Saturday, March 6, 2010

Space, perception and awareness (social anthropology text)

As a point of departure to my text on social anthropology this is the text I delivered to BAS in January about my diploma project:

“With a critical eye I wish to investigate the way we live, going back to basics - how we sleep, eat, wash ourselves... - and why. How we relate to our surroundings. How we interpret them. Winston Churchill said "We shape our buildings, and then they shape us". The same goes for how the systems/cultures that we create. The established paradigm is constantly changing, whichever form, slowly but surely.

We are in-between yesterday and hyper modernity. We let ourselves be seduced by the offerings of technology, but these objects don't awaken such feelings of recognition as the crocked and worn wooden floor of an old apartment.

Since the Renaissance the Western world has moved more away from the mystical of our nature to the logical and rational. The way we live, how our cities are organized is whether we like that idea or not - form that follows function. And if we don't like that idea, only now is the time to do something about it.

We project ourselves on spaces. In spaces that are new to us we project the image of ourselves and our desires in that situation. New situations trigger our imagination. We tend to travel to be inspired.

Starting from a philosophical point of view I point towards a diploma that re-investigates the potential of architecture in relation to art. The project could be refurbishing of existing buildings or refurbishing/integration with new structures/integration of elements that opens our minds instead of seducing them. I am here, so I will work with Bergen”.

Since I wrote this text I have read a much and conversed with friends and fellow students about my ideas, and some frames for my project to arise within are being shaped. I see the architect as a participant in local affairs and one that can be a trigger for good things to happen. The architect has a major responsibility in the development of cities and societies, since her profession is interdisciplinary and a tie between opposing forces and disciplines that drive society.

I have stated that as a starting point I would like to develop my diploma in Bergen. Since I live here it gives me more potential for investigating the architect as a participant. Also it is a part of my personal development in consolidating the place where I live and accepting my responsibility to this place. I have been struggling with the feeling of not belonging in Bergen, even though I have lived here for six years, and several times I have lived abroad and have been attracted to other ways of life.

Diverse suggestions for my diploma have crystallized different elements, amongst the ones mentioned, that are important to me, and I have had great use of my sense of feeling to evaluate each one of them. It has become clear to me that I need to work on something that is wholly positive. Also I want a project that does not paint the end of the road before I start the walk, but one that it can embrace a variety of approaches, thought processes and eventually a concrete proposal.

I have been looking into BIKS (Bergen Internasjonale Kultur Senter), an association initially part of the Bergen municipality. It seeks to offer Bergeners of different ethnic background an arena where multicultural activities can happen and develop. They cooperate with individuals as well as organizations and cultural institutions (BIKS statement on its website).( They organize theater, dance shows, festivals and many types of courses and other activities. BIKS is a very important assessment in the cultural life of Bergen, expressing the variety of cultures assembled in this city.

Because of the wide organization and assorted types of events, BIKS has a somewhat nomadic appearance of ephemeral happenings in the city’s otherwise more controlled cultural scene. It has however, since 2007, had its main office in Kong Oscarsgate 15, a building that has a variety of different rooms for different kinds of activities. I have been told that since the building is part of Bergens cultural heritage the association is not allowed to modify it to their needs. This supports the notion I have of BIKS carrying nomad characterizations. It means something that it does not have its own place that it can do whatever it wants with, and I don't think it is entirely a negative thing. I think there is a lot of potential here that is yet to be articulated.

I have yet to contact BIKS to discuss cooperation, but this is where I plan to dive in. In the rest of the text I wish to discuss the more conceptual elements of my interest, in relation to such a project, seeking to integrate it with the initial intentions expressed in my diploma text.

One of the first things that struck me as important when starting on the social anthropology literature was the importance of defining some basic concepts such as culture and the individual. What is culture and what is an individual? What is identity and why is it important? Where does architecture come in?

We communicate ideas with language, and as I write this, I think and articulate my thoughts in words and sentences. For understanding to reach you, the reader, many things must match. Firstly you have to understand the language I am writing in. Secondly we rely on my ability to express my thoughts in a comprehensible manner. Thirdly you need to have a background knowledge that allows you to make sense of what is written, that background knowledge being many things that are not written - concepts.

I have said that I will discuss some concepts, what then is a concept? I think it is essential to start here because understanding how the mind works is the first step of understanding why we see and perceive reality the way we do, and why others perceive it differently. I believe that without this background we can only surf superficially the truth of matter.

Wikipedia states two prevailing theories in contemporary philosophy which attempt to explain the nature of concepts (abstract term: conception). One is the representational theory of mind that proposes that concepts are mental representations, the other being the semantic theory of concepts that hold them for abstract objects.
My understanding is that the concept of concepts is to include that which shares certain characteristics into a specific category, and exclude what does not. We use concepts for abstract as well as for concrete objects, deconstructing reality into fragments and objects. By this discrimination we try to comprehend the whole thing. Plato talked about the pure forms of objects in an ideal world that we perceive only conceptually through the veil of this physical world. I think in this school of thought that concepts are obstacles for seeing what is and at once tools for expanding our consciousness exactly because our minds use them, and without realizing that they are there we cannot reject them either. When we understand concepts we create a distance between ourselves and them. We realize we are not it.

