precisely because we construct and adapt our environment to
have things in place. And objects are not objects by virtue of what they are so
much as by how they are oriented and available to us in practical action and
in relation to other objects. These relationships cross-reference and support
each other. We are, in Heidegger’s terms, “thrown” into a world already
prepared by us and for us and already expectant of certain ways of knowing
and doing things. There is a corporeality of the world therefore that is human
and ours in a more historical and public sense than we often see. In Hannah
Arendt’s words we live in a world “between men”, but also between the things
that are human in this more historical sense, so that, as she emphasises, the
most constraining objectivity we know is based on the unspoken agreements
we have about the world between us (Arendt). In acting, in interacting, in
using tools or equipment Dasein (being there or existence) becomes Mitsein
(being with or coexistence), even when other people are not immediately
present and when actions do not immediately involve other people. The
publicness I refer to is a dense web of ties to ‘indeterminate others’ that
references a common world of equipped situations which make objects
coherently to-hand and available – and even coherently perceptible as what
they are. The problem of a ‘relation of minds’ does not arise because a world
common to us all, understood and built as present-at-hand, intervenes. We
become public between things and others in a realm de Certeau characterizes
as “the oceanic rumble of the ordinary … the place from which discourse is
produced” (de Certeau 1984: 5).

The technological paradigm

There are for me two interesting notions in Albert Borgmann’s philosophy of
technology – that of the ‘device paradigm’ and that of ‘focal things and
practices’. Borgmann is interested in how technology affects and shapes the
interactions people have with the world. But rather than going along with
Borgmann’s rather nostalgic view that technology alienates us from the
authenticity and reality of things and practices, I want to use these two ideas
of his to stretch the instrumental reality of Heelan’s view into our built
environment to say something more about its structure. I also want to think of
technology beyond the emphasis on the hi-tech that is so familiar today.
Today technology is equated with ICTs and cyberspace and with the hi-tech
mobility and communications technologies we associate with globalisation.
We forget that globalisation began with wind and even oar power and that
triremes, cogs and fluits have all been the technological state of the art in
other times.
In the same spirit I have taken before the notion of the ‘technological
paradigm’ from Manuel Castells (Castells 1989), but have not used it in the
way he uses it as a generic condition arising out of microelectronic
communication technologies or for the way it divides our world and our cities
into ‘spaces of flows’ on the one hand and ‘spaces of places’ on the other.
What I have suggested instead is that individual technologies and
infrastructures are installed for particular and strategic reasons in order to
create spaces that are themselves particular and strategic. Concrete cases
are constructive attempts to mould worlds as perceptual fields and fields of
practice and should be approached empirically if we wish to understand their
purposes or effects (Read 2009). This is also closer to Kuhn who showed that
there was no ‘scientific paradigm’ or continuous scientific tradition, but a
multiplicity of different traditions, each with its own paradigmatic assumptions
and standards of truth. Technologies embody reasons and logics, produce
objects (and subjects) and establish ‘synthetic situations’ which are places in
practical terms. What’s more I suggested that this ‘place-producing’ property
is not restricted to the hi-tech of our time but seems to be a normal outcome
of the hi-tech of any time, and has been the driving force in establishing a
historically accumulated structure of places.
Borgmann’s ‘device paradigm’ emphasises the ways in which technology
creates social patterns. According to Borgmann, technologies create pattern
by shaping the way people live their lives. They do this by easing people’s
efforts to do things and inviting new ways of doing things. Central heating for
example relieved people of the effort of chopping wood, filling and cleaning
the hearth, etc. It also relieved them, less positively, of the ‘focal thing’ of the
hearth centring the ‘focal practice’ of caring for it and sitting around it together.
For Borgmann also, technology needs to be understood empirically and in
discrete ‘devices’ which form and give pattern to the fabric of our lives. But
then for Borgmann devices deliver what we previously had to obtain with
things, and he sees technologies as alienating and as breaking our
involvement with real things. He sees things themselves as being contextual
and demanding our involvement.
This is completely at odds with Heelan who saw technologies as a productive
means to things. But what Borgmann adds is a space. The shaping of life by
technology creates a space: a whole world of things and ways of doing things
are centred around focal things and practices. And these things and ways of
doing things depend on each other and make sense together. They co-
contextualise each other within the space. Here we approach the ‘paradigm’
idea where a bounded set of elements depend on and co-contextualise, even
co-constitute, one another. The ‘technological paradigm’ I propose is a whole
arrangement of objects, subjects and practices that make sense in drawing
their significance from each other. These arrangements are assembled and
maintained in order that their meanings come to be and remain stable.

