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architexts ISSN 1809-6298


A conceção apolítica ou neutra do Estado contribui para a disseminação de uma ideia do oceano como um terrain vague. Neste contexto, a criação de um novo mapa-múndi está em curso, e os arquitetos e urbanistas são convocados para a discussão.

The apolitical or neutral conception of the State contributes to the dissemination of an idea of the ocean as a terrain vague. In this context, the creation of a new world map is happening, and architects and urban planners are convoked to the discussion.

La concepción apolítica o neutral del Estado contribuye a la difusión de una idea del océano como un terrain vague. Por ello, se está produciendo la creación de un nuevo mapa del mundo, y los arquitectos y urbanistas están convocados a la discusión.

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RODRIGUES, Inês Vieira. The ocean as a terrain vague of the twenty-first century. Rebuilding new sea cartographies. The Azorean case. Arquitextos, São Paulo, year 22, n. 259.04, Vitruvius, dec. 2021 <>.

The ocean as a meaningless space

As Solà-Morales affirmed, terrain vague is a French expression which is not possible to translate into English using a single word (1). Supporting his theory on etymological research around the term vague, the Spanish architect pointed out three connotations: by underlining the original meaning of Latin words, vague was first stressed out as a space of the possible, of the encounter, filled with a sense of expectance and promise. Still within this first assumption, the author accentuated the existence of an evocative power of the terrain vague, within the city milieu. The second meaning for vague is related with indetermination and uncertainty. The author related this inaccuracy with a boundless perception, an almost oceanic feeling associated with the idea of mobility and freedom. The third meaning takes its roots in the word vague as vacant to address places which have been apparently forgotten, external places understood as foreign to the productive structures.

Throughout his theory, Solà-Morales defined the terrain vague as strange, as inhabitable (2). This strangeness and almost emptiness of sense is considered relevant to characterize the ocean as a contemporary terrain vague ― not in terms of its function or its usefulness, but in terms of its meaning and its signification.

It is essential to inscribe the theory proposed in this paper within a European perspective, otherwise it could risk being an irrelevant contribute by emphasizing a too generalized perspective. In this sense, it is necessary to refer to John Mack’s theory (3) to sustain the concept that Braudel’s view of the Mediterranean was somewhat static as a space for exchange. Given this, thinking about the Mediterranean in order to represent the seas as delimited spaces is part of a European legacy. Furthermore, when the Atlantic Ocean is considered, the frequently unconscious, but largely shared reference of the cabotage as a method to navigate through water, simple vanishes. This occurs because, as Mack points out, the debates on navigation are essentially formulated in terms of land characteristics, rather than those of the sea, the sun, or the stars (4).

Illustration by Henry Holiday for The Hunting of the Snark, by Lewis Carroll
Public Domain, 1876 [Wikimedia Commons]

Indeed, imagining the Azorean archipelago, it’s often to think about a group of islands located in the immense Ocean Sea. Towards a feeling of sea vastness and continuity of the water, the European reading of the phenomena loses its reference. The abysses and multiple depths around the islands often associate with an overwhelming feeling. However, when one thinks about the Pacific islands, as Mack claims, that sense of emptiness was not common among sailors and the inhabitants of the islands (5). For the Polynesians, the sea was filled with sense and meaning and according to Mack’s theory, it was understood as inhabited by spiritual entities, which minimizes any dimension of loneliness and isolation that may be associated with it. Nevertheless, the arrival of precision cartography has irrevocably transformed the relationship of sailors with the sea (6). Thus, in the Pacific, cartography was a revolution in the experience of the sea and a tool to turn it into an empty space. Followed by the use of the compass, and later the employment of iron in the construction of ships, the final effect was “to make all the seas the same” (7). These tools made obsolete the inherited and instinctive body of knowledge of Polynesian sailors, which contributed to the construction of the perception of the sea as a “vacuum, a meaningless space” (8).

