i have added a link and an essay i did explaining how Foucault’s Heterotopia’s link into todays society



The Shard and Tarkovsky’s Stalker in the context of Foucault’s Heterotopias.

Postmodernism first appeared as a way of talking about forms of literature, music and visual arts in America in the 1930s but did not really take hold until the late 1970s. The term was first used to describe architecture that was inspired not only by modernist structures but also an eclectic array of buildings and motifs from the past, rejecting the rigid truths of modernism and exploring past traditions that modernism rejected.

In art, Postmodernism has been expressed in concerns about representation and mediation – questions about points of view, who messages are aimed at and their purpose. Postmodernity is suspicious of master narratives for history and culture. It aspires to abandon the assumptions, prejudices and constraints of pop and mass culture, to render irrelevant the distinction between High and Low culture, and to embrace ideas and forms from non-western cultures.

The theoretical basis of Postmodernism rests in large measure on the work of the French post-structuralist philosophers, although Barthes, Derrida and Foucault were all reluctant to acknowledge responsibility for its development.

Exploring the Heterotopia theory

Michel Foucault was a French social theorist, historian and philosopher although he did not agree with any of these labels and preferred to be known as an “archaeologist”. Heavily influenced by the German philosophers Frederick Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger, he maintained that human behaviour is motivated by will power and that traditional values had lost their power over society. Many of his theories looked at relationships between power and knowledge, space and otherness.

In medicine, ‘Heterotopia’ is a term used to describe tissue, which exists in the wrong location within the body, so for instance ‘grey matter heterotopia’ is the presence of grey matter within the cerebral white matter of the brain and spinal cord.   Foucault borrowed the word and re-coined it as a geographical term for spaces of otherness, which are neither here nor there, that are simultaneously physical and mental, and which are outside everyday social and institutional space, for example vehicles, hotels, cemeteries, a phone call or the moment you see yourself in the mirror.

Foucault first talked about the concept of heterotopias in 1966 in his book ‘The Order of Things’ where he describes a passage by Jorge Luis Borges about the classification of animals from a Chinese Encyclopedia. In short, as Foucault explained, it seemed to break all the familiar landmarks of thought and all the customary ways of dividing up the world in order to understand it. What interests Foucault is not just the juxtapositions found in Borges’ enumeration, but the fact that this juxtaposition was impossible except in the space of language. He compares this text space with that of utopias ‘unthinkable space’, a space that is both nowhere and good.

From this study Foucault quickly moved on to different spaces that challenge or contest the space we live in. He started looking at cultural and social spaces as well as text-based spaces. Foucault points out that “the anxiety of our era has to do fundamentally with space, no doubt a great deal more than with time. Time probably appears to us only as one of the various distributive operations that are possible for the elements that are spread out in space.”

In “Of Other Space” Foucault tried to illustrate our western understanding and concerns about space. He identified three stages in the evolution of ideas about space in western culture. To the Medieval mind space was understood in hierarchal terms; to the Modern mind it existed within a grid; but the Postmodern concept of space was that of the heterotopia space.

Foucault’s Heterotopia

 There are six types of heterotopia that Foucault describes that also have duel meanings.

First principle – crisis or deviant heterotopia, a space we pass through like a boarding school, nursing home or an extreme place like prisons.

Second Principle – the cemetery a space everyone has a relationship too, everyone is equal within it, death come to us all. This is also a space that is changing.

Third Principle – a single real place that juxtaposes several spaces. The theater or the garden is such a place.

Fourth Principle – heterotopias of time, like libraries and museums, slices of time within a space. Existing within time, but also outside of time as they preserve things of time. Juxtapose the festival, which is temporal, placeless but exists within time.

Fifth Principle – ritual with a system of opening and closings that are both accessible and isolated. Only entering with permissions. Birth and death are examples.

Sixth Principle – have a function in relation to all other spaces, between two extreme poles. – Space of illusion – cinema or space that is other, that juxtaposes our reality – religion

Foucault says “Among all the sites and spaces, I am interested in certain ones that have the curious property of being in relation with all other sites, but in such a way as to suspect, neutralize, or invent the set of relations that they happen to designate, mirror, or reflect.”

Exploring The Shard and Stalker through Heterotopia theory

 I am going to be exploring two postmodernist works, one a piece of architecture and the other a film, through the concept of heterotopia. Postmodernist film attempts to overthrow the mainstream conventions of narrative while breaking down the cultural divides between high and low art; while the Postmodern impulse in architecture is expressed in many ways, including sculptural forms, ornaments and trompe l’oeil.

While both utopias and heterotopias are spaces for the imagination and for the production of new, alternative worlds, the difference between utopias and heterotopias is that although utopias are ideal constructs that can only exist in an abstract form, heterotopias acknowledge the real world and allow for natural, disruptive elements that will change the space.

Tarkovsky’s film “Stalker” (1979), loosely based on the novel ‘The Roadside Picnic”, and “The Shard” building in London are two very different expressions of Postmodernism but both can be shown to have been influenced by the idea of heterotopian space.

Let’s start by discussing why ‘The Shard’ is a postmodern building. Over the past decade postmodernism has made an unlikely return to the architecture of our cities. London has seen a series of constructions with names such as ‘The Gherkin’, ‘The Philishave’ , and ‘The Walkie Talkie’ which mix styles and genres -gothic looking spires, minimalist halls, opulent restaurants. Together the challenge the assumed functionality of modern architecture and subvert the distinction between public and private space by occupying a place in the popular imagination while at the same time being hierarchical, private and elitist.

