A Little Bit Awkward: bringing the background forward, by Antony Radford

In everyday experience, objects and environments tend to disappear into the background. We use tools, inhabit places and navigate to destinations without being greatly aware of what is around us. The title of this paper comes from the way an artist described a small wooden spoon he had made for a friend: it should work as a spoon, but it had to be ‘a little bit awkward’ to be noticed, and only through being noticed could it be properly enjoyed and appreciated. Many of the objects found in designer shops and in catalogues of classic design objects are similarly ‘a little bit awkward’. The aesthetic experience and pleasure in their use is closely connected to their moving from background to foreground.

The paper will explore this phenomenon in the human habitat generally (von Bonsdorf 1998), with examples of objects (handcrafts and manufactured designer products), interior and external spaces and landscapes that do move to the foreground because they are used or occupied in unusual ways, requiring care and attention. Some examples are eating with Arne Jacobsen’s cutlery, walking on a cobbled street, drying hands with a Dyson Airblade, crossing a stream on stepping stones, and visiting Venice. It connects the phenomena with the attraction of the ‘strange’ and the pleasure of inhabiting new places which cannot be taken for granted (Haapala 2005). It also touches on ambiguity and uncertainty in the interpretation of our objects and environments. The paper will also note the risk of reducing and eliminating such experiences and pleasures in striving for occupational and public health and safety, equal access and avoidance of risk, with an attendant risk of normalising and dulling experience.

The philosophical framework is taken from the concept of responsive cohesion in ethics, and the valuing in other fields of relationships that are neither fixed nor chaotic, but instead derive mutual benefit through recognition of their contexts. This theory is developed in the book ‘A Theory of General Ethics’ (Fox 2006). Some implications of the theory for architecture and urban design are explored in Radford 2009 and Radford 2010. The paper echoes Smith (2003) in suggesting that there are parallels between the characteristics of objects and environments that humans enjoy, and the characteristics of a well-operating culture in which individuals and sub-groups retain identity and visibility and yet enrich the whole.

Fox, W. (2006) A Theory of General Ethics: Human Relationships, Nature, and the Built Environment,
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Haapala, A. (2005) On the Aesthetics of the Everyday: Familiarity, Strangeness and the Meaning of
Place, pp. 40-50 in Light, A. and Smith, J.M. The Aesthetics of the Everyday. New York: Columbia University Press.
Radford, A.D. (2009). ‘Responsive Cohesion as the Foundational Value in Architecture’, The Journal
of Architecture, Vol. 14, No. 4, pp.511-532.
Radford, A. (2010) Urban Design, Ethics and Responsive Cohesion, Building Research & Information
38 (5): 379-389
Smith, P.F. (2003) The dynamics of delight: Architecture and aesthetics, London: Routledge
von Bonsdorf, P. (1998) The Human Habitat, Jyväskylä: Gummerus Kirjapaino Oy.

Antony Radford, The University of Adelaide, AU


Harvard Citation Guide: Radford, A. (2012) A Little Bit Awkward: bringing the background forward, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 06 May 2012, Available at: https://isparchitecture.wordpress.com. [Accessed: 01 June 2012].

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