Alain Corbin wrote about a fascination for the seaside in a European context, whose first evidence the author locates in the middle of the 18th century (9). In accordance with Mack, Corbin sustains that the ambiguity of the ideas of classical antiquity regarding the polluting and purifying qualities of the seas reappear in the positions of Europeans at the beginning of the modern era. However, it is worth to mention that Corbin places the very beginning of the shift related to the idea of the ocean between 1660 and 1675, with the appearance and development of oceanography in England (10). Therefore, even if the knowledge and science about the ocean started to emerge and to expand, the ocean continued to be a symbol of emptiness, vastness and availability. Even though the seashores started to accommodate leisure and contemplative activities ― in particular, with the creation of ports ― the evocative power of the wave and the misleading temporal and spatial infinitude persisted in the arts and literature.

In addition to that perspective, referring to the French case, Alain Corbin affirms that the abolition of the admiralty in 1791 and the declaration of the fish as res nullius originated a legal vacuum (11). As a consequence, it has generated a demand to re-establish the implementation of previous regulations. Corbin continues his reasoning, defending that the abolition of property in the ocean contributes to a notion of it as an empty territory, since it recovers its original availability and turns into a symbol of a legitimate harvest (12).

The common property conflict

In order to understand the recent shifts related to ocean governance, the works of Becky Mansfield and Philip Steinberg are here considered of utmost importance. As Mansfield affirms, the 1950s mark the beginning of the process of extension of political economic jurisdiction by individual states (13). In a seemingly divergent way in relation to a regime of primarily open access and quoting Mansfield’s work, “this form of limited access seems to directly contradict neoliberal approaches to markets and states, in that political enclosure represents an expansion, rather than a limitation, of state control and governance” (14). Consequently, a new form of property right is generated, since the extension of jurisdiction encloses what once was understood as commons into state territory. In this sense, there is a contemporary premise that states can continue to contain and to incorporate the oceans by means of privatization strategies. As a result, as emphasized by Mansfield, “by enclosing oceans as national territory, extended jurisdiction is the first step toward further devolving property rights to individuals” (15).

Philip Steinberg argued that the sea, like nation-states, has been built over time, that is, physically and symbolically appropriated (16). Steinberg warned of the convention, deeply rooted in social theories, that the limits of “societies” coincide with those defined by nation-states. This assumption reduces territories like the ocean to a second level, in which “society” is not formed. Hence, within the reasoning developed in this paper, it is considered that the illusory absence of “societies” in sea environments contributes to its reading as a terrain vague. Besides that, the assumption that the ocean ― in particular, the Atlantic Ocean ― is a terrain vague of the 21st century is profoundly rooted with Peter Sloterdijk’s theory, according to whom there is still a profound terrain-conservative perspective (17). Moreover, this paper defends that the maritime experience of the Mediterranean still prevails in the current politics, in particular those related to the Portuguese case. The land continues to be a reference, simultaneously as a point for navigation and as a concept.

The French word “terrain”, as Solà-Morales argued, is related with an extension of “land” and its expectant condition ― although, the Spanish architect safeguarded that the word in French (“terrain”) has a more urban connotation than the English primary translation (“land”) (18). In the light of some legal documents, the sea is often considered as a territory (19). The constant allusion to an earthly term, maybe could be understood as an evidence of a heritage anchored on a Mediterranean culture and study. Therefore, the use of the term “terrain” to refer to an environment which is, in its essence, profoundly liquid, seems to have an instituted legal basis ― besides the cultural one, previously briefly mentioned.

When the term “vague” is transposed into this reasoning, it should be particularly understood as “meaningless”, as it is believed that this emptiness of meaning has a political purpose and an agenda behind it. In this line of thought, the ocean is understood as a domain, ready to be conquered and filled with sense. However, this doesn’t mean that it is empty of function ― not at all. The sea already functions and similarly the terrestrial environment, “the surface and space of the ocean continue to be instrumented in radical ways ― such as a means of transport, as sewage, as a battlefield, as extraction of resources, as a space for the territorialization of nation-states, among others. From this perspective, a prevalent contemporary purpose concerning the sea ― and, to a further extend, also a globalized one ― is a colonial one: to conquer it and to dominate it.

