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«From space to place. A necessary paradigm shift in architecture as a way to handle the increasing complexity and connectivity of real world systems. ...»

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From space to place. A necessary paradigm shift in architecture

as a way to handle the increasing complexity and connectivity of

real world systems.

Alessandro Rollino


Architecture is historically regarded as the art and science of space-making: to

build a structure is to unfold it throughout space, so it can accommodate human

related affairs and functions. However architecture, giving shape to space, also

modifies place. Like any other material entity from quark to cosmos, architecture, before being space-interacting, is necessarily place-based. A long philosophical tradition spanning from Aristotle to Heidegger, offers place ontological primacy over space; nevertheless, the majority of architects mainly focus on space, leaving a deepened insight into questions of place to the attention of landscape architects, geographers, anthropologists, sociologists, environmental psychologists or ecologists. Only current ecological trends are making architects slightly more sensitive about questions of place. In order to appreciate differences and understand the consequences between space-related and place-related approaches to architecture, I maintain that architects should develop a global systemic perspective, conceiving the physical reality as a whole of interacting physical, biological, social and symbolic systems. If a systemic perspective is adopted, architecture, which is often considered an autonomous symbolic system, will have to acknowledge its interdependence towards the physical, biological and social environment conceived as a whole. Consequently, a paradigm shift from space to place is inescapable for architecture, since space is an


concept which mainly carries autopoietic symbolic values, while place is a more pragmatic concept which also carries physical, biological and social values. Focusing earlier on place rather than on space, architecture could be more integrated within the physical reality, hence would be more responsive to environmental, social and economic dynamics. In order to accommodate this change, a systemic definition of place is given. An exhaustive introductory inquiry into concepts of place and space is also given, in addition to ontological and epistemological considerations.

Key Words: Architecture, concepts of place, concepts of space, ontology, paradigm shift, General System Theory, hierarchy of systems, place as system.


1. Historical inquiry into concepts of place and space Before introducing any specific arguments related to questions of place and space, I believe it essential to focus on the meaning of the two concepts. This is a necessary step because concepts of place and space have accumulated different From space to place. A necessary paradigm shift in architecture __________________________________________________________________

points of viewand shifts in meaning, which have caused widespread ambiguities and different interpretations.

According to Algra1, there is a consensus in considering space a more general term than place: this implies using place in relational settings (place being the place of something) and space as a background frame of reference, a receptacle, which may contain places and objects. This idea of ‘space as container’2 is still a common view, which is anchored to the classical Newtonian concept of ‘absolute space’. This view is in sharp contrast to Einstein’s idea of ‘relative space’, which is intended ‘as positional quality of the world of material objects.’3 There is ontological distance between the two concepts of space: absolute space remains as a sheer unprescindable residuum if we remove any material entity;

while relative space is inconceivable without matter. The idea that space is not a substance in itself, but is related to time and matter, will lead to modern field theories and will bring into question the very notion of space.4 In the foreword to Jammer’s book ‘Concepts of space’, Einstein made an important observation, by saying that the concept of space seems to have been ‘preceded by the psychologically simpler concept of place.’5 In order to verify the correctness of this hypothesis, I will consider some passages from Casey’s historico-philosophical inquiry into concepts of place and space.6 Casey begins his description presenting some Cosmogonies. Those stories have the following schemata in common: Creation is considered a reaction against the abhorrent void, a response to the immanent human sense of ‘horror vacui’, which means total absence of any place. The idea of the void is rejected by ancient peoples; thereafter, almost any Cosmogony begins from an initial state of Chaos – a truly material matrix – which is the very first place where any subsequent genealogy of places is created. Within cosmogonic narratives, the existence of matter goes along with a process of implacement: matter and place cannot be separated.

If the void is psychologically rejected by ancient peoples, with the birth of abstract thinking, logical reasoning begins to accept the void as a basic underlying framework for the physical reality. The early Atomists believed in indivisible forms of matter – atoms – and used the Greek term ‘kenon’, void, to define a spatial reality devoid of matter, but where matter could ‘move and have its being.’7 The cosmological model of the early Atomists consisted basically of interaction between matter and the void.8 Against this view, Aristotle proposed a theory of place (topos) denying the existence of the void. To him any substance, that is matter, had its ‘natural place’ and moved according to it. He rejected the homogeneous medium of the Atomists – the void – since it offered no discernment to local movement of matter.

Aristotle’s basic cosmological model was based on interaction between place and matter. Having been assigned the power to make things be somewhere, place definitely acquired an ontological status and primacy.9 Alessandro Rollino 3 __________________________________________________________________

According to Cosmogonies and the first cosmologies, void and place offered matter the possibility for being and moving; there is no trace of space. Einstein’s

hypothesis is confirmed: place is prior to space. Then, we can ask:

How did the illusion of the steel framework as an external fact come to be imposed upon common sense? If the infinite extent of three dimensional space is no more than a construction of the human brain, and only one of many possible alternatives, all equally agreeable to nature, when and by whom was it constructed? 10 Cornford gives the answers: it took more than three centuries to invent the concept of space: that time was necessary for the concept to be ‘constructed by the reasoning of the Greek geometers and imposed by the Atomists.’11 I share that hypothesis: space is an invention, a form of mental representation.

However, in the period of time between the sixth and the third centuries BC, I would also mention Plato’s idea of the receptacle, which I consider to be the most remarkable creative leap leading to the invention of the concept of space. Plato explains his spatial theory in the Timaeus.12 In Plato’s model, it is possible to find traces of the concept of space as we see it today. Space belongs to a cognitive ideal world (after all, the receptacle is just a cognitive device) capable of accepting and explaining, in simplified symbolic terms, the somewhat complicated appearing movements, changing of state and perishing of matter that occur in real places.

