Unit 21: Dialogues: From A to B and Back Again. Shaun Murray & Simon Withers

Image: Dorothea Tanning, Two Worlds + Maritime Greenwich

“Dialogue comes from the Greek word dialogos. Logos means ‘the word’ or in our case we would think of the ‘meaning of the word’. And dia means ‘through’ – rather than two. A dialogue can be among any number of people, not just two. Even one person can have a sense of dialogue within himself, if the spirit of the dialogue is present. The picture of image that this derivation suggests is of a stream of meaning flowing among and through us and between us. This will make possible a flow of meaning in the whole group, out of which will emerge some new understanding. It’s something new, which may not have been in the starting point at all. It’s something creative. And this shared meaning is the ‘glue’ or ‘cement’ that holds people and societies together.” – David Bohm, On Dialogue


The year will be composed of twelve dialogues, six during the twelve weeks of term one and six over the twelve weeks of term two. Each dialogue will extend over two weeks and the spatial consequences of each dialogue, what you discover and design, will become the basis for the ensuing dialogue. Each dialogue will have a tight focus and the elements designed and tested in each dialogue will accumulate to become your dynamic composition, one composition in term one and one composition in term two. Each dialogue is essentially a specific task, six tasks in each term and each task becoming an element of your final composition. The foundation to the year and to each dialogue will be the eleven RIBA General Criteria, in particular GC2, GC3 and GC5. Use the General Criteria as a valuable reciprocal device, a device for sparking critical reflection for thinking carefully about and testing each of your dialogues. Each of you will keep a logbook throughout the year recording iterations, tests, notes, reflections, precedents and conclusions. The logbook will form the backbone of your portfolio and will describe the developmental arc of your year. Consider your logbook and portfolio as essential constituents of your practice to be updated weekly.

Dialogic scale 1

Janus, the Roman God of transitions and time, of doorways, passages and dualities, of the material and the abstract, of all beginnings and endings, of the risings and settings of the sun, is shown with two faces, one looking to the past and one to the future. These alternating fluxions are in perpetual dialogue with each other. It is reciprocating dialogues such as between the future and the past that Unit 21 is curious to examine in depth. What are the dynamics of this dialogue right now? Right here. What might other spatial dialogues be? Say between unusual environmental phenomena and contextual strangeness? Between ecological strategies then and now? Between inside and outside, light and shadow? Between different scales, the familiar and the model? Between the pencil and the pixel? We will use dialogue as a tool to explore meaning and ideas.

Dialogic scale 2

If we think of a dialogue as a hinge, a dynamic architectural element, one having the capacity to throw seemingly static components (the door) across space we might look to Cardea, the Goddess thresholds, door handles and hinges, beloved by Janus of whom Ovid said ‘Her power is to open what is shut; to shut what is open’. If we further consider the meaning of a dialogue as a hinge we may begin to think of a hinge as ‘making (something) dependent on something else’. A perpetually reciprocal dialogue.

Now if we carefully analyse this element, this hinge, this dialogue – what are the spatial implications? The material potentiality? You will use this element, one of many iterations you will develop and test via dialogues, to cultivate the fundamental constituents of a composite, an architecture. Unit 21 is little interested in form but profoundly interested in spatial relationships. In other words composition. How do you cultivate spatial relationships? If to cultivate is ‘to acquire, develop or refine, to encourage, to make friends with’, how will cultivation play out in your composites?

Site – Year One

Will be within the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site from Rangers House to Island Gardens including the River Thames. Maritime Greenwich is also a site of Outstanding Universal Value which means;

‘cultural and natural heritage which is so exceptional that it transcends national boundaries and is of importance to present and future generations of humanity as whole’.

‘They should be exceptional or superlative ~ the most remarkable places on earth ~ and be outstanding from a global perspective’.

The future is a fundamental ingredient of an OUV site.

Maritime Greenwich describes multiple fabulous elements: the Royal Park as landscape incorporating pavilions, including those by Robert Adam and Zaha Hadid, conduits, reservoirs, 300 odd tunnels, sites and layers of archaeology – the Royal Observatory – the National Maritime Museum – the Caird Library – Queen’s House, that House of Pleasure – Salomon de Caus’ mischievous automata – the National Maritime Museum hosting 3,500 model ships from Egyptian to date – the Old Royal Naval College comprising amongst others the Painted Hall, the Chapel, Wren’s Temple Grove, the Great Courts, Five Foot Walk, Water Gate and more – Hawksmoor’s St Alfege Church – the Thames foreshore – the Thames itself and to conclude, Island Gardens. Within Maritime Greenwich there are and have been an extraordinary range of institutions – laboratories, schools, music studios, artists studios, and architectures. Places of curiosity and discovery.

Site – Year Two

You may use Maritime Greenwich or a site of your choosing. Your site should though be extremely carefully selected to best enable you to explore the spatial, social, political, material, environmental and contextual issues that are critically important to you. The crucial role of the site is to frame your argument. The analytical tools you use will still be dialogical leading to a series of reciprocating fluxions, iterations or series of spatial episodes leading towards your final project. All of this to be recorded weekly in your logbook and portfolio. See paragraph two in toolbox below.


Unit 21 will work closely with Captivate: Spatial Modelling Research Group. Captivate is building a high fidelity digital model of the entire World Heritage Site using scanning, photogrammetry, ground penetrating radar, photography and drones. Shortly before lockdown by using ground penetrating radar, Captivate located underground near Queen’s House a substantial part of King Henry VIII’s palace of Placentia, where it was not meant to be, a very significant find.

You will use these tools, especially photogrammetry, to capture and examine the world of your site, to make the solid transparent, to build spatial nets that capture your attitude to architecture. The point is to explore multiple techniques in combination to represent your work. Think of scanning not as a technology but as a practice. To scan means to look at thoroughly, to search, to examine.


Unit 21 has prepared a schedule for each week of the academic year, the schedule defines each dialogue, the output of each dialogue, the trajectory of terms one, two and contains references. The schedule forms the skeleton of your year and will be given to you in week one.

Studio & community

Unit 21 has experimented with many platforms to support the Unit as a community, a community where ideas can be discussed, debates can happen, work shown, references shared, news propagated, random exciting discoveries posted – a platform that also enables public and private conversations. The most studio like experience we have found is Chanty. Unit 21 will be on Chanty for our online community which will profoundly augment our studio days at Stockwell Street and our site visits. Our being a community is fundamental to Unit 21. As the situation stands today, Unit 21 will meet at Stockwell Street, Maritime Greenwich or galleries every second week and will be online for the alternate weeks. This is to facilitate those who are able to use Stockwell Street and those who for whatever reason may not be able to. Of course this may change depending on government regulation and your circumstances. We will adapt to circumstances whilst always maintaining our studio, our community and our dialogues.

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