Monthly Archives: July 2018

Monuments and Memorials

Monuments and Memorials in Changing Societies: A Semiotic and Geographical Approach

By Federico Bellentani


Monuments and memorials are built forms with commemorative as well as political functions. They can articulate selective historical narratives focusing attention on convenient events and individuals, while obliterating what is discomforting for an elite. While articulating historical narratives, monuments can set cultural agendas and legitimate political power. Thus, elites design monuments to convey the kinds of ideals they want citizens to strive towards.

This is particularly evident in transitional societies associated with regime change (Grava 1993: 19-10). In transitional societies, monuments and memorials are used to set cultural and political agendas and to educate citizens toward dominant meanings (Tamm 2013). Nevertheless, individuals can differently interpret and use monuments in ways designers might have never envisioned.

This post argues that a connection between analytical frames developed in the field of cultural geography and semiotics can contribute to a better understanding of the multiple interpretations of monuments and memorials in regime change.

Three limitations of the geographical and the semiotic perspectives on monuments and memorials

There is a significant geographical and semiotic literature looking at the multiple interpretations of monuments and memorials. Cultural geography has assessed the role of monuments in perpetuating cultural norms, social order and power relations. Since David Harvey (1979) analysed the political controversy over the Sacré-Coeur Basilica in Paris, several publications in human and cultural geography have appeared documenting the cultural and political significance of monuments (Wagner-Pacifici and Schwartz 1991; Hershkovitz 1993; Johnson 1995; Peet 1996; Withers 1996; Atkinson and Cosgrove 1998; Osborne 1998; Dwyer 2000; Whelan 2002; Hay et al. 2004; Benton-Short 2006). Despite variety in empirical analysis, this geographical research has based on two common assumptions. First, monuments play an important role in the definition of a uniform national memory and identity. Second, monuments are tools to legitimise and reinforce political power. These two assumptions can be seen as interdependent: in practice, the national politics of memory and identity embodied in monuments can legitimise and reinforce political power.

While assessing the role of monuments in perpetuating power relations, geographers have rarely discussed how the materiality of monuments can effectively convey political messages and thus legitimate political power. Furthermore, geographical research has tended to focus on the elite intentions, while underestimating how monuments are interpreted at non-elite levels.

By inviting questions on ‘readership’, semiotics has sought to overcome the restricted focus on the designers’ intentions that has characterised the geographical approach. Inspired by the debate around the conflation between memory, history and place (e.g. Nora 1989), semiotics has begun to analyse monuments as communicative devices to promote selective “discourses on the past” (Violi 2014: 11, my trans.). Discourses on the past always present a “partial vision” focusing attention on selective histories while concealing others (Eco 1976: 289-290). As a consequence, discourses on the past can affect present and future identity as well as the ways in which individuals represent themselves and relate to each other (Violi 2014: 18). Several semiotic analyses have aimed to explain how monuments can establish specific understandings of the past addressing the effects a given material representation of memory has had at the societal level (Pezzini 2006; Sozzi 2012; Abousnnouga and Machin 2013).

Despite the efforts to focus attention on ‘readerships’, the key limitations identified in the geographical perspective persist in the semiotic analysis of monuments and memorials. Semiotic analysis has scarcely discussed how the materiality of monuments actually conveys political meanings. Moreover, it has largely considered non-elite interpretations as spontaneous reactions to more prominent elite meanings.

In brief, the geographical and the semiotic perspectives on the interpretations of monuments and memorials have grounded themselves on three key limitations:

  1. There has been no extended discussion of how the material and the symbolic levels of monuments actually convey political meanings.
  2. There has been no extended discussion of how monuments actually reinforce political power.
  3. Little attention has been paid to how monuments are interpreted at the non-elite levels.

A holistic perspective on meaning-making of monuments and memorials

A holistic perspective connecting analytical frameworks in cultural geography and semiotics can overcome the limitations identified in the section above, developing a theory that conceives the interpretations of monuments and memorials as depending on three interplays: a) between the material, symbolic and political dimensions; b) between designers and users; and c) between monuments, the cultural context and the built environment.

As for a), the material, symbolic and political dimensions are useful analytical concepts, but at the empirical level they equally contribute to a better understanding of how the meanings of monuments and memorials are constructed and negotiated. There is the need for a theory that conceives the material, symbolic and political dimensions as interacting in the interpretation of monuments.

As for the interplay between designers and users, a set of “semiotic resources” is available to designers to entice users along specific interpretations of monuments (Abousnnouga and Machin 2013: 57). Nevertheless, not all users conform to the designers’ intentions. As for textual interpretation, the interpretation of monuments lies in an intermediate position between the designers’ intended meanings and the users’ interpretations (Eco 1990). Hence, there is the need for a theory that conceives the interpretations of monuments and memorials as originating at the intersection between designers and users.

