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Editorial: set on edge

We draw lines to make sense of messiness, to define and enclose, but life happens in the margins – in the slippery periphery that is continuously constructed but nevertheless remains elusive and underexplored

‘Drawing is taking a dot on a walk’, said Paul Klee. A dot on a walk becomes a line and with lines we fix edges, we enclose spaces, and we propose limits. While the perimeter is a single path, the periphery starts to suggest thickness, vastness, endlessness even – think of those fields of suburban sprawl shot by William A Garnett. Yet the periphery is much more than aerial views of gridded landscapes and doughnut-shaped diagrams. There is something perversely wrong with the scale at which we attempt to draw and understand it, as if it could be encompassed as a whole.

The periphery is, by its very nature, impossible to grasp. It is ‘a boundary, whether hard or soft, determinate or vague, that separates an object from its environment’, Elizabeth Grosz tells us. Defined mainly by what it sits in relation to, the periphery lies somewhere between a formal centre and an in-between. But where exactly does it start, where does it stop, and where does it start again? What happens in the in-between? And, most importantly, what is it like ‘inside’ the periphery, within the thickness of the line? 

‘Architects draw lines to make sense of messiness, delineate inside and out, but life happens in the margins’

In this issue, we leave behind schematic abstraction, lurid colour-coded patches and razor-sharp strokes cutting across maps. Peripheries as we understand them are about soft edges that blur and evolve over time. Crucially, they need to be experienced on the ground rather than from the air to be dissected, examined, deciphered. The power of Ian Nairn’s Outrage and Gordon Cullen’s charcoal drawings illustrating historic AR campaigns reside in the 1:1 experience. The subjects are towering lampposts and uneven floor textures, rather than their representation as dots and hatches on a piece of paper. Turning the gaze towards physical thresholds rather than arbitrary divides on a plan evocatively captures transitions and human movements.

As we argued in February that buildings shouldn’t be subject to strict, binary success/failure judgements, this month we challenge the arbitrariness of lines and look closer at the dormant lands, uninspiring suburbs and wasted fields that have come to represent much of today’s devalued and neglected peripheries. Taking lines and ideas on a walk, we find ourselves unbuilding what we think we know and trying to touch the invisible edges of a formless condition. This issue’s visual keynote is a collage of words, photographs and references that attempts to capture the ambiguity of the periphery, in all its richness and complexity. Lines disintegrate. The association and juxtaposition of images becomes the source of new meaning.

Architects draw lines to make sense of messiness, delineate inside and out, define the boundaries of a site, but life happens in the margins, in the voids that are in waiting. Exploring the ‘spots, bits, you know over there near the whatsit’, Jonathan Meades reminds us (in case we had forgotten) that ‘architects yearn for tidiness, order, even perfection’. As if the voids had to become something, something else, something we can label, understand and control. As if they were otherwise condemned to worthlessness, because the undefined and the unfinished had no value. 

From his studio window, Man Ray observed a desolate patch of wasteland near Gare de Montparnasse, portrayed in the Terrain vague series, which mirrored his personal disquiet. One of the final photographs is a crop of the image depicted on the cover, where he drew the outline of the intended composition with a soft-lead pencil. By showing what lies beyond the line, we remove the frame and propose new, more expansive ways of seeing.

This piece is featured in the AR May 2019 issue on Periphery – click here to purchase your copy today