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.