Vol. 08 Presence



Notre-Dame burning, April 15 2019. Photo by Godefroy Troude.

In 2019, an accidental blaze razed the roof and spire of Notre-Dame de Paris, igniting the already renowned edifice into a searing global spotlight. The charred remains have imparted an indelible spectre of nostalgia to many, including the rich and famous, some of whom have donated millions of dollars to rebuild the cathedral—or perhaps, the image. Following extensive media publicity and competitions for a radical reconstruction in July 2020, the verdict was announced: Notre-Dame would be restored as a close replication of its former self. This erasure and proposed reconstruction provokes important questions: What determines which histories and events we talk about and reify? Can an architectural response strengthen latent or destroyed presence? How is the power of presence shaping architecture and place-making today?

A similar blaze to that of 2019 is described in Victor Hugo’s prescient novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831), where a fire in the cathedral is depicted as “whirlwinds of sparks, a vast, disordered, and furious flame, a tongue of which was borne into the smoke by the wind.” This powerful, terrifying language conjures up vivid imagery, so that even without directly seeing the burning architecture, or feeling the heat as a physically present bystander, we can envision it and become virtually present. Beyond film and photography, interactive video games, such as Assassin’s Creed® Unity, position the 3D-modelled Notre-Dame—and architecture at large—as re-discoverable through a self-determinate, digital narrative. Once again, without being physically present at the cathedral, we can discover and experience it through a sophisticated virtual imitation. Exploring historian Andrew Tallan’s laser scans of the pre-fire edifice may even provide a closer replication than the anticipated physical reconstruction.

Tugged away from ‘normal’ patterns of working by Covid-19, many professions have faced a new reality of virtual operation, that is, working from home. Subsequent confrontations with the inadequacies and inequities of domestic space have spurred a critical rethinking of the stratified urban structures that contain both workplace culture and the domestic. How will our relationship to the built environment be permanently altered in a post-pandemic world? What is the relevance of architecture to an existence that is both in real space and online? Pandemic-induced virtuality is symptomatic of a larger gradual shift occurring in architectural practice, as the profession has already begun exploring flexible modes of operation as well as advanced technologies and systems, including VR and BIM, to improve worker engagement and output.

Presence is not always tied to monumental and built form. In architecture discourse there is a tendency to centre on physical building to the exclusion of layers of history that are embedded in the landscape.[1] Identifying the ‘cult of denial’ in Australian cities, Libby Porter proposes that we realise urban country as urban Country, tapping into the 60,000+ years of habitation by Indigenous Australians, and working against the “intensely productive” nature of settler-colonialism.[2] Such is not the case with the October 2020 felling of a Djab Wurrung ‘directions tree’ in Victoria, which was cut down to make way for the Western Highway upgrade, despite protests by the Djab Wurrung Protection Embassy. This infrastructural manoeuvre paints land, rock, water, sky not as ‘vital place’ – not as Country – but rather as resources and inert matter to be contested.[3] In doing so, the settler-colonial project is legitimised; architecture becomes a tool to justify the effacement of meaningful sites through its built occupation of space. Inflection Vol. 08 Presence thus prioritises the necessity of contributing to postcolonial discourse as it relates to place-making, landscape, and practice.

Interactive gaming in tandem with participatory design has the potential to facilitate communities wishing to revitalise shared space. The UN-Habitat affiliated project Block by Block has shared popular computer game Minecraft with thousands of people in over 30 countries around the world, to fund and activate public space as it is designed by its inhabitants. Block by Block aims to give residents tools, training and a platform to contribute their ideas, in a collaborative process that helps “all involved expand their view.”[4] Although there is extensive user agency, contributions are filtered through the epistemological (and market-oriented) framework that Mojang and Microsoft provide. This application of virtuality nevertheless holds the potential to facilitate a collective reinvigoration of civic space.

Material presence is embedded in traditional ecological knowledge repositories and has long been drawn on and developed by manifold region-invested practices. Anapuma Kundoo, for one, is renowned for numerous local-focused research projects and experimentations in Auroville, India. Kundoo combines vernacular and recycled material technologies, with passive design principles and effective water-waste management, as it relates to sustainable site planning, local community, and unskilled labour: a wholly integrated approach to materialisation. Through the adoption of low-tech or high-tech principles, how else might one materialise and consolidate presence?

On the 4th of August 2020, an explosion at the Port of Beirut devastated the Lebanese Capital, displacing more than 300,000 people and damaging over 70% of the city’s infrastructure.[5] At such tense moments of crisis and recovery, the explosion’s ruins resoundingly manifest the ongoing negligence of the Beirut government, thereby defending against social and global amnesia for the ongoing plight of Lebanon. In contrast to the glamorous relic of Notre-Dame, the remains of Beirut function as a communicative tool for a city in turmoil, illuminating the power of shattered architecture. Architecture often deals with the physicality of form and space, but following catastrophe it is the presence of what remains that is most powerful. 

The Call for Papers is now closed for Vol. 08 Presence.

[1] Jefa Greenaway, “Reflections on Indigenous Placemaking,” Architecture AU, published April 2015, https://architectureau.com/articles/reflections-on-indigenous-placemaking/.
[2] Libby Porter, “From an urban country to urban Country: confronting the cult of denial in Australian cities,” Australian Geographer 49, no.2 (2018): 244.
[3] Ibid.
[4] “About Block by Block,” Block by Block, accessed November 2020, https://www.blockbyblock.org/about.
[5] “Beirut Explosion,” Center for Disaster Philanthropy, published November 2020, https://disasterphilanthropy.org/disaster/beirut-explosion/.