Nowadays, geographical perspectives signal a continuing tension on sea governance, namely the one that exists between strategies that seek to build new practices for the sea as a common territory, those that seek the exploitation of its resources, and those focused on its geopolitical implications. The nation-states use those instruments capable of legitimizing national claims in terms of territoriality (20).

However, it is necessary to return to Mansfield’s theory, in particular to the paradox identified at the center of these new political economy of the oceans, where lies the concern about “the commons”. Mansfield claims that there has been a radical repositioning concerning the freedom of the seas, considering that “oceans were long treated as a common property”, “within the Euro-American tradition that has shaped international law of the sea”. Recently, however, there is a clear “a pronounced shift away from freedom of the seas” (21). Therefore, and in a very contradictory turn of the current narratives, the attention on the commons is at the center of neoliberal privatization of the oceans. Besides that, the geographer argues that States have been fundamental to this neoliberal displacement in ocean governance (22). Thus, this ambiguity claimed by Becky Mansfield is essential to understand the perceptiveness of the ocean as a terrain vague. Despite its apparent unlimited extension and its noticeable communal terrain, the ocean is nowadays disputed and enclosed through legal strategies.

Definitely, the sea governance question is extraordinarily important, in particular in the European context. For instance, one of the Brexit’s most disputed question is precisely the sea domain and its related fisheries (23). Furthermore, it should be noted that, at a time when Portugal is awaiting the result of the submission of its request for the extension of the Portuguese Continental Shelf, the analysis of tensions and debates on governance in the Autonomous Region of the Azores is of clear importance for the very redefinition of sovereignty and jurisdiction, either as a process or as a concept.

As John Mack affirms, “new constellations of common interests are emerging and being dissolved as new alliances are formed, as well as these organizations affect the entire formation process of the State itself” (24). In addition, the scale and extent of these new coalitions are distant from any terrestrial conception of territoriality. Thereby, the attentiveness dedicated to the seas defies concepts that are usually reifying of nations and continents.

Terrain vague as a State product

Reification of the State as a land-oriented perspective

Consequently, it is argued that the concept of terrain vague applied to the ocean ― the Atlantic Ocean, in this case ― is inextricable from a critical perspective regarding the idea of the State. In this sense, it is intended to highlight the need to go beyond the territorial concept whose center is the State and its terrestrial territorial limits, for a model that reveals connections, flows and networks. As Neil Brenner describes, “an alternative meta-geography”, instead of “mosaics of the States” (25).

Pierre Bourdieu defined the reified social space as a physically realized or objectified space, in which different types of goods and services are perceived as physically located, as well as individual agents and groups (26). Until now, it is argued in this paper, the archipelagic territories and in particular the Azores have been approached based on a logic of reification that sends social actors to a specific social and physical space (27). When the reflection on the continent/archipelago dichotomy, continental/island “society” takes place, it faces a thought of great social opposition objectified in the physical space, a reification that, using Bourdieu’s reasoning, “tends to be reproduced in spirits and in language in the form of oppositions, constituting a principle of vision and of division, that is, as categories of perception and appreciation, or of mental structures” (28). In this sense, language reproduces social oppositions that in turn translate into commonly shared territorial inscriptions. Therefore, language is understood as a tool in the process of the reification of the States.

The idea of sovereignty and the ability to dominate space, namely in its appropriation (material or symbolic) depends on the capital owned and is the possession of capital that ensures “quasi-ubiquity” (29). Conversely, the lack of capital intensifies the experience of finitude when referring to a place, as defended by Bourdieu (30).

Laws as territorial production

Considering Bourdieu’s basic concept, the State is a fiction of jurists who contribute to the production of the State by producing a theory of the State, a performative discourse on the public thing (31). The political philosophy they produce is not descriptive, but “productive and predictive of its object” (32). Continuing to draw upon the same reasoning, Bourdieu argues that lawyers progressively build what we call the State, by establishing what should be of the social world as a whole, enunciating the official and pronouncing the words that are, in fact, orders. The French sociologist affirms that jurists impose their vision of the State through their writings, in particular the idea of “public utility”, whose invention is authored by the aforementioned jurists and which consists of a strategy to recognize their presence in the affirmation of the existence of the “public service” (33). Thus, the constitution of a State logic is accompanied by the construction of the State in the sense of a population within its borders, that is, the set of organizational resources, both material and symbolic, that are accompanied by an idea of a unified population, who speak the same language. Then, “State” and “nation”, in their most absolute terms, seem to coincide symbolically and materially. Thus, the nation-state and its territorial inscription are successful in their most operative purpose when they are not distinguished among themselves (34).