The Shard itself, epitomises both utopian and heterotopian ideas. A towering glass metropolis within the borough of Southwark, it rises above a largely down-at-heel neighbourhood flaunting an almost sci-fi looking ‘utopian’ space, a sliver cage for the elite, where the ultimate experience awaits.

A space that mirrors a so-called utopian life style, which ‘everyone’ desires, containing workspace, living space and play space, anything and everything you could need under one roof, but at a cost, so not as public a space as one might think or be lead to believe. Making this a heterotopia of ritual, one must have certain permissions to access this place.

The Shard is a mix of Foucault principles, one being the third heterotopia principle of a single real space that juxtaposes a collection of spaces.

For those that cannot afford the amenities and experiences offered, the Shard becomes a utopian space, a place that one dreams to visit and experience but never really achieves it.

For those that can afford to enter this space, the experience changes from being a utopia to a heterotopia space thus having the ability to function differently for a number of people at the same time. A single real space – Containing several different spaces from the external world in one single site. A space with an array of openings and exits, of which inside these are other utopia and heterotopia spaces.

Looking at the shape of The Shard, it is as if it were the spire of cathedral, the main body of which is submerged beneath the ground.  The reference makes the space seem recognizable and familiar, yet it also makes it a heterotopia of ritual, a space that is isolated and not freely accessible. The isolation is given reality by the fact that the building, financed by Qatar, is subject to Sharia law. It’s a space in London, but owned by another country, culture and religion a situation that echoes Foucault’s sixth heterotopia, a colony, which sets laws governing the regulation of space at variance to the territory around.

The Shard is a postmodern mix of metaphors, cultures and fragmented spaces. It really is a vertical utopian city.

Compare this real space with the space created by a movie. Cinema is, by its nature, a heterotopia: it creates worlds that are ‘other’ than the real world but that relate to the world in multiple and contradictory ways.

Tarkovsky was Russian postmodernist film maker, who directed “Stalker’. His work can be interpreted equally well as a gesture backwards, pointing to former modes of representation and meaning, and forwards, showing newly emerging modes and regimes. The signature of his work is the long take, where the camera sweeps over much symbolism, drawing the audience into the heterotypic space within their own minds, forcing them to participate, and thereby intensifying the integrity of the experience. The soundtrack is more avant-garde than music, with ambient noise and minimalist electronic score.

‘Stalker’ is about a metaphysical journey, one that the audience can relate to at some point in time, in which a professional guide – ‘Stalker’ – takes two travellers on a spiritual journey into a forbidden zone looking for a room that can grant one’s deepest desires. To get to this zone, however, there is a set path to follow which leads through a chaotic and unpredictable dystopia.

This movie is a perfect example of a heterotopia, showing us the adoption of behaviours set in a different system of rationality to the every day world. It matches the heterotopia type Foucault called “crisis”. Foucault says “in the so-called primitive societies, there is a certain form of heterotopia that I would call crisis heterotopias, i.e., there are privileged or sacred or forbidden places, reserved for individuals who are, in relation to society and to the human environment in which they live, in a state of crisis: adolescents, pregnant women, the elderly, etc.” These two travellers were in this state and looking for a way out.

In much the same way, Chernobyl could be said to be a heterotopia that allows us to gaze on a post-apocalyptic world. It has become an ‘other ‘ place one that exists alongside ordinary spaces but allows us to see a disaster captured in time. The land surrounding the zone is much like this shot among post-industrial ruins in an abandoned power station in Estonia. This is like a Heterotopia of ritual a space that is isolated and penetrable.

Foucault calls the mirror a utopia; in the literal sense of being a ‘placeless place’ and at the same time a heterotopia, in that it exerts a ‘counteraction’ on the world that it reflects. This is what happens to a point within the movie, the scene of the PowerStation in Estonia and its destruction, pre-empts the Chernobyl disaster with eerie resonance, a possible reverse of the heterotopia of time.

Entry to these heterotopia is never straightforward. There needs to be an entry point and exit point, like the fifth heterotopian principle. A person within this space may be compelled to undertake a certain set of rituals to gain entry, a deviation heterotopia.

‘Stalker’ uses this method of heterotopia through out the film. The central focus of the movie is to get to the ‘zone’ which is a mere 200 meters away, yet they have to navigate the space by throwing a metal nut tied to some fabric and follow its path around the space, until the ‘zone allows them to enter.


I have looked at two very different postmodern art forms, film and architecture, which also reflect different periods of postmodernism, the film coming from the start of postmodernism in the late 1970s, and the building only recently finished, in 2012.

These two works of art have many things in common. They take ideas from the past, the present and the future. Stalker takes its theme from the book ‘Roadside Picnic’ and creates a post war/post-apocalyptic future. It combines moments that look back to religious images and forward to a sci-fi world, and characters from different walks of life, with different ideas on life and its rules. The Shard, for its part, has a futuristic sci-fi feel to its shape and style, but based on ideas taken from buildings and influences of the past. It brings together western and Middle Eastern people, modern capitalism and traditional Islam.

Other similarities are the heterotopia of ritual and several other of Foucault heterotopian principles as mentioned previously. They have areas where the authorities restrict access allowing the public to have utopian ideas whether real or imaginary about its centre and what it can offer, but there is a price to pay for this both monetary and psychological, and yet these areas are still penetrable.



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