Category Archives: reviews

Review: Human-built environment relations as a necessary component to architectural designs

Lindsay, G. and Morhayim, L. (Eds.). (2015). Revisiting “Social Factors”: Advancing Research into People and Place. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. ISBN: 978-1-4438-7734-3. 

In Revisiting Social Factors, Georgia Lindsay and Lusi Morhayim take on an ambitious set of questions both reflective and forward-looking: What is the status of social and behavioral research in environmental design? How can the rich, fifty-year history of Social Factors continue to shape, for the better, the places we design and inhabit and inform scholarship at the intersection of culture, space, and place?

(Lindsay and Morhayim, 2015)

We begin in Berkeley, California, where the first Social Factors program in an Architecture department began in the 1960s and where, in 2011, a conference entitled “The Death and Life of ‘Social Factors’: A Conference Reexamining Behavioral and Cultural Research in Environmental Design” convened to investigate the state of “research regarding the relationship between culture, individuals, and the built environment.” As a young Social Factors scholar at Berkeley, the “d” word—death—haunted me: how could Social Factors be dead? Undoubtedly, the field has undergone substantial change since its 1960s heyday, and, in some ways, is marked by the patina of time: neither the behaviorist origins nor the language we use to talk about Social Factors is adequate for today’s research and practice agenda. Yet this book, born from the papers presented at the “Death and Life of ‘Social Factors’” conference, testifies to the long and still robust life of the field. Echoing Jane Jacobs, who both acknowledged the lifelessness of ‘renewed’ urban space to contrast (and attempt to preserve) the promise and joy inherent in historic, diverse city life, the chapters that follow do not chronicle or foretell the death of Social Factors, but rather celebrate its life, then and now.

In fact, as Galen Cranz argues in the Foreword to this book, a social perspective reaches farther into architectural education, scholarship, and practice today than ever before: the National Architectural Accrediting Board requires that all students engage in courses that expose them to social and cultural concerns, the rise of interest in architecture for the public good demonstrates a profound appreciation for contextually sensitive design, and, according to Cranz, “approximately half of the research in building science entails social variables” like comfort and use. Further, the eight essays that comprise this book show how the previous accomplishments of the field and the innovative, interdisciplinary work being done by researchers and practitioners regarding people and their spaces continue to reverberate—and make significant contributions to architectural theory and practice—today.

Though rooted in its Berkeley origins, Revisiting Social Factors boasts broad appeal in the breadth of subject matter it takes on. The book, divided into two sections, begins with a series of essays that orient the reader to the linguistic, historic, and methodological underpinnings of Social Factors and chart a course for future scholarship. In “The Words We Choose,” Karen Franck explores how the language we use to talk about Social Factors research can obscure the value, scope, and disciplinary edges of this field. For example, though “tremendously inclusive,” the terms environment and behavior tend to atomize and stagnate concepts and, in so doing, belie the complex co-influence of people and their places. Instead, we might say space and use—as in the social use of space—or choose other words that convey something multiple, relational, dynamic, and, yes, alive.

Next, Suzanne Cowan and Ayda Melika offer a critical reflection on the history of the Social Factors field—which they articulate as two separate yet parallel strands, one attempting to apply social science methods to social problems and the other aiming to integrate partnerships and participatory methods into design—from the pioneering work of Edward T. Hall and Berkeley’s Clare Cooper Marcus, to the more contemporary contributions of Rem Koolhaas and Teddy Cruz. In considering the origin, successes, and critiques of Social Factors, Cowan and Melika highlight the uneven legacy of this field: its institutionalization in design schools is both its enduring success and its great limitation. Still, the authors suggest a way forward: “This type of research can serve to ground and substantiate the fervor of good intentions and desire for social reform that seem to remain a fundamental part of contemporary architectural discourse.”

Similarly bridging past and present, Dominic Fisher investigates whether the findings of William H. Whyte’s seminal 1971 study of New York City’s small urban spaces remain true today. In a comparative study of two parks—Paley Park, the darling of Whyte’s study, and its predecessor, Harlem’s Collyer Brothers Park—Fisher demonstrates how contextual factors shape the success of a park (Paley) or its neglect (Collyer). Ultimately, he concludes that, in today’s changing urban fabric, Whyte’s praise of small urban spaces as “multipliers” of activity “is still invaluable, but cannot be applied verbatim to seemingly similar spaces in communities underserved by healthy streets and opportunities.” Fisher’s work demonstrates how a contemporary approach to Social Factors research can—and should—continue to inform urban design practices.

