Edinburgh Research Explorer

Architecture in context: habits of seeing, knowing and working

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Architecture is a project and endeavour that takes place over time, is generally lengthy in duration, has a lifespan, yet is also “of time”—holding potential to be amended, added to, presenting an openness of the unfinished and potential that is essential to past, present, and future life of (the) building. Building, as both noun and verb, has permanence and visibility as the outcome and process of a defined project, yet also has a less visibly evidenced dimension in relation to the life of uses, occupations, and transformations. It is a project of continual work with that which already exists. Habits of “seeing” and “knowing” the existing in architecture are embedded in practices of working in architectural design, often most consciously by an architect or architectural designer as part of the design process.
The existing in architectural discourse and practice has habitually been framed as “context,” with boundaries and limits, within which the critical relations of a project are extracted, positioned, and articulated. The existing is underpinned by conceptual assumptions and definitions of site, and more recently, field and territory. These are consolidated by habits of practice and techniques of site work and field/work, which can directly inform subsequent actions of change—of alteration, intervention, transformation, and design. In an expanded, interdisciplinary field, the term “context” has lost a precision of meaning and common understanding in architecture. It is being re-examined in philosophy, particularly in relation to the pragmatist tradition of John Dewey. This essay revisits a philosophical idea of context and explores its potential to inform a productive method, a more precise understanding and use of context as an active device and tool in architectural design.
Following an etymological exploration and outlining of Dewey’s philosophical position on context, I develop a framework for approaching habits of seeing and knowing the existing in architecture. A selective overview of theories of practice which have a currency in critical architectural practice open up exploration of theories of habit. Understanding architecture to be “a moving project,” I then examine habits of practice of field/work and alteration. I conclude with a reflection on working with existing building in an architectural design project which was set up to intentionally critique the construction of existing “context” as an active constituent of the design process.


Alterations symposium, KTH Architecture School/ Moderna Museet


Stockholm, Sweden

Event: Conference

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