As for c), monuments and memorials cannot be analysed separately from the cultural context. Culture can mould the designers’ and the users’ interpretations and even influence actions and interactions within the space of monuments. In turn, monuments convey cultural meanings in space contributing to the shaping and reshaping of culture. Finally, monuments and memorials cannot be analysed separately from their interrelations with the surrounding built environment. Post-structural geography has used the term ‘intertextuality’ to describe the relations that built forms establish between them (Duncan 1990: 22-23). As texts reinterpret other texts (Eco 1984: 68), newly erected monuments actively affect the interpretation of the existing built environment.

The conceptual scheme below symbolically represents the three interplays here identified. The scheme presumes that a relationship is established between the material, symbolic and the political dimensions of monuments and memorials. An arrow links the two rectangles representing the terms ‘designers’ and ‘users’ to visualise their interaction. A polygon visually representing the term ‘culture’ is added at the top of the scheme. The dashed oval including monuments and memorials represents the built environment.

Establishing the logic for case study research: The Victory Column in Tallinn, Estonia

To develop the theoretical framework identified in the previous section, this post presents a case study: the multiple interpretations of the War of Independence Victory Column in Tallinn, capital of Estonia.

Estonia restored its independence from the Soviet Union on 20 August 1991. There since, a cultural reinvention of the post-Soviet built environment has evolved through two distinct but concurrent practices: the redesign of the inherited built environment created by the Soviets and the simultaneous establishment of a new built environment reflecting the needs of post-Soviet culture and society. Cultural reinvention is the process of filling the built environment with specific cultural meanings through practices of redesign, reconstruction, restoration, relocation and removal.

The Estonian EU and NATO memberships in 2004 provided an adequate “sense of security” in such a manner as to underpin the redesign of the built environment and monuments and memorials specifically (Ehala 2009: 152). Hence, Estonian national elites have taken various initiatives to marginalise, remove and relocate Soviet monuments and memorials while establishing new monuments signifying specific future expectations.

One of the most sticking cases of this process is the 2009 erection of the War of Independence Victory Column in Tallinn (hence the Victory Column, fig. 1). The Victory Column is a large column-shape memorial commemorating those who served in a war against Soviet Russia and Baltic German forces between 1918 and 1920. The war ended with the first recognition of Estonia as an independent state. For this reason, in the current Estonian historical narratives, this war is known as the ‘War of Independence’ (in Estonian Vabadussõda) and it is closely linked with ideals of freedom and sovereignty.


Fig. 1 – The War of Independence Victory Column. Picture taken 5.10.2015


Articulating specific conceptualisation of the past, present and future, the Victory Column has helped to reflect and sustain the cultural and political agendas of the Estonian Government. As such, the Victory Column has reflected the intention to establish an exclusive space filled with dominant cultural and political meanings.

However, the meanings that the Estonian Government has strived to convey through the Victory Column are not reflected at non-elite levels. Users have largely reconceptualised the designers’ intentions behind the Victory Column. Furthermore, the unexpected interpretations have spawned uses that are different from those envisioned by the designers of the memorial.

Analysis of the multiple interpretations of the Victory Column

This section aims to analyse the embodied cultural and political meanings of the Victory Column and the different ways in which these meanings are interpreted at the non-elite levels. The analysis is divided into three parts. The first part addresses the designers’ intentions behind the Victory Column (§ 5.2). The second part presents the interpretations of users and their practices within the space of the memorial (§ 5.3). The third part progresses toward the theoretical dimension aiming at a deeper understanding of the designer’ and users’ interpretations of the Victory Column (§ 5.4). Before, the following section 5.1 explains the need for an extensive fieldwork and a multi-method approach for data collection.

 Research methods

The analysis of the multiple interpretations of the Victory Column is based on data collected through a fieldwork carried out in Tallinn from February to October 2015. Planning documents and literature provided an account of the meanings designers strived to convey through the Victory Column. Documents and literature available in English on the Victory Column were collected through visits at archives and libraries. The analysis of the users’ interpretations, actions and interactions was based on primary data collected through interviews and observations.

Semi-structured interviews aimed to collect a range of interpretations on the Victory Column at non-elite levels. Interview data derived from sixteen interviews with respondents that resided in Tallinn their entire life or that left Tallinn only temporarily. Respondents varied in terms of ethnic origins, age, gender, education and profession. A suitable balance of Estonians and Russophones was guaranteed: eight respondents were Estonians and eight belonged to the Russophone community of Tallinn. ‘Russophones’ refers to Russian speakers that are in possession of Estonian citizenship, including ethnic communities that speak Russian as first language and do not define their ethnic identity as ‘Estonian’. After Estonia regained independence, the Russophone community suffered status decline; conversely, Estonians found new economic opportunities and political power. In Estonia, the relations between Estonians and Russophones have not always been peaceful and this antagonism has often resulted in conflicts over the interpretations of memorials.

Participant observations concentrated on the actions and interactions of users who daily cross and use the space of the Victory Column. Observations were arranged at different times of the day and on different days of the week, including weekends and public holidays. They were carried out during the day and occasionally at night, under wide range of environmental conditions.

