by Mark Jack
I am attempting to become more familiar with the West Coast, but I retain a sense of foreignness about me. I took a walk yesterday around San Francisco. It was a walk that was meandering and mutely purposive. And as I walked, I couldn’t shake feeling stuck between seeing myself as a tourist and of feeling familiar with my surroundings. I’m not entirely sure what this suggests, or if it suggests anything, but I do feel a certain unease. Maybe it’s just that there are flowers on everything, always, and I’m beginning to not give a shit, which is sad, I think. It’s sad to not care about the flowers. I am tempted to suggest to myself, and in the process to you, dear reader, that I lack a certain necessary amount of narration, but then, “We are never really sure where actions, decisions or events spring from.” So maybe there is no explaining.
With that in mind, I think it is prudent to remind ourselves of the boundaries and expectations that force our lives from one corridor to another and thereby define some of the randomness and purpose for us in terms of motive and reasonableness. In looking at the physical world around us, the space in and through which we move, it quickly becomes apparent that built space is ideologically formed and informing, and though it might not offer any truer motive than the very false ones we confront daily, we may at least be forced into a realm of minor unpleasantness where our actions are viewed with some of the strangeness they deserve.
Everyday we narrate our own lives, picking detail out of the background and offering them as either pivot points or boundaries or give them central roles. The stories we tell of work, wherein you enter someone’s office, or had some confrontation when you stepped outside to have a smoke, all have the markers of an everyday physicality, which we usually present and accept as given, as almost unnecessary points, but which carry within them entire narratives of power and alienation. The conversation on the street has a very different character from the conversation in a private room, and though we may readily accept this, we often fail to appreciate the subtler aspects—I don’t pretend to understand them anyway. However, merely accepting the tyranny of the average avenue is unethical, and the only way to keep ourselves from performing too much in the service of prejudice is to see the space around us at work, turning our personal narratives this way and that. It is not enough that we see, a la Zizek, the ideology of toilets, but we must also confront what type of room in which the toilet was conceived, in what room approved, in what type built, in an almost endless chain. The fiction that we must then enforce and hopefully dispel is that these various physicalities may be isolated, or that they may stand as synecdoche for the whole ideological apparatus.
It is not enough to see architectural ideology at work, as Le Corbusier would have it, influencing us on some grand scale. I think it is also prudent to see the minor influences exercised on us and by us during our day-to-day existence. Specifically, I’d like to think about the influence on thinking/conversation that place/space has on us. What changes in a conversation from the stoop to the hallway? Is there a different conversational tone from avenue to alleyway?
What type of a room was Lucio Costa in, when he planned Brasilia?
What kind of room was he in when he fought with his mother over petty things as a child?
When an author writes of a room, how does the room he or she is in while writing, influence the written room?
If we are to assume the influence of built space on people, we must not forget that the urban planners and architects and designers are likewise influenced. I don’t intend to embark on a rigorous study, but a weekly, somewhat frivolous examination of how the space around us is necessary to ethical living. We must not only examine closets and staircases and attics, and likewise as they appear in books and movies, but also how they appear in our everyday lives. How each reading influences each defines the manner in which we exist in the world.
So, I propose to take some aspect of our space, built and otherwise, and see it at play in fiction and theory and otherwise, not that we may situate it in hierarchies or linearities but that we may operate within the forces and boundaries more knowledgably and thereby live with a bit of healthy unease.
I’ve been very hesitant to explore anything like this, doubting myself as I do, but I think it might be very important to fail in some direction rather than succeed at doing nothing.