contemplation of space

Postmodern architect Bernard Tschumi is well known for his iconoclastic approach to architecture. Most profoundly, Tschumi set out to disrupt architecture by advancing notions about space, event, and movement. In the Manhattan Transcripts, Tschumi (1976) claimed that

only the striking relationship between three levels of event, space and movement makes for the architectural experience. Yet they never attempt to transcend the contradictions between object, man [sic] and event in order to bring them to a new synthesis: on the contrary, they aim to maintain these contradictions in a dynamic manner, in a new relation of indifference, reciprocity or conflict.... (p. 277)

As I consider how to provide an overview of class members’ experiences in English 696: Spatial and Visual Rhetorics at University of Arizona, I came to see Tschumi as not merely a luminary figure in architecture but also a luminous figuration to introduce the reflective pieces—which I called movements—of our class members. For me, Tschumi’s focus on maintaining the productive tensions among space, event, and movement are similar to my own desire to create a graduate course that would foster inquiry on the complexities of spatial and visual rhetorics. Perhaps graduate teaching may seem an odd comparison to architecture, but if our graduate teaching (any teaching, really) is about building a course and introducing theories and practices in particular classroom and university spaces to people who interact in those spaces, then teaching and architecture are both steeped in overlapping disciplinary concerns with lived experiences, material realities, and intellectual projects. Indeed, Louis Martin’s 1990 essay “Transpositions: On the Intellectual Origins of Tschumi's Architectural Theory” suggests that Tschumi drew heavily from textual and critical theories as a means to create new generative, revolutionary treatises on architecture (p. 23). Such text-based theories are literally instantiated in Tschumi's projects, and just as Tschumi tapped into the ways concepts in critical theory translate into architectural practice, my goal here is to use recursively Tschumi’s architectural practices as a means to think about the experiences of members of the graduate seminar on spatial and visual rhetoric that I taught in the fall of 2008. To better illustrate Tschumi’s usefulness, I offer this purposefully simple diagram:

text --> building --> text

rhetoric --> architecture --> rhetoric

theory --> practice --> theory

The recursive movement of theory to practice to theory again (and again and again) can be illustrated by this diagram, but it is best, of course, to imagine it as mobile, fading in and out, or as dynamic in a way that makes the most sense to you (e.g., this image is static rather than animated so that different readers could imagine its movements to their own liking, rather than having my choice of effects imposed on their interpretation).

Coming to terms with terms, however, is never simply as easy as locating an allied figure in another field. Even if I can convince you to agree both on the recursive nature of terms and on the ways rhetoric and composition scholars have similar concerns to architects, I still have to introduce, describe, name, and label the heterogeneous experiences among members of the graduate seminar and the ways we have come to understand ourselves as spatial scholars, then and now. How can I pull all those disparate pieces together in this introduction without losing my readers? I can choose a term like reflection. A fitting one in our field, yet reflection seems at once a logical starting point and also inadequate to describe the continuous process of coming to new ideas, abandoning others, or maintaining useful tensions or unresolved feelings and intensities, both intellectual and personal. The point is that reflection needs to remain messy, and, as Tschumi asserts, aim to “maintain contradiction in a dynamic manner,” to open up new possibilities for learning and being in the world.

I am reminded that reflection should function in this way by the image of BLUE depicted in the banner of this webtext. BLUE was one of the first, new construction projects in post-9/11 New York City. In this project, Tschumi (n.d.) worked to accommodate the landscape, incorporating a design that "sloped [the] top of the building [to] integrate the zoning district's two sky exposure plane requirements," and to reclaim space by "recycl[ing] unused space on top of a neighboring commercial structure as an urban garden that provides communal space for residents and guests" (para 1-2). BLUE isn't only interesting, however, because of the ways it strives to instantiate certain theories—revealing its own contradictory impulse—but also because this image of BLUE, taken by Rory Hyde (2007), captures the building as both an object of contemplation (the image) and of reflection (Hyde himself as captured in the image through the reflection of the car windshield). Tschumi's BLUE and Hyde's image of it denote, for me, the interactions of theory, practice, action, movement, and reflection. These interactions are exactly the point of this piece. In this webtext, all the contributors wrangle with the following questions: How do graduate teachers and students come to make sense of their pedagogical experiences? And, how can we maintain productive tensions in our work rather than moving quickly to convenient resolutions or simplistic reductions? How do we come to understand past pedagogical experiences through our intellectual selves of today without assigning a fixed meaning to them?

