Re-evaluating Awkward Space for its Creative Potential

Contributing to Sustainable Urban Planning and Design

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Bishop’s Gate, London, 2006


Awkward space, Holistic planning, Creative potential


‘One cannot deny, or push aside urban life. All the more so because we generally only follow the flow, we take account of facts once they have made their mark on space through the built environment. This still shows the necessity to have a thinking that projects into the future.’ (Lefebrve, c1996: 213)

This article will propose that the achievement of a sustainable practice of everyday urban life is directly linked to the creative potential of the awkward space that emerges and punctures the cities we circulate. To tune in a holistic design of the urban landscape the article considers the city as a living system, a complex assembly of flows, structures, connections and owners. Awkward space emerges amongst the organisation of these parts and as such speaks of the city’s synergy. Focusing on a space squeezed into existence between two buildings can draw attention to the design of the structures surrounding that space and open up questions concerning how the city is self-regulating itself as a whole so as to work towards designing more holistic solutions. How can an active awareness of the unconsidered spaces in between buildings help to re-vision and dynamically map a more contextual, sustainable, creative and engaging design of the public realm?

Introduction – Realizing the Space in Between

‘Green cities will not be planned like the ‘cities of tomorrow’ envisioned by reformers and dreamers at the beginning of the last century. They cannot be built afresh on green fields according to a master plan drawn up by experts. The main task is to transform our existing cities and towns so that their constant building and rebuilding occurs under the green principles supported by the public.’ (Low, Gleeson, Green, Radovic, 2005:166)

At a recent debate on cities of the future and civic renewal at the RSA in London, the architect Sir Terry Farrell exclaimed ‘Sustainable building must start with sustainable urban design’. (Farrell, 2006) This article will investigate sustainable urban design in relation to a creative and holistic approach to planning and visioning the spaces in between buildings. Within the city emerge spaces of an awkward nature. Hidden and restrictive in character awkward spaces are the blind spots that puncture the environments we circulate. London neglects these unconsidered spaces due to a confused ownership and a lack of civic pride. These spaces display unique qualities that allow the city to adapt and self-organise to a more ecological rhythm and contribute to the urban individual’s experience of their environment. How can a proactive approach to working with these spaces of creative potential at the initial stages of planning and design of the public realm be devised to create a sustainable urban design of London and our future cities?

Why ‘Awkward’?

‘Things may be too far apart, too near together, or disposed at the wrong angle in relation to one another, to allow of energy of action. Awkwardness of composition whether a human being or in architecture, prose, or painting is the result.’ (Dewey, J, 1934:211)

The Chambers Dictionary 1988 defines the word awkward as ‘difficult to deal with’, ‘oblique’, ‘backhanded’, and ‘adverse’. These definitions suggest that awkwardness is an ‘inharmonious quality or condition’. They encourage us to think of awkwardness as equivalent to ‘turning things the wrong way round’. Other words associated with awkward include ‘a lack of dexterity’, ‘left handed’, ‘maladroit’, ‘wanting ease, grace and effectiveness’, and ‘not easily managed’. No matter how carefully we plan cities we are eventually left with ambivalent or unresolved spaces that are the remnants of a previous pattern of flow. This article will propose that the chaotic, left-handed, unmanageable qualities of awkward space may contribute to creative shifts in the user’s experience of the built environment.

Awkward spaces are often the disused or left over parts of yesterday’s city, jammed amongst an ever-colliding modern chaos. Following ‘not what is outside the eyes, but what is within, buried, erased…’ (Calvino, 1997:91) one might find oneself in ‘hollow places in which the past sleeps’ (de Certeau, c1984:108). Disorientated for a time, this space may not feel real. This moment of disorientation amongst the everyday reality of the city is the phenomenal experience of an awkward space.

Turning off from a main route through the city, when finding oneself amidst the depths of an awkward space ‘you become so bodily aware that you have the sense of watching yourself from outside yourself’ (Kelley, 1993:5). Drifting away from the constant crowd of collective consciousness, there is a sudden rush to the senses. This sensation may bring one out in goose bumps and be likened to a mild burst of anxiety. If not immediately felt, Larry R Ford in his book ‘The spaces between buildings’ believes this quality of space will have ‘a subliminal impact, creating a vague, disconcerting feeling among those who do not even remember viewing it’ (Ford, 2002:3). Awkward space leaves an after taste of the uncanny.