The designers’ intentions behind the Victory Column

The Victory Column is a 23.5 meters-high column (≈ 86.6 feet) featuring a symmetrical shape with regular forms and straight edges. It is made of 143 glass plates supported by eight concrete blocks. The iconography of the Victory Column features the Cross of Liberty, a military decoration established to honour remarkable services during the War of Independence (fig. 2). During the Estonia’s first period of independence, the Cross of Liberty became a symbol associated with the War of Independence and, in turn, with the Estonia’s fight for freedom and sovereignty. That is why the Victory Column – as most of the memorials to this war – included the Cross of Liberty in its iconography.

Fig. 2 – The Cross of Liberty at the top of the Victory Column during the constructions. Picture from Pihlak et al. 2009: 120.


The first ideas to erect a memorial to celebrate those who served during the War of Independence dated back to 1919 (Pihlak et al. 2009: 42). There since, a number of design competitions were held, but no plan was realised due to lack of money, lack of agreement on the design, outbreak of the Second War World and obstruction of foreign ruling powers (Pihlak et al. 2009: 41-48). After Estonia regained independence, questions about erecting a memorial to the War of Independence arose again from time to time.

In spring 2005, the Estonian Parliament entrusted the Ministry of Defence to lead the development phase of the project. The Ministry of Defence sponsored a design competition in 2007. The selected winning entry was Libertas, designed by the engineering students Rainer Sternfeld, Andri Laidre and Anto Savi.

The Estonian Government set a short deadline for the Victory Column to be erected. The time pressure created by the deadline drastically reduced participative planning practices and resulted in a lack of the required supervision on the quality of the works for constructing the memorial. The financing process was not transparent: for example, public donations were used for purposes other than covering the costs for erecting this memorial (Mattson 2012).

Today, the Victory Column stands on an elevated platform on Freedom Square, a large square on the southern edge of Tallinn’s Old Town (fig. 3). Throughout history, Freedom Square has been an arena where different political regimes have tried to assert themselves via architecture, monuments and public rituals. Freedom Square lost its function as a venue for public rituals and turned into a parking lot during the last years of the Soviet regime. In 1998, the Tallinn City Council manifested the need for revitalising Freedom Square and held an architectural competition to transform Freedom Square into an attractive public space (UNESCO 2014: 291). In consequence, Freedom Square underwent a complete reconstruction in 2009.

The reconstruction aimed to provide a venue for Estonia’s public rituals and cultural events. In Freedom Square, Estonian authorities regularly organise celebrations of public holidays, commemorative practices and official meetings. Freedom Square is also the location for cultural events, popular entertainment and attractions.


Fig. 3 – The Victory Column in Freedom Square. Picture taken 14.03.2015

The interpretations, actions and interactions of the users

Interviews concerned issues related with the material, symbolic and political dimensions of the Victory Column. As for the material dimension, the material of construction and the size of the Victory Column came in for a great deal of criticism during interviews. Four respondents considered glass panels as an “inappropriate” material for two reasons. The first reason concerned practical problems related to weather conditions: glass panels do not easily resist the harsh Estonian winter. The second reason concerned the inconsistency of a glass construction in Tallinn’s Old Town: respondents considered glass as a present-day construction material that does not fit in with the adjacent medieval built environment.

Six respondents considered the great size and the verticality of the Victory Column as in conflict with existing built forms in the immediate surroundings. They expressed discontent toward the chosen location of the Victory Column: to build the elevated platform of the memorial, encroachments on the nearby park and on the medieval bastions were necessary. Respondents considered the erection of the Victory Column not worth losing this natural and historical heritage. Consistent with this view, observations showed that the elevated platform of the Victory Column remained largely unused.

As for the symbolic dimension, interviews concerned two main issues: the purpose of commemoration and the iconography of the Victory Column. All respondents acknowledged the intended purpose of the memorial to commemorate those who served in the War of Independence. They stated they understood the need for this commemoration and respected it. However, observations did not register any commemorative practice, if not during the formal commemorations arranged by the Estonian Government and its affiliates.

Eight respondents clearly manifested negative attitudes toward the inclusion of the Cross of Liberty in the iconography of the Victory Column. They argued that this iconography is highly hermetic and not many users can correctly understand it – visitors as well as Estonian citizens themselves. As proof of this, three respondents did not know what the Cross of Liberty was. Four respondents claimed that this iconography conveys meanings of might and control. Two respondents defined the cross-shaped figure of the Victory Column as a “primitive symbol”. They associated the cross with Christian symbolism and defined this association as “provocative”, considering that Christianity was brought into Estonian territories through church-sanctioned campaigns against paganism.

A Russophone respondent from the oldest age band associated the iconography of the Victory Column with totalitarian aesthetics. In her opinion, the Victory Column presented a Nazi iconography, being a military insignia used by Estonian soldiers fighting alongside the German army during the Second World War. The association of the Victory Column with Nazi iconography was repeatedly reported in Russian media, which considered inconceivable and outrageous to erect a memorial presenting symbols used by the German army during the Second World War.

