Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Resisting the dehumanising architecture of the ‘space of flows’

Against the background of my previous post on “The ‘space of flows and the social elites of today”, it is illuminating to take note of Manuel Castells’s (The Rise of the Network Society, 2010: Chapter 6, Section 6) interpretation of contemporary, “postmodern” architecture as an architecture that has been redefined by the space of flows as dominant spatial form of the network society. This has transformed this kind of architecture into a particularly disconnected kind, compared to earlier forms of architecture, where a tacit connection was always visible between architecture and historically diverse societies.

“Not any more”, says Castells (2010: Chapter 6, Section 6). “My hypothesis is that the coming of the space of flows is blurring the meaningful relationship between architecture and society. Because the spatial manifestation of the dominant interests takes place around the world, and across cultures, the uprooting of experience, history, and specific culture as the background of meaning is leading to the generalisation of ahistorical, acultural architecture … postmodern architecture declares the end of all systems of meaning. It creates a mixture of elements that searches formal harmony out of transhistorical, stylistic provocation. Irony becomes the preferred mode of expression. Yet, in fact what most postmodernism does is to express, in almost direct terms, the new dominant ideology: the end of history and the supersession of places in the space of flows … postmodernism could be considered the architecture of the space of flows.”

In Castells’s (2010: Chapter 6, Section 6: The architecture of the end of history) view, postmodern architecture suspends all ties with specific social contexts in favour of an ahistorical mixing of architectural codes all over the world — a putative “liberation from cultural codes” which is in fact a flight from traditional, historically embedded societies. His discussion of certain architectural works that resist this postmodern architectural “space of flows” — uprootment alludes to just one of the creative ways to resist the ultimately dehumanising effect of an architecture exemplifying the space of flows, by confronting people mercilessly with the contrast between the “space of places” and the “space of flows”.

An example of such an architecture is Bofill’s new Barcelona airport, which strikes one as a kind of Heideggerian anxiety-inducing place, despite (or rather, because of) its sparse, “nude” beauty. It does not allow a traveller to hide from the fact that one is there, in this frostily beautiful, but decidedly not-reassuring space, inserted into one of the nodes of the space of flows, from which — if you want to participate in the “flow” – “there is no escape”. Hence, one has to face one’s anxiety, and the reflective among us might just follow where it leads, namely to the juncture between this flow-space, on the one hand, and place-space (with its connections to history and community, on the other.

In a different, but equally effective manner, Moneo’s new Madrid high-speed AVE train station for the high-speed train between Madrid and Seville (but incongruously, providing no link to the European high-speed train network), with its recuperated (old) station building, refurbished with enclosed gardens full of birds and palm trees, thrusts the contrast between this very human place, and the space of flows, represented by the actual train station platform, adjacent to the park, into one’s face. One enters a warm, welcoming, space exuding a reassuring aura of belonging, but to board the train, you have to leave it abruptly for a nodal connection with the space of flows. No one who boards this high-tech train after passing through such a humanized place, could fail to notice the transition from a place-space to a place of flows — something alienating and dehumanizing, despite it being the dominant space of the current era. In Castells’s words: “The broken mirror of a segment of the space of flows becomes exposed, and the use-value of the station recovered, in a simple, elegant design that does not say much but makes everything evident”.

The kind of space familiar to everyone, which still exists side-by-side with the space of flows, is the “space of places”, as exemplified in the welcoming space of the train station. Despite the dominance of the “space of flows”, (most) people still live in such places. This dominance does not leave the space of places unaffected, but alters its dynamics and existential meaning. This is illustrated in the example of Tokyo, which successfully resisted the colonization-tendency of the space of flows when the people of the city rejected the corporate elite-sponsored World City Fair in 1995 (Castells 2010: Chapter 6, Section 7).

In his examination of a space that is “place-based”, Castells defines “place” thus: “A place is a locale whose form, function, and meaning are self-contained within the boundaries of physical contiguity”. His discussion of the quartier of Belleville in Paris illustrates well how “spaces of place” work in providing people with a sense of (multicultural) community and rootedness. Its plural communities have, through interaction and a variety of spatial uses (such as “active street life”), historically constructed it as a meaningful place, effectively resisting intermittent threats such as that posed by the vanguard of the corporate elites, namely gentrification.

Needless to stress, there are many similar examples, from all over the world, of place-space asserting itself in the face of the onslaught of the space of flows. Others are less successful, as in the case of Irvine, California, where globalisation and concomitant localization interact in complex ways, so that Irvine is indeed still experienced as a place. This has increasingly been assimilated to home-space, however, with flows-space incessantly encroaching on other places.

Castells (2010: Chapter 6, Section 7) articulates the consequences of the increasing domination of the space of flows as follows: “Experience, by being related to places, becomes abstracted from power, and meaning is increasingly separated from knowledge. There follows a structural schizophrenia between two spatial logics that threatens to break down communication channels in society. The dominant tendency is toward a horizon of networked, ahistorical space of flows, aiming at imposing its logic over scattered, segmented places, increasingly unrelated to each other, less and less able to share cultural codes. Unless cultural, political, and physical bridges are deliberately built between these two forms of space, we may be heading toward a life in parallel universes whose times cannot meet because they are warped into different dimensions of a social hyperspace.”

Even more dehumanising than the “space of flows” is what he dubs the “timeless time” induced by it, which he contrasts with experiential time, with its familiar connections between past, present and future — the kind of human time analysed by, among others, Heidegger in terms of the three “ec-staces” of “having-been” (past), the “moment” (present) and the “not-yet” (future). Existentially speaking the latter, as “futuricity”, instantiates the primary time-modality that determines the existence of humans as “Dasein”: the way we live now is determined by our projection of a future for oneself based on past and present actualities and potentialities.

This is human time, but it, too, is facing the threat of being assimilated to the “timeless time” of the space of flows — something that has always been inherent in capitalism’s regulating time-ideal, the constant approximation of timelessness, or the overcoming of time-constraints, in the sense of minimizing the time-lapses between production, distribution, sales and consumption (think of fast-food outlets).

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