The unpredictable nature of these spaces means that one does not know what one will find on entering. Away from the public route one has the slight feeling of trespassing, who owns these awkward spaces? One might even have an ominous feeling that they are being watched. Awkward space attracts patterns of strange behaviour. For example, cutting through a space to make a short cut three cars are parked side by side in a meticulous formation in the middle of a piece of scrap land. This spectacle is unnerving as it appears out of context.

An eternal onus on the undefined means that awkward space is in a constant state of collapse. Sigmund Freud describes an uncanny sensation to be something ‘that has undergone repression and then emerged from it’ (Freud, cited by Kelley, 1993:5). Awkward spaces could be described as points of emergence, not emergence into the city but emergence into somewhere else. Like portals or black holes they offer the chance to glimpse at the ‘other’ space of the city.

It could be argued that designers are moving away from the rigid ‘Cartesian logic’ that imposes grids and columns onto the fabric of our city, leaving spaces ‘empty’ ‘barren’ and ‘trapped’ (Balmond, 2002:14). Currently, there can be witnessed a great shift in the perception of space and structure. At a time when ‘Architects become sculptors, engineers become designers, artists turn into architects, and all these job descriptions become fuzzy’ (Jencks preface to Balmond, 2002:6) there is a movement towards embracing the beauty discovered in the chaotic. A ‘contemporary flaneur’ does not follow A to B when charting the rhetoric of the city. Invisible routes lead an ensemble of designers to hidden spaces.

Designing with a Holistic Vision of the City

‘In a organism...each part must assert its individuality, for otherwise the organism would lose its articulation and efficiency – but at the same time the part must remain subordinate to the demands of the whole.’ (Koestler, c1964:290)

The urban designer, Kevin Lynch in his 1960 book ‘The Image of the City’ explores the identity, structure and meaning of the city through its inhabitant’s ability to hold its image in their minds. Lynch considers the possibility of sensing the city as one whole. To achieve this he highlights four main components: a ‘continuous region’ with a ‘mentally traversable order’, a sense of ‘interconnectedness at any level’, each ‘part’ of the city flowing into the next, and no ‘isolating boundaries’ (Lynch, c1960: 115). Lynch believed he had never seen this accomplished but that it could be possible. If each of these components of organisation can be tuned in a more cohesive city maybe revealed, with individuals intensifying energy in the whole and collectively sustaining the system. Awkward spaces emerge at each level of the city’s organisation and are essential for the holistic planning and design of a self-regulating urban system. Lynch recognises the value of awkward spaces that act as pockets of surprise within the urban landscape but warning that ‘the confusions must be small regions in a visible whole’ (Lynch, c1960: 6) and that ‘complete chaos without a hint of connection is never pleasurable’. (Lynch, c1960: 6)

How does the city whirl into being?

‘In a dissipative structure...we cannot view the part sensibly out of the context of the whole.’ (Porush, Editor Hayles, c1991:73)

The term dissipative structure presents us with a metaphor that might help us to understand the disorder and irregular patterning of the city and that allows us to focus on the behaviour of this urban system and trace the emergence of its awkward space. Structure is defined as ‘The way a complex whole is constructed’ (The Little Oxford Dictionary). The mathematician Ilya Prigogine created the term ‘dissipative structure’ to describe structures that lose energy as they unfold. (Prigogine, Stengers, 1983) An example of a dissipative structure would be wispy clouds with their silent and irregular demeanour. This concept over-laid onto the city reveals ‘a phenomenon of flows, of clouds of people’ (Editors Watson, Gibson, c1995:106). In physics, the term ‘dissipation’ is used to describe the behaviour of energy when it is transformed from a useful source to a useless one. In the city dissipation occurs in the heating of homes and the running of motorcars. Urban life is ‘disturbing the natural balance through the dissipation that turns up as heat, noise, and chemical pollution in our environment’ (Porush, Editor Hayles, c1991:60). The city as a dissipative structure appears disordered; its evolution seems to follow an unpredictable pattern. The city recreates itself through this dissipative behaviour. Hidden amongst the irregularity emerge spaces of an awkward nature.