From this point of view, it is argued in this paper that it is important to recognize the fundamental role of the legislative body and its effects in territorial production. For example, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea — Unclos, 1982, which still governs International Public Maritime Law after almost four decades has been deemed partially obsolete (35). If new ways of conceiving the ocean are emerging, it is defended here that architecture and urbanism are uniquely positioned to offer important insights towards new conceptions of maritime territoriality.

The creation of a new world map

Technocratic discourse and cartographic dilemmas

It is claimed in this paper that this conception of the State as neutral and as mainly composed by land contributes to the dissemination of the idea that the ocean ― as defended, largely perceived as a terrain vague ― is external to its formation. In other words, the generalized lack of identification or the absence of the sense of self when related to the ocean (in particular, to the high seas), contributes to a disseminated project within which the conquest of the seas is globally unquestioned. Moreover, in contemporary studies, the concept of “territory” is often conceived as an area, intrinsically associated with representations defined by an aspect that could be described as static, stagnant, or immovable.

The issue spins around the current changes that mark the approach to the administration of the territory within an international context. As a consequence, besides political terms, there is a fundamental question of whether the “lines” established in the ocean unite or separate. This cartographic frame should convoke the attention of architects and urban planners, nonetheless, it is judged here that the necessary awareness afforded by professionals within this field of studies is still very scarce.

Thus, crossing this argument with Solà-Morales theory, it’s worth to emphasize an elemental question formulated in his text: “how can architecture act on the terrain vague without converting itself into an aggressive instrument of power and abstract reasons?” (36). The Spanish architect answered it, arguing that it is through attentiveness to continuity, more precisely through an awareness to fluxes, to energy, to rhythms. The author added that these are the necessary tools to face “the anguished aggression of the technological reason of telematic universalism, of cybernetic totalitarianism of egalitarian and homogenizing terror” (37). Even if these considerations formulated by Solà-Morales where apparently often oriented towards the city, it is alleged here that this preoccupation could be extended towards the “liquid environment”. Thus, this concern expressed by the architect during the 90s is understood as contemporary, since the new “sea economy” is deeply grounded in technocratic discourses. In that sense, it is assumed in this paper that one of the roles assigned to architects and urban planners should be to gather the attention to these new forms of cartography, which means to convoke the attention to planning, to policies and to governance.

The Azorean case

The recent disputes between the Portuguese State and the Regional Government of the Azores are symptomatic of the ocean governance’s conflicts and tensions. In this perspective, it seems that the property model regime was in the center of the argument, as Bacelar Gouveia explains (38). It was only recently, more precisely on January 11th, 2021, that the revision of the Law for Planning and Exploration of the Maritime Space was published, according to which the Azores will have the substantial power to decide on the use of the sea beyond the 200 nautical miles surrounding the archipelago (39).

Indeed, what is currently happening in Portugal is one small part of the massive enclosing strategy of the oceans, which is being conducted by the United Nations. The political economy of the oceans gravitates around property rights, and it is going through an enormous change determined by “neoliberal, market-base socio-environmental policies that enclose for a few what was once the property of all” (40). Among recent news concerning the new sea economy, there is a prevalent technocratic discourse that starts to integrate our imaginaries: common concepts such as “profit”, “stakeholders”, “resources” and “value” are part of a bigger narrative which intends to legitimize the exploitation of the sea environment.

