Parts & wholes – cities & objects

At Easter, my family & I went on holiday to Venice. It’s one of those cities I’d seen many times (in Canaletto paintings and James Bond movies) and long wanted to visit. Once upon a time, I worked at the university in Delft, which is similarly famous for its canals, so I imagined Venice to be a bit like Delft only more Italian and with gondolas. I was quite wrong. In Delft, most of the canals within the town are lined on either side with one-way streets and you can navigate through the town quite easily. In Venice, hardly any of the canals have a footpath alongside them, though some do. Instead, the canals slice up the island into blocks and the footpaths (pedestrians only) cut through those blocks. The streets themselves are narrow, winding and bound by high-walls and buildings. (The Venetians, like the Defltenaars built upwards to compensate for the lack of ground-space.) So, as a tourist, walking through Venice was a difficult affair – there were no long site-lines or easy reference points to orient myself by. I found myself progressing by scuttling from church to church (landmarks on my map) and anxiously checking to see if we were heading in the right direction.

At the time, I was also preparing a lecture on Visitor Studies, so all these short site-lines and wiggly streets reminded me of the work on space syntax (Hillier & Tzorti, 2006) with its notions of the depth and intelligibility of spaces. Venice was a deep, and deeply unintelligible, space compared to the straight lines of Delft or the wide spaces of Newcastle. In Venice, it felt like I could perceive the parts but was unable to perceive their relationships so struggled to integrate them into a spatial whole.

The relationship between parts and wholes is problematic (de Landa, 2006). Does the experience of parts over time shape the idea of the whole? Long site lines allow for the experience of the relationship of parts in a single moment which contributes (I think) to an emerging sense of a whole place. Or, was my experience of the parts refracted (to borrow a phrase from Schegloff (2007)) through the idea of the whole? Certainly, I already understood Venice to be a whole, of which every street and blessed open plaza were parts. Or is it an on-going reciprocal relationship? In which case, palimpsests and the phenomenological idea of sedimentation (Sokolowski, 2000) are helpful metaphors.

I have long held on to the idea that the way we perceive space (including buildings and cities) is analogous to the way that we perceive objects. Alas, on the neurocognitive level, the research appears not to support that: different regions within the medial temporal lobes are involved in aiding “the construction of complex conjunctive object (perirhinal cortex) and spatial (hippocampus) representations” (Maguire & Mullally, 2013). But I am reluctant to give up on the idea just yet as I find it a helpful analogy, working either from spaces to objects or vice versa.

One of the interesting ambiguities in the data from the work that I did for my Psychology dissertation was the way that participants moved between responding to the objects as wholes or as parts. (I gave pairs of women a series of contemporary craft objects to hold and video-recorded their conversation as the engaged with the objects and tried to make sense of them.) There were times when participants seemed to respond to objects as wholes – the initial, ‘Ooh! I like that!’ and the times when the discussion of an object’s qualities were refracted through its alleged membership to a class of objects. The first instance is ambiguous, the second more clearly relies on thinking about the object as a whole in order to judge whether it (the object) belongs within a class of objects. (That said, it is feasible for someone to focus on a quality of the object and relate to the qualities of the class. However, even if this is the case, then it is reasonable to assume that they have made a prior judgement about the object and the class.) At other times, participants attended to parts of an object: there was a fascinating moment where, after closely inspecting an object for 3 minutes, a participant suddenly pointed to a line of iridescent colour on the surface that had been in front of them the whole time.

The major difference between objects and spaces is that there are no issues with the depth or intelligibility of the object. Though the example above suggests that the visual and tactile experiences of parts of the object unfold over time. (This is somewhat in tension with descriptions of vision as a sense which is instantaneous but in line with descriptions of perception as being enacted.) But there is still this problematic issue of the reciprocal(?) or unfolding(?) relationship between parts and whole. Taylor & Zwaan’s (2013) model of fault tolerant comprehension (my favourite) implicitly allows for this but it would still be really interesting to somehow track that process.


Hillier, B. & Tzorti, K. (2006) ‘Space Syntax: The Language of Museum Space’ in S. Macdonald (ed) A Companion to Museum Studies, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 282-301

de Landa, M. (2006) A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage theory and social complexity, London: Continuum

Maguire, E.A., & Mullally, S.L. (2013) ‘The Hippocampus: A manifesto for change’, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Advanced online publication. doi:10.1047/a0033650

Schegloff, E. A. (2007) ‘A tutorial on membership categorization’, Journal of Pragmatics, 39(3): 462-482.

Sokolowski, R. (2000) Introduction to Phenomenology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Taylor, L. J., & Zwaan, R. A. (2013). Fault-tolerant comprehension. In Y. Coello & A. Bartolo (Eds.), Language and action in cognitive neuroscience (pp. 145-158). Hove, E. Sussex, UK & New York, NY, USA: Psychology Press.


About Bruce Davenport

Research associate at Newcastle University. Previously a museum educator and researcher.
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