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A Topology of Everyday Constellations
Writing Architecture series
The MIT Press, USA, 2013
Softback | 29pp | $2.99
Adapted from Walter Benjamin’s Central Park, the title of this book by Canadian academic Georges Teyssot acknowledges both an emulation and adulation of Benjamin’s work, while nonetheless revealing a dense, thought-provoking thesis on the occupancy of space. The latest addition to the Writing Architecture series edited by Cynthia Davidson (director of Anyone Corporation, editorial board member of the Writing Architecture series and editor of US magazine, Log), A Topology of Everyday Constellations represents Teyssot’s long-term research interest in the overlaps between habit (tendencies or practices that endure), habitus (‘the memory of practices in space’) and habitat (the place or spaces of habit).
Some of this territory was explored by Teyssot in a previous book, Interior Landscapes (1987), but this latest work is less concerned with the strictly domestic and aligns itself with far broader concepts of ‘the house’, underpinned by explorations in cultural and aesthetic theory, philosophy and various works of art and architecture.
For the avoidance of doubt, the word ‘constellation’ does not refer to an actual arrangement or pattern of stars (this is an ‘asterism’) but, rather, the specific area of the celestial sphere that surrounds these stars. Knowing this correct definition is helpful as it provides greater insight into Teyssot’s topological mapping of a plethora of physical, cultural, critical and philosophical spaces, concerning these contested notions of habitation and ‘the house’.
Central to the book’s premise is Teyssot’s claims that spaces ‘no longer represent a bourgeois haven, where intimacy and privacy are treasured’ and that they are no longer ‘the sites of a classical harmony between work and leisure, private and public, the local and the global’. Across its breadth the text surmises that, over the Modern period, the deployment of both construction and electronic technologies in the spaces and structures we inhabit has turned from simple encroachment or convenient intervention (say the analogue, landline telephone) to the ongoing transformation of our habits into a multiplicity of negotiations between notions of public and private (the smartphone). In straddling these ‘everyday constellations’, and at the most practical level, most architects would testify to the exponentially growing demand for technological considerations, not only in a tectonic or material sense, but also to cater for the elasticity of our everyday interpersonal transactions.
This engagement with a sliding scale of experiences is important to Teyssot’s thesis, which then dissects the spatial, tectonic and philosophical concepts of ‘house’ by way of a concise set of commonplace building elements. The selected elements – the window, the door, the mirror and the screen – are carefully chosen, each having relevant metaphorical and technological traits useful to Teyssot’s argument. In particular, each of these elements sits neatly with concepts of ‘the boundary’ and ‘the threshold’, being locations where negotiations and exchanges can and do occur, like those which fuel Teyssot’s take on our shifting relationships with technology and spaces.
At this point Teyssot’s work starts to reveal a series of biases that, at times, hinders the potential for further extrapolation of the text’s key ideas. Though the author does not deny that ‘boundary’ and ‘threshold’ gained traction in architectural thinking in the late 1950s (via Team X), there are also few attempts by Teyssot to move much past his preoccupations with the Modernist and early Postmodernist periods, at the expense of little discussion on the contemporary period from which most provocative technology arises.
In a similar vein, Teyssot traces a lengthy and detailed discussion about the rendering of the body in space, with a focus on the aestheticisation of the body over the past hundred or so years. However, despite the undoubtedly erudite nature of this work, it is worth reflecting on what might be brought to this discussion by moving outside of the heavily Euro-centric philosophical framework, given that technology is resolutely globalised and omnipresent by nature.
Further, what about the ‘everyday’? Teyssot attempts to articulate his topology by embracing the common building elements that structure his arguments and siting much of his discussion in the context of the individual’s daily experience. He states: ‘Ultimately, interiors are the receptacles of things, but also the support of effects’, highlighting that the everyday experience remains one of object and spectator, evident even in the rise of the digital flâneur, with their array of electronic devices and accoutrement. However at times the ‘everyday’ loses its centrality, with the author indulging in unnecessarily lengthy discussions on high art, performance art and the like.
As a whole the text is a rewarding read, with one key omission – that most troubled technological and cultural artefact of the modern period, the television. The humble telly – the most everyday example of the screen, the window and the mirror – curiously misses the cut, but then again, this simply points to a rich terrain of ideas yet to be ploughed.