Francesca Romana Dell'Aglio

Supervisor

Abstract

From Ritual to Habit

An alternative history of London’s collective spaces

The current architectural debate has reduced the discussion concerning our cities to a mere infrastructural and occasionally domestic discourse. It has forgotten their secular, collective meaning. Fraçoise Choay and Joseph Rykwert, in the second half of the 20th century, spoke about the city as an anthropological form, wherein – if anthropology is conceived of as the study of the human race, its culture and society – architecture is nothing but the direct traces that society leaves behind. These traces can be identified as rituals: collective, repetitive and rhythmical series of movements; paradigms that generate physical forms. They are crucial to the meaning of architecture, which in this context can be conceived of as the constitution and perpetuation of quotidian social relations between the human body and its environment.

Rituals are space-making devices that are highly relevant to the discourse about architecture and the city, and must be reconsidered today in a time that faces an unprecedented expansion of construction in order to supersede the act of building with the act of thinking. The paradigmatic nature of the ritual, however, has also facilitated the deterioration of the city into a prescribed space. Over time, repetition has turned such actions into habits, enabling the agglomeration of secure and anonymous buildings with private or pseudo-public space, which has generated a standardised collective forma vitae. Rituals have thus dissolved into habits and architects have lost their agency, which for centuries was grounded in an anthropological gaze towards urban forms. The diversity of collective rituals and their ephemeral and conscious meaning is therefore no longer fundamental to the project of architecture, which has ceased to represent a form in society.

This condition is most evident in London, a city in which this monotonous form of everyday habitualness has seen a long and complex evolution that dates back to 1666. This was the first moment when the capital had to face the prospect of reconstruction and commenced its slow transformation from a city constructed at first in timber, then in bricks and stone, to a city made entirely of steel, concrete and glass.

From the fall of tyranny to the rise of what Michel Foucault calls biopower, the research selects a series of moments throughout this history where a clear formalisation of the dispute between ritual and habit spatially emerges. These case studies bring to light the coexistence of powers that have affected the shift from the ritual to habit, their differing spatial readings, and the role of the architect in the project of the city. The intention of this thesis is not to find a solution to the problematic way in which we design our city as a compromise between investors, developers and builders, but rather to propose that which should be considered once again an anthropological urban form, where the architect can hopefully find again an active and participative role.

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