If Part 1’s orientation to Social Factors suggests a modern approach to long-standing questions in the field, Part 2 makes good on this promise by showcasing people doing social factors research in both academic and professional settings. Comprised of five studies “that assume the user perspective, with human responses and needs as the unit of measurement,” Part 2 conveys how Social Factors is uniquely poised to address some of the most pressing concerns of our time.

Designing for people with disabilities has long been an interest of socially-minded architects. Yet Ann Heylighten challenges normative approaches to designing for disabled bodies by focusing not on positivist universal design standards, but rather on how people with a range of disabilities—lack of sightedness, hearing deficiencies, and autism—experience built settings in unique ways; such insights can inform new understandings about both definitions of disability (which she defines relationally in the context of person-environment fit, rather than as an inherent individual condition) and spatial experience more broadly.

Programmer Emily Golembewski similarly urges the reader away from a normative practice, this time of programming, a distinct discipline from design, though equally integral in ensuring person-environment fit. Informed by her work at Francis Duffy’s innovative office programming firm, DEGW (now AECOM), Golembiewski offers a toolkit for programming methods: she introduces readers to the strengths and limitations of “formulaic” and “messy” approaches to user research, with the ultimate goal to “identify needs and project drivers, which may be organizational, financial, functional, or cultural in nature.” Though Golembewski’s audience ostensibly is professional programmers and designers whom she hopes will integrate user research into architectural practice, she also makes a compelling plea for architectural educators to “explore the (sometimes tense) relationship between programming and design,” in order to achieve the best possible design outcome.

Marie-Alice L’Hereux also considers the role of education in Social Factors work, particularly regarding sustainability. L’Hereux sees sustainability through a decidedly social lens: “aesthetics, behavior, and technology,” she argues, “all need to be engaged for projects to be successful from both a community and a climate change perspective.” Translation: to be sustainable, buildings must be designed for human use and must perform socially as much as environmentally. Yet L’Hereux demonstrates how easy it can be to neglect social needs when residents are not consulted as part of the design process and social factors are not an explicit part of the curriculum or design criteria. For example, students in a Design-Build Studio focusing on sustainable affordable housing ignored “the fine-grained features of daily life and…maintenance and utility costs,” such that, in the end, according to one student builder, “we did not really design a house that people would live in…it had a neat effect, made good pictures” but did not meet the needs of clients. This chapter reinforces the importance and role of social factors as a primary tenet not just of sustainable design, but of design itself.

A chapter by Yael Perez and colleagues complements that of L’Hereux by offering digital and methodological tools to design sustainably with people; in other words, to engage in co-design to create sustainable housing. Reflecting on their work with the Pinoleville Pomo Nation (PPN), a Native American Nation near Berkeley, CA, Perez and colleagues demonstrate the power of co-design to support a sustainable design approach. Additionally, they show how social media technologies—including Facebook, email, blogs, Google Maps, YouTube videos, and Twitter— can facilitate dialogue among participants and designers in order to articulate how architecture is experienced and—ultimately—design buildings that celebrate community needs.

Such an understanding of people-place interactions—and their translation to meaningful policies and practices—is one of the important legacies of the Social Factors field. A contemporary example of this comes from Cecilia Bodelmann and a team of colleagues from the United States and Sweden. Recognizing two parallel shifts—the rise of sedentary behavior among children and the expansion of preschooling—Bodelmann and colleagues studied the health promotion potential of preschool outdoor environments. After scoring a range of environments based on factors such as size and integration of vegetation and play areas, the authors found that resource-rich environments correlated with increased levels of physical activity among preschool-aged children. This study has clear implications for policy and design practice, especially regarding the need to create healthy learning environments for young people as a means to combat deleterious impacts of sedentary behavior. It also is an inspiring model for how interdisciplinary collaboration can fruitfully address person-environment concerns.

This book began with a lofty promise: to show how questions and research regarding people and place are very much alive today. Though the case studies included are limited in breadth, as is the nature of case studies, they prove nevertheless that the basic priorities of Social Factors serve a vibrant and important role in education, research, and practice today. Indeed, though difficult to convey in just a few chapters the full depth—or potential—of the social factors field, the “cross-section” approach employed by Lindsay and Morhayim successfully uncovers the range of questions alive in person-environment studies as well as the many voices—emerging and seasoned scholars, different disciplines, local and international perspectives—they engage therein.

