Inquiries on the Idea of Margins in the Theory of Architecture and Urban Planning

The initial idea was hardly a new one. Taking a closer look at fundamental matters concerning human habitat by phenomena that, while being specific, fall outside any major development has been tackled for quite a while.1 There are two main reasons for bringing up marginality nonetheless: due to the incommensurable diversity of non-mainstream architectural and urban manifestations, the theme is inexhaustible. Moreover, defining a margin is inherent to every architectural project. Hence, assembling in our journal papers dealing with both conceptual and territorial marginality retains a major interest as a promising approach, as well as an inciting challenge.

Contributors to the present issue of the sITA identified, analysed, compared or reformulated different aspects of architectural marginality in so many ways that in the attempt to deal with the task of organising our subject matter further distinctions had to be operated. This is a first benefit brought by the rich material assembled: it is obvious that there is still more to it and that, in order to get the talk about margins in any order, once again, a limit had to be traced. Thus, the fourth issue of the journal will be composed with the “most marginal” part of the paper harvest, while leaving the contributions dealing with the theme of the city itself for the next volume.

The article opening the series is by Simina Anamaria Purcaru. In her “Marginalia on the topic of all sorts of margins. Restoring poiēsis in architectur e” she puts her finger on the semantic crisis of the art of building – going back already some two and a half centuries2 –, thus coming to meet the main concern of our profession in this “Age of Divided Representation” 3 and setting the pace for the following papers. By exploring the links, extended over a time span of five and a half centuries, between the architectural theories of Antonio Filarete and Christopher Alexander, the author argues that the fundamental parts of the process of inventing a place, “poiēsismimesis and praxis” – the creative progression that continuously shapes the inhabited environment – have changed very little along the way. Restoring poiēsis in architecture would then be equivalent to recovering awareness of the meaning of built spaces, and of the importance of architectural making.

In very much the same line, Valeria Federighi is dealing with architecture as exhibition matter. When talking about ways of “Making the brain of the system mad. Or not. Critical encounters between marginal practices and their narrated self”, she chooses to examine architectural meaning by elaborating on the paradoxical status of architectural exhibitions. With rare exceptions,4exhibited architecture is in most cases destined to be reduced to mere second grade representations: drawings, photographs or documentaries. Through such mediation, the encounter between the work of art and its spectators does not take place. Surely, the exhibition fulfils its duty of giving public access to information. Yet the aesthetic experience thus mediated is not essentially architectural, being instead translated in the realm of other genres of visual art.

In Federighi’s interpretation, we find an expression of the marginality of architectural exhibitions par rapport à architecture properly speaking. “Mad”-ness comes from moving truly marginal architecture into the mainstream of architectural thinking and practice, like in her two showpieces: the early, Peter and Alison Smithson experiment and the contemporary Torre David phenomenon are discussed and compared to explain the mechanism of this semantic shift. Mixing margin and centre provides to the exhibition space the potential of becoming the very milieu where a new meaning can emerge. It is approaching marginal architecture from within – learning thus more about the relationship between practice and research – that can bring some light to the troublesome semantic blur architecture has been struggling with for so long.

The examples brought in to sustain her argument– the architectural event related to participation, producing an “empowerment of the user” – are inspiringly convincing. They also create a natural threshold towards the next paper in the series: “Informal Structures, an eulogy to making” by Luísa Alpalhão. By comparing two kinds of participatory architecture, she successfully illuminates the fundamental distinctions between them, establishing a fertile ground for further debate on this kind of practices. Her paper advocates the importance of a reunion between the making and the inhabiting of a place. Far away from any “arts and crafts” revivalism, Alpalhão’s discourse asks instead for a reinvention of more human – or humane – relationship between dwelling and dweller, as well as between architect and customer.

The connection to the following paper, a case study undertaken by Ivana Vlaić and Ana Šverko might seem somewhat awkward: the two authors of the “Analogous urbanism as discourse: Robert Adam and urban space in contemporary Split” are contemplating the fate over millennia of the imperial palace of Diocletian, as seen through the analysis delivered by a third researcher. Departing from reflections on imagining the place (“the space before method”) their essay is formulated on purpose to rhyme with the kind of story telling as practised by Borges or Eco. The multiplicity of mirrored images, associations brought about by the continuous inhabiting by marginal generations of squatters of a built ensemble initially meant to be highly representative (although situated in a small provincial city of the empire, as well as on the seashore) are in many aspects intimately close to the idea of spontaneous participatory architecture discussed in the previous article. Moreover, while the palace has remained in the same place, borders, peoples, mores have never ceased moving over and around, putting it an ever changing prospect.

This sort of comparative history, establishing conceptual, symbolic, but also trivial, everyday links between margins distant both in time and space, is also related to the morphologically different, but anthropologically quite sympathetic case study proposed by Cristina Purcar, when examining the “Liminal Perspectives between Art and Urban History. Paul Delvaux’s Pictorial Poetic of the Railway Periphery”. The painter’s idiosyncratic – even obsessive – rendering of this peculiar urban realm, equally emphasising strangeness and universality, through the intrusive presence of the railway areas inside every traditional cityscape, could hardly be surpassed when it comes to articulate the impact of the industrial revolution on the urban habitat.

