Terms and definitions on affordable and sustainable housing *

Spatial Agency

Area: Community participation

 “Spatial agency”, a term popularised by Jeremy Till, Tatjana Schneider, and Nishat Awan (Awan et al., 2011; Schneider & Till, 2009) emerged from two growing demands: firstly, the need to decentralise the normative practice and role of architecture within spatial production, and secondly to expand the profession, by elevating diverse human and non-human actors, and various practices that move beyond the confines of what is typically understood as architecture (Lorne, 2017). Ignited by Cedric Price’s call for disrupting the idea that a building is the direct and solely available solution to spatial matters (Matthews, 2006), and drawing upon Lefebvre’s notion of “right to the city” (Lorne, 2017; Purcell, 2014), spatial agency aims to challenge the hegemonic status quo in spatial production by shifting the focus from the urban environment as a collection of tangible objects, to a dynamic socio-political process, and an entanglement of actors and practices that shape it and are shaped in return. Spatial agency Space, according to Lefebvre is a social product (1991, p. 360). This acknowledgment primarily highlights three facts: (1) there is no neutrality when it comes to the production of space. Space is the result of an agonistic relation between the components of the conceptual triad of space[1], resulting from the various conflicts and clashes between social groups with different interests, values, and backgrounds (Awan et al., 2011; Lefebvre, 1991). (2) There is a clear distinction and yet a “contradictory unity” between the exchange value, i.e. the usefulness of a commodity in terms of its capacity to generate economic revenue within the market, and the use value, i.e. the usefulness of a commodity in terms of its effective response to an actual need (Pitts, 2021, p. 36). Within the current economic system, more often than not, the exchange value overpowers the use value (Purcell, 2014). (3) To ensure that the use value of a given space is guaranteed, spatial production should not be the sole domain of experts and those who hold power, but rather citizens and stakeholders should engage in “real and active participation” (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 145; Purcell, 2014). Spatial agency All of the above attempt to answer the question on who should have agency over spatial production, beyond the mandates of the current economic system. Anthony Giddens defined “agency” as a notion in a perpetuate dialectic relation with “structure” (1987, p. 220). While agency is the capacity of an individual to decide and act freely, structure outlines the framework of rules, constraints and limitations that shape a society, and both function as interrelated notions (i.e. none may exist without the other). Awan, Till & Schneider follow Giddens’ take on agency, which dictates that no one -and nothing- is either “completely free […] or completely entrapped by structure” (2011, p. 32), but rather somewhere in between.  This means that space neither entirely shapes society, nor is it entirely defined by society, and “spatial agents” neither act in full freedom nor are they fully restrained by structure. This creates a contextual dependency (different contexts bear different “restraints”) that emphasises the situatedness of any practice within the scope of spatial agency. Spatial agency Spatial agency refers to the capacity of individuals or groups to actively shape and transform their built environment. It is a term that transcends and expands architecture, re-emphasises the need for a critical and politically conscious approach in spatial production and seeks to illustrate both an education and practice of synergies that puts “spatial judgement, mutual knowledge and critical awareness” at the forefront (Awan et al., 2011, p. 34; Lorne, 2017). Through spatial agency, one may embrace the uncertainties that emerge within the highly agonistic and dynamic nature of spatial production.       [1] The conceptual spatial triad, as iterated by Henri Lefebvre: space is not a monolith of tangible, physical elements, but rather it exists on different planes of understanding. Those planes are the perceived space (spatial practice), i.e. what one can see and feel around them, the lived space (representational space), which reflects the everydayness, the activities and the social life, and the conceived space (representations of space), i.e. the projections, plans and ideas on how a space could be used. 

Created on 30-01-2024

Author: E.Roussou (ESR9)


* This vocabulary consists of definitions of key terms related to the combined research conducted by the 15 early-stage researchers. Each term has multiple definitions, each connected to one of the three main research areas: Design, Construction and Planning; Community Involvement; and Policy and Funding.

The joint construction of this vocabulary allows the researchers' projects to be interwoven. As such, the vocabulary is a tool for conducting transdisciplinary research on affordable and sustainable housing.

Entries are reviewed by RE-DWELL researchers and supervisors. The vocabulary is updated regularly.