The Spaces in Which We Live

16 September 2010


Portland's neo-Romanesque Union Station, with its familiar “Go By Train sign”, is a paradigmatic example of a transient space.

In a couple of posts, Epistemic Space: Mapping Time and Transient Spaces, I tried to describe the peculiar character of spaces that are purpose-built for transience, spaces not intended for lingering or loitering, much less for residing. Cities are especially rich in transient spaces, such as sidewalks, elevators, escalators, pedestrian malls, bridges, hallways, bus and train stations, and so forth. There are also many examples of what we might call quasi-transient spaces, where lingering is expected, but only for a socially acceptable period of time, such as restaurants, laundromats, and museums. If you stay too long in a museum you will be viewed with suspicion. Such quasi-transient spaces are often precisely metered, as in the case of car parks, which at least reduces the ambiguity of what span of time is socially acceptable. Some museums are beginning to go this route by selling tickets with precise entry times.

The Champs-Élysées is not only a remarkably wide street, it also has remarkably wide sidewalks.

Now, as it happens, transient spaces are exactly those spaces in which people end up loitering, and in fact it is enough of an issue that laws against loitering are passed so that police can, by legal compulsion, compel people not to linger where they are supposed to only pass through (a concrete and personal example of the state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of force). Such spaces, however, are intrinsically ill-defined and open to exaptation. A sidewalk is a paradigmatically transient space, but a sidewalk cafe is a paradigmatic example of a place to linger. I remember especially when I stayed a couple of weeks in Paris in 1996 how the broad boulevards bequeathed by Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s nineteenth century rational reconstruction of the city also provided very wide sidewalks, and in some places the sidewalk cafes were obviously permanent installations. For example, low wooden platforms were built on sloping sidewalks in order to provide a flat terrace for tables and chairs. Also, outdoor heaters were commonly employed to make it possible to use these sidewalk cafes after dark and during the cooler months.

A satellite photograph of contemporary Brasilia, showing it still very much a realization of its plan.

One of my favorite stories of an exapted transient space (I can no longer recall where I heard this) concerns the bus station in Brasília, the capital of Brazil, mostly designed by urban planner Lúcio Costa and architect Oscar Niemeyer, and which recently celebrated its fiftieth birthday (which I celebrated in Fifty Years of Brasília). As I heard the story, Brasília, being a planned and therefore artificial city, had no planned space for people watching, no organized space for loitering, no place to watch what A. E. Housman saw as, “…the moving pageant file, Warm and breathing through the street,” and so people began hanging out at the bus station. Here was movement and interest, like a waterfall of humanity, always the same yet always new.

Truth be told, most urban planning has been disastrous, subject to fads and to theories with only the most tenuous connection to reality. Time and again the most hopeful and advanced urban planning has resulted in spaces that are not used as they are intended to be used. This sounds innocent enough, except that the biggest failures of urban planners in the recent past were the creation of “projects” which concentrated poverty and became exapted primarily for criminal activity. This is not the kind of natural and healthy exaptation that an urban planner would like to see as his grand design is translated into actual living conditions for actual human beings. These spaces intended for living became spaces used for transient purposes, such as the manufacture and distribution of controlled substances.

The sight of housing projects being demolished has become common (demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe project in St. Louis, Mo.)

Now the cities that built projects in the 1960s and early 1970s are tearing them down, and dealing with a whole new set of problems that have been created by attempting to mix uses and avoid the concentration of poverty and dependency. Also, the demolition of projects has been attended by protests against “gentrification,” which I briefly mentioned in The Rational Reconstruction of Cities but which I have not yet given the attention to which it is entitled based on its intrinsic interest.

Planning is not always a disaster. Very close to my office, where I am now writing this, is Orenco Station, which is a planned “community” that was constructed around a light rail terminal when Portland’s light rail system was extended to the west side of the city. I have talked to many people in the local real estate and construction industry, and everyone wants to claim responsibility for being involved with this development. As we all know, success has a thousand fathers,while failure is an orphan. I was told that when a delegation came from eastern Europe to visit examples of successful development in Oregon that there were two places they wanted to see: Spirit Mountain Casino and Orenco Station. Personally, I find Orenco Station hideous, and I can feel its artificiality as strongly as though I were strolling in Disneyland, but apparently I am in the minority here.

The spaces in which we live are the antithesis of transient spaces. We might simply call them non-transient spaces. But the places in which we are supposed to live are not always the places in which we actually do live, and the places we we do in fact live are not always the places we are supposed to live. Not only is our living space not distributed according to intention or according to a rational plan, it also changes over time. Thus old warehouses become loft apartments, and then we get so accustomed to people living in warehouse lofts that residential structures are purpose-built to look like old warehouses. A friend of mine once called these “lofts for yuppies” in a disdainful tone.

If we consider the contemporary busy professional, devoted more to career than to home and family, one’s soi-dissant “home” is a place one returns to for sleep. But such a professional spends more time out of home than at home. Indeed, I suspect that such a professional — today, both men and women — live the bulk of their time in Transient Spaces, moving from sidewalk to subway car to cafe to performance venue, and so forth.

The spaces in which we live partially constitute the kind of persons that we are; we construct our lives today as we construct our artificial environments. And this is important. What kind of a person lives in Transient Spaces? The answer is so obvious it scarcely need be made explicit: transients live in transient spaces. Of course, the kind of transients I describe above are wearing silk suits and carrying lap tops, rather than wearing rags and pushing shopping carts, but the point here is that this is a different of degree and not a difference in kind.

Industrialized civilization with its need for the mobility of labor and its regimentation of clock and calendar has created the need for transient spaces, the market has responded to the need by building transient spaces, and transient spaces have created transients — transients of all kinds, all conditions, and of all social classes. The children of middle class households who spend their time on city streets are as much transients as the silk suited business man or the beggar with his cardboard sign.

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