Rob Shields: On Urban, Virtual and the Household

Rob Shields is Professor and Henry Marshall Tory Endowed Research Chair at University of Alberta, Canada. In June 2022, he joined us in Eichstätt as a Mercator fellow. During this time, he shared his current research on Practical Aesthesis. Our fellow Shruti Malik also had the opportunity to record a podcast episode with Robert Shields. In the episode, Shruti and Rob touch upon understanding the difference in perspective on epistemology of space between the fields of architecture and sociology. They go on to discuss the course of research that inspired the books written by him, especially the concept and his book The Virtual (2002). The discussion opens up the gaps between practice, education, and the digital virtualities that the urban is engaging with and is produced by. Towards the end, they also discuss concepts of sustainability, indigenous knowledge formats, and the role of the household as an actor in practicing the two. You can find the episode here.

This brief look into Shruti and Rob’s conversation focuses on the different outlook on place and spatiality from the perspectives of architecture and sociology. At the beginning of the conversation, Shruti asks Rob Shields about being both a founder and co-editor of Space and Culture and Curb Planning, a magazine addressed to planning practitioners in Canada, which ran until 2017. This is where this look into their conversation picks up. 

Shruti Malik: The intersection [of architecture and sociology] fascinates me a lot. I’m also an architect that is transitioning into sociology. How has that transition been for you? […] What is the difference in the approach when we are […] practicing architecture or planning, when we look at space from that perspective as opposed to when we look at place or concept of space or spatiality from the [perspective of] a sociologist? 

Rob Shields: My education was in architecture and I worked in design and in passive solar architecture. Early in my career in the 1980s,  I got increasingly interested in users. It’s kind of an imagined figure often used in urban professions. And I was interested in the diversity of users and the impacts of buildings on both neighbors and eventually residents or clients, but also in the human process of constructing buildings, this ethnographic aspect of the labor itself.

Emancipating space

[…] There are many different attitudes towards thinking about space […]. [There is the] tendency in the design disciplines is to imagine that there’s only one perspective that matters and that is their own […]; to discount, in varying ways, those who are bringing other perspectives on space, usually expressed as demands or concerns or a focus on a particular feature, and the way that that feature is a talisman or a token which speaks to a specific orientation to the production of the space that will be practiced, the way the space is being represented, the way it’s being talked about or modeled, and the way that the space forms a framework for future activities. […] We just curse the unresolvable conundrums that we face. I think particularly of debates over urban change, the way developers tough it out to get something built and try to reconcile the different demands without clearly seeing that these different spatializations, these different approaches to space are in play. 

Shruti Malik: I was recently listening to your lecture that you in Lebanon on streets and what you were talking about resonated with me when you talked about how architects and designers look at streets […] through the concept of emancipation – that they have to emancipate people from a certain organization, a certain structure and give them a certain sort of freedom. Do you think that comes in between these interstitial spaces that we end up overlooking and over-focusing on developers and the unresolvable issues? Or is the emancipation itself an unresolvable possibility?

Rob Shields: To work on emancipation suggested that there is again a tendency to imagine emancipation is something that is provided to other people. The paradox is that emancipation is something that has to happen every day, and so it’s really the allowing of unpredictable action by others that is at the core of emancipation. It’s a kind of emancipation to do something, rather than emancipation from some structure. […] Emancipation to act, to be creative, to be a full member of the public, of the city often takes different forms and involves creating a space of possibilities or opportunities […]  That’s when we see great design is that it is actually open to the and responsive to many different potential users, to take up and identify with and express themselves in.

Shruti Malik: This seems to be the perspective of the designers. As a sociologist, then, how do you think the way we look at space, spatializations and the articulations of spatializations […] forms from an architect’s perspective to a sociologist’s perspective?

Rob Shields: Social sciences tend to make explicit and even formalistic sets of assumptions about users, which are in the backs of our minds when we sketch a building […]. Those are assumptions of a certain kind of person with a certain ability to move, a certain set of previous experiences. […] We assume certain privileges. […] 

Transforming urban spaces

[…] Sociology, as a discipline, has been plagued by the search for averages and median cases. It searches for who is the most prominent or common users. Who’s got the most power in the sense of patronizing a kind of facility. […] So the tendency that also lies in social science is to really make explicit the diversity of users, the diversity of their differences. To see a space of differences. But at the same time, social sciences aren’t very good at seeing a space that’s actually deployed in very different ways. […] There are other interdisciplinary approaches that I think are very important to try to bring together or try to stake out a position between the traditional disciplines of modernity, really established in the 19th century, and that still you dominate […].

So, [an example is] the ability to see skateboarding as a legitimate and a creative use of urban space and also an exciting mobilization of that space and mobility through the space; something that’s creative, something that is really worthy of attention […] It is a more ethnographic and interdisciplinary set of questions which are looking for those spaces with new opportunities; spaces which are open sets in terms of their possible uses.