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Architectural Parallax: On Spandrels and Other Phenomena of Class Struggle

with 8 comments

Zizek’s explicit appropriation of Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin’s architectural metaphor for ex-aptation, in conjunction with a talk at the Tilton Gallery.

The notion I propose here is ex-aptation, introduced by Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin: it refers to features that did not arise as adaptations through natural selection but rather as side effects of adaptive processes and that have been co-opted for a biological function. What should draw our attention here is that Gould and Lewontin borrowed the architectural term ‘spandrel’ (using the pendentives of San Marco in Venice as an example) to designate the class of forms and spaces that arise as necessary byproducts of another decision in design, and not as adaptations for direct utility in themselves. In architecture, the prototypical spandrel is the triangular space ‘left over’ on top, when a rectangular wall is pierced by a passageway capped with a rounded arch. By extension, a spandrel is any geometric configuration of space inevitably left over as a consequence of other architectural decisions. Say, the spaces between the pillars of a bridge can subsequently be used by homeless persons for sleeping, even though such spaces were not designed for providing such shelter. And as the church spandrels may then incidentally become the locus for decorations such as portraits of the four evangelists, so anatomical spandrels may be co-opted for uses that were not selected for in the first place.

Are, then, – back to my main line – the ‘interstitial space opened up by the ‘disconnection between skin and structure’ in performance-arts venues not such spandrels, functionally empty spaces open up for exaptation? The struggle is open here – the struggle for who will appropriate them.

I like extending “spandrels” to the living spaces made between bridge-pillars. This retains Gould and Lewontin’s evolutionary sense of the term, but also adds the political edge of re-appropriating social space for social need.

Read the rest HERE.


Written by Joe

April 28, 2009 at 3:50 pm

Posted in Structure, Zizek

8 Responses

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  1. ??? What are you saying?

    Ted Bagley

    April 28, 2009 at 6:08 pm

  2. How can I begin to answer a question like that? Most of my intention in posting this article is simply to be a relay. I don’t have much, right now, to say about the article.


    April 28, 2009 at 6:13 pm

  3. What about it are you relaying? Why this article?

    Ted Bagley

    April 28, 2009 at 9:22 pm

  4. I am interested in Zizek using “spandrels” as a category of social thinking, of thinking social change.


    April 29, 2009 at 7:30 am

  5. Zizek is right about the struggle for these excessive spaces. Today I saw in a Tri-Met bus-shelter an official warning that occupying this space for anything but waiting for a bus is illegal, and could earn you a fine or get you tossed in jail.


    April 29, 2009 at 1:20 pm

  6. I just had the thought of a spandrel in the act of anonymous voting. That would be one to close up.

    Ted Bagley

    May 5, 2009 at 11:44 am

  7. You could consider spandrels as sites of politicization. In the case of organisms, there is a fundamental struggle between environmental factors (arguably the organism included) define the meaning of a given excess trait’s genetic fitness. The point, however, shouldn’t be to open the back door to some kind of organicism, because even the notion of fitness is contingent, not just the factors contributing to it.


    May 8, 2009 at 8:09 am

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