There is something to the saying that spaces have character. Regardless of whether we want to work, study, teach, communicate, entertain or relax in them – the space "created" for this purpose clearly references the idiosyncrasies of its users and their activities. But whether or not it ‘works’ is another question. That depends entirely on whether it touches us emotionally. In the final analysis, impact really is more than the quadratic root of room height + wall colour + floor space.
Showplace 1: It is one of Europe’s major hubs. About 155 airlines used its strategic position in 2010 to transport 53 million passengers through the three terminals at the Frankfurt airport. A volume that is nearly double what it was twenty years ago. Air travellers wait here, arrive, travel on – a perfect symbol of our globalised society in which there are no longer any limits to an individual’s mobility. – Aside from those of time and money.
Showplace 2: In the 350,000 km² sales space you can find every brand name worth mentioning. About thirty million visitors stroll through here each year, shopping in 1,200 stores, visiting the 120 restaurants and cafés, as well as diverse attractions such as the artificial ice rink. The Dubai Mall, located in the new district of Downtown Dubai, is currently the largest mall in the world and is definitely out of the ordinary. Yet the fact is that the concept of the shopping centre has been booming worldwide since the 1980s and 1990s. The density of products and services, preferably with added benefits, attracts thousands of shoppers into concentrated shopping miles across the globe.
Showplace 3: From Chicago to Moscow, from London to Vienna: u-bahns, subways and metros carry a majority of individual traffic in modern cities. An unbelievable three billion passengers board the trains in Tokyo each year, over two billion in Moscow, one billion in London. Hundreds of kilometres of tunnels transport passengers below the earth, from A to B, in all major cities. If this traffic were above ground on the streets, it would be completely unmanageable.
Question: What do airports, shopping centres, subways, train stations and parking garages have in common? They are all places in "exceptional circumstances." Or, to put it more clearly, they are places with a typically interchangeable identity (though their architectonic shell can be quite prestigious), focussed on function and utility. People wait, depart, walk through and park there. These are places that people enter, only to leave them again as they make their way to somewhere else.
This is probably why they all look somehow similar. Gates and subway platforms, shopping levels and escalators, waiting lounges and garages - sometimes you really have to concentrate, really think hard about where on earth you just happen to be. (OK, OK! – that’s a little bit of an exaggeration.)
These are also places in which you assume a new, temporary role that pushes your actual identity to the background for a moment – here, you are above all a driver, shopper, parker, flight passenger. The emotional state you might find yourself in has little to do with the space you happen to find yourself in (unless, of course, some shameless guy is about to steal your parking space – but that’s another story...).
Interaction – shall we say – takes place. Saying "excuse me, could I get by please" is definitely insignificant. If you take away the technical function of the space, then it loses its reason for existence. It’s hard to imagine what could attract us to a garage if there were no longer parking spots in there. Something fundamental would have to change in the venue. – And sometimes the art and event scene manages to do this. A perfect example is the hip Vienna club, "Passage". The name says it all: in 2003, the owners renovated a unique passageway under a rail line to one of the hottest locations in the city. Equipped with technical refinements and a futuristic interior, a vibrant party scene has developed here. And a space that now has a fixed place in the city landscape...
Of course transitions are fluid. Of course spaces such as train stations can also be places with identity and history. As is the case with the central train station in Leipzig. In the days of the GDR, German-German history took place here, either as a path of suffering for political exiles – or a new life for those happy souls who received a travel permit to go to the West. "Friends and relatives met on platform 1a to say goodbye forever, while the famous Monday demonstrations marched by in front of the train station, helping to bring the GDR system to its knees" (Europe’s train stations narrate history: www.lichtfilm.de).
Ethnologist Marc Augé even elevates "non-places" to the "measure of our times", loading the term with even more significance. For Augé, a place must be relational, historical or concerned with identity to have relevance from an anthropological perspective: it must host social relationships, contribute to the identity of a community, and have grown within a community. The spatially architectonic aspect only provides the shell for what is happening in societal development. For this reason, Augé also considers hospitals, holiday villages and hotel chains to be non-places, because humans travel through them in a temporary, provisional way that does not foster identity and is only peripherally significant.
Nevertheless, the phenomenon seems complex and, above all, very topical. Whether a place or a non-place, whether temporary or anthropologically relevant, we spend a lot of time in these "in-between spaces". Whether in motion or organising our everyday lives, underway on different modes of transportation, or waiting for the next event. In particular, it is the temporal factor, combined with modern communication technologies, that ushers in a fully new dimension: people can also drive professional tasks forward while waiting at the airport. And numerous mobile applications, such as location-based services and augmented-reality features, just might transform today’s classical non-places into the real places of tomorrow.