Seeing Hyde's image of BLUE reminds me that reflection is always already contingent, partial, and mutable, and Tschumi's concept of movement provides a figuration that works toward contradiction, heterogeneity, complexity, and change.

Rather than calling for merely reflective practice, Tschumi (1976) posited a more radical position for architecture, one that resists its definition as a stable or monolithic study or discipline and instead argued that

pure space doesn't exist; pure event doesn't exist. In other words, architecture is always dynamic in its reading, in its perception, in terms of what it does. Eventually, I ended up by saying that what is important in architecture in not what it looks like but what it does. (p. 26)

Thus, while reflection may be a beginning concept for these works (and an important one, no doubt), contributors to the class turn their attention here to what spatial theory does and not just how we might understand it as a theory. In exploring what it does, they also identify contradictions, contestations, and, of course, complements in their praxes.


Our experiences in English 696e: Spatial and Visual Rhetorics culminated in a semester project that included large-scale installation projects and mini-workshops. This semester project was an event—titled svr2—that we hosted for our local community, particularly targeting an audience of first-year composition instructors who would be teaching visual and spatial analysis to undergraduate students as part of the University of Arizona's first-year composition curriculum. The praxes that emerged are articulated as movements that come from somewhere (with a history) but also are going somewhere (trajectories of pedagogical and scholarly exploration). Each piece offers insights into the ways the class challenged all of us as scholars and teachers (then and now). Rather than representing homogenous experiences or theories on spatial praxes, however, these works, representing all of the members of our class, can be explored relationally and as part of a trajectory toward understanding—without resolving—conflicts and contradictions within the individual works or the collective sum. Ideally, these works can be wandered through without an expectation that you will engage them all but rather with the goal of sharing a range of perspectives in the movement of theory to practice and back to theory again. This recursive force is integral to this project, and I hope it provides opportunities for connection to these works.

crump_verzosa crump_verzosa visualizing writing space: a reflection

adrienne crump &
elise verzosa

fodrey fodrey thrown into theory, or how i learned to love spatial rhetoric

crystal n. fodrey

Archer furtner archer from sound to crisis: strategic mapping in the classroom and workplace

anita furtner archer

haley_brown haley-brown risky writing in unsafe spaces

jennifer haley-brown

holmes holmes the essence of the path: a traveler's tale of finding place

ashley j. holmes

a visual-spatial approach to spontaneous composing in first-year composition

marissa m. juarez

martin martin thirdspacing the university: performing spatial and visual literacies

londie t. martin

vinson vinson spatial shock: place, space, and the politics of representation

jenna vinson

svr2_logo svr2 event

link to event

Martin, Louis. (1990). Transpositions: On the intellectual origins of Tschumi's architectural theory. Assemblage, 11, 22-35.

Tschumi, Bernard. (1976). Manhattan transcripts. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Tschumi, Bernard. (n.d.) Blue. Bernard Tschumi architects. Retrieved from

image credits
Hyde, Rory.1 (2007). Bernard Tschumi, 'Blue' condominiums, 2006. Flickr—photo sharing! Retrieved from

According to the Creative Commons license, Hyde does not endorse me or this webtext.


A special thanks to our UA Writing Program colleagues Drs. Anne-Marie Hall and Christopher Minnix for their support of svr2 event.

My thanks to my anonymous reviewers for their substantive feedback, to all the graduate students whose work in the spatial and visual rhetorics course is featured here, and to my co-editors Jennifer Haley-Brown and Ashley J. Holmes for their invaluable contribution to and support for this project.

All shortcomings, however, are solely the responsibility of the author of this overview.