Proposal for the Extension of the Portuguese Continental Shelf. With dotted yellow line. The homogeneous yellow stains represent the EEZs of mainland Portugal, the Azores and Madeira
Own creation based on “Estrutura de Missão para a Extensão da Plataforma Continental”

The misleading impression of the vast and liquid terrain vague as unprofitable and non-performing is revealed through these territorial disputes. On one hand, the Atlantic Ocean has been commonly a source of inspiration, on the other, the regular sense of disconnection with that milieu deviates important critical analysis, namely regarding government policies and planning. Therefore, it is argued that the appropriation of this contemporary terrain vague is a mega-project and, alongside that, its understanding and analysis is one of the challenges of the twenty-first century.

The delusive perceptiveness of the ocean as a “void” is also uncovered by vestiges of urban phenomena, such as the passage of the first submarine cables in the 19thcentury. In the book Planetary Urbanization, the architects Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid, influenced by Lefebvre's thinking, have proposed a new theory of urbanization, alerting to the inertia of dominant urban ideologies and their respective views (41). This is what Lefebvre wrote, arguing that the urban problem was imposed on a planetary scale, announcing the "urban era" as a new and unknown field (42).

Calling for a critical perspective of the new boundaries

“Architecture” underlines, in its etymological epicenter, the Greek term “árkhō”, which designates the “principle”, the “rule”, being therefore the royal epistemological field for thinking about the (de)construction of spatiality and its order. In the light of the eventual extension of the Portuguese Continental Shelf, there is an undeniable question of global governance, then, unavoidably, there is also a question of planning. Therefore, why are architects and urban planners not part of the process? After all, this is a matter of territorial planning, not so distant from what happens within land limits.

Subsequently to this position, it is argued that suddenly the concept of territorial cohesion calls for a new lens, namely through design and mapping, alongside with new (or rather not so conventional) agents, that is, architects and urban planners. To produce a map, to design it, is to force a representation, which is essential for a critical approach. Regardless of being impossible for a map to “capture” totality, mapping is a representational tool par excellence. Indeed, the reconstruction of new maritime maps is in progress by means of the creation of the Extended Continental Shelves, therefore it is defended the need to reclaim a new perspective, that is, to apprehend the bounding in phenomena through the redirection of design efforts towards the contemporary challenges of the ocean.


NE — This paper was previously featured at the event “Grand Projects ― Urban Legacies of the late 20th century”, on February 17th-19th, 2021.

NA — This research was funded by the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT-MCTES) through national and European funds (European Social Fund), under the scope of the Ph.D. Grant 2020.05223.BD.

SOLÀ-MORALES RUBIÓ, Ignasi de [1995]. Territorios. Barcelona, Gustavo Gili, 2002, p. 181-193.

Idem, ibidem, p. 181-193.

MACK, John [2011]. O Mar. Uma História Cultural. Bookbuilders, Silveira, 2018.

Idem, ibidem, p. 70.

To better exemplify it, as argued by Mack: “Cabotage navigation, the characteristic method of European sailors, both along the Atlantic coast and in the northern Mediterranean in the pre-modern period, is not of great relevance in a sea studded with islands, many out of sight even between itself”. Idem, ibidem, p. 104. My translation.

Idem, ibidem, p. 111.

Idem, ibidem, p. 112. My translation.

Idem, ibidem, p. 111-112.

CORBIN, Alain. Le territoire du vide: L'Occident et le désir du rivage. Paris, Editions Flammarion, 1990.

It is important to emphasize that this affirmation refers to the European context. Idem, ibidem, p. 26.

Idem, ibidem, p. 238.

Idem, ibidem, p. 247.

MANSFIELD, Becky. Neoliberalism in the oceans: “Rationalization,” property rights, and the commons question. In Heynen, N., McCarthy, J., Prudham, S. & Robbins, P. (ed.), Neoliberal Environments. False promises and unnatural consequences. Abingdon, Routledge, 2007, p. 63-73.

Idem, ibidem, p. 66.

Idem, ibidem, p. 66.

STEINBERG, Philip. The Social Construction of the Ocean. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2001.

In the sense of an earthly, land-oriented perspective. See SLOTERDIJK, Peter [2005]. Palácio de Cristal: Para Uma Teoria Filosófica da Globalização. Lisboa, Relógio D’Água Editores, 2008.

SOLÀ-MORALES RUBIÓ, Ignasi de [1995]. Op. cit., p 186-187.