As for the political dimensions, seven respondents defined the Victory Column as a memorial erected to convey dominant political power. These respondents considered the power of the Victory Column as something “controversial” for a memorial erected with the intention to commemorate ideals of freedom and sovereignty. Ironically, two Estonian respondents born in independent Estonia considered the Victory Column as resembling the typical monuments erected during totalitarian regimes:

The Victory Column looks like really Soviet for me. […] For me, it is like a combination of something that we fought against for so long time. That is why it is odd. (Interview 1, Estonian, born 1991, female, hostel receptionist)

Conclusions: The multiple interpretation of the Victory Column between designers and users

The erection of memorials and the public rituals centred on them are political tools by which specific histories and geographies become embodied in space. Political elites erect memorials to educate users toward the kinds of ideals that they want users to strive towards. To do that, elites use a set of design strategies to entice users along specific interpretations. However, users can interpret and use memorials in ways that are different from those envisioned by designers.

Estonian elites erected the Victory Column to promote an ideological understanding of the past to symbolise a range of expectations about Estonia’s future. The memorial emphasized past links with the Estonia’s first period of independence to signify the aspiration of returning to pre-war traditions and institutions, which were destroyed by foreign regimes (Tamm 2013: 654). The first Estonia independence is remembered as a pre-Soviet “golden age” creating the ground for the development of Estonian national culture (Young and Kaczmarek 2008: 54). Hence, the Victory Column was erected as a tool to reinforce sentiments of national belonging and to promote practices signalling devotion for the entire nation. Public rituals in the surroundings of the memorial have facilitated the spread of these sentiments and practices.

However, the meanings that the Estonian Government strived to attach to the Victory Column were not reflected at non-elite levels. The memorial revealed a case in which users have largely reconceptualised the designers’ intentions. A multi-method approach based on interviews and observations demonstrated that the Victory Column came in for a great deal of criticism and remained largely unused. This criticism regarded the way in which the War of Independence is remembered through the material and the symbolic design choices of the memorial.

Tallinn citizens expressed discontent toward the fact that the remembered events and identities were presented through a hermetic iconography and controversial design, in a location that does not facilitate interactions and that it does not fit in with the adjacent built environment. Specifically, criticism regarded three material aspects of the Victory Column. First, respondents believed that the design of the memorial is inappropriate and disconnected from the adjacent medieval built environment of Tallinn’s Old Town. Second, they considered the great size and the verticality of the Victory Column as in conflict with existing built forms in the surroundings. Finally, they considered the loss of natural and historical heritage caused by the earthworks to build the elevated platform to be not a worthwhile cost.

Observations showed that on rare occasions users climb the staircase of this platform to approach the Victory Column. Users crossing Freedom Square remain literally at the feet of the memorial. For this reason, the memorial does not facilitate comfortable interactions: users have to look upwards and from an appropriate distance to have a complete vision of the memorial. The elevated location and the great size are design choices typically used for monuments and memorials erected during totalitarian regimes or in places where there is a high control over population. Indeed, respondents claimed that the Victory Column conveys powerful meanings rather than freedom, as the intended purpose of the memorial would suggest.

The negative attitudes of respondents link with the fact that the Victory Column has remained largely unused. The memorial attracts practices of commemorations – i.e. practices in accordance with its intended purpose – only during public rituals periodically arranged in its surroundings. For the rest of the year, the Victory Column attracts only unexpected practices that are different from those envisioned by its designers: for example, skaters and bikers trying out their tricks during the warmer weather.

The interpretations and uses of the Victory Column may change over time following change in social relations, in concepts of nation and in views on past events. Designers can encourage this process attaching new meanings to the Victory Column. A new interpretative pattern may originate once Estonian authorities reduce the anxiety towards their original intentions and accept the plurality of interpretations, practices and relationships embodied in the memorial. Cultural entertaining events and more informal practices of commemoration may help to create new attitudes toward the Victory Column. For example, Tallinn citizens enthusiastically attended the 2016 commemorations for the 75th anniversary of the Soviet deportations of 14 June in Freedom Square. On this occasion, thousands of blue balloons were installed to symbolically represent tears being shed for the victims (fig. 4). Many people visited the installation and kids joyfully played with the balloons. The installation named Sea of Tears was conceived and developed by the Estonian Institute of Human Rights in cooperation with the Estonian Ministry of Justice and other organisations dealing with the national politics of memory and identity. This people-friendly public display encouraged lively practices of consumption of the space of Freedom Square and active learning about the commemorated event.

Fig. 4 – The installation ‘Sea of Tears’ in Freedom Square. Available at: [Accessed: 18 July 2017]


Federico Bellentani recently obtained a Ph.D. at School of Geography and Planning, Cardiff University (UK). He holds a master’s degree in semiotics and a bachelor’s degree in communication sciences from University of Bologna (Italy).

Federico’s research interests range from semiotics of culture, cultural geography, planning theory and national landscape imagery.

His research focuses on monuments and memorials as tools to articulate selective historical narratives and, in turn, to inculcate particular conceptions of the present and encourage future possibilities.

Federico’s analysis concentrates on the multiple interpretations of the post-Soviet memorial landscape, with a focus on Estonia. In Estonia, Federico conducted ethnographic fieldwork, based on a multi-method approach including observation, interviewing and the examination of archival documents.

