Delirious actions: gender tactics in public space

The topic of this paper has been triggered by Teresa Stoppani’s article Delirium and Historical project [1] and Jane Rendell’s essay Critical Spatial Practices [2]. In her article, T. Stoppani intends to redefine “delirium” in architecture by engaging it with Tafuri’s “historical project”, identifying a sort of filiation from Tafuri’s legacy in the work of a group of (women) architectural theorists, whom she refers to as “mulieres delirantes”. Jane Rendell in her essay traces a map of the recent evolution of architecture’s engagement with gender difference, identifying five thematics (collectivity, alterity, interiority, performativity, materiality) which she considers as a particularly feminist approach to what she defines critical spatial practice.

Taking a cue from these two essays, I intend, firstly, to give expanded definitions of the terms “delirium”, (spatial) “practice”, “gender” and “tactics”, and, secondly, to focus on the modes, methods and concerns of a gender-based approach to space and its way to incite (political and social) actions by analyzing the works of two “feminine” practices (muf from London and atelier d’architecture autogérée).

“What do I mean by practice? As defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, practice is ‘the actual application or use of an idea, belief, or method, as opposed to the theory or principles of it; activity or action considered as being the realization of or in contrast to theory’.” [3] But the relationship between theory and practice is indeed more complex. Deleuze states that “Practice is a set of relays from one theoretical point to another, and theory is a relay from one practice to another.” [4] “A theory is exactly like a box of tools. It has nothing to do with signifier. It must be useful. It must function. And not for itself. If no one uses it […] then the theory is worthless or the moment inappropriate.” [5] Jane Rendell, referring to Deleuze’s words, says that many feminist architectural practices consider the only useful and productive aspects of theory. I detect in their way of dismissing the “traditional” role of the architect as the sole and undisputed producer / demiurge – pursued by working as curators, advisers, space activators, involving others producers – a sort of delirious drift towards an expanded dimension of architecture that blurs disciplinary boundaries pointing to the social (self-) production of space, which can mediate the relationship between cities and buildings.

Beyond its etymological sense of transgression from linearity and its Freudian meaning, as intentional censorship and erasure, delirium seems to me a possible key concept to comprehend the new relationship between theory and practice, thought and action, retaining a certain utopian impulse in both of them. The delirium which I refer to is a way of thinking that blurs the boundaries of identity and of architecture as a discipline in order to come back to architecture after travelling through ideas and concepts generated elsewhere and emerged out of other disciplines. This modus operandi has been shared for decades by a wide group of (women) architectural theorists and practitioners, above all with respect to their way of going beyond the contingency of professional practice (that may or may not lead to the construction of physical environmental artefacts) and their way of considering writing and designing as specific forms of thought. In Philosophy through the Looking Glass, Lecercle says that “Délire […] is at the frontier between two languages, the embodiment of contradiction between them. Abstract language is systematic; […] it is an instrument of control, mastered by a regulating subject. Material language, on the other hand, is unsystematic, a series of noises […] and therefore self-contradictory.” [6] Recovering Lecercle’s notion of délire, Jennifer Bloomer affirms that “Délire is the name and the condition of the overlay. It is the ‘shady side’ […]. Délire is related to delirium etymologically but is not synonymous. Lecercle explains that délire relates only to a particular form of delirium, ‘the kind of reflexive delirium in which the patient expounds his system, attempts to go beyond the limits of his madness to introduce method into it, […] in which also he hesitated between science […] and the wildest fiction” […] Lecercle continues: ‘Mere delirium is poor and repetitive: this other type,…délire, is rich and imaginative’.” [7]

In my opinion, thinking deliriously can mediate (even though not conciliate) the discrepancy between the specificity/partiality of the project and the incompleteness of the city, that is to say the social consciousness of its necessary and continual process of re-structuring.

Lefebvre [8] makes a distinction between representations of space - “which are tied to relations of production and to the ‘order’ which those relations impose,” [9] being a “conceptualized space, the space of scientists, planners, urbanists, technocratic subdividers and social engineers” [10] – and space of representation- which is a space “directly lived through its associated images and symbols, and hence the space of ‘inhabitants’ and ‘users’.” [11] This space, if passively experienced, can accommodate dangerous situations, in which historicity, as a result of the capitalistic process of production, maintains its self-sufficiency, transforming the roles of things, shifting them from use to symbol, from action to memory, form production to contemplation and, finally, to the fetishization of space in the service of institutions, state, power.

De Certeau makes a distinction between strategies and tactics; he thinks that “technocratic (and spiritual) strategies […] seek to create places in conformity with abstract models. […] strategies are able to produce, tabulate, and impose […] spaces […], whereas tactics can only use, manipulate, and divert these spaces.” [12]

Tactics “do not obey the law of the place, for they are not defined or identified by it.” [13]

Tactics are not localizable. They focus on the ways of using a place, while strategies deal better with what is used. Tactics are thus expression of an intellectual creativity and a high degree of plurality.

Gender spatial practices are tactics which encourage inhabitants’, users’ and other producers’ actions (self-management, participation, collaboration, association). They propose exchange-based relationships and involvements in order to explore the potential of the public realm of the city. Liza Fior of muf says that “buildings have edges that extend beyond their property line, that they are networks of relationships. […] We are not anti-building. It is just that we always like to look beyond the building as a single, autonomous object,” [14] exploring its social and public dimension. “Public spaces should serve more than one purpose. We have to make more undetermined spaces.” [15]

The fact that some issues (such as, for example, that of the inclusive relationship between public and domestic spaces and the importance of the tactile aspects of space, or that of interdisciplinarity and the link to participatory engagement) are no longer visible as gender approaches cannot overshadow their genealogies. There will always be a gender dimension of architectural design, but now things are run in a more subtle, implicit and indirect way.

The feminine and the feminist notion can be considered together, but feminine can also be separated from feminist. An independent view of reality from a gender-based and delirious perspective is still imperative in order to distance from an addiction to reality and to develop new views on other urgent social and political issues (for example, the individual experience of oppression, the situation of disabled people, the condition of immigrants, refugees, erased memories and identities in urban areas).


Foot notes

[1] Teresa Stoppani, “Delirium and Historical project,” Thesis, Wissenschaftliche Zeitschrift der Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, Heft 4 (2003): 22-29

[2] Jane Rendell, “Critical Spatial Practices: Setting Out a Feminist Approach to some Modes and what Matters in Architecture,” in Feminist Practices: interdisciplinary approaches to women in Architecture, ed. Lori A. Brown (Surrey and Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2011), 17-57

[3] Lori A. Brown, “Introduction,” in Feminist Practices, op. cit., 5

[4] Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, “Intellectuals and power: a conversation between Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze,” in Language, Counter-memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, eds Michel Foucault and Donald F. Bouchard (New York: Ithaca, 1977), 206

[5] Ibid., 208

[6] Jean-Jacques Lecercle, Philosophy through the Looking Glass: Language, nonsense, desire (London: Hutchinson, 1985), 44-45

[7] Jennifer Bloomer, Architecture and the text: the (s)crypts of Joyce and Piranesi (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 120

[8] see: Henri Lefebvre, The Production of space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), 33

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 38

[11] Ibid., 39

[12] Michel De Certeau, The practice of everyday life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 29-30

[13] Ibid., 29

[14] Florian Heilmeyer, “muf architecture/art”, Interview,

[Accessed 19 February 2014]

[15] Ibid.

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