Importantly, this text is not simply for those of us already familiar with, drawn to, or invested in revisiting Social Factors: in fact, it can inform research and practice in other fields as well. First, it offers an agile framework for thinking about and designing for the intersections of people and place, a topic of interest to geographers, historians, and public health researchers, to name just a few. Second, its authors collectively call for reform in design education—a timely topic as we consider the challenges of designing in a world defined by increasing diversity and complexity—and offer case studies that would be at home in many (interdisciplinary) course syllabi. Finally, this book is edifying reading for designers of all types: a reminder of the value of the social perspective and a toolkit for how to think about and design for the social use of space.

Caitlin DeClercq (University of California, Berkeley)

Part 2 of 2 – W.E.B. Du Bois and race in Brazil

From a Brazilian perspective, Du Bois work is of particular interest.  It’s interesting to find out that Du Bois was so attentive to science as a way to fight racism. Black movements (and many other minorities) sometimes are too attached to emotional sides of the process, such as pride and identity, but less attached to studies that would possibly promote dialogue and systemic changes.

Capitalism is a system based not only on inequalities but segregation.

Continue reading Part 2 of 2 – W.E.B. Du Bois and race in Brazil

Reading Laruelle 1 – a review in 3 parts

Alexander Galloway, Laruelle: Against the Digital.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 2014.  ISBN 9780816692132

1. Against the digital as differentiation

I first read this book in one sitting of 7 hours but have divided this review as I wanted to extend my discussion of Galloway’s treatment of Deleuze.  This will appear as Part 2 of this review.  Alexander Galloway’s book Laruelle: Against the Digital presents 14 theses across 10 chapters that move from the inaccessible monolithic material oneness of the Real to a critical assessment of ‘analysis’ that is the hallmark of philosophy.  Philosophical elements, such as analysis, are presented under the label of the ‘Standard Approach’. Galloway argues that François Laruelle (From Decision to Heresy, Experiments in Non-Standard Thought. New York: Sequence. 2012) offers a realist or ‘Non-Standard Approach’ that foregrounds imminence and the a priori commonality of all being and thought as a general category of the undifferentiated, indifferent, or generic.  Being and thought go together and imply each other inseparably (cf. Heidegger).  Galloway insists he is not offering a book about Laruelle, but he closely follows the lines of his philosophical position.  The generic is the ‘analog’ that Galloway pits against the tradition of differentiation and division that underpins the digital 0-1 binary system.  Standard Approach philosophy is thus digital.  Lucretius, Spinoza, Deleuze, Althusser are important references for Galloway in Part Two of his book where he considers the politics and aesthetics of cybernetic control society, the aesthetics of darkness and light, and an ethics of the generic.

As mentioned, the most interesting aspects of the book for me are found in Galloway’s discussion of Deleuze’s Society of Control (see Part 2 of this review). However before he arrives at his discussion of Digital Capitalism, Galloway’s text moves through several labyrinthine chapters on analytical division, Laruelle’s critique of hermeneutics, dialectics and multiplicity, and the hierarchical temporal logic of the event.

“Laruelle is charting an exodus out of representation more generally. Thus, the true withdrawal from digital quality will lead to imminence, not analogy. The ultimate withdrawal from digital will lead to the generic” (89).

The Standard Model of philosophy is premised on the division of the One into two as an event and a decision.  It is both ontological and metaphysical.  The NonStandard Model does not permit either a hermeneutics that separates surface and depth, a structuralism that separates appearance and structure, not even a division of the digital and analog, nor critique based on some sort of external subject position that assesses an ignoble problem object.

Galloway takes the zero – one logic of today’s digital world as a logic of distinction, decision, difference, and division. He does not discuss other possible readings or understandings of this zero as a non-negative that cannot simply be contrasted against a one, meaning a particular or an entity. For example, contemporary mathematics often understands zero as exactly Laruelle’s undifferentiated whole that is an inclusive infinity or plenum that includes All.  My thought is that oneness is an eerie anticipation of quantum computing’s ‘all-at-once’ computation of a field of possibilities (an analogue space without time produced in only a single computational cycle).  It also points toward the possibility of a future social theory encounter with social diversity as an analogue phenomenon, variation rather than difference.  This entails an examination of the Janus – faced quality of the zero in the 01 binary logic,  This is one of the exciting opportunities that Galloway gestures toward (Chapter 4 and 5 of the book) but does not provide. However, it seems that Laruelle, and Galloway following him, argues for a focus on a meta-stasis of pure immanence that prevents any rational representation and analysis of being, except as the grand illusion of a divided world of subjects and objects.

