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Spatial Practice

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First there was practice … and then there was spatial practice … but all spatial practice is not architecture. The machinery I’m going to describe at the beginning of this post does useful things like position stuff – in space, as it happens – in order for some benefit to be achieved from them doing so. None of it is architecture. It’s just perfect things exquisitely evolved to perform tasks that can’t be performed by anything else. I first began thinking of this when two of AERTSSEN company’s heavy-lift crawler cranes were parked across the street.

They’re magnificent beasts. Jibs are delivered in sections and assembled onsite. Crawlers arrive on separate lorries, soon followed by two more lorries hauling the chassis and drive unit. Counterweights can be fixed or on a outrigger caddy having a fixed connection so it revolves around the crane as it swivels. The caddy bogies rotate 90° so wheels are parallel to the direction of travel when the crane moves linearly. These cranes will never zip from one end of a site to some other but they’re surprisingly manouvreable. Here’s one doing a spot of weightlifting at Dubai Arena.

Previously, there’d been two such cranes on the site to place the primary trusses. One was then dissasembled and its jib components used to reconfigure the other for longer reach to place the secondary trusses. I can’t imagine a better way to do it. These modular cranes are not trying to be beautiful. Here’s another one warming down on the street behind. Cranespotter me didn’t wait around to check but I suspect it’d been used to place A/C equipment in that hotel’s machine room twenty or so stories up.

Up. Airports exist so aircraft can take off and land on runways, taxi on taxiways, and come to rest on what’s called the apron. All these are dedicated spaces. Also running around airports are regular vehicles such as fire tenders that operate in the same way they do anywhere else. Ground support vehicles are a third category of vehicle that service aircraft on the apron. Aircraft movement on the apron is entrused to two types of ground support vehicle. The first is the tug which does just that. It takes considerable muscle to tow an aircraft and these vehicles have outputs of 330KW, (448hp) and can tug up to 600 tons using 460kN of drawbar pull.

The towbarless tractor is a variation that links to an aircraft by carrying its nosewheel array.

Thrust reversers decelerate aircraft on runway and engines propel it on taxiways but aircraft can’t travel backwards and don’t have a reverse gear for manoeuvring on the apron. I don’t intend to explain what pushback tractors other than to say that they transmit force to the nosewheel differently. If, say, a sumo wrestler wants to push another sumo wrestler backwards, they’ll be able to transmit more force if they push with the palms of their hands than their fingers.

Some towbarless tractors can also function as pushback tractors and this has the advantage of limiting the number of vehicles on the apron. Goldhofer are the experts. [Why is all this equipment German?]

“Schopf Tractors are at home everywhere. In order to keep such enormous forces under control, we use power shift transmission, four wheel drive and all-wheel-steering as standard – features which allow A380s and Antonov 225s to be manoeuvred safely at anytime.”

The A380 we know but this is an Antonov 225 which, as you’d imagine, is the world’s biggest aircraft. It’s big.

Schopf also has a miltary specification though I can’t imagine what would make it different. Top speed perhaps? Apparently, they offer maximum reliability in extreme environments at high altitudes, in hot climates or arctic cold! [!].

The catering vehicle is the ground support vehicle we’re most likely to have seen from our seat window. It solves the problem of quickly getting carts of food and drink from ground level to a higher level without the risks and time associated with double or triple handling.

Baggage also has to change from one level to another and the conventional system of conveyor belts and baggage handlers involved the risks and time associated with double or triple handling. Larger aircraft these days use a unit load device (= “container”) system that minimizes time and risk. This is a unit load device loader.

Loading the unit load devices and then loading them into the hold quickly and efficiently is a good example of spatial practice, as is getting your luggage to where you are impatiently waiting for it.

An aircraft shifting space containing passengers from one place to another is spatial practice. Air traffic control – getting all those aircraft to not collide as they converge and land in sequence on the same land – is a stunning example of spatial practice, as is sending anything into space and making it orbit around anything. Keyhole surgery is spatial practice, as is surgery in general. Architecture has nothing to offer any of these.

We should not be so keen to conflate architecture with spatial practice. All architecture may be spatial practice, but all spatial practice is not architecture. This is the propositional fallacy known as Affirming the Consequent – i.e. when “the antecedent in an indicative conditional is claimed to be true because the consequent is true; if A, then B; B, therefore A]*  Architecture is a subset of spatial practice. It does not constitue it. Attempting to conflate them is a power grab for continuing relevance.

