LOOKING FOR LIMINALITY IN ARCHITECTURAL SPACE

by
Catherine Smith

 

In this paper, I would like to connect architectural praxis with theories and practices of liminality. Liminality is a cultural and philosophical concept often used in contemporary discourse on art and spatial experience. Authors like Jonathan Hill and Gianni Vattimo also connect liminality and marginality in contemporary art practice to architecture. These authors define liminality as the conceptual, ephemeral relationships between people and spatial environments. Traditional, professional architectural practice is orientated around building procurement and objects rather than human experience, so that building users and architects who change, appropriate and subvert building agendas act as an . illegal, politicised architect. . Both Hill and Mitchell believe architects could supplant concerns for building objects with user experience by drawing from contemporary art practices that give priority to audience experience. The diverse practices of installation art make audience experience a central concern of the artwork.

Nevertheless, there is minimal recognition of philosophies of liminality within architectural discourse. Furthermore, and most importantly, there is little indication of how liminality may be put into practice. In this paper, I would like to begin to explore a praxis of liminality by connecting philosophies of liminality to theories and practices within contemporary of architecture and art. Praxis, here, refers to the theory-practice nexus . I would like to raise many of the difficulties associated with theories of liminality and conventional, modern architecture and art practices, as highlighted in my own, and other peoples. experiences. My aim is therefore to explore other ways of seeing architecture using the concept of liminality rather than proposing finite conclusions.

DEFINING LIMINALITY

To explore liminality in architecture, I need to first clarify what I mean by liminality. When discussing installation works in the Rites of Passage exhibition at the Tate Gallery, Stephen Greenblatt describes liminality in art as works that deal with transitional states or identities . The ethnographer van Gennep is seminal in this contemporary understanding of liminality and marginality. His term rite of liminality refers to the precarious threshold between a person. s previous role in society and his new, evolved existence . Liminality is always associated with ephemerality and transitional passage between alternative states .Architect Aldo van Eyck also reinforces that a transitional threshold involves the interrelationship between two phenomena rather than their opposition . In the context of this paper, liminality or the liminal refers to transitional space; neither one place nor another; neither one discipline nor another; rather a thirdspace in-between.

What is liminal space?

If liminality may point to a thirdspace in architectural praxis, how is space defined in theories of liminality? In the literature referred to in this paper, space means the interrelationship between physical attributes and different temporal, philosophical, political, social or historical dimensions .

All the authors referred to in the research challenge unitary conceptions of space. They establish their discourse in-between two positions or juxtapose a dominant idea with a marginal discourse. A dynamic tension between the first proposition and its alternative, marginal viewpoint arises. Yet this juxtaposition reinforces the dialectic interaction between the positions rather than a duality of opposites. Several of the authors therefore advocate an inter-cultural, inter-disciplinary and hybrid approach for exploring practice through alternative, though interconnected views.

As a consequence of the multi-faceted nature of liminality, I constantly shift between different dimensions of liminality including the zone between; the physical and the conceptual; people and space; the artist and the audience; one practice and its marginal alternative.

 

Theories and theorists of liminality

Traditional conceptions of reality differentiate between forms of knowledge, experience and practice. In contrast, liminality is associated with the zone of blurring and juxtaposition between different theories and practices. This approach is the hallmark of Post theories and theorists including: Post Modernism / Gianni Vattimo; Post Feminism / Luce Irigaray; Poststructuralism / Michel Foucault; and Post Colonialism / Homi Bhabha . However, is it possible to articulate a thesis on liminality that, by its nature, exists within a blurred zone? How can the postmodern author describe the subject that resists knowing ?

In van Gennep. s rite of liminality, the . liminal zone is potentially dangerous as the individual is between social roles. . Sylvia Söderlind also warns of the dangers in centralising the discourse of marginality in Postcolonial literature, which is often written by authoritarian groups that condemn the marginal to their inferior position . While this subaltern or marginal position may reassert the authority of one discourse or group over another, the oppressed group can also use their marginality to subvert the hegemony of authority . This is looking at life through being other. To give an example of this process in practice, I must constantly challenge my position as an architect (my dominant profession) using the alternative theories, practices and experiences of installation art (exploring the subaltern life of the building occupant or illegal architect).