…Part 2 follows.

Rob Shields (University of Alberta)

New Books in French

1. Yvon Delemontey. Reconstruire la France L’aventure du béton assemblé 1940-1955, Ed de la Villette, 2015, 398 p. 

This book examines the changes to the industry of construction and architecture that emerged in France during the period directly following the Second World War. In order to rebuild cities after the war, innovative design and building processes were needed, leading to the rapid expansion of prefabrication—made possible by the use of concrete. While prefabrication led to new and exciting technical processes, architects at the time worried about the possible drawbacks of moving towards absolute rationalization of these processes.

2. Pierre Sansot. Paysages de l’existence. Essais, infolio Archigraphy Poche, 173 p.

This collection brings together eight works either previously unpublished or published in journals that are difficult to track down today. Dealing with a material universe constantly in flux, these works capture the distinctive quality of Sansot’s thought.

3. Jean-Pierre Orfeuil et Fabrice Ripoll. Accès et mobilités les nouvelles inégalités, Infolio Archigraphy Poche-Futurs Urbains , 2015, 209 p.

The first of an interdisciplinary book series proposed by LABEX Futurs Urbains, Jean-Pierre and Fabrice Ripoll explore the intersection between social and mobility/access inequalities. Orfeuil addresses the issue by focusing on access to resources and territories, and the social consequences of limited mobility. Ripoll argues for an approach to mobility as a social construction, focusing on the forms of constraint inherent in travel as well as strategies for resistance.

4. Loïc Vadelorge. Retour sur les villes nouvelles: Une histoire urbaine du xxesiècle, Créaphis editions, 2014, 424 p.

This book provides the first historical synthesis of the creation of new cities in France between 1965-1975. Focusing on examples from the Paris region, Vadelorge provides an analysis of the origins and history of the concept of “new cities.” With this book, Vadelorge makes a decisive contribution to the history of urban and land use planning in the last half of the twentieth century.

5. Isabelle Hajek et Philippe Hamman. La gouvernance de la ville durable entre déclin et reinventions: Une comparaison Nord/Sud, PUR, 2014, 283 p.

This book interrogates the concepts of “sustainable city” and “urban governance,” which were first conceived in light of rising concerns of the global environment. With particular attention to European and southern areas of the Mediterranean, the authors examine the paradoxical tension that characterizes the project of “Governing the Sustainable City “: programmed decline, impoverishment and even death, on the one hand, and yet uncertain local reinventions and indigenous alternatives, on the other.

Stephanie Bailey (University of Alberta) 

Active Audience – Huimin Jin

Review: Active Audience: A New materialistic interpretation of a key concept in cultural studies, Huimin Jin. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag 2012. 179pp.

Why are Chinese scholars interested in active audience theories that hark back to the 1980s and 1990s? In an exchange in Active Audience, David Morley comments to author Huimin Jin, Prime Professor at Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing:

“As I understand your argument, you are suggesting that we face a move from a ‘producer society’ to a ‘consumer society’, that the concept of the masses’ (as mobilized in the Frankfurt School’s work) is a characteristic of what you call a producer society and that popular culture is then, conversely, associated with the consumer society. From that premise, if I understand you rightly, you see ‘active audience theory’ as being to do with the extent to which, in this thing called the ‘consumer society’, people have more choices… I think that’s a problematic form of historical periodization and one which is characteristic of a certain type of sociological approach”

Imported in the wake of the reception of British Marxist Cultural Studies of the Birmingham School the core notion of the active audience emphasizes the independence of meaning from any authors intention as texts, images and film are received and reinterpreted in different contexts. Stuart Hall was a key figure in developing an “encoding/decoding model”. The idea comes out of the 1960s social psychology of Raymond Bauer who pitted the “obstinate audience” against simplistic sender-receiver models. On one hand, the active audience is an independent collective which does not respond in a mechanical manner to the explicit messages of mass media but always reflects, comments on and attempts to interpret messages. They “actively” decode messages and meanings. On the other hand, the resistance offered by the active audience has proved a poor buttress against imperial and commercial ambitions.