TREVES, Tulio. Law of The Sea. In Max Planck Encyclopedia of International Law. Oxford Public International Law, 2011 <>; BACELAR GOUVEIA, Jorge. A Região Autónoma dos Açores e o Espaço Marítimo: fundamento e âmbito da intervenção regional no ordenamento e gestão do “Mar dos Açores” à luz do Direito português. Revista de direito público, v. 8, n. 15, 2016, p. 179-234; GARCIA PEREZ, Rafael, NEVES COELHO, Paulo, FERREIRA RODRIGUES, Teresa (ed.) A Extensão das Plataformas Continentais. Portugal e Espanha: Perspetivas e Realidades. Porto, Fronteira do Caos, Porto, 2017.

MACK, John. Op. cit., p. 39.

MANSFIELD, Becky. Op. cit., p. 63.

Idem, ibidem, p. 64.

To know more, see VOCE, Antonio, CLARKE, Seán, O’CARROL, Losa, and HULLEY-JONES, Frank. Why are fish a sticking point in the Brexit talks? The Guardian, London, nov. 25th 2020 <>.

MACK, John. Op. cit., p. 39. My translation.

BRENNER, Neil (ed.) Implosions / Explosions: Towards a Study of Planetary Urbanization. Berlin, Jovis, 2014, p. 439.

BOURDIEU, Pierre (ed.). La misère du monde. Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 1993.

One of the recurrent examples is the characterization of the Azores as an “ultraperipheral region”.

BOURDIEU, Pierre. La misère du monde (op. cit.), p. 254. My translation.

Idem, ibidem, p. 257.

Idem, ibidem, p. 257.

BOURDIEU, Pierre. De la Maison du Roi à la Raison d’État: un modèle de la genèse du champ bureaucratique. Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, n. 118, 1997, p. 55-68.

Idem, ibidem, p. 65. My translation.

Idem, ibidem, p. 65.

Idem, ibidem.

TREVES, Tulio. Op. cit.; BACELAR GOUVEIA, Jorge. Op. cit.; p. 179-234; GARCIA PEREZ, Rafael; NEVES COELHO, Paulo; FERREIRA RODRIGUES, Teresa (ed.). Op. cit.

SOLÀ-MORALES RUBIÓ, Ignasi de [1995]. Op. cit., p. 192. My translation.

Idem, ibidem, p. 192. My translation.

BACELAR GOUVEIA, Jorge. Op. cit.; p. 179-234.

DIÁRIO DA REPÚBLICA ELETRÓNICO, Lei nº1/2021, de 11 de janeiro <>.

MANSFIELD, Becky. Op. cit., p. 72.

BRENNER, Neil (ed.). Op. cit.

LEFEBVRE, Henri. La révolution urbaine. Paris, Éditions Gallimard, Paris, 1970.

about the author

Inês Vieira Rodrigues is master in Architecture (University of Porto, 2012), with the dissertation Rabo de Peixe ― society and urban form, published by Cadeidoscópio (2016). She attended the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne and worked in Portugal and France. She is a PhD candidate and a researcher at the Center for Studies in Architecture and Urbanism (CEUA FAUP).


O presente artigo faz parte de Preâmbulo, chamada aberta proposta pelo IABsp e portal Vitruvius como ação para alavancar a discussão em torno da 13ª edição da Bienal Internacional de Arquitetura de São Paulo, prevista para 2022. As colaborações para as revistas Arquitextos, Entrevista, Minha Cidade, Arquiteturismo, Resenhas Online e para a seção Rabiscos devem abordar o tema geral da bienal – a “Reconstrução” – e seus cinco eixos temáticos: democracia, corpos, memória, informação e ecologia. O conjunto de colaborações formará a Biblioteca Preâmbulo, a ser disponibilizada no portal Vitruvius. A equipe responsável pelo Preâmbulo é formada por Sabrina Fontenelle, Mariana Wilderom, Danilo Hideki e Karina Silva (IABsp); Abilio Guerra, Jennifer Cabral e Rafael Migliatti (portal Vitruvius).


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