We must not forget that modern science has revealed that all things are made up from the same tiny building blocks. Philosophically this means that if you understand one, you understand it all. Our junkie-for-concepts minds have led science to places only reality has really gone before.

Concepts walk hand and hand with language. Language here comprises not just oral expression, nevertheless all kinds of communication. Language goes into the matter of concepts with the precision of words. Paradoxically language and words are in themselves concepts. I was once told a parable that seeks to explain the complexity of the matter, and it goes as follows; “We have a thorn stuck in our finger, we take another thorn to get it out. Once we get it out, we must through them both away”. The last part of it is of uttermost importance, because it tells us not to cling to the tool, understanding that it can also be an obstacle. In a similar setting I was once in a group of people where the host asked the ones present to explain “silence”. One by one we tried our elaborate theories to give a satisfying answer. Finally the host shook his head and told us all wrong. “It's a just word”, he said. Words are names that try to embrace the idea of objects/concepts. We are still keeping in mind that concepts are ways of categorizing, not the thing in itself.

Culture as a concept is discussed by Roger M. Keesing as, widely spoken, learned, accumulated experience. It is a concept that is always being redefined, and “there is, it turns out, an odd sort of advantage in having a clumsy, composite term for a complex, composite phenomenon: short and easy labels often lead to conceptual sloppiness, to logical fallacy of “misplaces concreteness” or “reification” whereby an abstraction is talked about as if it were a “thing” (Keesing, 1998, p. 16). He refers to culture as an ideational system that in this sense comprises systems of shared ideas, concepts and rules and meanings that underlie and are expressed in the ways humans live. Cultural codes are surely ways of controlling behavior. And most of the time we act and react on a seeming autopilot, culture being in the actual driver’s seat. Not only are we on autopilot, we are also unconscious about it.

However we would all claim to have a little something that is our own, and there is today a common understanding that all individuals are symphonies of biology and environment. Keesing calls this personality. Genetically we have tendencies in temper that in different cultures can be encouraged or suppressed. The codes in a culture makes us able of communicating, but knowing that we are all unique by way of genetics and environment not two people will perceive the same thing. One thing we can be sure of – it is not that to anyone else!

People tend to cling to their own concepts, believing that they are those concepts, believing that reality must be perceived the way they perceive it. Cultural imperialism and religious fanaticism have marked human history in the name of concepts!

Every day, in communication with fellow human beings we are confronted with other peoples realities. This reflection is a good opportunity for us to realize that our own views are not objective and ultimate truths; however there is that clinging, or attachment to our own beliefs. The attachment has motives, because to be we must believe in ourselves, actually in our own existence. The question only remains, like Shakespeare's Hamlet articulated; “To be, or not to be”.

Since we believe in what we believe in, and have attachments to that, we often seek the company of like minded. Those most likely to believe in the same concepts as we do, are members of our own family. They share much of our genetic material and also have much of the same background. However we meet other people when we grow up and we often choose different roads that our siblings. We are then most likely to find friends within our social class, because we share with them understanding of certain concepts. Ultimately the strangest to us, and where we statistically are least likely to find close relations, is with people from a different culture.

Keesing explains ethnocentrism as being when we judge someone’s behavior as bad or wrong, when actually that person is acting out of a different set of cultural codes. He uses the parable of wearing cultural glasses through which we see and judge reality. We can never take off our own cultural glasses to see what they are, because without glasses to see through we do not have the molded categories for discrimination and deconstruction that makes us able to make a comparison. However we can learn about our own glasses observing those of other people. We project ourselves on others, and in their reflection we see ourselves. Should we however come in the situation where we can take our glasses off, what we would see should be something like Plato's ideal world.

In Buddhist philosophy, amongst others, it is claimed that all human beings wish to be free. Freedom is defined as detachment from concepts. In the modern consumers world with people forever chasing the next object it might be hard to swallow that all they really want is freedom from these very objects. Remembering that we project ourselves on the world, and identify with the worldly objects, and remembering the last new object that made us feel complete or whole, it is not so hard to believe after all. However this search is in vane and will not reward us with freedom.

The popular and now deceased Indian guru Osho talked to his followers about the importance of the presence of the master, the reason for this being that consciousness is contagious. And; “sleep, is contagious too”. He also warned that the master is never able to spell out the truth to his students, knowing that words are mere concepts. However the master can create an environment or platform for consciousness more likely to arise from. We are all each other’s masters and teachers if we allow ourselves to see that. We generally like to be around people that possess qualities we admire. Being around these people we learn to recognize these qualities within ourselves.