The results of Federico’s research are published in peer-review journals in the field of semiotics and architecture.



List of References


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Assemblage Thinking and the City: Implications for Urban Studies

Current Urban Studies
Vol.03 No.04(2015), Article ID:62067,7 pages

Assemblage Thinking and the City: Implications for Urban Studies

Hesam Kamalipour, Nastaran Peimani

Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia

Copyright © 2015 by authors and Scientific Research Publishing Inc.

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution International License (CC BY).

Received 25 November 2015; accepted 18 December 2015; published 21 December 2015


The last decade has seen an increasing interest in the application of assemblage thinking, in geography, sociology, and urban studies. Different interpretations of the Deleuzian concept of assemblage give rise to the multiple articulations of the term in urban studies so far. This paper aims to review the recently published research on assemblage theory and explore the implications of assemblage thinking in urban studies. The study thus provides an overview of the most significant contributions in the area, including a succinct bibliography on the subject. The paper concludes that assemblage can be effectively adopted as a way of thinking in urban studies to provide a theoretical lens for understanding the complexity of the city problems by emphasising the relations between sociality and spatiality at different scales.


Assemblage, Urban Theory, Deleuze, Critical, De Landa, Urbanism

1. Introduction

Assemblage is one of the key concepts in the Deleuzian philosophy that has been interpreted, adopted, and understood in different ways within the last decade. Assemblage is related to the notions of apparatus, network, multiplicity, emergence, and indeterminacy, and there is not a simple “correct” way to adopt the term (Anderson & McFarlane, 2011) . Reading Deleuze and Guattari (1987) conception of assemblage, De Landa (2006) , as one of the main interpreters of the concept, has critically theorized the multiplicity of assemblage thinking for exploring the complexity of the society. Since then, the concept of assemblage has been adopted in various academic disciplines with different articulations as theoretical and methodological frameworks for exploring the socio-spatial complexities. In urban studies, assemblage thinking has been challenged by various traditions of thinking such as political economy and critical urbanism. Since the 1960s, it has been argued that the city problems are often “complex” (Alexander, 1964; Jacobs, 1961) in a way that the outcomes cannot be simply predicted. Reviewing the recently published research on assemblage theory, the paper addresses its implications for urban studies to conclude that assemblage thinking has the capacity to provide theoretical and methodological frameworks for exploring the complexity of the city problems and the processes through which urbanity emerges in relation to intricate socio-spatial networks at multiple scales.

2. Assemblage Thinking

The concept of assemblage has been adapted from the work of Deleuze and Guattari (1987) and applies to an extensive variety of wholes like the social entities generated by the heterogeneous parts (De Landa, 2006) . The idea of assemblage has been addressed as “agencement” that refers to the process of putting together a mix of relations (Dewsbury, 2011) , and in its original French sense refers to “arrangement”, “fixing”, and “fitting” (Phillips, 2006) . Thus, assemblage as a whole refers to the “process” of arranging and organizing and claims for identity, character, and territory(Wise, 2005) . Opposed to the “relations of interiority” in the “organic totalities”, the “relations of exteriority” are characterizing the assemblages as the wholes (De Landa, 2006) . In other words, new identities are generated through connections (Ballantyne, 2007) . In this way, as De Landa (2006) argues assemblage as a whole cannot be simply reduced to the aggregate properties of its parts since it is characterised by connections and capacities rather than the properties of the parts(De Landa, 2006) . Thus, assemblages include heterogeneous human/non-human, organic/inorganic, and technical/natural elements (Anderson & McFarlane, 2011) . Enabling and constraining its parts, the assemblage is an alliance of various heterogeneous elements (De Landa, 2010) . Assemblages are dynamically made and unmade in terms of the two axes of “territorialisation (stabilization)/deterritorialisation (destabilization)” and “language (express)/technology (material)”(Wise, 2005). In a sense, assemblages are at once both express and material (Dovey, 2010) . In other words, assemblages focus on both actual/material and possible/emergent (Farías, 2010) . Assemblages are fundamentally territorial (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987) where territorialisation is both spatial and non-spatial (social) (De Landa, 2006) . In other words, the territory is a stabilized assemblage (Dovey, 2010) . Accentuating the relations and capacities to express and change, orienting towards a kind of experiment-based realism, and rethinking causality and agency, assemblage thinking contributes to the contemporary articulation of social-spatial relations (Anderson, Kearnes, McFarlane, & Swanton, 2012) . In effect, it addresses the inseparability of sociality and spatiality and the ways in which their relations and liaisons are established in the city and urban life (Angelo, 2011) . Hence, assemblage theory is against a priori reduction of sociality/spatiality to any fixed forms/set of forms in terms of processes or relations(Anderson & McFarlane, 2011) Figure 1 illustrates a conception of assemblage in relation to the two axes of express/material and territorialisation/deterritorialisation.

Figure 1. A conception of assemblage based on De Landa (2006) .

