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Between the architectural subject and the digital subject


My desk, my bed. Author’s own photograph, 2020.

This dissertation looks at the spatial and psychosocial consequences of lockdown during the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic. I approach lockdown as both a spatial and psychosocial phenomena, examining the ways in which individuals have replicated routine and ritualistic practices of everyday life within the home. My research critically examines how lockdown has impacted our use of digital communication technologies, particularly the ways in which we have replicated our routine spatial and social practices on the screen. Building upon critical studies of the everyday and urban ritual, I argue that our virtual environment has become an extension of our lived space. I engage ideas of phenomenology and existentialism to produce an ontology of the everyday between the virtual and the physical self. Oral histories, in the form of interviews with members of the 2019-2020 MA Architectural History cohort at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, and personal autoethnography, provides the qualitative data of this critical study.


This dissertation is divided into four chapters; the first chapter introduces my research methodology and narrative style, making the case for personal memoir and autoethnography as both a process and product of historical investigation. I propose a new historiography of experience and time based on qualitative oral research. This takes a deconstructive approach towards traditional historiography, challenging the material conditions and subject positions that underline intellectual production, and reevaluating what constitutes both material and immaterial ‘evidence’. The autoethnographic narrative - a process and product borrowed from the social sciences - helps to identify the site of study, i.e. the participants’ home, which is theoretically consistent but physically distinct. Furthermore, this chapter establishes the academic and theoretical contexts of this research methodology. Referring to the literature of academics such as Ann Cvetkovich, specifically her definition of memoir as the place ‘where feeling and lived experience collide with academic training and critique’, this methodology accommodates the uncertainty of social and individual behaviours, relationships and actions.[1] Consequently, the ideas, emotions and opinions discussed in my interviews determine the theoretical framework of the paper; the following chapters situate these narratives within their academic and critical contexts.


The second chapter defines Covid-19 as an architectural and spatial event, looking specifically at the relationship between the individual and the lived space, making the case for daily routine as a spatiotemporal anchor. Looking closely at the effects of Covid-19 isolation policies on individuals’ relationship to and experience of their home when confined within it, this chapter calls upon the Lefebvrian notion of the ‘sacred everyday' and the signification of ritualistic behaviours.[2] I consider ritual as a kinetic process that mediates how individuals conceive of and relate to their immediate surroundings, specifically the home. This chapter also considers the affects of digital dependency on spatial configurations. Participants recount constructing make-shift desks and reconfiguring rooms to centre their screen, rearranging the layout of the home in accordance with wifi signal. Participants emphasise the importance of ritual and physical routine when daily activity is centred around the screen, to compensate for the absence of temporal queues within cyberspace.      


The third chapter considers Covid-19 as a catalyst for an increased dependancy on digital modes of communication, exploring and critiquing the idea that virtual space can be inhabited, towards an application of critical theories of spatial phenomenology to the virtual, i.e. cyberspace. I will consider in depth how participants have constructed distinct digital spaces for different activities, such as different logins and internet browsers, even separate screens, in an attempt to compartmentalise different virtual responsibilities and obligations. What could be considered a ritualistic separation of home and work space is replicated digitally, different platforms are designated as spaces of social or professional interaction. Furthermore, I look at geographer David Harvey’s concept of time–space compression, and the impact of digital technologies on spatiotemporal ontologies and social connections, considering the influence of Walter Benjamin and his theory of ‘expanding space’ through mechanical reproduction.[3]      


The final chapter considers how digital identities are formed and operate within cyberspace. Notions of identity, ritual, the everyday and digital subjectification are considered within a theoretical and academic framework, towards the production of an ontology of the everyday under lockdown, at the brink of the post-human epoch. Here I look at how digital space is produced by user experience, critically examining the concept of agency within cyberspace. I engage with theories from the social sciences, specifically the Thomas Theorem, which argues for the objective consequences of individual subjectivity. Examining how communities form on digital platforms, I call on Sherry Turkle’s definition of technology as ‘the architect of our intimacies’ to explore in depth how social ties and practices are replicated digitally. I consider feelings of subjectification and abjection within a digital performativity; the term abjection here relates to the alienation ensured by digital subjectification, considering how the relationship between the (subjective) I and the (objective) self is complicated within cyberspace. I also examine the concept of the data double, applying a Lefebvrian and Marxist critique to what Shoshana Zuboff calls ‘surveillance capitalism’.[4] In this final chapter I demonstrate how the psychosocial alienation perpetuated by digital software contradicts the notion of the virtual as a democratic platform of resistance.


This dissertation aims to contribute to the critical and academic study of how individual and collective ritualistic and routine behaviours are appropriated and adapted within virtual space. Furthermore, I engage philosophies of architectural phenomenology and existentialism, with Lefebvrian ideas of the city and of ritual, towards an understanding of virtual space as an extension of our physical, lived space.

[1] Ann Cvetkovich, Depression: A Public Feeling (Durham, NC; London: Duke University Press, 2012), 80.

[2] Henri Lefebvre and Christine Levich, ‘The Everyday and Everydayness’, Yale French Studies Vol. 73 (1987), 9.

[3] Walter Benjamin, ‘The work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Selected Writings. Vol. 3, 1935-1938. (ed.) Michael William Jennings and Howard Eiland, (Cambridge: Mass., London: Belknap, 2006), 117.

[4] Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism the Fight for the Future at the New Frontier of Power, (London Profile Books, 2019), 225.

Copyright of image: © Josephine Waugh

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