On making non-place into place

One of the more useful terms of art you’re likely to trip over in contemporary urbanist discourse is Marc Augé’s non-place. Even on first hearing, you most likely already knew in your bones what is meant by the expression: that sprawling, carefully banalized archipelago of airport lounges, hotel lobbies, gas stations, coffeebars, etc. that constitutes the nodal portion of the global travel/hospitality complex, and in which we seem fated to spend an increasing percentage of our time on this planet.

As Kraftwerk put it – although those worthies probably meant it as praise – these are locales given over wholly to “time, travel, communication, entertainment.” And to hear Augé tell it, anyway, they’re supposed to be interstitial, without inherent character, defined precisely and solely by the quality that they afford smooth transition between one place and another.

You know where this definition begins to break down, though? When you spend way too much time in non-place. All of a sudden, in a process that somewhat resembles a figure/ground reversal, these putatively anonymous and interstitial zones take on texture and resolution of their own. Against the intentions, perhaps, of their designers, they acquire unique and indelible character; I can recite the stops on the Narita limousine bus serving my old neighborhood, the woman who keeps the shower schedule in the Lufthansa lounge at Frankfurt recognizes me, I’ve learned that for whatever reason I find the downtown Standard more comfortable than the one in Hollywood.

All of this is to say that I’ve developed certain pronounced affinities and dislikes. I may not wear khakis; polos embroidered with an institutional affiliation may be as anathema to me as they would be to any other human being with a grain of sense. But damned if I haven’t become a road warrior anyway, to my great and lasting chagrin. And the one fringe benefit of all this is that I can no longer see non-places (specifically these, anyway) as entirely flat and featureless: I’ve learned that everything has texture if you see it often enough.

Marc Augé, see, he simply didn’t spend enough time on the road. As far as I can tell, the true condition of “supermodernity” is one of such ceaseless mobility that you sweep over the world like a raster, burning these transitional zones into memory and history in ever-higher resolution. As life lessons go, this one’s not anything I would have looked for, necessarily, but it’s something.

2 responses to “On making non-place into place”

  1. ville says :

    sounds like post-bioregionalism. :)

  2. six says :

    Having left New York recently for suburban southern California (where I’ll be living out the majority of the next two years of my life), I’m increasingly of the suspicion that suburbia constitutes another sort of non-place. In Irvine, famous as the great success story of the master-planning movement and in some ways the apotheosis of Leo Marx’s “machine in the garden”, the sidewalks are designed to undulate somewhat so as never to appear flat or monotonous—but after you walk or ride over them enough times you realize that the pattern of undulation itself repeats—that is, what was intended as a marker of place turns out to be a non-place after all.

    Of course, as you noticed, non-places become places not through architecture but through the construction of history; a place is understood, defined, and referred to by the things that happened there, and to the people who they happened to (or who caused the happening). A question of interest for me then, as someone interested in interrogating these suburban non-places, is: how do we make history in them? This is immediately an obviously really a question about community, because for history to be made there must be someone to be a party to it. So then—how do we create community in an environment where all architectural constraints seem to militate against it, and to reify and enforce the dialectics of insularity, isolation, alienation, and anomie so commonly (and rightfully) associated with suburban landscapes?

    I don’t know, but surely there must be promising approaches.

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