In this paper, I study some aspects of urban environment using the concept of non-place introduced by Marc Augé in 1995. I first define the concepts of space, place and non-place. I then explain why nomadism plays an important role in the way that we appropriate urban space. I discuss the role of narrative architects and how they intervene in the politics of space. And I conclude by questioning the supposedly superiority of places over non-places.
See a more recent pdf version of this paper here.
Spaces, places and non-places
A place is a meaningful location. According to John Agnew, it has a location (e.g. longitude and latitude), a locale (the material setting for social relations – e.g. walls, ground) and a ‘sense of place’. By sense of place, he means that the place is a space invested with meaning. In a slightly different formulation, Robert D. Sack defines a place as a “phenomenon that brings social and spatial together and in part produces them” (Source: “Place, a short introduction”, Tim Cresswell).
The sense of place is an elusive notion. We can, however, roughly describe it using the three following attributes:
- The place’s identity, e.g. the possibility to name the place.
- The social practices taking place, e.g. praying in a temple, selling goods in a market, eating in a restaurant.
- Traces of memory, e.g. literature and pictures about the place.
(Source: Gamer theory, McKenzie Wark)
As an illustration, the following video introduces the history of the Westminster Reference Library in London. It shows that the building exists as a place thanks in part to the people who transmit its history. They participate in the preservation of the sense of place.
Marc Augé describes a non-place as a space that cannot be defined as relational, historical, or concerned with identity. Highways and airports are examples of non-places. He goes further and describes how the sense of place is, on the other hand, simulated in historic towns, making places and non-places distinct and opposite to each other. As he puts it:
“Our towns have been turning into museums (e.g. restored, exposed and floodlit monuments, listed areas, pedestrian precincts) while at the same time bypasses, motorways, high-speed trains and one-way systems have made it unnecessary for us to linger in them.”
“A person entering the space of non-place is relieved of his usual determinants. He becomes no more than what he does and experiences in the role of passenger, customer or driver […] he obeys the same code as others, receives the same messages, and responds to the same entreaties.”
My argument is that non-places are much more frequent and rooted in human nature than Marc Augé suggests. This has direct consequences on how space is negotiated on a day-to-day basis. Transmission of identity, history and social practices is fragile. A sense of place relies either on a group of people assuring its continuity or on authoritative power, and is not necessarily desired.
Places between sedentarism and nomadism
Humans are incredibly adaptive and can accommodate very well to either sedentarism or nomadism. These two lifestyles are profoundly ingrained within us and even though we have today a mostly sedentary life, our approach to space remains nomadic in many occasions.
Renting a house is a nomadic situation, either by choice or for pecuniary reasons. The rent is very often concluded without any knowledge of the history and identity of the house or flat. The sense of place is rarely transmitted from the landlord to the tenant (assuming the landlord has any sense of place for his property). Blocks of Victorian houses in London, for example, surely have a history, but it is unheard of by most of their inhabitants. Furthermore, they are easy to commoditize because of their very similar configuration. Only their material structure influences the social practices of their inhabitants. One might argue that this material structure is informed by British tradition, and in that sense, it transmits a persistent sense of place because it forces inhabitants to organize their space in a certain way. However, I would not give a disproportionate importance to this transmission and consider that these houses are mostly non-places, as functional and anonymous as an airport. Houses are very often not bequeathed any more from one generation of a family to the other, and their sense of place is lost.
A difference between these places and non-places is that inhabitants need to make them their home, and rapidly reinvent a brand new sense of place. The need to feel at home is described in detail in La poétique de l’Espace by Gaston Bachelard. As he points out, this feeling could be reduced to the image of the hermit’s hut, the simplest expression of what being at home means. I think that we are all nomads. We all have this image of the hut in our imagination. We can make nearly every place our home, and move the next day. The sense of space is disposable. It is not an anomaly of modernity, but in human nature. Here is an example – a few objects and a soundtrack are enough to generate a sense of place.
For a nomad to appropriate a space, it might be easier to deal with a non-place to begin, as it avoids any complicated negotiations with a pre-existing identity. However, it is not always the best option. Dealing with a place and its pre-existing identity can also be helpful to invent or reinforce a narrative that the inhabitant wants to apply to his own life (e.g. living in a house that was owned by an important figure, a house symbolizing certain values or a certain status in the neighbourhood).
So far, I have talked about houses, but the same process can be observed in many other places: offices, places of celebrations, entire neighbourhoods. In the following video, I wonder if the ‘cosmopolitan world’ mentioned by the owner of the café is not, in fact, a non-place. Or maybe is it a meeting place as defined by Doreen Massey: “each place is the focus of a distinct mixture of wider and more local social relations, an understanding that its character can only be constructed by linking that place to places beyond” (Source: “Place, a short introduction”, Tim Cresswell).
In this video of the New Year celebration by the Kurdish community in Finsbury Park, the park is treated as a non-place so that the celebration of that other place, Kurdistan, can be fully experienced.
