KISS Inaugural Lecture, University of Kent: Alan Penn ‘Architectural Space and Social Action: How does the built environment relate to human society?’

‘Buildings, or cities, are different from different points of view.’ –A. Penn

On Wednesday, I was in Canterbury for the KISS (Kent Interdisciplinary Centre for Spatial Studies) Inaugural Lecture given by Alan Penn, Dean of the UCL Bartlett School of Architecture. The lecture introduced the concept and basic form of analysis know as Space Syntax. I have used Space Syntax in my own research and it serves as a sounding board for the acoustic analysis I undertook in my PhD. Space Syntax is one of analysing, and more importantly discussing, the micro-macro movements of people in space. That is Space Syntax analysis focuses on the relationship between a single space (room, street segment, etc.) and the whole (building, neighbourhood, region, city) in terms of movement. In this reflection, I want to draw out the way the senses serve as critical tool in interpreting the micro-macro experience of space.

To start out, I should be clear that I find Space Syntax to be a very fruitful tool to think about space. The basis of the analysis is movement through space and in time. The combination of space-time is a necessary starting point for any understanding of urban experience. In the field of Classical Archaeology, a professed ‘spatial turn’ has happened (although, many think it is just now starting). The emphasis, therefore is on space, not time. In my own work, time is just as important. Sound happens in space, but, more importantly, it happens in time. Following Doreen Massey, I seek to emphasise the combination, space-time, as the key to understanding urban soundscapes (see Massey 1994). Space Syntax has a slightly different, although parallel focus, on movement in space-time. In Space Syntax terms, ‘integration’ defines the relationship between a single space and the whole. Thus, the integration value also serves as a space-time measure, as more integrated spaces are more easily accessible.

But here I run into one of the distinctive differences between Space Syntax and my own phenomenological approach: do we experience the whole (whether building, city, region, neighbourhood)? Space Syntax seems to say yes, the whole is implicit in the particular, although the whole is made up of all possible ‘points of view’. I am hesitant to agree and I find the senses to be useful critical tools in describing my hesitation.

Sensory experience, in the broadest sense, is a made up of various sensory registers (associated with the different senses). These registers have particular distance decay rates. A sound decays by 3 dB when the distance from the sound is doubled. Smells have different decay rates, which are shorter. Sight covers the furtherest distance and is the central analytical approach in Space Syntax. The decay rate influences the total area perceived and even when all the sensory registers are combined there is a limited range. Now, the limited range is further constrained by conscious awareness. As people move through space, much of what is interpreted by the sensory systems is interpreted unconsciously, often spoken of as ‘experience’. This is not to say that it does not form knowledge, but that it forms a tacit knowledge of urban environments. In particular space-time settings, different sensory registers come into play. In way finding, sight and hearing take precedence, while in food shopping, smell and touch take on greater roles. In this sense, the ‘experience’ of space-time dictates the sensory registers in which we consciously pay attention to. This attention is often fleeting, but it does indicate the way in which human perception of ‘space-time’ as a thing is mediated by the senses. We make sense of the worlds we experience through our senses.

This guiding principle is part of the Space Syntax approach and I assume many in that community would not disagree with it. However, as a historian, as opposed to designer, architect or urban planner, I deal not with future potential, but with analysing the past. This has implications for the source materials at my disposal, as well as for the interpretive questions I bring to those sources. In many ways, this makes me less concerned with the ‘intelligibility’ of a city (a key term in Space Syntax) and more interested in response inhabitants had to the experience of ‘intelligibility’. Take hearing as an example: we will instinctively turn in the direction a sound is perceived to come from, most often based on where we expect the sound to be produced, not where the sound actually comes from. The instinct is not wrong, but built through the experience of urban space, particular objects and habitus (to use Bourdieu’s term). Getting the spatial location right is not as interesting as exploring why I looked where I did. The same goes for the ancient city. I am more interested in the way Roman authors describe places, whether intelligible or not, through their senses, as a way to understand the space of the city. This allows me to push the literary sources further and ask how that experience creates an uneven urbanism, an urbanism of certain space-times and not others, or of certain streets (or buildings, neighbourhoods, on and on…) and not others. ‘Intelligibility’ becomes a comparative tool to understand the descriptive experience, or the fashioning of the historical space-time.

Alan Penn ended with some points on architecture as a discipline and the theoretical/methodological focus, which Space Syntax brings. In particular, two points stood out, namely buildings, or cities, are non-discursive objects and configurations are relational. I make similar points through my own work and both points appear in this post. For me, these points are implicit in a sensory approach to urbanism, or architecture. Movements, sights, sounds, smells and any other sensory stimuli are the product of space-time and social activity. In this way, the senses are the non-discursive interpreters of the built environment, as well as being indicators of the relational character of urban configurations. The senses draw out these points, requiring us to think about the implications for the ancient world.

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