However there is a lot of fear going on, that prevents people from realizing their innate potential. Most fears I believe arise from the ultimate fear – the fear of death. That of not existing. Therefore we spend a lot of time seeking confirmation from other people that we exist instead of realizing what we already are. This is another chance to explain why people befriend within their own social class or culture. They recognize these ways, and their ways are confirmations of the existence of the self. It is very safe, because it ensures most likely status quo, which is least scary. Change is unpredictable, and often avoided. He who sleeps shall be reborn.

I have in the last sections tried to come closer to understanding what people are. Roughly we have been through the way our mind works, and tried to explain why - elegantly avoiding arguments about reproduction, animalistic instinct and such as simple survival. However this could have been added to the previous section as mere manifestations of the fear of death and the wish to live on forever. We have been dealing with the most important – the existential dilemmas. Agreeing that humans want to be free and learning ways that we try to achieve that, and we have been looking at why they fail. Now what can we do about that? How can we help each other in waking up to freedom?

This is where architecture comes in. It comes in because I am studying architecture and I am searching for reasons to dedicate my life to it, now entering in my last semester of my master degree. Architecture is the science or art of physical spaces. Architects should, resonating what we have been through, create spaces that are safe backgrounds for people to realize themselves in and to do that they must make us ask questions. Places should be for people to meet on equal conditions and situations that celebrate life in all its diversity! To do this we have to understand how spaces affect people in different directions.

Having discussed culture as a concept, I would like to investigate it in relation to a project such as BIKS. Since cultural codes are the shared knowledge that we use to interpret what we experience, it is a very important tool we have for communication. Much of our understanding about relations and space is implicit to us, and we do not regularly question nor awe about it. What happens when people from different cultures mix is that we see the same actual objects, but we attach different meanings to them. Rituals in space are very different - how some people eat, sleep and other things that are about living, is different to that of someone from another culture, and that difference can be observed in the way they relate and act in space. We have an identity to this perception because our culture is perceived as integral, not something that is exterior to us. This is why it is important for a people of a different culture to receive acceptance and understanding about their culture, a rejection of a culture is rejecting the individual. We are still in today’s globalized world victims of our cultural history and tradition, however the increased flow of information and knowledge present us with optional ways of life.

Immigrants in our culture are maybe one of the strongest threats to status quo. I think it is a great potential in this, because it forces us to learn and question our own culture, and what lies behind the choices and meanings.
The Austrian/America architect Raimund Abraham argues the narrative of space not being that of kitchen, bathroom etc, but that of eating, bathing… and sees the potential in architecture to really discuss this. He also relates architecture more to the art of cinema and music than to that of art or sculpture, because he sees it not as a visual art, rather a structural art and as with music the tune changes with just one tone braking the rhythm. The idea of architecture as a narrative for action, telling a story and creating scenarios, I think is very interesting. Architecture will always have a certain degree of flexibility, and first comes alive in its use, but many conscious decisions can be made by the architect in the process of reflecting about the project and its program. Possessing the knowledge of spatial meanings an architectural composition can comment about hierarchies and shuffle them to change the meaning.

This text is an uncompleted mosaic of my intentions and interests and I hope it’s not too hard to read, a good revision and completion was not possible within the time limit. I found it hard to directly link much of the presented literature to my approach, but it has been a mind opener and an inspiration. I have rushed through a lot of complex matters that if I had time would have investigated much more. I see a potential in architecture playing a role in integration and that of creating a background for existential questions to arise, but it is hard for me to really go in depth with it without really going into the project. My discipline is about the many dimensions, and theoretic approach alone becomes a poor language. I believe that social anthropology can give some tools and understandings, but it is ultimately when it fuses together with philosophy and the architectural program that something can be created architecturally. I would really appreciate some suggestions for further reading.


The bibliography reflects literature that has been read in the process and even if not mentioned in my text it has been a part of my total reflection.

Texts from literature selection:
i. Bourdieu_The Kabyle House or the World Reversed
ii. Frake_How to enter a Yakan house
iii. Goffman_The presentation of self in everyday life
iv. Gullestad_Hjemmet som moderne folkekultur
v. Gullestad_Symbolic Fences
vi. Hall_Anomaly in architecture
vii. Hall_The hidden dimension
viii. Helliwell_Good walls make bad neighbours
ix. Thomas_Conspicious construction
x. Turner_Betwixt and between

i. Keesing, Roger M & Strathern, Andrew J. (1998) Cultural Anthropology. A Contemporary Perspective. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Collage Publishers.
ii. Keesing, R. 1982. Kwaio religion. New York: Columbia University Press.

i. BIKS:
ii. Interview with Raimund Abraham:
iii. Wikipedia about concepts:


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