Another way of talking about marginality at the same time symbolic, conventional and geographical, and of reconnecting to the idea of centre placed on the borderline is the article of Irina Băncescu, “Reclaiming a land of overlapping frontiers: the Romanian seaside landscape until the beginning of the 20th century”. It is a nuanced, carefully woven analysis of many different disciplinary strata: the evolution of seaside landscape in Western imagery brings into discussion the eternal ambiguity of the seashore, at the same time a borderline and a linking medium, a bond between remote parts of the inhabited world. In the particular case of the recently acquired Romanian Black Sea province of Dobruja, the simultaneity of the emergence of modern historical mythology and the new, culturally enhanced interest for the seaside gives a unique flavour to these explorations. The story is set in the broader European context, irreversibly altered by the industrial revolution. Thus, margins, borders, limits of all sorts, as well as a whole tradition of spatial Gestalt are in fact being questioned.

Uncertain borderlines and seashore are also the departure point for the next article, dealing with a somewhat mythical episode of early twentieth century history. For a short interval, the Cadrilater has been the southernmost province of Romania. In his paper: “On the Nation’s Margins. Territorial and Urban Policies during the Romanian Administration of Southern Dobruja (1913-1940)”, Toader Popescu explores the architectural and urban marks left behind by the short-lived Romanian sovereignty here. While doing so, he achieves a subtle analysis of the intricate interconnections between geographical and historical context, political decision, individual caprice and artistic skill that together shape the face of the inhabited world. The Cadrilater appears as a marginal province handled marginally, a marginal historical episode of Romania, a country playing a marginal part in the epoch. Yet, the case study can stand for every case of colonisation as seen through the spatial effects left behind.

The advent of Greater Romania, in the aftermath of the Great War, meant of course the tracing of new borders. It also brought about the necessity of administrative reforms unprecedented both in terms of scale and pace. Diana Mihnea’s “The Cities of Transylvania and the 1921 Agrarian Reform. Negotiations and Decisions Halfway Between Administrative Autonomy and Centralization” naturally follows Popescu’s account on the Cadrilater experience, by extending its geographical margins, as well as by discussing the aspects that made the case of Transylvania different in so many regards. The author’s analysis of the Agrarian Reform provides original interpretations of its effects on the physical reality of the province. Perhaps the major interest of the article is its way of understanding the mechanisms, through which the encounter between political project, local traditions and individual decisions shapes the world we live in.

Social, cultural and artistic interferences are at the core of Alice Isabella Sullivan’s contribution, “Architectural Pluralism at the Edges: The Visual Eclecticism of Medieval Monastic Churches in Eastern Europe”. By comparing morphological similarities and dissimilarities between ecclesiastical buildings in the wider region of South-eastern Europe, the author discovers and convincingly presents the vivid intensity of cultural exchange in a territory situated at the intersection of multiple influences. Her paper brings a fresh and telling account of an epoch and a place unconscious of their own marginality, thus reigniting the fertile debate about the relativity of cultural reference systems we are accustomed to.

Down Under has lost its unpleasant undertone a long time ago. It comes to mind inevitably, when placing Monique Webber’s contribution: “Monumental marginalia: Borders of space and authority in contemporary Melbourne” in the context of the present issue. Proud of their remoteness in relation to Europe, Australia is the very embodiment of the relativity of the centre-margins relation. Expressed through a particular case study – the sculpture Webber concentrates her attention on – the connections between urban milieu and artistic significance gain, quite unexpectedly, universal meaning, revealing at the same time the fragile contingency of a given place and time and the resilience of the “immaterial” components any human habitat.

When tackling “The Liberation of Identity. The Margin Redraws the Museum – a preliminary study” Catrìona Macdonald is perhaps extending the idea of the museum beyond its customary margins. She certainly reformulates it. While admitting that we are essentially dealing with a modern phenomenon, the author also makes an inspiring attempt to argue in favour of the reinvention of the institution as an important (although marginal) component of our post-industrial identities.

Related naturally to the previous text, few architectural phenomena appear more remote from the centre than the barely emerging heritage conservation practices in Romania, towards the end of the century before the last. Hence, Cosmin Minea’s case study of “The Monastery of Curtea de Argeş and Romanian Architectural Heritage in the Late 19th Century” is quite well fitting as the next chapter of the story on marginality. Even the idea of the museum was relatively new in this part of the continent, gaining speed in its belated modernisation. While being an ancient and important religious centre, Curtea de Argeş became the object of a rather questionable restoration undertaken by a pupil of Viollet-le-Duc, who has ended up practising his metier at the margins of both the conservationist culture and of monument restoration.

In her contribution Dana Vais praises “The productive role of margins. Architectural discourse in the late 1960s Romania”. Surprisingly, perhaps, Romania during the Merry Sixties was less different from the rest of the world than is usually considered – when looking from the “centre”. Sneaking in through the meshes of the totalitarian regime, the architectural discourse – at the margins of the official political doctrine of those times – the author is framing the discussion between its two extremes, which are participatory architecture and “ordered” architecture. Margins mingled with coerced centralism offers the fascinating prospect of improbable freedom of thought and creativity thriving within the strictest of political and ideological arrangements.

