Tim Waterman

Landscape, Urban, and Food Studies

Making a Scene

by Tim-Waterman on January 24, 2018, no comments

The following is an excerpt from my essay, ‘Making Meaning: Utopian Method for Minds, Bodies, and Media in Architectural Design’ published by the Open Library of Humanities. The full essay is available to all, delightfully, as a completely free and open access publication here: https://olh.openlibhums.org/article/10.16995/olh.109/

The imaginative ‘play’ that we call design has a special space—the studio. It is a physical space that is particular to the act of design. Like the theatre, the stadium, or the pitch, it has a particular construction that marks the space out for a particular role. Like ‘once upon a time’ and the set-ups it elaborates, the studio is a physical space that corresponds to a specific space of the imagination. While, as with other species, play can take place anywhere, there is still a particular role for this special place, which is the setting for a ritual that triggers the flow of creativity. When entering the studio this frame of mind takes over, and any interruption to the atmosphere can be catastrophic—or at least it feels catastrophic. It is certainly detrimental to the creative design process.

As I write this, I am sitting in the British Library in London, as I often do, and I am reminded that here is a special place for imaginative play as well. I am also reminded how much I resent any intrusion upon my space of solitary play here. As if to prove my point, a woman has just walked in and is unpacking and rustling around just opposite me; and a young man has followed right behind and sat to my right, wearing too much perfume. I note, looking up at the continuing noise, that the woman is plugging in and setting up three (!) laptops in her space. The space of creativity and play is mental, physical, multi-sensual (as the scene above shows), affective, and particular, and is also marked by prohibitions and restraints—‘rules’—that are often internally imposed:

One generally finds, even in animals, “rules” of play: special signals (such as wagging the tail or not using claws), postures, facial expressions, and sounds that mean “This is make-believe”. Often special places are set aside for playing: a stadium, a gymnasium, a park, a recreation room, a ring or circle. There are special times, special clothes, a special mood for play—think of holidays, festivals, vacations, weekends. (Dissanayake, 1992: 43)

The studio is the particular place where make-believe is enabled in design. Kyna Leski addresses the role of the studio as a space of experimentation (just as the space of the library allows critical experimentation), brilliantly and poetically speaking of the individual experience of material reasoning within it. Her narrative is a modernist one—with roots in the methods of the Bauhaus—in which learning to trust the senses, to trust the materials, involves an initial un-learning (though not a total un-learning: the student does not become a tabula rasa). All the prejudices and preconceptions of the future designer are stripped away, and a newly built Homo faber steps forth. This is a useful narrative with which to encourage the student to trust in the process: We are taking a portion of yourself away, but replacing it with something much better. The importance of that trust cannot be underestimated.

Leski’s methods and interpretation, however, are often too focused on the personal. The studio is not merely a space of trust and a space for the interaction of the teacher, the student, and the media they will employ. It is also an intensely social space. The imaginative work that takes place in the studio is part of a larger process of co-making, co-working, co-imagining; and the studio is part of the larger world of associations, professions, families, etc., all of which inform and support the individual. The musician Brian Eno calls this larger process the ‘scenius’, a portmanteau of ‘scene’ and ‘genius’. This concept helpfully reminds us that even for the seemingly solitary ‘genius’ painting or writing poetry in a garret, that invention emerges from a shared background of teaching, conversation, making, exploring, and feeling together: an ‘ecology of talent’ (Eno, n.d.). It posits a play-space/design space of situated, mediated, and intercorporeal social connectedness—a space of what Elaine Scarry calls ‘aesthetic fairness’—that ‘creates in all participants a state of delight in their own lateralness’ (Scarry, 2000: 114). When I sit and create a space of intellectual experimentation and play for myself, alone in the library, I bring along all that has contributed to my current self, and I am reaching out laterally into other intellectual worlds with every book I open and every connection I make. Then I carry that back out into the world with me, in my own text, my teaching, my engagement with my profession, and so on.

For the architectures, particularly landscape architecture, the awareness of a ‘scene’ must include not only those people involved in co-invention, but they must enter into a constructive dialogue with all the processes and forces that comprise a landscape: biological, geological, climatic, cultural, social. The landscape architect needs to employ a mode of thinking and acting that Lorraine Code calls ‘ecological thinking’ (2006). I prefer a term I’ve borrowed from ethnology: ‘toposophy’ (see Kockel, 2014), thinking that is about place, grounded in place, not just about objects, but about vast arrays of intersecting and interdependent processes and forces. Unlike philosophy—‘beautiful thinking’—toposophy is thinking that is always about somewhere. The term ‘ecological thinking’, useful as it is, seems to direct us too much towards preconceptions of the natural world, while toposophy engages both nature and artifice. Toposophy is a perspective, allied to what Tim Ingold calls the dwelling perspective, which treats people as organisms immersed in their lifeworlds, as opposed to what he calls the building perspective, which supposes that ‘people inhabit a world—of culture or society—to which form and meaning have already been attached’ (Ingold, 2000: 153). This posits that the individual must ‘construct’ their world in order to act on it, rather than being, from birth, an actor in concert with the landscape in which he or she dwells. These simultaneous and interdependent actions and interactions are described well in theories of practice, which hold that practices ‘should be treated as involving thought and action together, and in so far as this is the case, embodied theory, as it were, is a part of practice itself’ (Barnes, 2001: 20). ‘Making a scene’ is connecting with and learning from others as practice; and as intercorporeal, embodied, emplaced sociality. This ‘scene’ contains conversations immersed in their lifeworlds. It makes connections with past realities; past dreams and ambitions; past constructions; and incorporates them as parts of possible futures. Thus it resists tendencies within modernity to clean the slate—where past forms and meanings may be expunged and new ones written upon a tabula rasa. Here an unlearning of the past is necessary for total invention. In a scene, though, ‘[t]hinking means venturing beyond. But in such a way that what already exists is not kept under or skated over’ (Bloch, 1986: 4). What already exists probably contains fragments and relics of past utopias, ready to be called into the future as part of the next scene. To those fragments are pinned satisfaction, fulfilment, beauty, and love; qualities deserving of continuity.