img(height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="")

Maria Smith

Maria Smith transcends the boundary between doing and consuming

When writing about society’s involvement in cultural activities, researchers distinguish between participation and consumption. Going to Glastonbury, for example, is to consume culture, whereas joining an am-dram society is to participate.

For some – for me – a conflict tends to arise when one is both participant and consumer. If you start to write, reading becomes different, if you start to play music, listening becomes different. So as an experiment, I decided to give up living in a building. 

To do this, key lifestyle changes were necessary. I needed to shower in swimming pools and friends’ houses and offices, and of course, I had to give up sleeping. The nights therefore became a terrifyingly blank canvas needing impregnation with new activities.

As is traditional, I began with walking. At snail’s pace I tramped the city, zoning out as I crossed the blurry boundaries from inner to outer London and back again. I drifted until the automatic pitching of my metatarsals conjured a photoshop filter of a trance, making me feel I was encapsulated in a visualisation. The experience peeled the images of buildings from their bulks. Elevations and wide-angle renderings were strewn about my peripheral vision like discarded Post-its bearing contact numbers for sales reps.

Loss of sleep itself was no problem, but loss of dreams was beginning to wear heavily on my spinal chord. So I decided to spend some time in the past to regenerate. This was excellent both from a practical point of view, and in aid of the experiment. I could sit on a bench for hours and my corporeal manifestation would wait there for me while I travelled. I spent most time in the garden of my childhood home. After the inevitable period of nostalgia interspersed with misguided fears of the neighbour’s dog, I began to build with the fervor of a three year old in the body of a 33 year old. I rebuilt the wall that had been blown down in the hurricane. I built a column high into space. I tore down the corner of the house and reconfigured it into a shrine. I could both see the house anew with my disgustingly trained eyes, but also design interventions with a technical understanding freed from the albatross of reference. It was more exciting than a hot day in a padd­ling pool with shop-bought ice-lollies.

I couldn’t just close my eyes, there was only one solution; I must inhabit somebody else

Six months had now passed and the experiment was a tremendous success. No longer a consumer of buildings, I was able to conceive them with unbridled aplomb. But something was still missing. The walking had reset my relationship between two dimensions and three. The time travel had recalibrated my relationship between technique and precedent. But I was still too self-aware, still suffering a paralysis of aesthetic scruples. I needed to free myself from the compulsion to assess, to decouple the looking of drawing from the looking of assessing. But I couldn’t just close my eyes, there was only one solution; I must inhabit somebody else.

Again, as is traditional, I chose a human of the opposite sex. The man I chose would need to be able to take the looking of assessing off my hands, would need to be of a disposition that wouldn’t notice my presence in his consciousness, and of course, would have to work a night shift. So I loitered around 24 hour printing services to find a suitable candidate. It didn’t take long. On my third night staking out, I saw him, dashing about with a disquieting passion. While he was hunched over changing an image drum, I slipped in. 

I don’t mind telling you, that first night was electric. His gait was a dance with the hyped energy of a rave contained by a stubborn show of shame like a naughty child staring at the floor in livid defiance. His movements as he folded and piled and stapled and spray-mounted were rhythmic and sure, and while unfamiliar to me, I could follow them with ease. It was simple enough to have him print the designs I worked up during the day, during my ordinary life. He saw them for me, appraised them for me so I didn’t need to. My days were an orgy of creation and my nights a riot of insight. I stayed a little too long with this man. I nudged right up against the line of inseparability, until one day; at the end of the ninth month I birthed myself from him.

I would recommend the experiment. Perhaps one day it will become a requirement for qualification; a Part Four. That is not to say it doesn’t come at some cost. The regrowth of an entirely new skin is certainly tiresome, as is the adjustment back to sleep. But the disjunctures produced are well worthwhile. I am forever a split pea now, able – in short bursts – to write without reading, to sing without listening, delaminate critique just a little, just enough. 

Maria Smith is an architect and teaches a course at the Cass



PiP webinar: Architecture for Schools and Education Buildings

ZMMA preserves a listed dwelling and creates a significant museum with its sustainable refit and adaptation of artist Thomas Gainsborough's house to take the 2024 RIBA East Building of the Year and Conservation Awards

ZMMA turns small local resource into significant museum

SKArchitects’ Passivhaus project to help homeless people back into independent living with joy, dignity and charm wins the 2024 RIBA East Sustainability and Client of the Year Awards

Housing scheme for homeless wins Client of the Year and Sustainability Awards

Pollard Thomas Edwards and Outerspace turn to MMC to create high-density, low-rise development that can be customised by owners – and take away a 2024 RIBA East Award

MMC creates high density, low rise development

Níall McLaughlin Architects creates a space for calm contemplative enjoyment of music despite a technically challenging brief in a historic context for Trinity Hall, winning a 2024 RIBA East Award

Níall McLaughlin Architects creates a space for calm enjoyment of music