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Things Get In: A Study of Anthropod Life at the Couvent Sainte-Marie de la Tourette

This dissertation comprises a situated study of arthropod life within Le Corbusier’s Couvent de Sainte-Marie de la Tourette outside the village of Eveaux, France (1953-1960). It aims to reframe existing notions of the building-landscape relation in the work of Le Corbusier in order to produce a non-anthropocentric reading of La Tourette that both contributes new knowledge to the field of Le Corbusian scholarship while challenging the architectural canon. It suggests a mode of research in which new, non-anthropocentric histories of the built environment might be produced. 


Using the framework of the interior as a physically porous but ideologically-bounded space that reinforces separation between human and nonhuman, this research focuses on arthropodal presence within the building to disturb the notion of the bounded interior. In doing so it produces a wider ethical and political sensibility – developed through the concepts of 'ecologising' (Latour, 1998) and 'enchantment' (Bennett, 2001) – that suggests buildings, and by extension human lives, are enmeshed within a wider ecology and not separable from it. 


The 'seam' (Tsing, 2020) is developed as a core methodological concept that provides a means of occupying space between the disciplines of the life sciences and the humanities to produce a mode of transdisciplinary practice that places emphasis on field work, direct observation, description and attentiveness to the relations between nonhuman organisms and the fixtures in their environment. 


Through the use of empirical field research, image-making and critically reflective site-writing methodology (Rendell, 2010), this dissertation produces a situated and critically engaged practice that is grounded between modes of natural history, architectural history and feminist ecocriticism. In particular, it highlights the ways in which direct observation of the nonhuman subject can be deployed within architectural history in ways that are empirical as well as directly engaged in practices of critical theory, poetics and aesthetics. 

For as long as there have been buildings and the concept of bounded interior space, there has been permeability and the unsolicited intrusion of nonhuman forces to contend with. Things have gotten in, always. And yet this fact remains an awkward and under acknowledged reality in our conception of the human imaginary.


The study of permeability within built space offers a means through which to critique a deeply seated bias or even ideology of the separation of human and nonhuman space and nature from culture. It unsettles much of the core rhetoric of indoor space as shelter, which is by necessity set into opposition with something 'out there.' To quote Jonathan Hill, 'The purpose of the home is to keep the inside inside and the outside outside.' [1]


The evidence of the permeability of a seemingly bounded built interior is vast. Their flows with the 'outside outside,' conceptualised at the level of atmosphere, [2] infrastructural services [3] or forms of life. [4] However it is less common that the broader ethico-onto-epistemological [5] implications of this material permeability have been explored. 


Following on from work in the schools of thought that might be called the posthuman or new materialist – or more broadly a diverse and transdisciplinary scholarship across anthropology, geography, science and technology studies and what is increasingly termed the environmental humanities – this study seeks to take seriously the idea of permeability within architecture. Specifically, if architecture is inherently permeable, then can it be conceived of not as a human domain but as an enmeshed space? To paraphrase the anthropologist Tim Ingold, how might architecture and the built environment fit into or constitute a 'state of perpetual unfolding or becoming,' in which all living enmeshed things 'simultaneously join together and differentiate themselves from one another.' [6]


Such thinking is of particular value when considering the existence of nonhuman life within the built environment, a site in which it has typically been treated as either a form of material property or a presence that is out of place or often explicitly unwanted. Some studies have applied this thinking to the scale of the city, such as the work of the animal geographer Jennifer Wolch and her term 'zoöpolis' as a means of highlighting the violence of historically anthropocentric urbanism to instead conceptualise cities as spaces that might become more welcoming for nonhuman species [7] and more recently Michael Gandy’s ‘Natura Urbana’. [8] Similarly the work of Theo van Dooren and the late Deborah Bird Rose on populations of little penguins and flying foxes living in Sydney that opens up the multi-species realities of urban space. [9]


Projects such as these are important as they dislodge the binaries that scholars such as Mel Y. Chen [10] and Elke Krasny [11] have observed enforce hierarchies of violence. They refute the dichotomies between nature and culture and establish cities, and buildings as complex material artefacts that are shared by both human and nonhuman alike. Such 'polycentric' [12] conceptions of architecture and built space ask ethical questions of what it means to live together with other beings and architecture’s entanglements with the nonhuman.


To date, while there have been wider theorisations of what multi-species spaces might constitute at a city level, there has been less research at the scale of the building. However the building, with its literal but fallible thresholds between interior and exterior – and by extension human and nonhuman – has the potential to be a rich site of investigation. Similarly, the use of situated, direct observation of nonhuman subjects in a fieldwork setting as demonstrated in the work of researchers such as van Dooren and Bird Rose remains under explored as a methodology within humanities research where the nonhuman is typically read as a cultural-historical object.