Ordering things in space

In these days of hi-tech and cyberspace we can forget the amazement that
must have been felt by new arrivals to a city like Amsterdam around the turn
of the 17th century. Because what they would have encountered in this
booming and bustling place was a level of urban organisation, engineering
and purpose with few equals at the time. They would have encountered a
singularity; a city hauled out of the water by the accumulated industry of still
remembered generations. Amsterdammers had turned the building of fishing
craft into state of the art skills and technologies which took their city to the
forefront of Baltic trade and equipped it to position itself as the entrepôt of
Europe. A (surprisingly sophisticated) fishing boat of the 11th century
morphed over time to become craft adapted to not one but two specialised
tasks: the first plying the North and Baltic Seas, and the second transporting
goods on the urban canals of Amsterdam. The city coevolved with and was
shaped by these technologies as a system of canals was built inland from the
harbour-front to convey goods from the harbour to markets and the houses of
Within this system, the city and its elements were positioned and defined.
Roland Barthes, referring to paintings by Berckheyde, wrote of the "itemizing
power" of the Dutch canals and compared them to the French Civil Code with
its "list of real estate and chattels. ... Every definition and every manipulation
of property produce an art of the catalogue, in other words, of the concrete
itself, divided, countable, mobile.”
Amsterdam, the Nieuwezijds near the Bloemmarkt, 1670-75: Gerrit Adriaensz.
Berckheyde. Historisch Museum, Amsterdam.

“Add to the vehicular movement of the water the vertical plane of the houses
which retain, absorb, interpose, or restore the merchandise: that whole
concert of pulleys, chutes and docks effects a permanent mobilisation of the
most shapeless substances. ... [O]bjects interrupt each horizon, glide along
the water and along the walls. It is objects which articulate space. The object
is by and large constituted by this mobility, Hence the defining power of all
these Dutch canals. What we have clearly is a water-merchandise complex; it
is water which makes the object, giving all the nuances of a calm planar
mobility, collecting supplies, shifting them without perceptible transition from
one exchange to the other, making the entire city into a census of agile
goods.” ... “[E]verything is, for the object, a means of procession; this bit of
wharf is a cynosure of kegs, logs, tarpaulins; man has only to overturn or to
hoist; space, obedient creature, does the rest – carries backward and forth,
selects, distributes, recovers, seems to have no other goal than to complete
the projected movement of all these things, separated from matter by the
sleek, firm film of use; here all objects are prepared for manipulation, all have
the detachment and the density of Dutch cheeses: round, waxed prehensible
(Barthes 1972: 6-7) .
La Ville d'Amsterdam, 1690: Jacques Harrewijn.