Assemblage theory offers a “bottom-up” ontology that works with analytical techniques rather than logical reasoning and refers to the universal singularities instead of reducing individuals to the essentialist myths of the species and natural kinds (De Landa, 2006) . It also avoids phenomenological idealism and different types of reductionism, including the reduction to text, essence, social construction, and discourse (Dovey, 2010) . Hence, the theory of assemblage opposes the reduction of the entities to the essences as a deficiency of the social realism (De Landa, 2006) . While “realist” philosophers refer to the identity of the mind-independent contents as the “essences”, Deleuze argues that these identities cannot be ever “taken for granted” since there is always a need for explaining the historical processes of their production (De Landa, 2005) . Although the capacity to generate an assemblage is reliant on the emergent properties of the parts, it cannot be simply reduced to them (De Landa, 2002) .

Deleuzian conceptions of “dis-order” and “assemblage” stem from his relatively explicit indebtedness to the works of Foucault in terms of the “order” and “apparatus” (Legg, 2011) . The concept of apparatus refers to an entirely “heterogeneous ensemble” containing the institutions, discourses, propositions, laws, regulations, and architectural forms (Foucault, 1980) . Considering the evolution of the “apparatus” term, Legg (2011) argues that the idea of controlling the human thoughts and behaviours is central to the notion of apparatus. Capturing the continuous presence of “problematisation” in the works of Foucault, Deleuze conceptualises the “assemblage theory” to dissolve the “bordered thinking” of territory, philosophy, and desires (Legg, 2011) . Referring to the slippage of Foucault between assemblage and apparatus, Legg (2011) argues that the Foucaultian usage of “assemblage” stems from almost a decade of collaboration with Deleuze (1960s-1970s), and it does not systematically refer to the process of destabilization or deterritorialisation. However, the Deleuzian interpretive conception of “apparatus” is plausibly “assemblage-like” in terms of referring to both stratification and creativity (Legg, 2011) .

Assemblage thinking is about relations, heterogeneity, and differences rather than parts, homogeneity, and similarities. There is a distinction here between “diversity” and “difference”. Distinguishing between phenomena (appearance) and noumena (in itself), Deleuzian thinking refers to “diversity” as phenomena while it considers “difference” as a noumena (De Landa, 2005) . Assemblage thinking is about multiplicities rather than singularities since the concept of “multiplicity/manifold” refers to the ways of change and the “space of possibilities” (De Landa, 2005) . In fact, the identity of a whole is defined by its emergent tendencies, capacities, and properties (De Landa, 2011) since the “virtual status of possibility” is “immanent to the material world” rather than being something transcendent (De Landa, 2005) . Moreover, assemblages work across multiple scales, and they can be considered as the “abstract machines” expressing a broader set of functions (Wise, 2005) . In this way, considering that the existence of some parts is prior to the emergence of a whole while the other parts can be generated by the whole, assemblages are continuously in the process of emerging and becoming, which requires a “multiscale” explanation(De Landa, 2006) . In other words, assemblages are constantly in the fluid status of “becoming” rather than “being” (Dovey, 2010) . Thus, “becoming” is the process of unfolding the complexity of events in between territorialisation and deterritorialisation of an assemblage (Buchanan & Parr, 2006) .

Assemblage theory offers a broad range of twofold conceptions that resonate with material/express and territorialisation/deterritorialisation. One of the key twofold conceptions is tree-like/rhizomatic. Tree-like structures are hierarchic and rigidly stratified while rhizomatic and meshwork-like ones are often loosely structured. In a sense, rhizomatic structures contribute to the generation of resilient and flexible assemblages as intensive networks of multiplicities with external/internal relations (Bonta & Protevi, 2004) . In other words, the differences between “strata/tree-like” and “rhizome/self-consistent aggregate” are about the articulation of the homogeneous and the heterogeneous elements (De Landa, 2000) . Hence, The hierarchical city (central place structure) is distinguishable from the meshwork-like one (network system) since the former gives rise to the rigidified pyramid-like and homogenised cultural structures while the latter advocates for interlocking heterogeneous elements (De Landa, 1997) . Nonetheless, the dichotomy of strata and rhizome is a continuum with two ends of the most hierarchic and the most intense and destratified matter (De Landa, 2000) . As Dovey (2010) argues, the experience of the everyday urban life encompasses a variety of rhizomatic and hierarchic practices in relation to the public and private spaces. In the same vein, being/becoming is another twofold that resonates with tree/rhizome and striated/smooth in assemblage thinking. The notion of “being” refers to the status of remaining constant as the source or foundation whereas the concept of “becoming” relates to a less substantial changing and ephemeral situation (May, 2005) . Suggesting the Deleuzian idea of “becoming-in-the-world” instead of Heideggerian concept of “being-in-the-world”, Dovey (2010)cuts across the social-spatial division, and addresses the question of place in relation to spatiality and sociality where spatiality is connected to sociality through the intensity of place in everyday urban life.