This study therefore seeks to explore these two gaps through a situated investigation of nonhuman life within the built interior. It aims to undermine some of the constitutive presuppositions of a discipline by disclosing 'an outside, a limit, the revelation of the extrinsic,' [13] in this case by showing that the outside has actually been inside all along. The nonhuman subjects of this study are arthropods (a phylum of invertebrate species that includes insects, arachnids, crustaceans and myriapods). Despite being a vast life group making up an estimated 84 per cent of all life on Earth, [14] arthropods remain understudied and marginalised within many disciplines, not least within architecture where they often appear either as pests [15] or as instruments to use as resources for technological [16] or metaphorical inspiration. [17]


On a practical level, arthropods are suitable for study of the built interior because their small size, environmental plasticity and varied means of dispersal make them adept at moving between and colonising spaces. They are small enough to enact permeability, while being large enough to detect and observe with the naked eye. From a cultural-historical perspective, arthropods, with their capacity for transgressing space and their genetic and anatomic distance to human life, [18] mean they are also heavily associated with discourse on spatial and social disturbance, [19] difference [20] and threatening the modern notion of the bounded subject. [21]


My site for this research is a single building: Le Corbusier’s Couvent Sainte-Marie de la Tourette, which I visited over two trips from 26/06/2023 to 30/06/2023 and 11/07/2023 to 16/07/2023. La Tourette is a Dominican monastery designed between 1953-1960 and located outside the village of Eveaux near Lyon, France. It is a UNESCO listed world heritage site and considered one of Le Corbusier’s greatest works. It is a canonical building within western modernism and it is therefore also built upon and bound up with many of the dominant narratives of western modern thought that this study seeks to trouble. Throughout my study I will frame my observations of arthropod life as a means of reading the building in a manner that emphasises multispecies entanglement and a counter reading to some of the dominant historical readings of the building that frame it largely phenomenologically and as a structure heroically apart from nature. 


A key framing for this study is an engagement with the distinct but interrelated concepts of ecologising and enchantment, developed by Bruno Latour and Jane Bennet respectively. [22] The term 'Ecologising' adapts a verb form developed by Bruno Latour that in its original formulation is set into contrast with the term 'modernise.' [23] Both terms imply a distinct view on human relations to the nonhuman, the latter implying a worldview stemming from a distinction between nature and culture while the former, as framed by the anthropologist Eduardo Kohn, 'grows from a recognition that we are part of a larger living whole that exceeds us.' [24]


The concept of enchantment, meanwhile, stems from Bennet’s 2001 book The Enchantment of Modern Life in which she posits how modes of enchantment [25] may be reestablished within a supposedly disenchanted and rationalised [26] modern world in order to translate into affective relationships that encourage 'ethical generosity' across a plurality of ecologies. [27][28] At its most fundamental level, it commits to the idea of framing and persuasion and sits within a wider practice of political ecology, which for Bennett constitutes 'the art of persuading people, at the levels of perception and sensibility as well as reason, that they are Earthlings.' Central to this is the power of language and 'the way you can change bodies with words.' [29]


Such scholarly work suggests how, in a wider global architectural context dominated by techno-scientific interventions to climate and ecological crises, there might be a key role for rhetoric and non-interventionists processes of ethico-political framing. It is such principles that this study seeks to engage with as an exploration of the ethical and philosophical implications drawn out by the reality of arthropodal presence.

Eliot_fig 1.png

Fig. 1: South elevation of Le Corbusier’s Couvent de Sainte-Marie de la Tourette outside the village of Eveaux, France (1953-1960). 

Eliot_fig 2.jpg

Fig. 2: Views from the windows of La Tourette, interrupted by various arthropod species.

[1] Jonathan Hill, Immaterial Architecture, (London: Routledge, 2006), 8–9.

[2] See: Daniel A. Barber, Modern Architecture and Climate: Design Before Air Conditioning (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020); Jonathan Hill, Weather Architecture (London: Routledge, 2013).

[3] See: Lydia Kallipoliti, The Architecture of Closed Worlds, Or, What Is the Power of Shit? (Baden: Lars Müller Publishers, 2018); David Bass, 'Towering Inferno: The Metaphoric Life of Building Services,' AA Files, no. 30 (1995): 26–34.

[4] See: David Gissen, Subnature: Architecture’s Other Environments (Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 2009); Paul Dobraszczyk, Animal Architecture: Beasts, Buildings and Us (London: Reaktion Books, 2023); Rob Dunn, Never Home Alone: From Microbes to Millipedes, Camel Crickets, and Honeybees, the Natural History of Where We Live (New York: Basic Books, 2018).

[5] A term set out by Karan Barad asserting that epistemology, ontology and ethics are inseparable, and by extension matters of fact, matters of concern, and matters of care are always entangled with one another. Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 94.

[6] Tim Ingold, Correspondences (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2020), 9.