The water-merchandise complex Barthes identified was a space centred on

the focal place of the harbour – drawing the harbour via the network of canals
into the city – and centring the focal practices of goods movement, hoisting
and storage. This may not have been all there was to Amsterdam, but it was
crucial for the city’s everyday functionality and it formed the city to a structure
simultaneously material and meaningful. The canals were an equipment that
formed and centred an everyday society, economy and geography as a
bounded and centred place. But this was just one of two worlds the
inhabitants of Amsterdam had contrived in their accumulated skills and
industry. Because the network of urban canals, markets and storehouses was
complimented by another network – of cities, without which the first would
have been pointless. This other network was of the suppliers, markets, and
particularly other cities, with which Amsterdam’s merchants traded. And these
two worlds were hinged together in the harbour. The changing shape of this
other network was the reason for the enormous gain in the fortunes of the city
in the course of the seventeenth century – but the internal organisational
structure of the city was also crucial to this development.
The harbour was where most of the activity was – at the interface and
articulation between the intra-city infrastructure of goods transport and an
inter-city system of trade and exploitation. It is this articulation of spaces that
established a valued place around which further developments would be
accumulated. Exactly the same place at the beginning of the 21st century is
an interface and articulation between a late 20th-century regional
infrastructure of exurban centres and suburbs built around motorway and rail
systems, and an early 20th century urban infrastructure of residential
neighbourhoods and public transportation.
This early 20th century city had been built on a belated industrialisation which
began in the second half of the 19th century and which saw new industrial,
harbour and housing areas being built for the first time beyond the walls that
had contained the city since the 17th century. A city oriented via the canals on
its harbour began reorienting as it expanded on the land side. A number of
significant street grid adjustments were made as the street pattern was
adapted to new patterns of use and movement on the land side (Wagenaar
220-21). The wall itself was demolished to build new housing and factories as
well as take traffic around the edge of the centre. Around the turn of the
century the municipality took over of the tram, gas, water, electricity and
telephone services and this marked the beginnings of a different kind of
modern social contract between citizen and government (van der Woud 2001:
194). The reorientation of the city was centred on a tram system which
became a critical component of a project of city building of the post first world
war years. This created a modern, social-democratic city in the place of the
faded trading port Amsterdam had been just a few years earlier. Infrastructure
projects were tied not just to a logic of accessibility but involved a political
project of the re-formation of the city. Van der Woud stresses the ‘normality’
and ‘common interest’ instituted in these modern technical, institutional and
organisational conditions which along with their technological underpinnings
become part of a collective field of perception, feeling and action (van der
Woud 2006: ch 8, 166).
A public transportation system became a strategy for realising a municipal
vision of a modern city, and a different urban territorial unit became
established as the city was concretely realised and “identified in different
spheres of social action and social consciousness” (Paasi 1986: 121). The
result was a different ‘place’, and a different materialisation of a functional and
perceptual structure within which people would communicate, interact and
coordinate their activities. It is not simply the plan of the city that was realised
around public transportation; all the components of the modern city were
realised at the same time in an ongoing work of organisation, and maintained
in their order for the sense they made by being in place. The agency of this
maintenance was not so much an organic society as a civic tidiness and a
commitment to the maintenance of an embodied discourse and particular
vision of civitas.
We establish, in the technical infrastructure, a material semiotics of things in
place which we maintain and do things in, as if these ways of doing things
were perfectly normal – which of course they are. The construction of a place
is in a very fundamental way about the realisation and objectification of the
thing and its components in an embodied political-intentional structure. It is
also about the synthesis of a network of situations which are commensurable
and connect with each other. In the simple case I am highlighting it means
that a transport means and its associated schedules, routes, stops, and
relations with local facilities, enable one to act in the network. There is a
technological rationality about this that is inescapable. But this rationality is
not universal: it is of this particular technical system, its objects, subjects,
places, intentions and practices – and it ends where they end.
At the beginning of the 21st century regimes of movement, practice and
place-identity, for a large proportion of the urban population, are tied not to
inner-city places and neighbourhoods but to networks of places beyond the
bounds of the modern city. Reyner Banham wrote more than 30 years ago of
Los Angeles that “[t]he freeway system in its totality is now a single
comprehensible place, a coherent state of mind, a complete way of life”
(Banham 2001: 195). Business, commerce and industry exist today in
production, supply, and customer networks as part of this infrastructure, and
urban people and functions have relocated here. While the process of the
making of the metropolitan city has not been as politically explicit a matter as
was the making of the modern city, we nevertheless see a specific
technological rationality set up as transportation planning and highway
engineering have worked to systematise it and give it form. A regional space
has been constructed, quite distinct from that of the modern city, which
maintains the rationale of a way of life which integrates the objects, subjects,
places and practices of a late-capitalist consumer society. There is nothing
abstract or mysterious about this; it is a purposeful construction that institutes
and maintains a given social order in situ.
But the objects and practices that gather to this new infrastructure don’t exist
on their own. Many of the metropolitan places metropolitan people travel to
are strongly articulated with other already established infrastructures. And the
metropolitan infrastructure, as it has grown, has always been articulated with
historical infrastructures and places. So the growth of a new infrastructure is
always and necessarily constrained by and articulated with what was built
before, while it incorporates older places and transforms them to the new

Where to locate the ‘Architectural Body’?

There is a lot more to say about the scenarios I have sketched here –
especially about the submerged politics of technocracy in the intentional city-
building practices of the post-modern, post-industrial city. But for the project of
the Architectural Body this account serves to situate us and focus our minds
on the strategy that will be necessary to even get the project off the ground –
and in a way that does not reduce it to another consumable event in the post-
modern landscape. I don’t think it overstates the case to say we are desperate
for ideas about how to build places we can inhabit; I hope we can do this by
seeing clearly where we are, what the potential obstacles are, and where the
strategic procedures and potentials may be found to build a city which will
sustain us in future technological settings which will and must be the ground
of our being and being with others.

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