3. Assemblage and the City

Being unfinished, cultural/physical, constitutive, socio-material, subjective/objective, and tricky, the urban areas and cities are ideal models for adopting assemblage thinking (Tonkiss, 2011) . Assemblage thinking addresses the city as a “multiplicity” rather than a “whole” (Farías, 2011) . In a sense, assemblage refers to the ways in which urbanism is produced not as a “resultant formation”, but as an ongoing process of construction (McFarlane, 2011a) . Adopting “assemblage thinking” for conceptualizing the city, McFarlane (2011b) argues that assemblage relates to the city as a “verb” in “making urbanism” through historical and potential relations. Thus, an assemblage is the result of the “interactions” between elements rather than the properties of the components and it is defined by the “co-functioning” of the individual elements in terms of stabilizing/destabilizing(McFarlane, 2011b) . In a sense, McFarlane (2011b) adopts a political orientation to the assemblage for thinking about the actual/possible relations in the city since assemblage can be considered as both an object regarding the urban policies and orientation in terms of the policy productions. In this way, McFarlane (2011b) argues that the conception of the “city as assemblage” is accompanied by a quest for an entity (who/what) that has the “capacity” for assembling the city. Hence, assemblage refers to the issue of power as “plurality in transformation” rather than being centrally adopted or equally distributed (Anderson & McFarlane, 2011) since it offers the possibility of holding together the heterogeneous elements, such as the nation state or the regional political formations, without an actual establishment of a coherent whole (Allen, 2011) . Being heterogeneous and discontinuous, power regionally and temporarily comes about in distinct, interrelated, and overlapped assemblages (Eriksson, 2005) . In a sense, assemblages are the main products of the “flows of desire” as the primary “force of life” and the basis of the productive and positive power (Dovey, 2010) . The potential structure of an assemblage has been considered as a capacity for organizing and distributing power (Bell & Colebrook, 2009) since assemblage process is hierarchically structured through “inequalities of power” and resource (McFarlane, 2011a) McCann (2011) addresses the analytical and political potentials of assemblage for exploring urban politics and the global/ urban connections. For McCann, Roy, and Ward (2013) , assemblage thinking is likely to contribute to the conceptualization of the contemporary city in relation to the global condition.

4. Assemblage and Critical Urbanism

Although the critical urban theory has been addressed to be capable of contributing to the understanding of the city, the relations between critical urbanism and assemblage thinking is controversial among scholars with different critical stances. Critical urban theory refers to an ongoing process of constructing/reconstructing the city as a medium/result of historical “relations of social power” (Brenner, 2009) . Thus, critical urban theory interrogates the existing urban formations and refers to the critique of power, ideology, injustice, exploitation, and inequities in the cities (Brenner, 2009) .

Exploring the relations between assemblage and critical urbanism, McFarlane (2011a) adopts assemblage as a concept, orientation, and imaginary where he refers to assemblage as a relational composition process that contributes to the labour and socio-materiality of the city. He reads assemblage as an orientation to the potentiality of actors and sites in relation to the history, required labour, and the capacity of urban processes (McFarlane, 2011b) . He further argues that while assemblage concentrates on multiple practices of achieving urbanism in actual/possible relations, it is related to a broader history of critical urbanism (McFarlane, 2011b) . Thus, for him, assemblage offers some orientations to “critical urbanism” in terms of focusing on potentiality, agency of materials, and composition of the cosmopolitan imaginary (McFarlane, 2011a) . ForTonkiss (2011) , assemblage thinking is likely to generate a “template urbanism”, rather than a critical one. She argues that since the matters generally facilitate the agency of the people, the “effectivity” of things is not like the human agency (Tonkiss, 2011) . Hence, while McFarlane (2011a) argues that assemblage provides a thick description of history/potenti- ality relations along with the distribution of agency across materiality/sociality, Tonkiss (2011) doubts the relation of the assemblage theory to the interpretation, semiotics, and meaning.

Rejecting the existence of a single “assemblage urbanism” in urban theory, Brenner, Madden, and Wachsmuth (2011) tend to adopt assemblage theory in relation to the political economy rather than addressing assemblage thinking as a basis for the critical urban theory. Moreover, criticizing the adoption of the assemblage theory as an ontology for urban studies in which the position of political economy and concept of capitalism are ambiguous, Brenner et al. (2011) refer to assemblage concept as a methodological practice and outlinethat a broad framework of “assemblage-theoretical urbanism” might have impact on its potentiality of analysis. Brenner et al. (2011) further argue that the thick descriptive focus of the assemblage thinking ignores the “context of context” regarding the broader global/national/regional structures.

While Marxian-origin critical urban study tends to adopt city as an “instance” of capitalistic organization in terms of industrial or space production, assemblage thinking does not address capitalism as a “form of life” rather than a global “abstract logic” and proposes an inquiry to the city/urbanization as an actual and ecological process (Farías, 2011) . Thus, although Acuto (2011)denotes that the ontological, methodological, and empirical conceptions of the assemblage cannot simply be explored separately from each other, Farías (2011) argues that assemblage thinking tends to develop empirical knowledge rather than theoretical analysis and critique since it involves both agency and arrangement. Hence, assemblage thinking is about inquiry and explorative engagement rather than power/knowledge/ideology-based critique since inquiry quests for an empirical commitment rather than a general theory of the relatively fixed concepts (Farías, 2011) . He further denotes that the critique is better to be involved with empirical practices rather than mere general theories (Farías, 2011) . Affirming the effects of capital, Simone (2011) argues that detailed inquiries need to be put in place for exploring the particular practices and sites of urbanisation since assemblages have the capacity to generate multiple surfaces that can always be built and erased. Moreover, referring to critical urbanism as an extensive scholarly involvement with processes in which the practices of power are associated with the cities, Dovey (2011) argues that assemblage thinking cannot be simply constrained within the rigid framework of political economy since it has the capacity to critically contribute to the ontologies of place and power.

