We are currently experiencing what has been named the revolution of knowledge. With increasing availability of fast data networks, access to knowledge is no longer bound to spatial or temporal constraints. The world’s entire knowledge can be readily accessed on a handheld device, regardless of geographical location and time of day. As a corollary, the architectural space that has traditionally been dedicated to making knowledge available to the public, the library,1 has been declared to be in urgent need of revision and ‘modernisation’, usually implying a decrease of book stocks and a diversification of the provision of services towards shared workspaces, education and child care programmes – a transformation dictated by the needs of the ubiquitous economy. Such was also our brief, when we’ve been commissioned alongside CarverHaggard architects to redesign a community library in North London.
The dictate of an aesthetic of economy is particularly remarkable, since the revolution of knowledge has been accompanied by an economic phenomenon that has dominated public discourse like no other: austerity. The inaugural event of the politics of austerity – the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 – broadly coincided with the roll out of 3G networks across the industrialised world. Perhaps this has simply been a coincidental ruse of history? Yet, I would like to look a little closer at what I’d like to call a nexus between knowledge and austerity.
Traditionally, ‘austerity’ referred to a lifestyle chosen by religious or spiritual orders, eschewing comfort, wealth and luxury, in favour of simplicity and purity of purpose.2 This suggests that knowledge acquired under conditions of austerity, say reading a book in a solitary monastery, is somehow different to knowledge acquired watching a docu-drama while sipping a glass of red wine. How is this possible?
A first clue can be found in Michel de Certeau, who, writing in the 1970s, notes a shift in the paradigm of knowledge: where historically philosophy assumed that the truth of the real is somehow invisible, concealed behind appearance, our contemporary knowledge of the real is constituted by the overtly visible and narrated facts.3 Foucault concurs: both spiritualism and antique philosophy, he writes, claim that the truth can not simply be given to the subject in a simple act of knowledge. Instead, for the subject to have right of access to the truth, he or she must first undergo a training, a practice, and to some extent become other than him/herself.4
The notions of training and practice are the original meaning of the Greek term askēsis, which only later, with the raise of Christianism came to assume the meaning of self-renunciation it signifies in our culture. On the contrary, in Hellenistic and Roman thought askēsis designates a modality of learning that complements mathēsis – theoretical knowledge – on a practical level. Arguably, ascetic learning is a practice similar to a musician practicing a certain piece, mindfully piecing together his or her theoretical knowledge of the score and the practical knowledge that emerges as a result of endless repetition of the same passage. We can see how reading newsreels, browsing internet trivia or watching television lacks the aspect of a practice.
According to de Certeau, however, the practical aspect of learning is essential. Only through an interplay between practical and theoretical knowledge, askēsis and mathēsis, he writes, “an art of thinking”, emerges. “A formal harmony of the mental faculties of judgment” that can be located neither alone in scientific discourse, nor in a particular technique or practice.5 Instead, this ‘art’ is based on an interaction of theoretical knowledge with a memory emerging from the practice of learning.
But de Certeau continues: “[The attainments of this memory] are indissociable from the time of their acquisition, and bear the marks of its particularities.”6 In other words the practices of reading, thinking, learning, despite being non-corporeal, do not take place in a social vacuum. They are affected by the memory of the social relations inherent in the architectural space they occur in.
This is where the design of a library – under the financial and temporal constraints of austerity – presents us with a paradox. We have been tempted to accept the hegemonic discourse that austerity is detrimental to our lives, and despite limited budget and timescale attempt to overcome it and succumb to the ubiquitous aesthetic of economy. We tart up the space and conceal the lack of funds under fashionable surfaces. That way we create a social reality, in which the practice of learning is necessarily oriented towards the economic benefit of the individual. Knowledge acquired in this way will inevitably be tainted by an urgent sense of learning simply being prior and inferior to employment and the unfolding of individual economic freedom – further reinforced by the debt incurred during student years.
Instead we opted to create a space that highlights and upcycles the architectural elements we cannot afford to change. Ceiling tiles remain unchanged, oak shelf tops are cut up to provide wall paneling. Yet, something emerges – an aesthetic that deliberately distances itself from the apparatus of consumption and employability. Perhaps somewhat reminiscent of the rather austere interiors of 1970s municipal institutions, an unoccupied social space is created, leaving room for the art of thinking to be developed again, for the texts to be freely inhabited and interpreted by the reader. An environment, which focuses again on askēsis, the practice of learning that has over centuries been an indispensable component in the quest for truth.
objectif is a collaborative design practice based in London, founded by Axel Feldmann and Luisa Hay in 2004. We work at the conjunction of editorial design and its transposition into the architectural realm, specialising in the fields of exhibition design, visitor experience and narrative environments as well as classic book design. Our clients are from a variety of disciplines, with a focus on cultural players, education, architecture and fine art.
We develop graphic and environmental design concepts that are the result of a critical assessment of the content, with the aim of emancipating small-scale businesses, artistic practices and the wider public in the light of an increasingly instrumentalised and commodified cultural and public realm.
Axel has given numerous workshops both in the UK and in his native Germany.
objectif is part of the Greater London Authority’s Design Framework, and a member of its Specialist Advice Team in relation to graphic design within the public realm.
(BA Graphic Design, Germany;
MA Philosophy and Contemporary Critical Theory, London)
(MA Translation Studies, London)
(BA Visual Communication, Italy;
MA Design, Amsterdam)
The Design Museum
Science Museum London
United States / Middle East Project
British Council, Literature
London Borough of Barnet
Verlag Silke Schreiber
Bartlett School of Architecture
Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen IfA
London Borough of Bromley
London Borough of Lewisham
London Borough of Waltham Forest
Greater London Authority
London Borough of Havering
London Borough of Enfield
Hampton Court Palace
London Borough of Redbridge
Design for London
Technische Universität Berlin
British Council, Architecture Design Fashion
London Borough of Tower Hamlets
London Development Agency
Villa Romana, Florence
The Women’s Library
London Metropolitan University
Swale Borough Council
J & L Gibbons
Verlag für moderne Kunst Nürnberg
London Borough of Hackney
Tower of London
West Ham and Plaistow NDC
Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst
The Architecture Foundation
Apollonia – échanges artistiques européens
AOC, Architecture, London
CarverHaggard, Architecture, London
muf architecture/art, London
Veronika De Haas, Büro Otto Sauhaus, Berlin
Oliver Klimpel, Büro International, London and Berlin
Wolfram Wiedner, London
We Made That, Architecture, London
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