Spatial Agency

From the University of the Neighbourhoods to Building A Proposition For Future Activities or how urban design mobilizes the performative plan.

Bernd Kniess, Anna Richter, Christopher Dell, Dominique Peck

The Urban Design program at HafenCity University (HCU) in Hamburg is conceptually founded on an understanding of the city as not only produced in terms of its built structures, but also coproduced by the socially embedded practices of its actors and actants. These actors and actants – speaking with Bruno Latour 1, agency also refers to things and matters of concern that develop agencies – come together, are assembled, and interact in specific spatial settings that are conversely interwoven by diverse layers of power (political, economic, and material forces, decisions, practices, discourses, configurations, representations, etc.) and the transformations these cause. The interdisciplinary approach to and focus on practices and processes departs insofar from the planning disciplines urban planning and architecture, exploiting new areas of know-how and know-why within the realm of the social and cultural sciences, as we are no longer concerned with the production of buildings or physical structures alone but with their interrelationship with those who use these structures.

  • Fig. 2 Änderungsantrag (amendment proposal) of the student project University of the Neighbourhoods by HCU Hamburg Rotenhäuser Damm 30. The architectural intervention into the existing building in an open-build format redesigns the building’s patterns of association central to the hearth (harvested kitchen block).

  • Fig. 3 Members of the project office Atelier Bow-Wow Tamotsu Ito Architects present the project The Bazaar x The Living Rooms, the first ranked review in the cooperative review process Building a Proposition for Future Activities on November 30th 2017 on site of the programme ‘accommodation with perspective dwelling’ Ohlendieckshöhe, Hamburg.

  • Fig. 4 Project leaders Jules Buchholtz and Bernd Kniess welcome a group of visitors to the summer fest Building a Proposition for Future Activities 2016. They stand in front of the Agency Agency, a hybrid office-workshop space, realised to represent modes of labour as a form of commoning. The wooden structure/usable billboard was realised by participants of the summer school Building a Proposition for Future Activities with a view to develop a support structure that externalises inside functions and possibilities of a future community building.

  • Fig. 5 View of the terrace at the University of the Neighbourhoods 2013 showing modes of use after the realisation of the architectural interventions into roof, windows and terrace.

  • Fig. 6 A group of students discusses urban potentialities and performative aspects of realising architectural interventions in the residual useful life of the building Ledigenheim (home for unmarried women) Rotenhäuser Damm 30.

We realize that we are entangled with the existing, potential, and emerging assemblages, rather than being in an externalized or externalizing position from which it would be possible to explain in universal terms how the city works or how to plan it; indeed, prolonging Latour’s statement – made in reference to the work of Rem Koolhaas – ‘on ne peut plus rien externaliser’ 2, we would go so far as to question whether such an externalized position ever existed. From this point of view the city is no longer a bounded object; on the contrary, it has to be interpreted as a sociomaterial texture 3 of agental situations that is constantly in flux and never finished, always contested and rarely uniting. Methodologically, this epistemological shift from reading the city not as a closed but an open form enables us to immerse ourselves in the present so as to study historical developments of this status quo and to draw out possible future trajectories.

  • Fig. 7 Participants of the summer school Building a Proposition for Future Activities realising one of four mini golf tracks with statically reinforced concrete.

  • Fig. 8 Children standing in front of the banner showing a photorealistic representation of the project The Bazaar x The Living Rooms by project office Atelier Bow-Wow Tamotsu Ito Architects.

  • Fig. 9 Participants of the cooperative review process Building a Proposition for Future Activities listening to a presentation introducing the commission.

