This Must Be The Place
May 10, 2018
Dash Marshall: Matter Battle, 45 Lessons Learned
1177 words

An introduction to a book by New York-based architects Dash Marshall that addresses the perennial problem of "user experience" in architecture.

This Must Be The Place

Je suis l’espace où je suis.
(I am the space where I am.)
– Noël Arnaud1

In 1956, a British art critic named Lawrence Alloway penned an essay titled “Design as a Human Activity” about an exhibition by the London-based Independent Group. Titled This is Tomorrow, the show presented environments that explored how art and architecture could critically engage with consumer society. That the humans referenced in the essay were the designers, and not the people whom their designs were intended to serve, went unquestioned, despite the show’s radical stance. The piece focused, instead, on the antagonistic cooperation and diversity of the group itself—an alliance of young architects, artists, and writers who rallied against modernism’s inflexible standards.

Although the Independent Group was a harbinger for the fomenting sensibility of sixties, which embraced the merits of the ordinary and the everyday, their approach still evinced strains of modernism’s tyrannical rule, which had forsaken the user altogether. It is not a coincidence that many treatises of modern architecture required the invention of a generic, standardized subject that could survive in its constructs, which were designed with the needs of industry in mind. Take, for instance, the calculated posthumanism of German architect Ernst Neufert’s Architect’s Data (1936). Or, consider Le Corbusier’s famous man of modulor: a model of gender-specific uniformity devised to represent all of humanity. As the annals of history have shown, modern architecture’s commitment to an aesthetic project, at the expense of multitudes who could not conform to its ill-fitting molds, was often the basis for its repeated failures.

Fast forward to the present and “human centered design” still seems to suffer from the ails of mathematical reductivism. Caught in the ever-expanding web of capital, our identities are now tethered to the fluctuations of the global market, valued for their labor and purchasing power. Likewise, despite its humanistic masquerade, the field of “user experience” can do little to hide its Taylorist roots. Move past the benignant veneer of human-to-computer interaction and you’ll find its troubling connections to a legacy of treating people as machines to fill factory quotas, or the capitalist exploits of peer-to-peer marketing strategies.

Like other young architects of their generation, Dash Marshall has inherited a grand task. To address the profession’s responsibility to its users is to face the perennial absence of the problematic of “human centered design” altogether. How can we learn from a discipline’s professional history of negligence, and begin anew? If “meaning is use,” as Ludwig Wittgenstein suggested, Dash Marshall’s work embraces this contact zone between space and people by acknowledging that architectural actions can serve to suppress, engineer or support a range of subjectivities. For human experience is more electric than numeric, more inveterate than prefabricated. It is delicately irregular and lyrically imprecise. It fluctuates. It undergoes transformations. It resists flattening.

Dash Marshall’s response to this macroscopic problem operates strategically at the scale of minutiae: the gesture, the detail, and the anecdote. They approach storeys, the interval in a building between a floor and the roof, as the medium through which stories are told. Understanding the habits and affects of people forms the basis from which their architecture—a set for everyday life—can unfold, akin to their civic projects which seek to improve the collective experience of cities. Like the ebbs and flows of existence, the storylines of one, some, or many actors drift and converge. Woven together, the task of the architect becomes a question of how to best organize and sequence this montage of contrasting perspectives, moods, and sensibilities.

A small studio apartment for a sole inhabitant might require one comprehensive system for eating, storing clothes, and working. A house that can respond to the non-electrical demands of a family’s religious practices will be designed according to another rule set. A family of five may request moments of privacy and connection, continuity, and reprieve. The needs of a collector, who desires to cache one’s possessions, will differ still.

From habit and habituation, habitat is formed. In each vignette, the narrative plots of individual actors translate to the arrangement of materials and their wellspring of effects. For Dash Marshall, plotlines are not only programmatic; they involve understanding the parts of wholes and how they intersect. Elements like walls, doors, windows, and cabinets are approached as details that facilitate or subdue action. Familiar but specific, they are designed to accommodate both repetitive and idiosyncratic patterns of use. A wall, when folded, may enable two siblings to partake in common activities, together but apart. A flexible panel may allow one to peer into a kitchen, or respond to a craving for solace. Stacked millwork cabinets that delineate space for a bed might be repurposed for another use according to future needs. This is similar to how William Forsythe described the use of “choreographic objects” in his dance performances: rather than dictating rehearsed behaviors, design can facilitate a protagonist’s individual choices, while giving rise to new opportunities.

But architectural elements, like people, have their own stories, too. Indeed, Dash Marshall’s resurrection of a late nineteenth century door in a former warehouse, or their playful interplays of hallway molding in a prewar apartment become acute opportunities for conjuring the history of place itself—of other people, and their stories. Historical ornament and the detail perform not as quotational syntactics, in the postmodern sense; rather, they are indices to the locational specificity of who and what came before. The argument presented throughout their projects is that history matters; it is found in joists and hinges, doorknobs, and light fixtures; in proportion, sightlines, and symmetry; in lumber, alpine marble, and floating walls. This layering of stories through materials, seams, and construction techniques, brings into relation distinct technologies, memories, and ambitions, old and new. From occupants’ daily rituals to a site’s former life predating its urbanity, the time cycles of a building are writ like concurrent scores.

Intimate and particular. Responsible but not regulating. A rallying cry against the generic and anonymous. This is an architecture situated in the everyday that aspires to address the irregular pegs of inhabitation that elide the predetermined coin slots of market norms. Their design mindset is one of assembly, recognizing the power of how people come together. It is less about creating a homogenized encounter for a homogenous subject; rather, the task is to formulate an analog and ambient lexicon that can address the sympathies and conflicts that arise when we share common things.

Just as Michel de Certeau argued that spatial stories are what actuate the notion of place, our physical environments can give rise to new characters and events by organizing, proffering, and collectivizing human sensibilities. They may even allow certain transgressions to occur, as the Independent Group aspired to do. For this reason, an architecture that upholds its commitment to its users holds tremendous power: its narratives of the past and present are the framework from which to imagine the future scripts of tomorrow.


Dash Marshall