 

INSTALLATION ART AS A PRACTICE OF LIMINALITY

To explore user experience further, a number of designers and architects move beyond the discipline of architecture to examine its relationship to contemporary art practices. C. Thomas Mitchell believes that architects and designers can learn from contemporary installation art practices that reinforce user experience and design process over modernist conceptions of architectural form . This . contextual design. replaces a concern for the architectural object with experiential, ambient context. Mitchell is influenced by design theorist John Chris-Jones. concept of . Softecnica. , an emphasis on the soft, intangible processes characteristic of electronic technologies. Architect and educator Jonathan Hill also affirms the experiential aspects of installation art practice . He describes the way people occupy and appropriate architecture as . a liminal space. .

Nevertheless, this literature often conceals the philosophical assumptions of this approach, and the specific ways of actioning this liminality in practice in response to user participation. When exploring the issues of liminality, I find myself again and again returning to the tactics and techniques of praxis. Architects Paul Lewis, Marc Tsurumaki and David Lewis describe tactics as . the modes of creative opportunity that operate within the gaps and slips of conventional thought and the patterns of everyday life. . Installation art denotes a place of slippage for architectural practice, revealing ways of looking at space and user experience as a form of art in itself . What tactics do we use to find our way into this architectural practice of liminality?

 

A preliminary exploration in liminal praxis

As an architect, I am commissioned to conceive of space and structure for other peoples. inhabitation and occupation. This approach presumes peoples. interactions are defined in response to the structural framework established by the architect. In my experimental installation praxis at a local street festival, I wondered if architects could encourage people to not only inhabit and occupy structure but to create their own spaces. The installation contained boxes that were appropriated by people to make social spaces for eating and chatting, as impromptu stages for dancing, and at the initiation of a performing stilt walker, as objects for destruction by gleeful children .

In this sense, I want to extend architecture beyond Hill. s definition of a subject occupying an object to one of a subject creating, occupying, and even destroying a space. Hill hints at this by stating that . [a]rchitecture may, paradoxically, be most suggestive when we do not know how to occupy it. . Perhaps, if users can do more than occupy architecture, but create their own spaces over time, we can develop possibilities for a praxis of liminality between people and space. ill

 

THE CONFLICT BETWEEN ARCHITECTURAL STRUCTURE AND LIMINALITY

One of the strongest impediments to an architectural praxis of liminality resides in the fixed nature of architectural structure, conception and procurement. This is reinforced conceptually by Luce Irigaray in her text The Forgetting of Air in Martin Heidegger (1999). Irigaray provides a subaltern, liminal view of architectural dwelling and the seminal philosophies of Being described in the 1950s by Martin Heidegger. Martin Heidegger is an important figure who supplanted material and aesthetic conceptions of art and architecture with a concern for the relationship between people, space and being . Nevertheless, Heidegger. s approach often leads to a unitary, exclusive conception of space (Salmon 1989, p. 9). Irigaray believes this is because Martin Heidegger connects all aspects of life to a unitary notion of Being rather than differentiating between female beings and male beings . Consequently, this meta-discourse permeates Heidegger. s understanding of architectural dwelling as solid, inflexible and fixed . For example, Heidegger. s buildings arise out of the earth as heavy structure, manifested in the form of the ancient Greek temple .

Due to her criticisms of Heideggerian dwelling, Irigaray defines architecture and . architechné. as synonymous with a unitary, fixed, exclusive framework. She describes the portico and the cupola as containers made by men within which women are framed. Similarly, shell structures impose a clear boundary between inside and outside, and by implication, male inclusion and female exclusion . Thus fixed architectural structure conceptually embodies an inflexible and therefore unitary view of space. In contrast, Irigaray is interested in the fluid and ephemeral qualities of space that are concealed in stable notions of architectural dwelling . She uses the metaphor of air to describe the difference between fixed architectural structure and fluid, ephemeral space. For Irigaray, air is associated with open conceptual possibilities.