Spaces of Indetermination

‘Deleuze’s basic principle is that society is always en fluite (leaking, fleeting) and may be understood in terms of the manner it deals with its fluites...It says that there is no determination of ourselves that does not at the same time create zones of indetermination...’ (Rajchman, c2000:12)

Within our dissipative ‘leaking’ city exist spaces of no identity. These indeterminate spaces awkwardly arise amidst the resolve of the city. A by-product of design, awkward space does not exist in its own right. In the spaces in between the designed environment we drift into uncertainty. Awkward spaces as spaces of indeterminacy represent the disorder surrounding the design of the city. In a paper entitled ‘Spaces of Indeterminacy’ architect William Lim writes about spaces such as ‘strips of disused land under highways’. These spaces share similar qualities to awkward space. Lim believes that ‘The unexpected can sometimes be realized in the transformation of cracks and gaps from dead zones to extraordinary vibrant sites.’ (Lim, 2001:2) How might an awkward space be rejuvenated whilst embracing its undefined qualities? Lim believes such spaces ‘have the potential to become effective instruments of contemporary intellectual, artistic, cultural and sociological discourses.’ The unresolved quality and confused character of an awkward space that contains silent derelict buildings of the past and imposing architecture of the new creates an atmosphere that can ‘shift minds in and out of confusion and clarity’. (Lim, 2001:2)

With a Fractal Logic

‘As a city such as London continues to grow, it does so with fractal logic. That is the whole system that is London is made up of parts that are identical to the whole.’ (Rajchman, c2000:12)

A dissipative structure appears irregular, defying a Newtonian order. It is impossible to measure out the volume of a cloud. However, the chaotic cloud structure can be explored as non-linear system with fractal geometry. A fractal is an infinitely self-similar pattern, where each part is identical to the whole, all the way through. Therefore the edge of the cloud can be followed as a fractal. This means that the dissipative urban landscape that we are exploring is not totally irregular after all. A dissipative structure can be described as being a non-linear system. If London is compared to a dissipative structure it follows that it can be charted with the fractal, the geometry of non-linear systems.

At all scales in the city there is awkward space suggesting it has fractal qualities, an infinite dose of non-existence in the city. Diving into the urban system, sinking through each fractal part that goes inside and inside and inside designers will discover that an awkward space is implicated at every depth of the system. From the city as a whole down to each neighbourhood, building, room, arrangement of furniture, awkward spaces dislocate themselves throughout the system. The urban landscape as one experiences it is full of random hosts of awkward space. If we consider the city as a non-linear system punctured with indeterminacy can designers get closer to the truth of how the city is growing and design appropriately towards this?

Between the past and the inconceivable present, between the decided and the easily forgotten awkward space is a hinge between an ordered and disordered space. The philosopher Michel Serres noticed awkward spaces in cities. He believed that they functioned as ‘openings...that bring chaos to the surface, they are connectors...between chaos and order.’ (Serres, cited in Editor Hayles, c1991:280) The idea that the reality of the city is hinged on an awkward space presents us with a vision of a ‘creative and fertile’ ‘cacophony of…turbulence’ that is other to everyday reality. This source of creative energy is constantly over-spilling into the city, a volatile liquid synergy that binds together our reality.

What is the Strange Attraction of Awkward Space?

‘the folding and squeezing of space was a key to constructing strange attractors, and perhaps a key to the dynamics of the real systems that gave rise to them.’ (Gleick, 1997:141)

If the ‘strange attractor’ is the ‘key’ to the structure it organises, does awkward space in the city regulate its evolution? The theorist Michel Serres, in his book that charts the founding of Rome, compares this pattern of construction with the forming of ant colonies in nature. Serres describes how random ants carry small balls of clay to a particular site in what appears to be a disorderly fashion. These small balls built up attracting bigger balls and finally reveal a hidden order. The colony has emerged!

