What if the city were an ocean and its buildings ships?

Of surface, ground and the interstitiality of things.

Lecture: Tim Ingold. Discussant: Jonathan Hale

“The question of my title was inspired by a recent exhibition of work by artist David Lemm at Edinburgh Printmakers, on the theme of wayfinding and mark-making in the city. Lemm had superimposed schematic icons pointing to details of buildings (eg. railings, lintels, steps), that could be seen from different locations, onto old nautical charts.

The exhibition led me to reflect upon how we think of buildings in relation to the ground of the city, as superstructure on infrastructure, placed upon the ground rather that sunk in its depths. Indeed it led me to reflect upon the ground itself, for on David’s charts, the parts of buildings not only appeared disconnected from one another. They also seemed to float like bric-a-brac upon the surface of the ocean.

What if the ground of the city were like the ocean? Is it at ground level, rather than above or below, that the city has to contend with the forces of disintegration?

For the mariner, the ship is a point of stillness in a turbulent world of sea and sky, and his attention is directed not to the surface but to currents below and winds above. How might we think of buildings and of the city differently, if we were to imagine the ground, likewise, to heave with the swell of the elements, and of buildings to converse with the earth and with the sky? And what if our city maps were more like nautical charts, indicating depths and cardinal directions rather than surface features and their layout”

Tim Ingold is a pioneer of ecological anthropology. His early ethnographic research was with hunter gatherer societies of the far north and fed into a more general concern with human-animal relations. In his recent work, linking the themes of environmental perception and skilled practice, he has sought to replace traditional models of genetic and cultural transmission with a relational approach focusing on the growth of embodied skills of perception and action within social and environmental contexts. These ideas are presented in his book ‘The Perception of the Environment’ (2000), a collection of twenty-three essays written over the previous decade on the themes of livelihood, dwelling and skill.

Jonathan Hale is Associate Professor & Reader in Architectural Theory at the University of Nottingham. His research interests and publications conver the fields of architectural theory and criticism; phenomenology and the philosophy of technology; the relationship between architecture and the body. He has just completed a book for the Routledge series Thinkers for Architects on the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

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Image: Detail from Landmarks by David Lemm (2014)

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