How does an architect make space in non-structural, open ways, when architecture is synonymous with fixed building structure? This involves more than the direct, metaphoric translation of physical openness and flexible structure, as reiterated by Jonathan Hill . For Hill, it involves a re-conceptualisation of architectural relationships using different media and rather than traditional, fixed conceptions of building form . That is, other media like text and art can also explore the kinds of person-environment relations particular to architectural concern.

The fluidity of making space and liminality

Traditional architectural practice clearly demarcates between building conception, procurement and the inhabitation of architectural structure. On the other hand, theories of liminality point towards the zone of blurring between the making and experience of spaces. Many seminal artists using installation media in the 1960s made works within a site, and extended this experimental attitude to the experience and manipulations of the work by the audience (Reiss 1999, p. 64). As noted by Allan Kaprow, this experimentation on site provided an openness that naturally subverted the overriding presence of . an architectural enclosure. . As the work evolved on site, many gallery and museum curators would only experience the work immediately prior to the opening.

Not all artists, galleries and museums associated with installation practice work in this way. Many artists commission other people to make their work , while some galleries often prevent artists from installing or changing their own work on site (Reiss 1999, p. 155). These artists and / or curators create exact drawings and scale models of the installations as objects prior to construction. During my experimental installation praxis in a Brisbane museum, I found this differentiation between art conception, art making and art installation affects the participatory aspects of the work. This differentiation was embedded in museum policies that prevented me from significantly altering the work on site to respond to audience participation once the installation was open to the public (Smith 2000b). Paradoxically, the museum curators positively embraced the concept of an ephemeral, interactive artwork. Perhaps this is why Jeff Kelley believes that installation artists often parachute into a site with their objects . According to art historian Julie Reiss, there are many different interpretations of audience participation in installation art .

Installation artists confront many similar constraints to architects, including the problems of public safety and funding (Reiss 1999, pp. 145-155). In the gallery context, installation art reminds me of contemporary architectural production, which differentiates between the design process through drawing and construction. Advances in representative drawing techniques in the sixteenth century enabled architects to resolve their design away from the site . According to Edward Robbins, this move away from construction made architecture a hierarchal, gentlemanly profession comparable with the intellectual, scientific pursuits of mathematics and writing. Architects could emulate an admired painter like Leonardo Da Vinci . who sits in great comfort before his work& He can be dressed as well as he pleases and his house can be clean and filled with beautiful paintings. . If installation art differentiates between conceptualisation, messy art making and site installation, is it also a gentlemanly act that denies the contributions by other people beyond the studio? Does this mean that installation art cannot create the fluid, ephemeral spaces Irigaray describes as metaphoric air?

SPACES AND SITES OF LIMINALITY

The context within which installation works are sited contribute to the works marginality and liminality within the art world. Installation art emerged as a politically engaging, radical art form in the 1960s and 1970s that defied the aesthetic and elitist status of galleries. Installations were therefore sited in alternative spaces to the spaces of mainstream art society . One contemporary example is Rachel Whiteread. s House , a temporary cast of a demolished house in a London suburb. Reiss believes that work which occurs in non-gallery contexts can maintain its marginality more than gallery works whose political effectiveness is often negated by gallery curators and policies .

As reinforced in my experimental praxis, the different sites of the street festival and the museum afford contrasting possibilities for artistic interaction and experimentation. Michel Foucault describes both the festival and the museum as . heterotopias. . Heterotopias refer to, but differ from, other spaces in mainstream society. This is illustrated in the cinema heterotopia, a three-dimensional container that differs from the complex interrelationships portrayed on the two-dimensional films within it . As the heterotopia always relates to another space it cannot be considered distinct from it. Its liminality therefore resides within its simultaneous interconnection with, and difference from, everyday space. Both the festival and the museum cause . temporal discontinuities. . While the museum aims to freeze time, festivals are completely transitory even if they occur on an annual basis. An artwork that is ephemeral in its conception, construction and reception will create tensions in a museum that, by its nature, stops time.

