Critical Spatial Practice

My first introduction to site-specific practice was in 1996 when I was invited to Chelsea College of Art and Design in London by Malcolm Miles to teach on and later direct their MA in the Theory and Practice of Public Art and Design. I quickly became fascinated by public art, by what seemed a highly unstable form of practice, which insisted on locating itself ‘a place between’ fine art and spatial design. Two years later when I was invited to guest edit a special issue of The Public Art Journal, I collaborated with artist/architectural designer Rex Henry, to examine the overlapping concerns of those artists and designers engaged in various forms of ‘spatial practice’ and the writings of cultural geographers and other cultural commentators and philosophers interested in ‘spatial theory’. Teaching has been central to my development of critical spatial practice. When Malcolm Miles first asked me to contribute to an MA directed by Faye Carey called ‘The Theory and Practice of Public Art and Design’ at Chelsea College of Art and Design in London the term ‘public art’ was new to me. Over the next few years I learnt that public art was an interdisciplinary practice that refused to settle as simply art or design. ‘You cannot design art’, one of my colleagues once warned a student studying public art and design. One of the more serious failings of so-called public art has been to do precisely this, to produce public spaces and objects that provide solutions – answers rather than questions. But I argue that public art should be engaged in the production of restless objects and spaces, ones that provoke us, that refuse to give up their meanings easily but instead demand that we question the world around us. Teaching public art suggested to me different ways in which theoretical ideas could inform studio practice, and draw attention to how art and other designed artefacts intervene into public space and affect people’s everyday lives.

This has been the impetus of the new MA Situated Practice that I co-initiated, that was launched in September 2017 with James O’Leary as Course Director, and on which I lead two modules: Situated Practices: Research Methods and Critical Spatial Practice: Site-Writing.

To date I have first-supervised over 20 doctoral students to completion, and many of these practitioners have engaged with, critiqued, modified and developed new aspects of critical spatial practice, for example:

Dr Sant Suwatcharapinun, an architectural historian and cultural theorist, whose PhD, Spaces of Male Prostitution: Tactics, Performativity and Gay Identities in Streets, Go-Go Bars and Magazines in Contemporary Bangkok, Thailand (2005), funded by the Thai Government, looked at gay male prostitution as a form of critical spatial practice. Sant is currently Assistant Professor, Faculty of Architecture, University of Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Dr Ivana Wingham, an architect and academic, whose PhD, ‘Taking a line for a walk’: expanding architectural concepts of the line – Preliminary Course experiments at the Bauhaus (2007), funded by an AHRB 3-Year Doctoral Award, and subsequently developed into an edited collection Mobility of the Line (Birkhauser, 2013), took up aspects of my discussion of walking as a form of critical spatial practice.

Dr Robin Wilson, an architectural historian, theorist and critic, whose PhD, Image, Text Architecture; Sites of Utopic Critique (2006), funded by an AHRB 3 Year Doctoral Award, explored criticism as a form of utopic practice. He is currently a Lecturer at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL and a book based on his doctoral research Image, Text, Architecture: The Utopics of the Architectural Media was published by Ashgate in 2015.

Dr Aslihan Senel, an architect and theorist, whose PhD, Unfixing Place: A Study of Istanbul through Topographical Practices (2008), funded by the Turkish Government, explored topography as a form of critical spatial practice. She is currently Associate Professor in Architecture at the Istanbul Technical University

Dr Juliet Sprake, a designer, theorist and pedagogue, whose PhD Learning-through-Touring: A New Design Methodology for Situated Learning Derived Through Touring the Built Environment (2008), developed and published as a book Learning-through-Touring: Mobilising Learners and Touring Technologies to Creatively Explore the Built Environment (Rotterdam: SensePublishers, 2012), explored learning and touring as a form of critical spatial practice. Juliet is currently Senior Lecturer in Design at the Goldsmith’s College, University of London.

Dr Sophie Handler, an urban practitioner and theorist, whose PhD A Little Bit of TLC: Towards an Alternative Urban Practice of Elderly Care, (2011), was funded by an AHRC 3 Year Doctoral Award, developed critical spatial practice in relation to experience of urban space through aging. Sophie went on to work for Manchester City Council developing age-friendly urban policies, and The Alternative Age-friendly Handbook (2014) – ‘a practical reference for architects, designers, artists and ‘urban curators’ who want to support age-inclusive (re)production of the city – together with, on behalf of, or for older people’ – came out of that work.

Dr Teresa Hoskyns, an architect, and feminist theorist, whose PhD, The Empty Place: Democracy and Public Space (2012), was published as a book by Routledge in 2014, The Empty Place: Democracy and Public Space, explored feminist aspects of critical spatial practice relating to public space and politics. Teresa was a Lecturer in Architecture at the University of Sheffield (2012-6), and she currently works at the Department of Architecture, Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, where she does research in Urban Politics, Political Theory and Urban/Rural Sociology.

Dr Mohamed Hafeda, a designer, artist and cultural theorist, whose PhD, Bordering Practices: negotiating political-sectarian conflict in contemporary Beirut (2014), funded by a UCL 3 Year Bonnart-Braunthal Scholarship, developed bordering as a form of critical spatial practice, and questioning critical spatial practice’s ability to deal adequately with temporality. Mohamad is a Lecturer at Leeds Beckett University, and his book Negotiating Conflict in Lebanon: Bordering Practices in a Divided Beirut is forthcoming with Bloomsbury.

Dr Torsten Lange, an architect and architectural history and theory ,whose PhD, Komplexe Umweltgestaltung [complex environmental design]: architectural theory and the production of the built environment in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), 1960-1990, (2014) was funded by an AHRC 3 Year Doctoral Award and a DAAD, Research Grant for doctoral candidates, examined critical spatial practice through housing design. He is a Visiting Lecturer for the Theory of Architecture at ETH Zurich.

Dr Alex Zambelli, an architect and interdisciplinary historian/theorist, whose PhD, Scandalous Artefacts: visual and analogical practice between architecture and archaeology (2016), was conducted between the Bartlett School of Architecture and UCL’s Department of Anthropology, developed a detailed analysis of the inter- and trans-disciplinary aspects of critical spatial practice through analogy and homology.  He is currently a Senior Lecturer at the School Architecture and Design at the University of Brighton.

Dr Katy Beinart is an interdisciplinary artist and urban theorist, whose PhD, Detour and Retour: Practices and poetics of salt as narratives of relation and re-generation in Brixton (2019) was developed out of her site-specific art practice. She is a Senior Lecturer at the School Architecture and Design at the University of Brighton.

Dr Mariana Pestana is an architectural designer and curator, whose PhD, Fictional World Enactments, curating The Real and Other Fictions at Lisbon Architecture Triennial, 2013 (2019), focused on the exhibition she curated as part of the Lisbon Architecture Triennial, 2013. As part of her contextual study, Mariana, explored how critical spatial practices emerged historically of the late 1990s, and how more recent interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary practices from 2000 have developed core concepts in new directions, as well as asking if critical spatial practice focuses too much on critique and not enough on producing alternatives. Mariana is a co-founding member of the Decorators, and based at the V&A in London, she co-curated The Future Starts Here.