Critical Grounds

Critical Grounds moving to the Spatial Register

I’m making a clean start of things and have a new blog, ‘The Spatial Register‘.

I’ll keep this blog open, but will not be adding any new posts. Thanks for everyone who has followed and commented on this blog. It would be great if you would have a look at and perhaps follow the new one.

I’m also pushing ahead with the photography blog that accompanies The Spatial Register ‘The Spatial Register: Photography‘, if you wanted to have a look.

Untitled 4


Untitled 4


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Brutalist car park, Bristol

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I’m participating on the panel for the launch of the book The Political Unconscious of Architecture, Nadir Lahiji, ed. at UCL on 28 February. Details below and at The Political Unconscious of Architecture: Book launch and panel discussion Feb 28, 2013 6:30:00 PM Location: UCL Royal Ear Hospital, Ground Floor, Capper Street (corner of Huntley […]

‘Urban Prototypes: Mentalities and Perspectives’ public lecture at the Architectural Association

Together with Clara Oloriz Sanjuan I will be presenting a lecture at the AA on Wednesday 6 February, 18.00 pm, Main Lecture Hall, 36 Bedford Square, London.


Urban Prototypes: Mentalities and Perspectives

Prototypical approaches are now prevalent within architectural and urban design. Suggesting an affinity with the speed, efficiency and flexibility of post-fordist and computational methods of research and production, the prototype appears to offer an ideal means for architecture to engage with contemporary conditions of urbanisation.

Drawing upon their recent work within the Urban Prototypes research cluster of the AA, Clara Oloriz Sanjuan and Douglas Spencer present a critical analysis of this phenomenon. This is framed through the concept of ‘mentalities’ as employed by Tafuri in his treatment of the territorial transformations of Renaissance Venice, and informed by the perspectives gleaned from their interviews with figures such as David Grahme Shane, Pier Vittorio Aureli, Francoise Fromont, Charles Waldheim and Eva Castro.

Uncanny Landscapes event

I am speaking at the conference strand of the ‘Uncanny Landscapes’ event to be held between 4-8 March in London. The event has been organised by Rupert Griffiths and James Thurgill, and further information on it can be found at

This the abstract for my paper, ‘Unheimlich Manoeuvre’:

Flat ontologies might be said to find their ideal exemplification in a certain idea of landscape. Especially where its lateral assemblages of social, biological, geological and infrastructural elements are valorised as the means to address the problems of the contemporary city — as in ‘ecological urbanism’ or the ‘new naturalism’ of Andrea Branzi’s ‘weak urbanism’ for instance — one can observe the figure of landscape working to level out and disperse the social within a horizontally articulated ‘new materialism’. Such ontologies of emergence, self-organisation and autopoiesis are understood to function through laws immanent to the organisation of matter itself and to operate according to a logic of purely local and environmental interactions. In thinking the relationship between the subject and the landscape according to such paradigms, the tendency has been to employ models drawn from the world of physics and biology. Swarm-modelling and the terminology of particles, molecules, even ‘plankton’ (Branzi), are held to be an adequate, even progressive, way of understanding the subject’s actions and agency. Thus flat ontologies tend to posit the subject as ‘at home’ in a terrain that operates according to unified and unifying principles.

This paper offers a critique of this understanding of the relationship between the subject and the landscape. Exploring its historical dimensions — in the stadtlandschaft of Hans Bernhard Reichow for example — and its current manifestations in models such as weak urbanism, and biourbanism, the political and ideological implications of such seemingly post-ideological and post-political positions will be addressed. Central to this critique will be the argument that the subject, rather than finding a home in the nature of the landscape, must always encounter it through an experience of artifice in which nature is socialised, even in and through the very models that would refuse the possibility of this.

Illustrationf rom Hans-Bernhard Reichow, 'OrganischeStadtbaukunst', 1948

Illustration from Hans-Bernhard Reichow, ‘Organische
Stadtbaukunst’, 1948

Investing in the Ground: Reflections on Scarcity, Remediation and Obdurate Form

My essay ‘Investing in the Ground: Reflections on Scarcity, Remediation and Obdurate Form’ published in  Architectural Design, ‘Scarcity’, edited by Jon Goodbun. Extract below.

“In design practice, it is the ground, and its articulation, from which form is derived. The ground becomes, as Castro and Ramirez refer to it, a ‘design tool’. Many of the sites with which AALU and Groundlab have been engaged, for example, particularly those in China, suffer from scarcities of land fit for farming, or even inhabitation, due to soil pollution and degradation that require processes such as excavation, cutting, filling and capping in order to facilitate their remediation.  More than a problem-solving exercise, however, this type of ‘groundwork’ also provides an opportunity to generate artificial topographies with the formal capacity to structure relations between environmental, social, cultural and economic factors on a given site. The remediation of scarcity is grasped as an opportunity for formal interventions, establishing the possibility of specific urban conditions not readily amenable to the flexibility of reprogramming sought by urban entrepreneurialism. As opposed to the conception of the urban as a mere surface always open to reprogramming in the service of strategies of accumulation, form becomes an obdurate investment in the ground.”