Plato’s model and Aristotle’s theory of place gave origin to a series of speculations about the true nature of space and place, which would occupy many different thinkers for the next two-and-a-half millennia. This story is brilliantly narrated by authors like Casey, Jammer, and others.13 The crucial moment for those speculations was reached when Newton proposed the notion of ‘absolute space [which] in its own nature, without regard to anything external, remains always similar and immovable’ and the notion of ‘place [which] is a part of space that a body takes up’.14 Space definitely acquired ontological status, while place was dispersed within infinite, absolute space in the form of location. This is in agreement with the way the two concepts are commonly understood at present.

Nonetheless, during the first decades of the twentieth-century, new discoveries in the field of Physics and Einstein’s genius radically changed the knowledge of the physical reality, sweeping away past certainties about space.15 Thereafter, Quantum Mechanics and Quantum Field Theory revised and extended Einstein’s theories; concepts of space, time, void and matter were revised too.16 The concept of field was introduced as a new physical fundamental entity, while the concept of place remained unchanged in its bare locatory status.

From space to place. A necessary paradigm shift in architecture __________________________________________________________________

2. On place and space: considerations and perspectives

Important conclusions can be drawn from the previous analysis:

1] Concepts of place and space are strictly correlated and cannot be understood if separated from each other, or if their sense is severed from a global understanding of the physical reality.

2] Space is a product of our mind; it has no independent existence.

3] The physical universe is our only reality, our only place to be, without any physical underlying frame of reference, namely space.

4] Space is a mediatory entity that man invented as a form of symbolic representation to allow us to understand and deal with the physical reality made of places. Then, space is a filter between man and place.

5] Plato’s cosmological model is not valid, because it eventually led to overturn a conceptual entity - space - into a substantial entity. The final merit for that overturning has to be entirely attributed to Newton.

6] The ontological primacy that space has gained in the past to the detriment of place, should now be reassigned.

7] Many philosophical arguments pave the way to the restoration of place:

authors like Whitehead, Husserl and Merleau-Ponty have considered the importance of place in its tie with the human body;17 while Heidegger unveiled the basic ontological connection between being and place. Even in the light of these facts, space becomes secondary to place; it seems that from place space may be generated, which is quite contrary to common sense.18 8] The recovery of the concept of place in Philosophy goes hand in hand with the dismantling of the concept of space in modern and contemporary Physics.

Space becomes an obsolete concept with Einstein; its absolute nature becomes relative. However, what is even more impressive is that the concept of field now links within a mathematical expression – Einstein’s field equations – space-time and matter. This is a brand new cosmological model: Einstein succeeds exactly where Plato failed.

9] Einstein’s theoretical model is confirmed fundamentally by experimental data leading to the birth of Quantum Mechanics and Quantum Field Theories (QFT); the concept of field, which, I dare to say, has an inherent placial structure, is triumphant. The fundamental picture of QFT says that ‘the essential reality is a set of fields (…); all else is derived as a consequence of the quantum dynamics of these fields.19 10] It seems that the field of physics is the ultimate datum of the physical reality: should place give up its fundamental ontological role in favour of the concept of field? Can concepts of place and field converge into a single view?

3. Paradigm shift, General System Theory (GST) and the physical reality Since the middle of the nineteenth century, many scientific certainties have faded away, because of new discoveries in the fields of Physics, Chemistry and Alessandro Rollino 5 __________________________________________________________________

Biology.20 The old mechanistic paradigm and the vision of the universe like a perfect clock, seemed to be inappropriate to describe the complicated interconnections between events and processes of life and matter.21 A striking convergence between physical and biological sciences began and similarities between processes in living, non-living and social systems were noted. This led to hypothesize the existence of similar physical laws behind processes from different systems;22 these conditions led to postulate a new science: General System Theory.23 According to GST, the universe is seen as having a vertically structured hierarchy, conceived of as a global system composed by many different subsystems. That hierarchy comprises structures like atoms, molecules and crystals; open systems like flames, cells and generic organisms; lower organisms, like plants; animals; man; socio-cultural systems and symbolic systems.24 These levels in the hierarchy of systems can be simplified into physico-chemical (inorganic) systems, biological systems, social systems and symbolic (intellectual) systems; higher levels presuppose lower ones. This fourfold hierarchy of levels is exhaustive: no aspect of the physical reality is left out.25 Then, the physical reality is a whole, where parts (the four subsystems) are in continuous relation between each other. I call this whole: place. The physical reality is a place and we are agents, active participators, because of the matter and energy we exchange with the environment at any level: at physical and biological levels to survive as individuals; at social and symbolic levels to improve our conditions of survival, both as individuals and as societies. Fluxes of energy and matter between systems, tie anything and anybody in a seamless way within the whole: the physical reality.

If we adopt such a systemic perspective, the concept of field (taken from Physics) and the concept of place, may correspond. In the Thirties, physicists like Jordan, Wigner, Heisenberg, Pauli and Fermi, showed that material particles can be conceived as a set of fields, and the same universe with its inhabitants could be conceived as set of fields.26I argue that those fields appear to our perceiving bodies under the forms of place: they can be objects, bodies, trees or landscapes.27 There are other fields that we are not able to perceive, or whose effects we feel, but we are not able to see or explain. They too have to do with places: they are what, long ago, our ancestors used to call ‘the spirit of place’.

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