Jin follows David Morley’s model as a critique of the assumptions of the determinism of technologies and media and the passive, duped audiences often presented by Frankfurt School writers in their critiques of Nazi propaganda.  What is most fascinating about the book is its shift away from communication theory to consider the everyday context which shapes the reception of information.  In doing so, while carefully following Morley’s lead, the book is genuinely new in its use of Husserl’s phenomenology of the “lifeword” and a Heideggerian approach to being-in-the-world which emphasizes the ways people reflect on their world and make it meaningful for themselves.  Jin draws on his broad experience in German intellectual history to move from the discursive, which is generally involves abstract representations, to root the discussion in the real.  For me, this everyday reality, spans both the actual here-and-now “concrete” fabric of life and also its “virtual”, intangible elements such as trust, community and society that frame our understanding of communication.  This turn to everyday world and away from the pure context of texts or, for example, a television broadcast, reflects Prof. Jin’s status as the preeminent interpreter of Confucius in China today.


Continue reading Active Audience – Huimin Jin

Humanity and Animal Politics – Review

What animals teach us about politics, by Brian Massumi (2014). Durham and London: Duke University Press. ISBN 978-0-8223-5772-8 (cloth), 978-0-8223-5800-8 (paper). 137 pp.

Two wild dogs, cast in bronze, stand poised against each other, seemingly engaged in combat. Upon closer examination, however, this sculpture by South African artist, Nola Steele, portrays two animals not fighting, but rather playing. The scene perfectly captures the ‘ludic gesture’ (4-5), central to Brian Massumi’s rich and dense text. For Massumi, playing is ‘combat-esque’, which distinguishes it qualitatively from combat. The suffix ‘-esque‘ indicates that it is as if in combat, ‘but with a little something different’ (9). Combat and play are the same, with subtle but important differences: they are both part of a continuum in the same way humans and animals are both part of a ‘continuum of nature’ (17). The reciprocal participation in play on the part of a human as well as an animal creates ‘zones of indiscernibility’ (6) and ‘mutual inclusion’ (4) between human and animal. This is a conceptualisation that paves the way for exploring ‘what animals teach us about politics’.

Continue reading Humanity and Animal Politics – Review

What do they have in Hitchcock’s America? Review

Review: Murray Pomerance,  Alfred Hitchcock’s America, Cambridge: Polity Press 2013

What do they have in Hitchcock’s America? They have the promise of open spaces, they have atomized lives framed by film-screen windows, they have innocents abroad and ambitious step jumpers at home, they have agrarian prophets and urban sophisticates sharing the small town paradise, they have ingenuity, humility, plucky courage and hidden faces, they have department stores and giants, they have Mount Rushmore and Bates Motel. All of these ingredients, and many more, are masterfully woven into this feast of a book.

During their discussion on the plotting of Secret Agent (1936), Hitchcock famously told François Truffaut: Continue reading What do they have in Hitchcock’s America? Review

Fünf und Neunzig Wiener Würstel Stände: 59 Viennese Sausage Stands

Review: Sebastian Hackenschmidt,Stephan Olah (eds). Fünf und Neunzig Wiener Würstel Stände. Stalzburg: Verlag Anton Pustet.

Why review a survey of 600 currently existing, “typically Viennese” sausage kiosks other than to say that this copiously illustrated book in German and French provides an exhaustive survey of the history and architecture of the food kiosk?

More significantly is the light that this local culinary tradition sheds on the public culture of Vienna’s streets and squares, a topic under-researched in Vienna (where the focus is on interior cafe culture, for example) and over-looked or poorly indexed by the city’s archives which focus on addresses rather than streets or squares, with the exception of the royal park, Prater.

“In Vienna, we have the paradoxical situation that sausage stands are considered a topographical peculiarity and regarded as leisure venues, while at the same tie forming part of the omnipresent traffic-, consumer- and communication-spaces — places of accelerated transit… “non-places”…. the sausage-stands convey far more convincingly the fleeting nature of the meals consumed there, than a convivial eating culture characterized by interpersonal relationships or a common history…” (p.18)

They are barometers of social change in the public spaces of the street.

