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A Deleuze Theory of Urban Morphology: Brunei Water City

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posted on 2021-11-22, 01:28 authored by Leblanc, Rémy

The impetus for this thesis was the theoretical shortcomings uncovered in the field of urban morphology and its French branch, IPRAUS, when the researcher first attempted to account for the form of the architecture in the case study of Brunei’s water city.  In this thesis’ first part, this field of study is critiqued, and a series of gaps in its theoretical framework are found. This thesis contests the main assumption of the field that there is a relation between the social and the production of architecture. The questions this thesis aims to understand are: how and why do people build their space the way they do? How do we think about the social and ecological relations that create subjects and bodies? How do we think about how the society is organized and organizes subject? How do we theorise and explore how society produces architecture and subjects? How do we conceive how subjects produce architecture and societies? This leads to call for the establishment of a new philosophical base for urban morphology.  The thesis then argues that work in other disciplines points toward Deleuze’s philosophy as a means through which to understand the reasons for the production of space. This philosopher provides ways to engage with a site, to create new research methodologies and to analyse and report findings. However, study with Deleuze, in the field of architecture, is still very much in its infancy. As such, this thesis offers an experimental, original work that explores how we might think about Deleuze, how we might bring Deleuze from philosophy to architecture and how we might convey Deleuze’s philosophical thinking through an application in a particular site.  The two sets of critiques, of urban morphology and of Deleuze studies in architecture, establish the two goals of this research: one theoretical, the other practical. The first goal is to develop the means to provide a better account of architectural and urban form. More specifically, this thesis investigates how Deleuzian theory might be suitable for urban morphology studies. The second goal is to experiment with the proposed theory in the study of an actual site, the water city of Brunei Darussalam. The intention of the second goal is to explore the effectiveness of the first.  The second part of the thesis aims to ground the understanding of a series of elements of Deleuze’s philosophical system chosen for their relevance to study the production of architecture in relation to the social. The methodology of study follows Anne Sauvagnargue’s proposed process of understanding Deleuze’s philosophy. It is a step by step work that uncovers the fundamental elements of this philosophy in his early works. These are little known to the architecture field. These findings then ground the philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari which has created an ontology and concepts which may be applied to the analysis of concrete social formations and their production. In this ontology, put simply, the world is understood as composed of forces. This thesis put forth that these are social, cultural, political forces—what is term power and desire forces, and ecological forces—that relate to organic and non-organic, human and non-human forces.  A first major contribution to this thesis is Deleuze and Guattari’s proposal of the concept of assemblage as the fundamental element of analysis. Assemblages are composed of forces; they have a certain power—an intensity and an ability to do, and a sense that comes with this power—an ‘incorporeal transformation’. An incorporeal transformation is ‘attributed to bodies’. The second contribution is Deleuze’s philosophy of immanence and its related philosophy of time. These allow researchers to conceive how assemblages are composed, formed and dissolved, and how they function. Assemblages are not fixed in time; as forces they assemble, produce, but also always look for better opportunities. They always become; and at a point in time, they disassemble and recompose into different assemblages; that is life.  From this work on Deleuze’s philosophy, this thesis proposes an ontology and a research design to study architecture in relationship to what we tend to understand as social, cultural, political, and ecological forces. It is defined that the form of architecture is part of assemblages, form-as-part-of-assemblage, in relationship with other assemblages. This thesis proposes to understand architecture-as-part-of-life. And a major shift that this thesis proposes for within urban morphology is not to give meaning to the form, but to give sense to it. To give sense is to find a series of expressions that relate to these social and ecological forces. Another outcome of this thesis is a research methodology termed a genealogical inquiry. It is a way of researching in time and space, transversally, the assembling and disassembling of all these forces which-architecture-is-part-of. The aim of this methodology is to understand and explain the form, process of formation, of architecture, and to give sense to these by describing a series of expression to forces.  The third part of this thesis experiments with this research framework in the site of Brunei’s water city. The genealogical inquiry defines three main eras of the relationship between the forces of interest. The first era concerns the period before the arrival of European powers in Southeast Asia. In this period, this thesis established two elements of importance. First, there is a significant impact of the political and the religious forces in the formation of the social organisation. If was found that there is an emphasis on the politic of the family group, the close and extended family. Also, there is the discovery that the social is organised in a strict hierarchy of ‘social assemblages’ following a nobility system, with at the top a Raja/Sultan. Second, there is a great importance of the relationship of the social with the water. This relationship shapes the economy, the relation to other cultures, and social formations. Having given expressions to all these forces, the thesis argues that these as they are shaped, in parallel shape the form, process of formation, of the diversity of architecture. Brunei is built in the water, and the forms of the diversity of urban area reflects the powers and the opportunities that are acting in the social field in relation to ecological forces. What is associated to social and environmental forces shapes the built environment.  The second era happened when European powers took over the region. As they did so, they transformed the political system at the top only, and changed fundamentally the economic system. The thesis proposes that even if the form and diversity of architecture seem to remain the same as the previous era, a different sense to the form has arisen. This thesis’ description of the new composition of all the forces at play revealed this new sense.  The third era came forth with two factors. First, the colonial power gave back to the head of Brunei’s social system, the Sultan, all the country’s powers: political, economic and religious. The second factor was the change in the world economic system and its dependence on oil. Within an IPRAUS urban morphology framework, the meaning of Brunei water city’s current diversity of architecture would be given as follows: it is a form that is a modern vernacular form with the basis of that form being the form of the past, actualised by modern practices.  This thesis, however, proposes different findings: The diversity of architecture carries a different sense that reflects the struggles between political powers and subjects taking opportunities that are present. There is more than the form. The forces at play reflect the Sultan’s will to rectify the water city because the city is dying, slowly disappearing. The social fabric of the villages is dissolving, and so is its architectural fabric. Once only comprising only financially-independent Bruneian families, the water city now houses only poor Bruneians that cannot access the mainland or its economy, and immigrants that have found cheap accommodation and an entry into that economy. The sense of the water city’s diversity of architecture is thus better understood by giving expression to the interplay of all these different forces: the form of architectures—built in the past, along with that lived by the lives of today.  This thesis conclusion theorises how the philosophical and experimental findings of this research might open a different approach to discussing and studying architecture than the current approaches offered in urban morphology and through IPRAUS. By returning to a discussion of the questions: How do we “explain the form, process of formation and diversity of urban areas [?]” (Kropf, 1993, 3), and ‘how do we theorise the relationship between the social and the architectural in urban morphology?’ the thesis identifies an ecology of problems, concepts and presumptions. It proposes that Deleuzian philosophical concepts allow the limitations of current approaches to be transcended. Finally, by drawing on examples of the analysis of Brunei’s water city, the thesis emphasises a shift in ontology and method, which may be of use to others in broader efforts to work transversally within urban morphology in the future.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline


Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970112 Expanding Knowledge in Built Environment and Design

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Architecture


Connolly, Peter