‘The indefinite, variable roundness of the ball-city guarantees its attraction in a fairly undecided space...’ (Serres, c1983:4)

Disorder is pulled into resolve by ‘strange attractor’. The ‘strange attractor’ reaches a point when the dissipative structure is entirely attracted to it so that the attractor actually becomes the dynamic system. When it reaches this point the ‘strange attractor’ unpredictably shifts or bifurcates to a re-organised system. If this is compared to the behaviour of an awkward space one can imagine that at first the awkward space emerges but this space, never defined or fixed, seems to be in a transitory state. At a certain point in the development of the system surrounding it the space will be appropriated by the system and at that point the awkward quality will shift and re-emerge somewhere else within the urban landscape. In this way the awkward attractor ‘Propels the system from steadiness through turbulence and into richly reorganised info.’ (Serres, cited in Editor Hayles, c1991: 280) Awkward spaces act as ‘awkward attractors’ and may be seen to govern a more organic self-organization of the city.

Remapping a Virtuous Urban Landscape

‘Collectivities (or those who direct them), like their individual members, need to think simultaneously about identity and relations...The handling of space is one of the means to this end...’ (Auge, 1995:51)

Architecture at its best is visionary, making the seemingly impossible possible, creating a bifurcation in a societies culture, a leap to a higher level of organisation. Architecture at its worst is repressive, imposing constraints on community and blank facades on the imagination.

Buckminster Fuller, in his 1970 book ‘Utopia or Oblivion’, confronts a future catastrophe facing not only our cities but also our whole planet. It looms due to our lost connection with nature. Fuller warns us how ‘man goes on to alter the environment and how the altered environment alters human behaviours and how the whole process becomes regenerative and continuously accelerates.’ (Fuller, 1970:310)

In figure two, the diagram identifies a vicious circle that exists within every day urban life. This vicious circle contains the ‘fear frozen’ individual (Fuller,1970:343), who follows the city’s programme each day, moving through its ‘non-places’ (Auge, 1995). This individual is caught up in the self-perpetual habit of managing dystopia. These vicious elements fuel an urban system in disarray.

However, if each of the inter-related parts of urban life highlighted in the vicious circle could be investigated within the context of the whole city it should be possible to achieve a more sustainable urban planning and design.

Buckminster Fuller advises us that if we can become ‘tuned in and integrated’ with our surroundings we will be able to identify ‘such trendings as may be negative or even lethal to future human existence on earth.’ (Fuller,1970:344) If we can identify a vicious circle we should be able to tune in each of these problems to create a virtuous circle. (Wood, 2003) The virtuous circle proposes four solutions for a more sustainable urban life. These include the design of alternative flows to counter balance fast flows through consumer spaces, the actively engaged individual, the nurturing of zones of wilderness, and the practice of a territory of affordances that re-evaluates the awkward spaces of the city as spaces of multi-potential rather than repressive dysfunctional spaces.

1.Balancing the city’s ‘non-place’ with zones of wilderness

'The non-place is the opposite of utopia: it exists, and it does not contain any organic society.’(Auge, 1995: 111)

In Marc Auge’s book ‘Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity’ he analyses the affect that everyday spaces of transition in the city, such as shopping centres and airports, has on the individual’s state of mind. Auge believes that these spaces ‘subject the individual consciousness to entirely new experiences and ordeals of solitude.’ (Auge, 1995: 93) This means that the quality of everyday space in the city is contributing a feeling of isolation from the environment.

The city’s urban spaces have almost succeeded in squeezing out nature. Instead our dose of nature must be obtained by visiting an allocated green space. Is it possible to experience wilderness in the city? The disused spaces of the city, such as rooftops can be nurtured as zones of wilderness. There is a group of ‘guerrilla gardeners’ in London that spruce up neglected spaces in the city such as the space behind bus stops with vegetation. ( These spaces will absorb pollutants and carbon dioxide from traffic. They would also provide a distance for the contemplation of the urban dweller.

