Recombinant Urbanism

I have been asked if I have any reflections on David Grahame Shane’s application of heterotopia in his book Recombinant Urbanism (2005). Here are a few considerations.

First some quibbles: Shane states rightly that Foucault’s presentation of his ideas about heterotopia was based initially on a radio talk, but throughout the book Shane incorrectly references this to 1964. The radio talk took place in 1966 and his fuller lecture to architects in 1967. Shane (246) also seems to suggest that Foucault’s description of Borges’ Chinese encyclopaedia is in the introduction to Madness and Civilisation (no reference supplied); whereas this famous quotation appears in the preface to The Order of Things – first published in 1967.

A very brief summary: Shane puts forward the notion of a city-element triad. The main argument of the book is that all major cities are built around specific districts, units, or enclaves which act as focussing, or centring devices. A key example is the city square which has taken diverse forms throughout history and in different cultures but is always the pivotal space, separated out from its surroundings by a perimeter, often by walls, barriers, gates and has the function of slowing down and concentrating activity (energy). Armatures, the second element, are urban assemblages, spaces of connection and flow, essentially linear and producing a sequential experience. They link different areas of the city. Heterotopias are exceptions to the dominant city model and mix the stasis of enclaves with the flow of armatures. They are heterogeneous spaces that ‘handle or sort disparate flows’, a specialised, hybrid form of enclave, with multiple ‘sub-centres and subcompartments’ that are differentiated from their surroundings, for example, a monumental church, hospital, prison, fair, theme park, shopping mall, public squares used for specific spectacles, exhibitions ‘or any public institution standing out from the surrounding urban fabric’ ( 75).

Functionalist account: Shane posits a very functionalist account of heterotopias. Their function is to ‘help maintain the city’s stability as a self-organising system’ (231).  They work to handle exceptions, for example, containing specialised exclusions as in prisons, or they can help balance binary forces, for example, consumption and production, or they can act as facilitators, for example, addressing the need for speed through virtual spaces. A key function is to contain people and activities that have been classified as ‘taboo’ (232) or the ‘rejected elements necessary to construct an urban system’ (244). They are spaces that can act as safety valves, gathering exceptions, making them harmless, avoiding disintegration and instability, handling flows and managing change.

Forced into threes:  As Shane states in his introduction, ‘urban theorists have identified various normative city models (almost always in threes)’. He follows this tradition rigorously. For example, each of the three elements, or organising devices, relate to one of Kevin Lynch’s three normative city models: enclaves = city of faith; armatures = city as machine; heterotopias = ecological city. Heterotopias themselves are divided in to three types. He reduces Foucault’s 6 principles into (1) ‘crisis’ (2) ‘deviance’ (two sides of Foucault’s first principle) and (3) ‘illusion’ (one side of his sixth principle). Shane attempts to tidy up the confusion of Foucault’s accounts of heterotopia, defining features which fit into previous tripartite schemes. With ‘deviance’ this is quite straight forward as he relies on Foucault’s later writing on prisons and disciplinary forms of observation, classification and normalisation.  Elsewhere he relies on vague and unsubstantiated references to Foucault, for example ‘in the 1970s Foucault identified particular places in the city where processes of change and hybridisation are facilitated, dubbing them heterotopias’ (9) – a notion borrowed from Hetherington? Another example, amongst many, is the suggestion that in Foucault’s discussion of colonies and port cities, he ‘was clear that he was dealing with heterotopias of “deviance”, not “crisis” (250). I am not sure of the source of this assertion.

Conclusion: This very brief review does not at all do justice to the breadth and inclusiveness of Shane’s conceptual modelling in architecture, urban design, and city theory, however, I do find the treatment of heterotopia very rigid and forced. I endorse Lieven De Cauter’s and Michiel Dehaene’s argument that the principles and distinctions that Foucault indicate offer no ‘fixed’ taxonomy. At most we are left with different axes and related qualifications such as:  imaginary (real/unreal), temporal (permanent/transient) and anthropological (normal/abnormal). Foucault’s accounts are confusing and incomplete but this one seems a tame, conservative and unheterotopian version of heterotopia.  There are functionalist elements in Foucault’s descriptions but Shane’s functionalism relies on a very unFoucauldian notion of power, referring for instance  to ‘dominant urban actors’ that employ heterotopias ‘to keep their favoured order as “pure” and consistent as possible’ (232).

Dehaene, M. and De Cauter, L. (eds.) (2008) Heterotopia and the City, London and New York: Routledge.

Shane, D. G. (2005) Recombinant Urbanism: Conceptual Modelling in Architecture, Urban Design, and City Theory. Chichester, UK: Wiley.

23 April 2014