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Fluttering butterflies, a dusty road, and a muddy stone: Criticality in distraction
KTH, School of Architecture and the Built Environment (ABE), Architecture, Critical Studies in Architecture.ORCID iD: 0000-0001-9733-6851
2007 (English)In: Critical Architecture / [ed] Jane Rendell, Jonathan Hill, Murray Fraser, Mark Dorrian, London: Routledge, 2007, 1, 135-142 p.Chapter in book (Other academic)
Abstract [en]

“Buildings are appropriated in a twofold manner: by use and by perceptions –or rather by touch and sight. Such appropriation cannot be understood in terms of the attentive concentration of a tourist before a famous building.”[1]


In this passage of “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” Walter Benjamin suggests that the experience of architecture points humanity to a very particular and acutely relevant mode of appropriation, ‘mastered’ by habit and by impressions caught in ‘an incidental fashion’. His observation, that architecture shies away from attentive contemplation, and demands to be perceived rather as a back-drop to life than as an object in life, points to an interesting dilemma facing the architectural critic: If the object under debate, architecture, offers itself as a mere background event, appropriated primarily by habitual use and occasionally by attentive visual perception, how are we to capture it? How could such an delicate phenomena be scrutinized if it cannot be held firmly before the eyes of the reader? It appears nearly impossible to represent and to critically engage with. Yet, as architectural critics, we are challenged and inspired to experiment with this condition. We construct in different ways temporary frames or lenses through which a critical point can be perceived. The phenomena of architecture often then comes into focus, for a moment, then fades away again.


My contribution to the ‘Critical Architecture’ volume is propositional: it performs a mode of writing in architecture which consciously address the dilemma of capturing an architecture, or other spatial phenomena, for the purposes of a critical engagement with the reader, while essentially remaining ‘out of focus’ (in the margin).


The essay takes place in Haga Park, Stockholm. This park constitutes one of the most interesting examples of 18th century landscape gardening in Stockholm. The sites have however been chosen on the basis of rather vague (unimportant) personal memories from my own ‘distracted’ uses of this park as a child and teenager. Memories of past use are thus called forth by writing, in an attempt to ‘defocus’ the scholarly gaze of the grown-up critic. It is approached as an actual and a remembered place. The park is written as a site of everyday experience, not in the eighteenth century, not for Stockholmers today, but for myself (here ‘the distracted critic’). What is the Haga Park that follows me around? - the remembered place that I store in my mind, a place which expands, evolves, even disappears in part, as her time and life goes on.


The author of the essay relates to the reader an account of a Haga Park that obliges the reader to follow her train of thought, which moves between remembered and present time, as well as reflecting on the particular mode in which it is being told and why. It addresses the notion of distracted experience and its critical and political function for Walter Benjamin. The text thus make a double-layered performance. The particular effect of distractedness here is the allowance it makes for the telling of parallel stories, and of making observations sometimes by association rather than argument or narrative.[2] There is thus ample space for the reader herself to assume a critical position in relation to the landscape that is written for her imagination. But the narrating voice also carefully guides the reader among these impressions and creates a critical space where some conclusions are drawn and arguments are put forward.


In what way might the resulting text convey a distracted mode of experience? By drawing on personal memories and experiences as a primary source, the author can only hope that the resulting account might bear a significant relation to potential readers who can recognize in it ways of experiencing and understanding particular places and landscapes. The choice of such an auto-biographical method is based on a recognition of the importance of a cultural specificity in any discussion of spatial experience.[3] While these kinds of sources in some sense are always unique, the process of writing them, giving in some sense a ‘faithful’ account, is of course wholly dependent on  mediation. As soon as a memory is evoked and retold, it is severed from any original ‘impression’, which is also the only way that it may ever become useful. The distracted nature of the essay is also present in the way that it makes use of both a particular place, Haga Park, and a particular person’s experiences, the authors, without having any ambition of giving any complete or truly exhaustive account of either. It employs them merely to point at and give materiality to certain phenomena and experiences, which in turn demands the evocation of a certain interest in both the specific park and the author. The reading act might then in itself provoke a certain uneasiness, another level of distraction, which has to be carefully balanced (and obviously also stops some readers from ever reading through).




1. Walter Benjamin “ The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in Illuminations, Schocken Books, 1968, p 240.


[2] If one might write in such a way that brings to the surface several phenomena at once, and at the same time the presence of a distracted subject amidst all this, a text that reflects the filmic effect Benjamin relates, could be a possible result. This is not undone. Even Benjamin had several examples among his contemporaries. Virginia Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness writing in novels such as The Waves, Mrs Dalloway, Jacob’s Room for example, appear to be aiming for a similar effect. At the same time her essay-writing allows for considerably less distraction.

[3] Other modes of working with such a specificity (experience grounded in a named, gendered etc, subject) may be through discussing characters from, film, literature etc, or documentary characters, based on interviews, and relating the accounts of other individuals thaw we know or come to know.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
London: Routledge, 2007, 1. 135-142 p.
, AHRA CRITIQUES: Critical Studies in Architectural Humanities, 1
Keyword [en]
Architecture Criticism, Place writing, Landscape parks, 18th century landcape gardening, Haga park (Stockholm)
National Category
Architectural Engineering
URN: urn:nbn:se:kth:diva-24118ISBN: 978-0-415-41538-5OAI: diva2:343531

QC 20110204

Available from: 2010-08-13 Created: 2010-08-13 Last updated: 2015-12-15Bibliographically approved

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