[7] Jennifer Wolch, 'Zoöpolis,' in Historical Animal Geographies, ed. Sharon Wilcox and Stephanie Rutherford (London: Routledge, 2018).

[8] Matthew Gandy, Natura Urbana: Ecological Constellations in Urban Space (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2022).

[9] Thom van Dooren and Deborah Bird Rose, 'Storied-Places in a Multispecies City,' Humanimalia 3, no. 2 (12 February 2012): 1–27.

[10] Mel Y. Chen, Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012), 2–3.

[11] Elke Krasny, 'Architecture and Care,' in Critical Care: Architecture and Urbanism for a Broken Planet, ed. Angelika Fitz, Elke Krasny and Architekturzentrum Wien (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2019), 35. 

[12] Jane Bennet’s term to describe a conception of a public that might comprise 'plants, animals, landscapes, the sounds of birds and locomotive trains, and people.' Janell Watson, 'Eco-Sensibilities: An Interview with Jane Bennett,' Minnesota Review 81 (1 November 2013): 151.

[13] Iain Borden and Jane Rendell, 'From chamber to transformer: epistemological challenges in the methodology of theorised architectural history,'The Journal of Architecture, 5:2, (2000): 216; citing Fredric Jameson, 'Architecture and the Critique of Ideology,' in The Ideologies of Theory: Essays 1971–1986. Volume 2 Syntax of History (London: Routledge, 1988), 39.

[14] 'Arthropod | Definition, Examples, Characteristics, Classes, Groups, & Facts | Britannica,' 26 Jul, 2023, accessed Aug 31, 2023

[15] See: Ben Campkin 'Terrors by night: bedbug infestations in London,' in Urban Constellations ed. Matthew Gandy (Berlin: jovis Verlag, 2011), 139–144.

[16] Namely biomimicry and the tendency for its technological and aesthetic innovations, however well-intentioned, to further a utilitarian perspective on nature as something to be made useful.

[17] See: Juan Antonio Ramírez, The Beehive Metaphor: From Gaudí to Le Corbusier (London: Reaktion Books, 2000); or Gissen, Subnature, 168–179.

[18] Owain Jones, '(Un)Ethical Geographies of Human—Nonhuman Relations: Encounters, Collectives and Spaces,' in Animal Spaces, Beastly Places, ed. Chris Philo and Chris Wilbert (London: Routledge, 2000).

[19] Jussi Parikka, Insect Media: An Archaeology of Animals and Technology (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 121–144.

[20] Steven Shaviro, Doom Patrols: A Theoretical Fiction about Postmodernism (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1997).

[21] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (London: Athlone Press, 1988); cited in Jamie Lorimer, 'Nonhuman Charisma,' Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 25(5), (2007): 911–932.

[22] I use the term ecologising in the knowledge, and acknowledgement, that Latour has been criticised for a lack of critique of neoliberal capitalism and an interest in techno scientific fixes, following the insistence of some researchers, such as Eduardo Kohn, that it still provides value. Similarly I acknowledge that both ecologising and enchantment describe modes of thinking that are not the sole intellectual domain of either Latour or Bennett and have been formulated through continuous work within the fields of feminist ecocriticism, new materialism, and, as has been highlighted by many including T. J. Demos citing Kim TallBear, in the particular case of Bennett’s enchantment and new vitalism, have existed independently (and often with little recognition) within forms of non-western indigenous beliefs. T. J. Demos, Decolonizing Nature: Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2016), 24.

[23] Bruno Latour, 'To Modernize or to Ecologize? That’s the Question,' in Remaking Reality: Nature at the Millenium, ed. Bruce Braun and Noel Castree (London: Routledge, 1998), 221–42.

[24] Eduardo Kohn, 'Forest Forms and Ethical Life,' Environmental Humanities 14, no. 2 (1 July 2022): 403.

[25] Bennett’s framing of enchantment places more classical or romantic conceptions of being struck by wonder and awe alongside the 'minor experiences' of everyday joy in surprising encounters, being charmed by the novel and the uncanny sense of 'being disrupted or torn out of one’s default sensory-psychic intellectual disposition.' Jane Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 4–5.

[26] Bennett sets her enchantment in contrast to the 'entzauberung' (disenchantment) set out by the German sociologist Max Weber in his description of an inevitable modern condition of bureaucratic capitalism and 'an iron cage of rationalization.' Bennett, Enchantment, 65.

[27] Stine Krøijer and Cecile Rubow draw this thinking more explicitly into connection with the environmental crisis and ethics of care in their recent special issue of ‘Environmental Humanities’: Stine Krøijer and Cecilie Rubow, 'Introduction: Enchanted Ecologies and Ethics of Care,'Environmental Humanities 14, no. 2 (1 July 2022): 375–84.

[28] Janell Watson, 'Eco-Sensibilities,' 152–153.

[29] Ibid.

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