5. Implications for Urban Studies

One of the critical contributions of assemblage thinking for understanding the complexity of the city problems is to encourage multiscalar thinking. A key to understand the urban issues in a given city area is geared to the exploration of the ways that area connects with the urban environments over a range of different scales. Thus, limiting the analysis of an urban environment to a certain scale runs the risk of overlooking the relations to the both larger and smaller scales. Multiscalar thinking as a toolkit can be applied to unravel how urban assemblages work across different scales. Hence, the ways in which socio-spatial multiplicities link at various scales need to be analysed to contribute to the most effective interventions in urban environments. For instance, to improve the access network in a given area, the focus needs to be concentrated on the boundary effect and the ways in which micro, meso, and macro scales are interrelated. In a sense, both theory and practice can benefit from multiscalar thinking since it has the capacity to stimulate integral approaches to planning and design.

The diagram can be understood as an “abstract machine” in Deleuzian concept of assemblage thinking. In this way, diagrammatic thinking can be used as a means to abstractly illustrate the complexities of an urban assemblage as both a product and process. In the same vein, the mapping can be considered as an abstraction that has the capacity to unravel what De Landa (2005) calls “real virtuality”, which is a kind of “reality” that has not been “actualised” yet. In effect, not only assemblage thinking puts emphasis on the “thick description” of the relationships that have assembled urban networks in different ways, but also it focuses on the space of possibilities that are associated with the latent capacities. For instance, when it comes to the study of urban morphology, typology can be considered as a process in which types work as the “abstract machines” that have the capacity to illustrate the morphogenesis of the urban form (Kamalipour, Memarian, & Mousavian, 2012; Kamalipour & Zaroudi, 2014) . In this way, diagrams, maps, and types have the capacity to produce a kind of “spatial knowledge” that can be effectively used as a basis to draw on the ways in which the city works in relation to spatiality and sociality. It also assists with specifying the space of possible solutions for the existing city problems and embodied capacities for transformational change.

Assemblage thinking is against essentialism and reductionism in different ways. While essentialist approaches in urban studies tend to reduce the concept of place to an essence with a stabilised identity (Kamalipour, Faizi, & Memarian, 2014; Kamalipour, Yeganeh, & Alalhesabi, 2012) , assemblage theory reads place as a multiplicity that is in the process of “becoming” in relation to social-spatial and material-express alignments. Hence, methodological frameworks can also run the risk of reductionism. In a sense, focusing on the production of “numerical knowledge” and attempts to quantify some of the unquantifiable concepts can be considered as a reductionist approach in urban studies that often overlooks the complexity of place as a socio-spatial assemblage. In effect, to explore how a place works requires a deep understanding of its socio-political processes in relation to the spatial structures. As discussed earlier in the paper, since assemblage thinking focuses on the relations, an urban assemblage cannot simply be reduced to its parts. That is why “extensive” properties, such as height, coverage, and length, cannot necessarily predict “intensive” properties, such as “atmosphere” and “character”.

Assemblage thinking offers a range of twofold concepts that can be used as a theoretical toolkit to understand the underlying processes of continuity and change in the cities. Formal/informal is one of the key twofold conceptions that resonates with a range of other twofold concepts including tree/rhizome, striated/smooth, and hierarchy/network. The formal/informal twofold can elaborate on the ways in which the “strategies” of the state collide with the everyday “tactics” of the citizens. Moreover, assemblage thinking has the capacity to explore the in-between conditions where the boundaries between the two ends of a twofold conception are blurry.

Assemblage thinking extends the conception of the “reality” to encompass both the “actual” and the “possible”. In other words, “reality” cannot be limited to the study of what is “actual”. In a sense, exploring the space of possibilities can become a particular line of inquiry in both theory and practice where design professions can benefit from the process of “design as research” in the city. Moreover, assemblage thinking moves from the analysis of the parts to the exploration of the relations between parts across different scales. In this way, it can be adopted as an effective theoretical lens for understanding generativity, emergence, and complexity where the outcomes are often unpredictable (Kamalipour, 2015; Peimani, 2015) . That is indeed a focus on the processes rather than the products. In a sense, it can stimulate a move from a desire to put emphasis on the form to an initiative for exploring the possibilities for incrementalism, adaptation, and temporality in the city.

Cite this paper

Hesam Kamalipour, Nastaran Peimani (2015) Assemblage Thinking and the City: Implications for Urban Studies. Current Urban Studies,03,402-408. doi: 10.4236/cus.2015.34031


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