The Political Unconscious of Architecture reviewed in Radical Philosophy 174

This is an extract from the review I wrote for Radical Philosophy of The Political Unconscious of Architecture. I am told by the book’s editor, Nadir Lahiji, that a more affordable paperback edition is dues out shortly.Nadir Lahiji, ed, The Political Unconscious of Architecture: Re-opening Jameson’s Narrative, Ashgate, Farnham, Surrey, UK and Burlington, Vermont, USA, 2011. 344 pp., £65.00 hb., 978-1409426394.

‘For the title of this volume’ writes its editor, Nadir Lahiji, ‘we have invoked the novel concept that Jameson used for one of his early seminal works, The Political Unconscious, Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act.’  Whilst acknowledging the precedence of ‘Freudo-Marxism’, Lahiji contends that Jameson’s concept of the ‘political unconscious’ remains the most trenchant, and still vital, articulation of psychoanalytic perspectives with those of class struggle. For Jameson, the ‘political unconscious’ would provide the keys to the interpretation of any historical text or cultural practice as the imaginary resolution of real social contradictions. In his own words, the methodology of the ‘political unconscious’ would lead to ‘the unmasking of cultural artifact as socially symbolic act’. Furthermore, the symbolic work of such cultural artifacts could then be grasped ‘as vital episodes in a single vast unfinished plot’; the singular Marxian narrative of all history as the history of class struggle. The interpretive strategy of the ‘political unconscious’ was concerned, therefore, with ‘restoring to the surface of the text the repressed and buried reality of this fundamental history.’

In joining the ‘political unconscious’ to the subject of architecture, Lahiji also invokes Jameson’s longstanding and various critical engagements with that form of cultural production which is, for him, constituted more than any other by a ‘seam’ between the ‘economic organisation of society and the aesthetic production of its (spatial) art.’ We are thus returned, once more, to the scene of the philosopher’s encounter with the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles — with its call for a ‘cognitive mapping’ of its hyperspatial depthlessness — to the ‘revolutionary spatiality’ of Frank Gehry’s house in Santa Monica, to the aesthetics of Peter Eisenman and Rem Koolhaas.

Lahiji argues that the earlier concept of the ‘political unconscious’ was, however, never effectively incorporated into Jameson’s subsequent writings on architecture, and that this unrealized possibility defines the rationale for the collection: it ‘explains the reason of our returning to his earlier The Political Unconscious in search for a political concept in order to underline the original intent for the present anthology. We launched on this project believing that it is now an opportune time that we allow this concept to enter the discourse and provide us with a theoretical reference in renewing the project of critique in architecture within the contemporary culture.’

This ‘project of critique’ is also understood by Lahiji to be a timely one in light of the current predominance of post-critical and post-theoretical perspectives within contemporary architectural discourse. In this respect the collection might also be understood as a contribution to an emerging counter-current in architectural criticism. The origins of this counter-current may be located in the 2007 collection Critical Architecture, edited by Jane Rendell, Jonathan Hill, Murray Fraser, and Mark Dorrian, and which featured essays by David Cunningham and Jane Rendell, who also appear in Lahiji’s volume. Other notable contribution to this revival of architectural critique would include Gail Day’s Dialectical Passions: Negations in Postwar Art Theory, of 2011, and much of the writing of Pier Vittorio Aureli.

The complete review can be found in Radical Philosophy  174

Architecture and the Technoaesthetics of the Environment

I’m speaking at a symposium tomorrow, in Bilbao, titled ‘Processing Environments’, organised by the AA Visiting School. My own contribution revisits the notion of the ‘phantasmagoria’ – as addressed not only by Benjamin, but also by Adorno is his critique of the staging of Wagner’s operas – as a means of conceiving contemporary architecture and its ‘technoaesthetics’. I’m also drawing quite heavily, where I go back to Benjamin and Adorno, and to Wagner and Art Nouveau, to a great essay by Susan Buck-Morss titled ‘Aesthetics and Anaesthetics: Walter Benjamin’s Artwork Essay Reconsidered ‘ from 1992. Anyway here’s the abstract of my paper:

Emergent, self-organising, networked, algorithmic, complex…contemporary models of organisational processes have themselves now spread rhizomatically across and between science, politics, economics and technology. The effect has been to make contemporary capitalism appear as something like a mirror of nature; a reflection in which its productive powers are affirmed, and through which ‘our’ environmental concerns are (mis)recognised. Architecture too, of course, has come to embrace these same processual and organisational models. It has also endowed them with an aesthetic or ‘style’. This presentation offers a critique of this aesthetic and its affirmation of a ‘total environment’ in which the processes of capital are rendered indistinguishable from those of life itself.