Inhabiting the city’s gaps

On the whole, we’ve failed to create suitable environments for ourselves. Besides some of the obvious failures, like the provision of sufficient and adequate housing, functioning transportation systems or environmentally-sustainable urbanism, we have also designed sterile, predictable and uninspiring environments.

The planned spaces of the city are intentionally organized as a means of facilitating production, commerce, transportation and residential life. As Manfredo Tafuri explains, “[t]he large city is . . . a true unity. . . . It is the whole modern city itself which has structurally become an enormous ‘social machine’”, designed narrowly to serve economic interests. [1] From the layout of city plan itself, to the zoning codes, to the subdivision and deeding of land, down to the policies designed to encourage specific social groupings and types of occupancy, the city’s principal task is to ensure the ongoing, intensifying and expanded reproduction of the commercial/financial system. “[T]he ideology of consumption, far from constituting an isolated or subsequent moment of the organization of production, must offer itself to the public as an ideology of the correct use of the city.” [2] In other words, this isn’t just something that happens in urban space, it is the principal raison d’être of the urban.

One consequence of this type of planned urbanism is a tremendous limiting of possibilities — an effective ruling out of behaviors and uses that do not fit within the narrowly-defined ‘correct’ commercial use of urban space. While one might think that commercially-motivated urban development would blossom into an incredibly wide range of interesting and exciting spaces, finely tuned to excite, exhilarate and tickle the desires of consumers, quite the opposite has happened. The occupied spaces of the city increasingly conform to tried-and-true forms of profitable spatial typologies, like the liquor store, the clothing shop, the pizza parlor, and the cafe, which cater to the most immediate, universal and lazy wants of urban populations. In many places — particularly in the planned “center” of urban and suburban regions, the only viable tenants of leasable spaces are large retail corporations. These spaces purport to be the city’s vital center, yet they are categorically unimaginative. Despite this, these spaces are replicated everywhere. What can be more formulaic than the mass-repeated Starbucks, Old Navy store, or Jamba Juice? Often, the excitement of a place is measured in terms of the diversity of its shops, with ‘good’ examples being places where independently owned stores and cafes are situated. While independent shops and cafes are no doubt typically more interesting than their corporate counterparts, the fact that they represent the ‘good’ end of the spectrum of urban spaces testifies to the impoverishment of the planned city.

Yet if the plan tends to fail on the desire front, its breakdowns, blind spots, inconsistencies and accidents — in shorthand, its gaps — often yield the potential for something much better. Fortunately (from this angle), the plan — however totalizing it may be — is vastly incomplete. Not only does the planning of designers, governmental agencies, commercial developers and other powers get evaded, ignored and altogether defied, but the plan itself does not successfully incorporate every square inch or minute of urban space-time into itself.

One valence of the plan’s incompletion is its own internal failure and self-disruption. There is a long history of newly-developed commercial centers rendering old ones vacant, leaving a steady stream of what Rem Koolhaas calls “junkspace” in its wake. [3] In Ohio, for example, which has had the highest rate of retail vacancy in the United States, the construction of new malls condemns older shopping centers to rot, leaving behind bizarre ruins, full of inoperative escalators, caved-in, snow-filled atriums, and celled recesses along corridors where merchandise was relatively recently on display. [4] Sometimes this occurs on a metropolitan or regional basis, as with the post-industrial Northeast, where industry followed capital flight to cheaper labor markets abroad, leaving entire cities like Detroit or Cleveland to rust into oblivion. What’s more, various industries have a tendency to ‘disrupt’ one another, with online retail today posing a serious risk to brick-and-mortar businesses in general. [5] What we have, then, is a subtraction from an already-flawed and narrowly-focused commercial-urban paradigm, resulting in the austerity of vacancy.

Vacancies are not only spatial. Across time, too, we may also witness instances of vacancy. The closure of businesses after business hours is perhaps a kind of cover-up of the plan’s inability to fully incorporate all space and time into itself. By planning the business’s cyclical underperformance, the resources that constitute it become accounted for and are not counted as vacant or available for other purposes. So many of the spaces of the city go unused a majority of the time. Backyards, for example, are rarely used. A 2007 UCLA study determined that people tend to use their backyards for less than 1 hour per month. [6]

It is in these gaps that something better and more imaginative can flourish. In a time of scattered systemic failure, perhaps dis-integration is a better strategy than progressive integration. In other words, the organization of fragmentary resources — spatio-temporal elements that have fallen over the edge of the prevailing order of value — into new configurations may be a better bet than trying to reform the existing system to be more inclusionary (of disenfranchised populations in addition to disenfranchised desires). These gaps have been described as interstitial fragments of an ‘inoperative city” — “an accumulation of disparate spatial experiences without a binding order, where form and void coincide.” [7] Their lack of ‘binding order’ perhaps comes from the fact that they are not intensively integrated into the formal economy or system of tried-and-true value production. Some vacancies become opportunities, as their value, oversight or physical condition lapse to a point of being able to be appropriated for new uses. Some accidents yield ideal conditions for new uses. Some blind spots allow new systems of value or experimental productions to flourish where old ones have either broken down or never existed to begin with.

It has been argued rather compellingly that “[a]rchitecture is the gap between building and using, just as literature is the gap between writing and reading”, and it is from this understanding that we might posit a new role for architectural intervention in urban space: the search for gaps, and the thoughtful utilization of space-time such that it renders possible new, more inclusive and meaningful prospects for life in the twenty-first century. [8]

Endnotes

(1) Manfredo Tafuri, “Toward a Critique of Architectural Ideology”, in Architecture Theory since 1968, K. Michael Hays, eds., pg. 21.

(2) Manfredo Tafuri, “Toward a Critique of Architectural Ideology”, in Architecture Theory since 1968, K. Michael Hays, eds., pg. 17.

(3) Rem Koolhaas, “Junkspace”, in October, Vol. 100, (Spring, 2002), pp. 175–190.

(4) John Harper, “Northeast Ohio’s retail gluttony: old malls rot while new shopping centers sprawl”, Cleveland.com, <http://www.cleveland.com/akron/index.ssf/2015/08/the_trash_of_northeast_ohio_ol.html> accessed May 34, 2016.

(5) While certain businesses are perhaps immune to the growth of online commerce, many businesses will not be able to weather the competitive subtraction from their revenue that web-based retailers are securing, on an expanded basis. This is in spite of the adaptive buy-online-pick-up-in-store and ship-from-store models that many brick-and-mortar retailers have been deploying.

(6) Jeanne E. Arnold, Ursula A. Lang, “Changing American Home Life: trends in domestic leisure and storage among middle-class families”, Journal of Family and Economic Issues, Vol. 28, Issue 1 (March 2007), pp 23–48.

(7) Elly Van Eeghem, Riet Steel, Griet Verschelden, Carlos Dekeyrel, “Urban Crack as a Concept and a Case”, <https://isea2011.sabanciuniv.edu/paper/urban-cracks-interstitial-spaces-city> accessed May 23, 2016.

(8) Jonathan Hill, The Illegal Architect, Black Dog, London, 1998, pg. 26.