Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Architecture's Tightrope - Investigating an Alternative Trajectory for Critical Architecture: Critical Spatial Practices and a Polycontextual Engagement with an Urban Thick Edge Condition

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posted on 2021-11-14, 03:00 authored by Earl, Angus Robert McDonald

This thesis investigation engages two contemporary interrelated problems – one theoretical and one practical – both of which are interrogated, interwoven and tested through a critical lens. The theoretical context framing the design-research reconsiders the vitality of ‘critical architecture’ in relation to contemporary discourse, in particular, the so-called ‘crisis of criticality’ and the implications of this ideological landscape within the built environment. Foregrounding a position to test this theoretical framing, the practical context of the design-research is distinctly urban – engaging one of the contemporary negative outcomes of rapid urbanisation. The practical problem investigates the ‘thick edges’ (places of singular and/or impermeable identities) that manifest around and below new urban motorway infrastructural developments, a condition that creates barriers to cultural, social and spatial flows between communities in urban settings. This thesis argues that by engaging with the complex and multiple cultural conditions of urban sites, the rigidity and singular nature of these impermeable thick edge spaces can be opened to diverse flows relating to multiple contexts. Through processes of design intervention, the thesis proposes a ‘polycontextual’ approach to introduce flows of wider contextual dimensions within an urban site – promoting architectural solutions that blur, fray and punctuate thick edges by developing them as threshold conditions between adjacencies. The theoretical problem analyses the limitations of both the autonomous and post-critical positions; this thesis argues that an alternative trajectory for a contemporary critical architecture has emerged, one that may be used as a theoretical framework for resolving urban thick edge conditions. Jane Rendell, Kim Dovey and Murray Fraser reveal a trajectory to shift architectural practices towards positive and flexible modes of production whilst simultaneously opposing the insufficient positions of the post-critical. They posit that architecture remains an inherently cultural proposition – created through constructive ‘relays’ that can mediate between theory and design – elucidating strategies of resistance through an engagement with practices that are both critical and spatial. Jane Rendell further argues that strategies for such ‘critical spatial practices’ can be elucidated through an examination of processes that are: site-specific, socio-spatial, and temporal. Adopting these three categories as the theoretical framework of this thesis focuses the design-research, implicating critical spatial practices as a contemporary and alternative position for critical architectural production - providing a framework for positive and critical positions in current discourse. In response to this two-fold investigation, the thesis tests a synthesis of critical spatial practices and a polycontextual approach through strategic designresearch propositions. Architecture’s Tightrope proposes a multifunctional events facility that permanently supports the New Zealand International Arts Festival, and the structuration of a dynamic, relational and non-deterministic public space. The primary aims of this thesis are: to test a contemporary critically engendered framework for architectural design-research that is both culturally and formally negotiated; and to investigate the potential for this framework to invert the negative conditions of urban thick edges through an engagement with multiple contexts.


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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

Master of Architecture (Professional)

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970112 Expanding Knowledge in Built Environment and Design

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Architecture


Brown, Daniel K.