2. How do we Manage Dystopia?

‘unknown and threatening territories lie inside the boundaries of the places of nobody’s concern. Disavowed, overlooked, marginalized, left out of our accounts, these are the centre’s truly invisible spaces –the inexpressible, the incomplete, the unattended – that have been rendered absent and forgotten.’ (Boyer, c1996:20)

Buckminster fuller believed that the purpose of human beings in the universe is to be ‘anti-entropic’ (Fuller, 1970:355). Energy levels decrease as entropy increases. Energy disperses into thin air. Therefore it is against our ecological duties to be managing dystopia. We must move away from this entropic wearing down of our resources, to seek sustainable and creative solutions for living in the city and shake out the dystopian ruffles.

Dystopia is the entropic accompaniment to the modern dissipative city. Entropy is the behaviour of a system that is tending towards disorder. As a system moves closer to this confused state a friction occurs which, in the example of the city, manifests itself inside the urban individual as fear, cynicism and frustration.

Awkward spaces are zones of indeterminacy within the city’s structure. Often they harbor sinister activities that are less visible. As hidden and derelict areas they become the sites of crime. Eventually they fester as they become increasingly used as dumping sites for urban detritus such as burnt out cars and old sofas.

However, just as in Chaos Theory, ‘Strange Attractors’ may migrate through a chaotic system as it evolves, so awkward spaces sometimes transform themselves and emerge in a different guise within the urban system. An awkward space that is stagnant and disused may have the potential to become a rehabilitated urban site. The philosopher Michel Serres follows the progress of something that I would call an ‘awkward attractor’. He observes how ‘the pattern appears again and again in a pulsing hollow of spaces within which degeneration turns into regeneration’ (Serres,c1991). Awkward spaces evolve through a dystopic, turbulent phase before they bifurcate to a higher level of organisation. We might usefully see (an attainable) Utopia as a creative vision punctured by an awkward space.

In a book documenting the 1950’s playgrounds designed by Dutch architect Aldo Van Eyck, the disused spaces that Van Eyck transforms into playgrounds, are compared to ‘grains of sand introduced into an oyster (present day city) that cause irritation and thereby led to the growth of pearls (a renewal of urban life).’(Lefebvre and Roode) This reveals the positive functions of awkward spaces as regulators of urban rehabilitation. Here they appear as possessing natural qualities allowing the city to self-regulate in an organic manner.

2. Practicing a Territory of Affordance

‘If there are emergent laws of traffic, of pedestrian motions, of network topologies, of urban growth, we need to know them in order to plan effectively.’ (Ball, 2004:568)

Awkward space provides the city with the potential to continuously discover new ‘affordances’ of the urban system. Donald Norman discusses the affordance of objects in his book ‘The Design of Everyday Things’. The term affordance was originally coined by the psychologist J.J.Gibson to refer to ‘actionable properties between the world and an actor’. (Norman, 2004) Rather than starting from scratch and wiping clean a space, this quality of awkward space enables the landscape to adapt, renew and regenerate directly in relationship to the needs of its users. Thus, working with the affordance of awkward space leads to a more contextual approach to planning and designing. Considering the spaces in between buildings as a territory of affordance is an important approach for planners to consider in the initial stages of setting out the parameters for the design of a space.

3. What are the Needs of the Fear Frozen Individual?

‘Is it simply that we lack the will, the courage, and the perspicacity to open up alternatives and actively pursue them?’ (Harvey, 2000:155)