The relationship between spaces and practices of liminality

Placing an ephemeral installation in a static museum is a subversive act, however, its political effectiveness may be eroded to some degree . Julie Reiss therefore implicates the mainstream art spaces in . Installation art. s evolutionary arc towards the conventional, the final move to the centre. . As an architect, the museum installation offered an alternative site to my traditional architectural experience of creating building structure. However, as an installation artist, the museum became a mainstream space of the art world centre. Installation art located in spaces like the street festivals remains marginal to the art world and therefore reveals the openness and experimentation characteristic of liminality. This confirms that certain spaces and spatial practices are more conducive to a practice of liminality that explores architectural relations.

The relationship between the spaces and practices of liminality is illustrated in the approaches of Italian architectural group Stalker. Stalker are interested in disused and physically marginal, urban spaces where people appropriate and occupy space beyond architectural practice norms . Within these spaces, Stalker believes that architecture can be manifest as events and acts of occupation rather than building form alone. Stalker adopt the artistic practice of the d. erive, developed by the internationalist Situationalist group in the 1960s. The d. erive involves moving through and investigating the social conditions of the spaces of the city in an exploratory manner . For Stalker, architecture can be more than building: rather, exploratory, critical art practice becomes architecture when it explores the subject-object relations of marginal urban spaces.

Fluctuating spaces, practices and media

Architectural and art practices located in public spaces implicitly and explicitly question the social and political context. To respect the diverse and changing relationships between different people and spaces, a praxis of liminality must encourage diversity. Architect Jeremy Till believes that the complex social, political and economic factors affecting individuals in communities mean that there cannot be a unitary, cohesive conception of community or architectural form. We must aim, instead, for . architectures of the impure community. . Similarly, relationships between people and public space change over times according to fluctuating social and political realities . Different sites also have different dimensions of public access. These issues are reflected in many political and temporary artworks in public places. Many multi-media, installation works blur the boundaries between political activism and art practice . Thus public space is more than an agglomeration of buildings and the physical spaces between buildings, but the amorphous political relationships between people and space.

MARGINAL ORNAMENTATION AND CENTRAL ARCHITECTURAL STRUCTURE

Issues of marginality also play a powerful part in our reception of, and interaction with, art and architecture. Philosopher Gianni Vattimo describes ornamentation as another kind of practice that is traditionally marginalised within architectural structure and space. Unlike Irigaray, Gianni Vattimo believes Martin Heidegger. s texts allow for marginal possibilities. Vattimo asserts that Being, a normally marginal event in our lives, is a central concern in Heidegger. s philosophy . That is, conceptual issues and experiences fluctuate between the conditions of centrality and marginality.

This centre / margin dialectic has implications for understanding Heidegger. s discourse on architecture and art. Vattimo believes that ornament that is normally considered marginal and background to architectural structure becomes of monumental significance in our experience of it . Other theorists also recognise that ornament helps people to appropriate and identify with the built environment . These theorists describe ornament as more than surface decoration; rather, ornament is an expression of person-environment relationship and thus helps to situate architecture within its social-cultural contexts.

How is ornamentation a liminal practice?

Vattimo directly connects ornamentation to contemporary art practices that make marginal experiences in our lives the central content of the art . I found this margin / centre dialectic to be embedded in the interactive act of audience participation beyond the subject matter of installations or artistic intention. In my festival installation, people interacted with installation elements in inventive ways when their actions were marginal to their social activities, and when the elements they appropriated resembled objects of familiar use. For example, people appropriated installation boxes as resting seats and tables for the adjacent food stalls. Similarly, a blackboard element in the museum installation seemed to be less important as an object than the act of writing and sketching upon it with friends.

