As young adults, most of us spent a lot of time in transitional spaces – neither within nor without, incompletely lit and arbitrarily organized – occupying them in ways that mirrored our own lack of fixedness in opinion, friendship, ambition, and lifestyle.
Transitional spaces are not only transportation spaces, but there is overlap; bus stops are the last resort of those without autos, but so are sidewalks, stations, and bridges. Rooftops, empty lots, childless playgrounds, embankments, docks, trails, underpasses… young people spend a lot of time outdoors, seeking a new view of the world, or the company of others, or the adventures denied in their everyday pursuits of school, and chores, and modesty.
As a teenager, I spent a lot of time outdoors at night. My friends and I would linger in stadium stands, parks and soccer fields. We were tied to trees on the hillsides of Tantalus, saved later by older brothers and treated to a terrifying ride down the mountain in the back of a pickup. We traversed hotel balconies on the eleventh floor, strolling through empty guest rooms to escape, still unscathed. We would dare each other to slip naked beneath the crashing waves, to be the last one out in the freezing darkness before bodysurfing in to shore. There were never consequences. We reveled in the terror of nighttime exploits, tired of the programmed spaces of classroom, chapel, gymnasium, bedroom – every room with a purpose, but none for dreams.
Humans speak more freely in darkness than in daylight. Movement and wind, unknown shadows and sounds inspire confidences in one another. Sharing the experience of deprivation, triumph and lust releases inhibitions. Young people need emotion, the overwhelming acknowledgement of perception, the rush of blood that accompanies fear and trials.
We never grow out of the need for spaces of potential, for unprogrammed and loosely defined places. In cities, rapid deindustrialization and shrinking urban populations have supplied new space for occupation by informal economies and activities. The cracked lots previously for car sales, warehouses emptied of their goods, and apartments long unserviced by power and water, encourage spontaneity and artistic experimentation.
In recent months, we have seen the occupation of public spaces by a vocal new crowd, united not by age or faith or even intent, but by an emotion that is no longer willing to be limited by fear. In spaces across the globe, with virtuous slogans of wealth-sharing and equality, justice and rage begat by the lack of corporate accountability. “Representation through occupation” reads one of the signs. Sparked in part by the similar intensity of the Arab Spring uprisings against power and tyranny, Occupy Wall Street appeals to those who were too young for the sit-ins of the 1960’s and the civil rights movement, but who wish to contribute their time to an ideal, albeit one with a still-undefined outcome. The tent cities and bonfires, the overwhelming visual attack of handmade signs and vandalism of corporate identity, have returned these planned and formal green spaces to indeterminacy. The protestors have made places of conflict out of the formal lands developed by commerce and government, and have created the necessary incompleteness in the system to allow spontaneity to thrive.
Architects continue to experiment in making indeterminate space, especially within places of culture, loci of creativity. Provocative spaces for learning such as SANAA’s RolexCenter in Lausanne, empty the frame of the wall with floor to ceiling glazing, and establish circulation paths that curl in waves beneath the feet of university students. The fiercely iconographic patterning of the façade and dogmatic geometry of the CCTV tower in Beijing by Rem Koolhaas, “promotes the void as the structuring agency of the new urban form,” according to the New York Times. We work awfully hard to capture and collect playfulness in structures that must act as anything but.
We desire the rough achievement of gaining safe ground, but only after experiencing a tremor of thrill, a doubt, a connection, a surprise. The best spaces have unclear corners, hidden lighting, tangible air movement, sudden views back to where you have already been…. We need look no further than our nearest abandoned warehouse for inspiration.