While the notion that the urban and indeed space altogether is socially produced is slowly but steadily gaining ground, the conditions and modes of its constantly processed reproduction and the structural and spatial vectors of its agency are given less attention. The production of any material texture is furthermore strictly separated from its usage by the abstract figure of the end-user, the consumers of design and architecture. What counts in the design process are the client’s needs, demands, and preferences reduced and abstracted to functions that have to be arranged in the right order and given good shape. The result, however, is often more than a skillful mix of function and form. Although we might know about the involvement of countless human and non-human actors in the processes of production and appropriation of things as well as the built environment, it seems that we tend to oppress an awareness of their agencies, especially when faced with their contingent and thus difficult-to-manage character. What is at stake are modes of action and knowledge that enable a constructive exploitation of the agencies hardly visible, discrete, and non-representational vectors that can be utilized as driving forces. Meanwhile, collaborative, participatory, and cooperative planning processes are tested and implemented, demanded and granted, although of course the nature of participation remains heavily contested and often tokenistic. 4 While the role of the social has long been a matter of discussion mostly in the social sciences, it is recently receiving increasing attention in architecture and design. 5 This causes a shift in the disciplinary perspective, for example, from “function” to “use” or from “needs” to “agency,” as the notion of performance and alongside it indeterminacy and contingency of concerted action enter the discussion. Tonkiss (2017), however, observes that the social-production side of architecture and design is still often overlooked or deliberately disregarded. Tonkiss thus calls for “critical and practical efforts to socialize design” and argues that these “need to go beyond the consumption stage of design processes to take in the social relations of [space] production”. 6 Thinking of Marx, what is needed is an analysis of the relations of production of space.

  • Fig. 10 Participants of an open-build format organized by the research and teaching programme Urban Design realising the architectural intervention into the roof in the project University of the Neighbourhoods.

  • Fig. 11 Participants of an open-build format organized by the research and teaching programme Urban Design realising the architectural intervention into the roof in the project Neighbourhood’s University.

  • Fig. 12 Permanently provisional timetable for a week in the project University of the Neighbourhoods leading up to a community party.

  • Fig. 13 One last thing…. The photo shows the moment in which the anonymous reviews were disclosed and the jury members of the cooperative review process Building a Proposition for Future Activities were informed about the winning team’s identity. The decision had been taken with two opposing votes.

We assume that a building cannot be reduced to form or function any longer (if that was ever possible). And even if we think that objects – and thus buildings – have no agency, we have to admit that they can make things happen or prevent or hinder processes; they are doing something. As cultural scientist Hartmut Böhme has pointed out, things cannot appear in any other way than “as relating to our activities of a cognitive or practical nature”. 7 Agencies are embedded in space, which in its materialization is no longer solely determined by its visibility but is at least equal to the amount of the invisible parts of its infrastructure and even “infrastructure space is doing something”. 8 In unpacking forms and functions and hacking infrastructural operating systems, the conditions of spatial productions can be analyzed and the markers of unfolding potentials or inherent agency can be observed and discovered. Easterling termed this disposition -“the character or propensity of an organization that results from all its activity”- 9 It is not only about the what – the materiality of space or the urban – but it is also, and foremost, about the relationality, i.e. how space and the urban are constantly reproduced in different constellations or assemblages. In order to detect and unpack spatial structures retrospectively with a view to prospectively reassemble and further develop them, a transgression is needed from object form to active form. In what follows, this argument will serve to situate a central aspect of the research, teaching, and practice approach of the Urban Design program at HafenCity University within a broader perspective of the social production of the urban regarding its modes of realizing as well as its specific materialities, medialities, and temporalities.

  • Fig. 14 The patron of the project Building a Proposition for Future Activities (First Mayor of Hamburg) talking to the press about the project.

  1. Latour, B. (2005a) Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. New York, Oxford University Press.

  2. Latour, B. (2005b) En tapotant légèrement sur l’architecture de Koolhaas avec un bâton d’aveugle... In: L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui 361, 70–79.

  3. Farias, I. (2011) Introduction. Decentring the Object of Urban Studies. In: Farias, I., Bender, T. (eds.), Urban Assemblages: How Actor-Network Theory Changes Urban Studies. London, Routledge.

  4. Arnstein, S. (1969)The ladder of citizen participation. In: Journal of the American Institute of Planners 35.4, 216–224.

  5. Richter, A., Göbel, H., Grubbauer, M. (2017) Designed to Improve? The makings, politics and aesthetics of ‘social’ architecture and design. In: City 21.6, 769-778.

  6. Tonkiss, F. (2017) Socialising Design? In: City 21.6:, forthcoming, p. 12

  7. Böhme, H. (2007) Fetischismus und Kultur. Hamburg, rowohlt, p. 14

  8. Easterling, K. (2014) Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space. London, Verso, p. 14

  9. Easterling, K. (2014) Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space. London, Verso, p. 21