Architecture as Actant

Mapping Controversies in Architecture by Albena Yaneva

In her book “Mapping Controversies in Architecture” published in 2012, Albeda Yaneva discusses the architecture-society relationship and challenges the usual approach of seeing them as separate entities only to be related by a series of one-to-one links. She strongly disagrees with the divide on social and architectural aspect of the built environment. She discusses different ways we could make links between a list of architectural and social elements, none of them giving satisfactory complex results. Thus, she insists, such divide is meaningless. There was an interest from architectural theorists to understand architecture’s relationship to society, which lead in two directions – either looking at the influence architecture can have on the society (modernism) or searching for the footprint society leaves on its architecture. Both of these approaches are, according to Yaneva, limiting and wrong. Or at least, outdated.

Looking for a (better) way to do social-sciences inspired research in architecture, Yaneva considers both architecture and society as actants in the world. It would be dangerous to take architecture and society as static elements. Architectural studies, Yaneva finds, too often assume it can be explained by outside factors (society for example).

She criticizes Bourdieu’s analysis of the Berber house for an insufficiently serious approach to architecture. This typically happens when a scientist approaches a field he has less or no training in, and then ignores a large body of knowledge in that field, rendering in this case a too ‘social science’ approach. This is where the whole problem lies: architects are borrowing outdated metaphors from social studies to ‘explain’ architecture; at the same time, social scientists are using quasi-architectural categories to ‘describe’ the social construction of a house or a building.

Further on, Yaneva questions if providing an explanation is inherently good. Explaining tends to establish some sort of relationship between the two lists: society (elements that provide explanation) and architecture (elements to be explained). But, she repeats, “there is no architectural content on one side and, at a cosmic distance, social context on the other.” (Yaneva, 2012; p. 45)

Following what happens to buildings and how design protagonists define themselves as they act helps us to circumvent static categories and redistribute artificial divides.” (Yaneva, 2012; p.45)

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