An easy way to create a sense of place from a non-place is by using media. As you can see in the video below, a few visual effects and an old soundtrack instantly provide an identity to the parkland walk, making it an old-fashioned place to enjoy with friends.
In all these videos, the sense of place is created nearly from scratch by the occupiers, who prefer to treat the space as a non-place. That sense of place might be ephemeral or persistent, depending on the intentions of the occupiers – they are free to choose between nomadism and sedentarism.
It remains that the overall and much-contested trend is leaning towards nomadism. It can be attributed to the phenomenon of ‘time-space compression’, “a term used to describe processes that seem to accelerate the experience of time and reduce the significance of distance” (Wikipedia). It is the direct consequence of trains, cars, airlines, television, and the internet. Information is instantaneous and the world is reduced to the in-flight map that indicates your position on Earth. Commuting is the norm, and anyone who wants to ‘succeed’ in life has to move constantly.
As explained in the previous chapter, people want non-places that are easy to appropriate. They want them because they might change locations in a couple of years, because they are already too busy managing their identity on the web, or because they get more a sense of authorship on their career. Places imposing a strong narrative are, for most of us, more appropriate for either travels or visits. However, non-places are not as blank as they look. Architects, urbanists, politicians, private firms and public institutions all participate in the design of urban non-places. They are what I call narrative architects, a term borrowed from Henry Jenkins (Source: Video Game Spaces, Michael Nitsche).
Let me start with this playground. Its designers did not write any stories, but they knew that the concrete objects would be associated with tales of mountains, castles and exotic adventures. They created evocative elements that children could use to appropriate a non-place. These elements provide a substitute for an unfenced environment perceived by parents as inappropriate for their children.
Using the same logic, one only needs to put lines on a concrete ground to make it a football field, and significantly alter its use. The lines produce a generic sense of place that is quick to internalize and convenient to use.
The American kitchen, British bathroom, and Western living room are evocative elements that architect narrators use to sequence the everyday storyline of their occupiers. We could imagine a house where we would take a shower in the living room, but most people prefer to stick with more common storyboards.
With these evocative elements in place, it is difficult for inhabitants to divert from the prescribed user scenarios (to use a marketing term). But it is possible and people find unusual ways to appropriate their space. “People are able to resist the construction of expectations about practice through place by using places and their established meanings in subversive ways” (Source: Video Game Spaces, Michael Nitsche). For example, the next video shows how wi-fi signals can be used to form an unexpected representation of the neighbourhood.
Politics of space
In their willingness to pacify the space, local authorities take control of it. By doing so, they erase the need for local communities to engage in dialogue, which prevents any contestation and negotiation of public space, and de-facto its appropriation.
Movements such as transition towns value local activities for their environmental sustainability. Local communities want to preserve their neighbourhood and way of living. Slow food restaurants want to promote time at the opposite end of ubiquitous fast-food chains. They are all part of a ‘militant particularism’ movement that fights a time-space compression often associated with capitalistic interests. It is, in that sense, a progressive movement. “Place is a form of fixed capital which exists in tension with other forms of capital. Political struggle over place often provide opportunities for resistance to the mobile forces at the origin of the time-space compression” (Source: “Place, a short introduction” by Tim Cresswell).
On the other hand, militant particularism could be seen as a reactionary movement to exclude outsiders. “Sentimentalized recovering of sanitized heritage sites” can marginalize people who are not part of that heritage. It can justify segregation by the “construction of a unproblematic identity” (Doreen Massey). This is what happens in gentrification that ‘restores’ old districts. It ‘rehabilitates’ a neighbourhood that former, poorer inhabitants supposedly did not appreciate enough.
“Accompanying this production of sense of history and authenticity is a process of exclusion based on the identification of a threatening other beyond the walls of the town” (Source: “Place, a short introduction” by Tim Cresswell).
I have shown how non-places are useful for the nomads we are and how easily we can produce a disposable sense of place for them. Non-places are not totally blank, however, and feature evocative elements designed by narrative architects. These evocative elements mediate the appropriation of space and our daily life. Whether places are more desirable than non-places is a question of values. The superiority of places over non-places is advocated for opposite reasons in progressive and reactionary rhetoric. For this reason, I do not think it is wise to draw a conclusion using this dichotomy.
- Video Game Spaces, Michael Nitsche, 2008
- Place, a short introduction, Tim Cresswell, 2004
- Non-places – An introduction to supermodernity, Marc Augé, 1995
- La poétique de l’espace, Gaston Bachelard, 1957
- In praise of shadows, Junichiro Tanizaki, 1933
- June 2011, talk about the appropriation of space given at the IXth IIAA conference on Environmental Aesthetics, University of Helsinki (Lahti, Finland).
- January 2011, article: Conversation with Kati Blom on the appropriation of space, from the International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture.
- Letter on the philosophical concept of mobile capital published in the issue 232 of the “Design, Architecture, Ideas” Ottagono magazine (Italy).