“…achieving acceptance at a particular sausage-stand can turn into a regular rite of passage… Authenticated in the vernacular and amply represented in literature…”

-Rob Shields
University of Alberta

Iulian Barba-Lata’s Review of Spatial Questions in Society and Space

Society and Space has posted a review of Rob Shields 2013 Spatial Questions: Cultural Topologies and Social Spatialisation, as reviewed by Iulian Barba-Lata at

Rob Shields, Spatial Questions: Cultural Topologies and Social Spatialisation. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA, 2013, 216 pages, $52.00 hardback. ISBN 9781848606654 (

A while ago, in one of his seminal lectures delivered to the Graduate School of Design at Harvard, Bruno Latour argued that “[t]here is probably no more decisive difference among thinkers than the position they are inclined to take on space” (2009, page 5). Rob Shields’ Spatial Questions dwells on this matter extensively. Engaging with spatial theory in most of its incarnations, the book contributes to conceptualisations of topology in the socio-cultural arena. This thought-provoking book adopts a critical stance that aims to transcend the metaphorical treatment of topology and clarify the potential of a topologically informed toolset fitted for spatial analysis. According to Shields, “a ‘cultural topology’ as a critical theory and method” (page 1) could provide the answer to our spatial concerns. The argument builds upon a laborious survey of the various genealogies of space that have informed Western spatial thought—from antiquity to the present day.

The book is structured in six chapters and it includes a collection of illustrations providing chronological accounts of key thinkers on space. It also includes a glossary of key terms, which I found a very useful companion, especially in relation to some of the philosophical and mathematical ideas invoked in the discussion. In the preface, Rob Shields describes Spatial Questions as “a work of thresholds, edges and folds—a topology in many senses” (page xi); point taken, since after going back and forth for several times between its chapters I realised that more than being a book that explores topological thinking, this is also a book that could be read in a topological way. Approached in a linear fashion, Spatial Questions provides a dense overview of the contributions to Western spatial thought, from early East Asian and East Mediterranean works in philosophy and mathematics to the development of non-Euclidean geometry and present day conceptualisations of space and time. Sometimes the overview becomes too dense at the expense of clarity concerning the main argument. And yet, the genealogies presented in the book are open to a non-linear reading, in which connections between different strands of thought (and different sections of the book) can be assembled in a topological fashion.

From the many questions that Shields addresses in the book, the one I have found the most resourceful is how the interplay between centre and periphery is at stake in pressing the argument for a cultural topology agenda. This is a theme that Shields explored at length in Places on the Margin (1992) and in his treatment of social spatialisation, which provides a critical response to the elusive character of space as a master category and form of knowledge that is never fully accessible. However, rather than focusing on how the relation between centre and periphery feeds into the enactment of different spatialisations, I would like to discuss how it translates into Shields’ own mapping of a genealogy of space. A topological account of the alternative histories and cultural representations of space would require a different take on the notion of time (an idea anticipated by Shields in the book’s introductive notes, page xii), or what Michel Serres refers to as a philosophy of “co-presence of the archaic and the contemporary” (2012, page 369). As in Raphael’s fresco The School of Athens, this would allow distant figures to enter into dialogue even for an instant, with the Pythagoreans and the Peripatetic School to sit next to the astronomers of the Islamic Golden Age and Copernicus (page 50) or for Euclid, Apollonius and Archimedes’ diagrammatic reasoning to permeate the pioneering works of Hilbert, Klein or Poincaré in the framework of modern mathematics (Netz, 2003).

According to Brian Rotman, once mathematical diagrams are understood in terms of their performative dimension, i.e. as “embodied acts that bridge the gulf between thought and the sign” (2012, page 256), the focus shifts toward their topological properties in order to account on how the abstract and the material become knotted in different configurations (see also Netz, 2010). This treatment of the diagrammatic would bring us closer to Shields’ own approach in mapping the discursive realms that fold in alternative histories and cultural representations of space. Topology, or rather topological thinking, provides the means for Shields to coil up contrasting spatialisations and negotiate the tensions, and affinities, between classical and post-classical readings of space.

