We may take for granted the spaces we inhabit, but CLA scholars who study space and place don't. From the cul-de-sacs of suburbs to the berths of trans-Pacific cargo ships, we shape and inhabit space--and are shaped by it--in ways that have profound implications in our lives.
By Danny LaChance
Photo: Kelly MacWilliams
CLA researchers are examining how we've been shaping space in recent years--and how it, in turn, is shaping us.
Through the window of the French Meadow Bakery and Café on Lyndale Avenue John Archer sees a landscape of contrasts.
This dense neighborhood southwest of downtown Minneapolis seems, at first glance, quintessentially urban with its bead and vintage clothing shops, alleys and sidewalks, pedestrians and parallel parking.
But first glances can be deceiving. "This used to be suburbia," Archer says, pointing out the single-family houses that still dot the busy thoroughfare. And while the thought that Uptown and Woodbury could have anything in common may seem initially jolting, the truth of Archer's observation soon becomes self-evident. For Lyndale Avenue is not simply a street of art galleries and specialty shops. It's also a world of porches and front yards.
And those are spaces that Archer knows well. In his award-winning book Architecture and Suburbia, Archer examines the history and form of suburban space, from the English villa to the American dream house. His book upends many of the clichés about suburbia that songs like "Pleasant Valley Sunday" and "Little Boxes" have turned into conventional wisdom, like the notion that the suburbs breed conformity.
In reality, Archer says, the suburbs have been places where the middle classes have gone to assert their individuality, not to lose it. "Space is like a language," Archer says between sips of coffee. "We use it to define who we are." Suburbs emerged alongside capitalism as a rising ideology of individualism fueled the desire for private spaces that could distinguish individuals and their families from the rest of the world.
If space is a language, Archer and other CLA scholars are linguists. They're studying everything from the crematoria of World War II concentration camps to the cramped berths of trans-Pacific cargo ships, from the bulletin boards of cyberspace to the porch swings of the nineteenth century, trying to understand how we relate to space.
And while their findings are as unique as the spaces and places they study, one truth seems to find its way into each scholar's work: the structures that we inhabit both shape and reflect the way we read the world. They make certain kinds of thoughts and actions and perspectives possible--and others impossible. And they reveal desires and values, forged over time, that we may not know we hold.
If space is a language, as John Archer suggests, by some accounts it's a dying one. Each day seems to bring new stories that call into question the significance of the three dimensions our bodies occupy.
If you have the Internet, you no longer need to go to the end of your driveway to get your Sunday paper, bookstores to find books, city hall to find deeds, classrooms to learn physics. It's all online.
And when you do venture into the world, you can find familiar stores, logos, and signs almost everywhere.
Given all the utopian--and dystopian--rhetoric about paperless offices, telecommuting, and global homogeny, it's tempting to think that physical space is becoming irrelevant.
But as the findings of CLA researchers demonstrate, that's a glib response to complex processes. The attacks of September 11th have made us more conscious of our surroundings, the physical spaces of our daily lives, than ever before. Cities grappling with the atrocities of their pasts create monuments and museums on the exact sites of trauma--not on the Internet. The global network that enables American fourth-graders to throw Chinese-manufactured baseballs relies on cargo ships that reinforce, rather than blur, national differences.
Space isn't losing its relevance. It isn't being superceded by pixels or energy particles or pan-Pacific jets. It's doing what it always has done: it's changing. And so are we.