Maverick to some extent, Giacomo Pala’s contribution brings in the recurrent topic of utopia. His argument goes along the borderline between the utopian project and actual building practices, especially as illustrated by the oeuvre – and often theories – of contemporary starchitects. Extended between the reality of what Karl Popper calls the “abstract cultural world”, and the reality of a built environment often looking oblivious of its context, Pala’s argument arrives to determine the margin as architectural-ness, with recourse to a plethora of authors and a discourse as labyrinthine as marginality. It is a fitting attempt to theoretically situate a theme interesting precisely for being so evasive.

Related to the previous scenery by its inherently utopian background, no other topic could better have closed the series of contributions to the present issue of the journal than a story on West Berlin. Laura Bowie‘s paper: “Protest and marginalized urban space. 1968 in West Berlin” is an inquiry conducted at the margins of the issue of marginality, dealing masterfully with both fundamental theoretical issues and the concrete physical example of a surrealistic, yet real case study. However, if it closes the volume, the article does not close the circle. This would be misleading, because the theme is an open one by its nature. Being a successful piece of historical and theoretical hybrid, Bowie’s “tale of two cities” is well suited to work as a springboard towards the next issue of sITA, which is already destined to be dealing with the physical, specifically urban sense of the idea of the boundary and its neighbourhoods.

The journal will next articulate its approach on margins in the context of the Urbs-and-civitas, an eternal and inevitable couple, of which architects and urban planners of today are much too often oblivious. It will perhaps succeed in widening the discussion, by moving it away from the exclusive sphere of academia and specialists in the public realm. It will with no doubt be necessary to involve the fertile corroboration of different disciplines in imagining the theoretical grounds for practical urban planning.

Nevertheless, even when bringing closer the margins of the subject matter, one should expect the unexpected: “In getting my books,” Edgar Allan Poe wrote in 1844, “I have always been solicitous of an ample margin; this is not so much through any love of the thing in itself, however agreeable, as for the facility it affords me of pencilling in suggested thoughts, agreements, and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general.” 5

Indeed, what seemed at the beginning to be the reiteration of a useful exercise proved in the end to have been a rather good idea. The articles, besides their individual contribution – each valuable on its own – turned into a well articulated series reaching far beyond their mere sum. The resulting narrative puts on show the very process of theory making – with spectacular forms a meta-narrative, the shadow accompanying the main story, thus exceeding all expectations. So much so that, by generously opening towards a whole new range of approaches to the idea of marginality, this issue of the journal provides a starting point for the next one, where the focus shall be placed on particular cases of marginality in and around cities.

There can be no going back to some revolutionary enthusiasm, like the one that (almost half a century ago!) put in motion the profound societal changes incensed by the Soixante-huitards. The new social dimension of architecture and her professionals has meanwhile become an everyday business, even if it is still being kept in a marginal position, perhaps for its own benefit and success. Reflecting about margin as the edge – the physical periphery as materialisation of the psychological one –can reorient the inquiries from the edge as the point of no return towards the edge as inflection point.

Further discussing marginality can provide a good argument against any “either-or” approach, bringing about positions in favour of the sort of creative compromise achieved in more auspicious times of European architectural history. Successful architecture and urban planning can occur even when “great” history has proven to be a great failure6. This remains an ironic observation, considering the fact that in relation to great history, architecture, both in theory and practice, must always play a much lesser part – definitely a marginal one.

Kázmér Kovács


1 As a matter of fact, one could easily think about organising the centennial celebrations It will be enough to point at the exemplary new directions invented by and descendant from the scholarly oeuvre of Fernand Braudel.

2 One could put forward a historically conventional beginning of the semantic crisis coinciding with the advent of architects like Jean-François Blondel, Claude-Nicolas Ledoux or Étienne-Louis Boullée. See also Joseph Rykwert, The Judicious Eye; Architecture Against the Other Arts, Reaction Books, London, 2008.

3 Title of a seminal work by Dalibor Veselý, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass. 2004.

4 As I noted elsewhere: “Natura genului”, in BOLT, exhibition diary number 02, Bucharest, 2009. The Romanian pavilion at the 2008 edition of the Venice Biennial made a notable exception to the rule, putting on show a hybrid installation, in which artistic architectural photography, ephemeral architectural space and usable architectural pieces of furniture (namely, chairs) were combined to result in an exhibit that was architecture.

5 Quoted by Mark O’Connell, “The Marginal Obsession with Marginalia” in The New Yorker, January 26, 2012.

6 The example of Gustavo Giovannoni’s theory and practice of urban arredamento, contemporary with the oeuvre of architects working during the Italian fascism is a good illustration of both the relative autonomy of architecture and of the productive, although improbable accommodation of difficult partnerships.

studies in History and Theory of Architecture • vol. 4 / 2016
Architectures of Uncertain Margins
Published with the financial support of the
Chamber of Architects of Romania (OAR)