The spatial practitioner Henri Lefebrve was ‘intrigued’ with people’s passivity observing ‘the city is changing around them and they accept it, internalize it and bear the consequences’ (Lefebrve, c1996:210). In Buckminster Fuller’s 1970 book ‘Utopia or Oblivion’ that explores man’s purpose in the universe, he announces a forthcoming catastrophic doom if there is not a more active awareness of the co-dependent relationship that exists between man and nature. Fuller compares the modern day city dweller with a wasp trapped in a room, unable to fathom why the window is holding up his progress towards the light. Fuller describes how the wasp appears to repeatedly smack up against the glass as though he was quite content in doing so. However this is not the case. The fly is actually displaying ‘fear-frozen, subconscious reflexes – usually mis-taken as apathy’ (Buckminster Fuller, c1970:344). This can be compared to the city dwellers own ‘sensorially inexplicable dilemmas’ experienced in the non-places of the city. The urban individual continues to move through public space, head down, apparently unaware of the hideous shopping complexes and vacuous consumer spaces but actually it is trying to operate within an environment that does not induce innate capabilities, that does not bless the urban dweller with aura, but instead restricts imagination and emits a hollow branded essence that sets the individual into this mode of operation. As individuals alienated from a relationship with the natural world it is impossible to reach full creative potential. How can we plan for cities that engage individuals to participate rather than become apathetic? When will designers create built environments that don’t respect abstract design or consumer habits over physiological and creative experiences of the environment?

‘In open park spaces, pedestrians have the freedom to ignore the official paths and collectively define their own trails. In the city or a building that is seldom possible – you can’t walk through a wall if the fancy takes you. Can urban and architectural spaces also be planned to conform with human needs and impulses, rather than the other way round?’ (Ball, 2004:171)

How can awkward space inform a spatial arrangement that is more in tune with natural reflexes in terms of movement throughout the environment and experience of existential space?

4. Alternative Flows

‘Fast flowing streams’ result in ‘the loss of intermediate surfaces – in other words, the spaces that do not lie directly on the path of forward movement, of progress. These spaces are being forgotten and overlooked, and ultimately abandoned to dereliction. As the precondition for a better quality of life, more attention must be devoted to these intermediate spaces, the spaces of slow motion, of reflection, of dreaming, of story telling.’ (Manzini, 2002:92)

In Lucy Suchman’s book ‘Plans and Situated Actions: The problem of Human Machine Communication’ there is a passage describing the navigation methods employed by European and Truseke sailors. The European sailor starts out his journey with a plan, which directs the traveller to stay “on course” till he reaches his destination. If there are any obstacles along the way, he will make a note oft them and react according to these problems. In contrast to this fixed and linear method of navigation the Trukese sailor begins his journey with ‘an objective’, he then sails off into the wilderness and ‘responds to the conditions as they arise in an ad-hoc fashion’. Suchman notes how ‘If asked, he can point to his objective at any moment, but he cannot describe his course.’

In the city we move through space according to a plan. Public spaces are programmed for us to navigate out way through, the city is revealed to us in ‘maps, street numbers, route signs, bus placards’ (Lynch, c1960: 4). If a route were to be designed that included the awkward spaces in the city, the flow moving through would have to respond in ‘an ad-hoc fashion’. This means that each individual that stepping stoned through these spaces would have a unique experience even though they all hold the same objective.

In the architect Bernard Tschumi’s book ‘Architecture and Disjunction‘ he explores the use of program to navigate people through space. Tschumi quotes program as being

‘a descriptive notice, issued beforehand, of any formal series of proceedings, as festive celebration, a course of study etc. (...), a list of the items or “numbers” of a concert etc., in the order of performance; hence the items themselves collectively, the performance as a whole...’ (Oxford English Dictionary cited in Tschumi, 1998: 112)

An auspicious flow instead of following a ‘series of proceedings’ would expose the individual to random uncanny sensations and take them through a terrain that could change their perspective of the city.

Conclusion – An Urbanism of the Awkward

‘Space is not the setting (real or logical) in which things are arranged, but the means whereby the position of things becomes possible.’ (Merleau-Ponty, 1962/1995:243)

The article has outlined some of the auspicious qualities of awkward space for the sustainable, creative and engaging planning and design of the built environment. Awkward spaces have a transitional quality. Once declared awkward it could be argued that these spaces are indeed no longer so. They have already started to transform into a part of the everyday environment. This means that an urbanism of the awkward is an ever-changing perspective on the city and calls for designing from within a dynamic context rather than considering an urban site as a fragmented location with fixed boundaries. It is important to consider who these awkward designers will be. It will take a multi-disciplined effort to optimize the creative potential of sites in the city and to ensure that these developments are sustainable and adaptable.

Hannah Jones, draft one, March, 2006


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