Relational-material approach – EPUM Platform

Relational-material approach


20. ‘Relational-material approach to urban morphology’, by Sabine Knierbein and Tihomir Viderman

This five-pages briefing paper, prepared under the framework of the EPUM project (by Sabine Knierbein and Tihomir Viderman), presents the ‘relational-material’ as an approach that tries to grasp urban form as a material that is constantly changing as an outcome of mutual relations between people and places. The paper highlights five key ideas. First, urban form is a continuously emergent materiality and a material culture of social relations. Second, urban form is a process of ‘spatialization’, encompassing designed space, a domain of mental production of abstract space and ‘materialities’ of everyday life. Third, urban form is an epistemological opportunity to track down and to understand social change by addressing transformations of the built environment. Fourth, experiential learning about the city is needed to balance mainstream planning regulations and design practices. Fifth, participatory action research as a practice of shared production of knowledge involving researchers and participants in a concerted effort, should be promoted. In methodological terms, the relational-material approach offers a mainly qualitative analysis of public space, addressing urban form as a material evidence of dynamic urbanization processes (as a formant of the social history of capitalism). It is centred on qualitative socio-empirical case study research, combined with quantitative data on the socio-spatial context of the case study.

21. ‘The relational-material approach’, by Sabine Knierbein

In this short video (fourteen minutes) prepared for the EPUM project, Sabine Knierbein offers a first insight into an emerging perspective on urban morphology, named relational-material approach. The video starts with a presentation of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Urban Culture and Public Space (TU Wien), where this approach is being developed, proposing then a linkage between studies on built space with research on lived space. The approach aims at connecting social theory, cultural theory, political theory about urbanisation and built fabric with knowledge about the micro spaces – the spaces of everyday life – of the city. A fundamental idea of the video and of this emerging approach is to link the ‘know why’ (the theoretical considerations of cities as places of difference and unequal embodied experiences) and the ‘know how’ (the embodied approaches to engaging in local space inspired by participatory action research). The video expresses also an intention to establish the ‘relational material’ as a complementary approach to the established approaches in urban morphology.

22. ‘The relational-material approach. Concept art video’, by TU Wien
[Short film coming soon…]


This video in duration of 3 minutes explains how urban form is studied from the perspective of a relational-material approach. Through an explorative recording of urban spaces in Vienna it engages with urban form beyond rational objectivity of visual analysis to include action-oriented and praxis-based dimensions of everyday life. ‘At no point can there be a final shape of the city’, the video cites Ali Madanipour, suggesting that urban form is constantly produced and reproduced and that we can only take visual snapshots of this socio-historic process. A built urban form materializes not only by design and construction in various degrees of (de)regulation and (in)formality, but also through the settling of plural dimensions of mundane everyday life, political struggle, as well as social, political and economic practices. A relational-material approach aims at introducing into research on urban morphology ethics that is mindful of such lived experiences, and engages with urban form as a political arena and lived social space, which can be explained by its social, cultural and political context as well as by dynamic and diverse relations between human and non-human bodies and objects, both at a given moment of time and in the course of history. The approach draws from theories on action-based relational space to reaffirm spatial practice as point of departure and the purpose of research and design endeavours in urban form.

23. ‘Interview with Professor Charis Christodoulou’, by TU Wien
[Film coming soon…]


The interview discusses an epistemology of a relational-material approach with Charis Christodoulou, who shares her own experience and systematization of thought regarding urban form. The study of urban form is contextualized in regard to broader theoretical debates on the city as a social process of the production of space. Charis Christodoulou suggests a socio-historical analysis of urban form which puts focus on everyday life as a path towards a new phenomenology of doing research which would be sensitive towards to different realities and capable of building bridges between them. Such an endeavour would allow for a synthesis of complex relations between built space and social, cultural and political processes of its production. If we agree that urban form is also lived social space, the methodology for researching its genealogy needs to engage across disciplines and cultures to establish productive linkages between analytical approaches of design and planning and qualitative research practices of geography and social sciences. Charis Christodoulou discusses methods for engaging with social processes of the production of urban form. She suggests the focus on mundane built structures where everyday life unfolds, as well as directing the research beyond visual analysis of material dimensions of space to include into consideration social dimensions of everyday routines, struggles, planning practices and design intentions. The insights into (meaningful) practices of everyday life and bodily experiences allow for an understanding of unbalanced patterns of built urban form in relation to social context and transformations.

24. ‘Urban morphology: a relational-material approach’, by TU Wien

Link to online Book:

With this Reader the ‘Interdisciplinary Centre for Urban Culture and Public Space’, has sought to summarize the results of explorative research on urban form which engaged in a dual mission: an empirical inquiry into entanglements between built urban form and experiences in everyday life; and a reflection on the research and design practice as a means for curbing or fostering people’s social, cultural and political agency to transform urban form. This collaboratively edited collection is of an open and inclusive character, with the ambition to conceive of urban form studies from the perspective of public space research which includes aspects of ‘emergence’ of new urban forms. This evolving theorization is coined as relational-material approach. The reader’s plural formats mirror the fact that in the perspective of public space research the study of urban form is about the systematic inclusion of difference. A relational-material approach introduces into research on urban form ethics that is mindful of lived, cultural, as well as social and material differences in urban space, and thus includes recent insights from feminist and post-colonial theories of urbanization. Various formats, including essays, storylines, visualisations, as well as documentation of research projects, depict diverse and engaging exploration paths address the complexity of a meaningful engagement in a plural dynamics and many contingencies of lived social space. They approach urban form as a relational-material process unfolding between physical urban forms and an embodiment of a plurality of particular memories, cultures and experiences, which may be institutionalized, contested, discriminated against, marginalized or rather invisible.