Nevertheless, there is a moment of decision when an individual decides to appropriate the art, and for that moment, it becomes a central object under the gaze of the individual. The margin / centre dialectic is embedded in the practices of making and everyday experience that become the world of the illegal architect.

BLURRED GENRE AND LIMINALITY

In the world of the Post, subaltern authors aim to constantly shift possible views of reality using, for example, anthropologist Clifford Gertz. s model of blurred genre or sociologist Dan Rose. s ethnographic poetics . Using these approaches, the theorist explores human cultural diversity by assimilating and juxtaposing her own life with another cultural perspective, as is characteristic of art practice . As previously noted, Jonathan Hill suggests that architectural relations may be found within other artistic practices. Similarly, Homi Bhabha and Clifford Gertz use artistic practice to probe the liminal, inter-cultural aspects of human experience as contemporary concerns of anthropology and sociology . The emphasis is not on the outcome of the artistic practice per se but the insight provided into human experience. Rather than focus on the limitations of particular forms and disciplinary practices, the Post condition subverts, appropriates and juxtaposes different genre to provide other ways of seeing spatial and cultural diversity. By implication, architecture and art might no longer be prescribed by specific outcomes, and instead become diverse media through which we explore human experience of space and time.

Prior to the advent of scientific, modern and hierarchical conceptions of knowledge, architecture was considered synonymous with other fine arts . In the hybrid world of the Post, many contemporary artists now make architecture and space the subject of their artistic media. Nevertheless, Pearman criticises the reverse act of . architects making lame installations when they should be doing buildings. (Pearman 2000, p. 42). This attitude implicitly reflects a concern for the art object and its correlation with canons of artistic worthiness as defined by art institutions. Paradoxically, this comment resembles the criticism made against installation art practice when it emerged in the 1960s (Reiss 1999, p. 83). The participatory relationship between people and site is now recognised as the defining aspect of installation genre rather than the aesthetic qualities of the objects per se (de Olivera, Oxley & Petry 1993, p. 11;Reiss 1999, p. 149). Nevertheless, certain approaches are more directly affiliated with installation art. s developmental lineage as a marginal approach.

Architecture as hybrid practice

Signs of interdisciplinary practice are emerging within architectural practice as ways of exploring the zone of blurring between traditionally isolated traditions. The architect Amerigo Marras refers to the in-between as a cross-disciplinary, hybrid approach to ecology, technology and the built environment (1999, pp. 3-4). Marras terms his hybrid view of architecture and ecology . ECO-TEC. . Another example of a hybrid practice model is the London art-architecture firm muf whose portfolio is noted for its distinct absence of building objects . Instead, muf respond to the specific experiences of local communities using . an architectural notation which swells to absorb subject matter traditionally censored out of architecture. . Their work includes installation practice and built intervention into urban landscapes. For example, muf created dancing platforms in London. s Southwark Street in response to children. s requests . By avoiding traditional practice models within their community operations, muf develops beyond the unitary assumptions of space and architectural outcome.

LIMINALITY AND THE ARCHITECTURAL PROJECT

To explore architecture using a praxis of liminality requires a re-conceptualisation of architecture from building object to person-environment relations. As practicing designers, we also need to explore new ways of making space that facilitate this conceptual zone of blurring between people and place. Theories of liminality posit the ephemeral, the hybrid and the social as conceptual priorities in the design process, and these concerns are manifest in certain contemporary art theories and practices. How architects subvert and translate these media into the design process requires further theoretical and practical exploration. Both architects and installation artists confront many political issues within traditional practice, including structural and legal limitations, which defy the fluid political and exploratory qualities of liminality. Nevertheless, these concerns will help us to find the place of slippage characteristic of the allusive and amorphous zone of liminality.

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Illustrations by Cathy Smith

  1. Air, 2000. Manipulated image
  2. Smile, 2000. Manipulated image of boy interacting with Behind the Boundary installation, West End Street Festival, October 2000.
  3. Liminality, 2000.

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