Deus ex machina: (From the Latin ‘god from the machine’)

The term has evolved to mean a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the inspired and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object. Its function can be to resolve an otherwise irresolvable plot situation, to surprise the audience, to bring the tale to a happy ending, or act as a comedic device.

  • The notion that architecture could be ornamented with stucco arrived at a time when carved stone ornament in interiors was becoming prohibitively expensive.
  • The notion that architecture could be constructed from brick arrived at a time when stone masonry construction was becoming prohibitively expensive.
  • The notion that architecture could be constructed from “space” arrived when a shortage of landed clients made it the best way to refresh its market.
  • The notion that architecture could be constructed from “meanings” and “references” freed it from the physical properties of materials and tedious obligations such as durability. This gave us “Snapchat architecture” that disintegrated once the media fuss was over. Time and the natural processes of weathering did not exempt “meaning-free” architecture. Representing the absence of meaning is itself a meaning.

And then came critical spatial practice. The term was introduced by Jane Rendell in 2003 to describe forms of practice located between art and architecture. Rendell later consolidated and developed the term as one that defined practices located at a three-way intersection: between theory and practice, public and private, and art and architecture. This seems awfully like how architecture used to be considered half a century ago. […] Her definition aims to transpose the key qualities of critical theory – self-reflection and social transformation – into practice. I’ve nothing against all or any of these influencing how things get built for the good of all. I just don’t understand why it’s suddenly a thing.  In Rendell’s work, critical spatial practices are those, which seek to question and transform the social conditions of the sites into which they intervene, as well as test the boundaries and procedures of their own disciplines. It was all good until this which indicates a shift in the ends to which that practice are directed. To “question and transform the social conditions of these sites into which they intervene” is a licence to do anything. “Testing the boundaries and procedures of their own disciplines” amounts to finding out what one can get away with and continue to call “testing boundaries and procedures.” It’s a bit like that term “research-driven practice” – it’s a remit for anything and everything.

The term critical spatial practice is thus a moveable feast that’s been moved in various directions, one of which is

Assemble Studio seem to be the smiley face of critical spatial practice. This article on metropolis is indexed by trendy keywords such as architecture, ad-hoc, handmade and community-driven. As you may know, Assemble Studio won the UK’s Turner Prize for art in 2015, instantly putting the art bit back into critical spatial practice.

Me, I have my doubts if a collective of between fourteen and sixteen people who work voluntarily (albeit in an ad-hoc, handmade and community-driven way) has anything to do with practice as in architectural. I see serious cashflow problems, unless it’s all done on zero-hour contracts – a practice nobody should be championing. I suspect everyone has independent means to sustain themselves while working for maximum media effect and little or no remuneration. (Philip Johnson probably wasn’t the first to make a name for himself this way and Zaha Hadid obviously wasn’t the last.) Perhaps the reason Assemble exist and have received the amount of media coverage they have is because they glamourize the concept of working for nothing? Perhaps they have distilled the essence of the starchitect office where people work for little or no money in exchange for media presence? If so, that’s very clever. The lack of a figurehead is a simplification and to be honest no great loss but it doesn’t stop this form of “practice” from being a cynical devaluing of the very thing it’s presented as championing.

Next week’s post will ponder contemporary misuse of the word “community.”

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The header image is “Aircraft tug” by pixpix / Alamy Stock Photo, and is available here. 



  • Misuse of the word community….

    Don’t get me started…

    A word that provides an immediate platform for a community representative e.g politician

    A word that dignifies the monotony of uniform residential development i.e appropriate the self-made for the purposes of disguising the largely empty

    A word that establishes a clientele

    A word that should always be used in the plural but seldom is

    A word that’s most correctly applied to situations governed by a shared ethos e.g a religious community or genetic uniformity e.g termites, polyps etc

    In the plural the word is naturally subservient to “the social” or society

    A word that above simplifies for the purposes of simplified and reduced representation or streamlined consumption


    • …and a word that’s fallaciously used with the definite article

      it’s always “the community” (as given as “the sun” or “the sea” or “the North”)

      No: it must always be “a community” subject to careful specification but seldom is