The reader will find many examples in the book. One is the clash between Lenin’s dialectical-materialist agenda and Ernst Mach’s ideas, which took off with the concourse of Henri Poincaré and Albert Einstein to the development of the Theory of General Relativity (pages 65-67). As Shields argues in the final part of the book, “[t]opological approaches can take apart the static poles of ontology” (page 156) and it is through the painstaking process of carving out these complex genealogies that topology can undermine the taken for granted categories used in the treatment of space and time. To use Serres’ words, these epistemological exercises would better fit a percolation model rather than a chronological reading, in which history would be conceived “as a complex surface, conveying wormholes of sheer acceleration, bottlenecks of stoppage or equilibrium, zones of stationary values, several fragmentations…” (2012, page 377).

In the last two chapters of the book, Shields provides a survey across some of the most important works that informed the establishment of topology as a formal branch of mathematics and their different articulations within social and cultural theory.  The references to Euler’s contribution to graph theory, Gauss and Riemann’s development of non-Euclidean geometry or Rene Thom’s catastrophe theory (among many others) are complemented by more ample accounts on the works of Deleuze, Foucault, Michel Serres or the STS scholars, particularly those of John Law and Annemarie Mol. This serves as a stepping stone in setting up a cultural topology agenda that would transcend the metaphorical treatment of topology and provide a means to reconcile multiple spatialisations, by offering “cultural studies a  new ‘dimensionality’ and level of precision regarding spatial and temporal relations, flows and transformations” (page158).

Although I share Shields’ enthusiasm for the potential of topological thinking to fine-tune spatial theory to the challenges of complexity, the part I have troubles with his argument is the matter of precision. If we are indeed on the ‘cusp’ as Shields argues in the concluding section, then topology could be rather seen as a ‘boundary object’ that social science scholars are joggling with until it cools down; and perhaps it is better this way.  I think this aspect is related to a point that keeps returning in Spatial Questions and that has to do with the issue of observation; of what one observes and how one observes, topologically. The Real might be “plush-like” on the surface (page 123), but on the flip side could also prove as abrasive as sandpaper. Shields quotes Gamow’s account on Einstein “who was probably the first to realize the important fact that the basic notions and laws of nature, however well established, were valid only within the limits of observation and did not necessarily hold beyond them”(page 147).

If we are to take Lucretius’ boundary challenge seriously, there will be many tossing spears at the elastic boundaries of topology, and the question here is: ‘how far do these boundaries stretch?’ I think there is still a long way to go to domesticate topology—if this goal could ever be achieved. Yet, topology’s conceptual dimension has already proved fertile enough to stimulate new imaginaries in which to address various spatial questions. Thus, instead of aiming for precision, I would rather plead for specificity and for making clear how different approaches to topology establish continuous functions across different realms of thought, spatial and not-so-spatial categories.

Shields takes up this challenge seriously and to my knowledge, Spatial Questions provides one of the most complete accounts in the recent literature engaging with topology. The reader might be deceived by the apparently slim format, which nevertheless packs material that could easily inform several volumes on the topic. Spatial Questions is a welcome contribution to spatial theory and, given the prominence of the topic nowadays, as well as the hype built around the topological over the past years, the book might equally appeal to geographers and to a broader audience within the social sciences.

Iulian Barba-Lata,  Cultural Geography, Wageningen University, PO Box 47, 6700 AA Wageningen, The Netherlands.


Latour B, 2009, “Spheres and networks: two ways to reinterpret globalization” A Lecture at Harvard University Graduate School of Design (February 17)

Netz R, 2003, The Shaping of Deduction in Greek Mathematics: A Study in Cognitive History (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge)

Netz R, 2010, “What Did Greek Mathematicians Find Beautiful?” Classical Philology105 426–44

Rotman B, 2012, “Topology, Algebra, Diagrams” Theory, Culture & Society29 247–60

Serres M and T Adkins, 2012, “Differences: Chaos in the History of the Sciences” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space30 369–80

Shields R, 1992, Places on the Margin: Alternative Geographies of Modernity (Routledge, London)

Simon Dawes

A variety of excellent reviews and articles related to the urban, publics, topology and assemblage are up on Simon Dawes‘ Media Theory History and Regulation site:

Representing the City: Non-Representation, Digital Archives and Megacity Phenomena (for TCS)

Review:  Chris Berry, Janet Harbord and Rachel Moore Public-space Media Space (for Media & Society)

Interview: Celia Lury, Luciana Parisi and Tiziana Terranova on Topologies (for TCS)

Interview: Stephen J. Collier on Foucault, Assemblages and Topology (for TCS)

Simon Dawes is at Univ. Paul Valérie I, Montpellier