Collapsing the sky / closing the building: some thoughts on the unbecoming of places


Yesterday afternoon, at 4pm, at the moment that Matthew Flintham was searching in Newcastle for ways to materialise the UK’s militarised airspaces, thousands suddenly found themselves stuck to the ground, as the virtual-but-real commercial transit spaces normally mapped out across the sky by the UK’s National Air Traffic Service’s mainframe disappeared. A glitch caused these air lanes to temporarily vanish – and for a moment the sky ceased to be a humanised place, it became undefined and uninhabitable: it collapsed as a place.

An hour or so earlier I’d also been speaking at the University of Newcastle’s Cultural Significance of Place symposium– giving an account of Marc Augé’s ‘non-places’ thesis. On one level it’s easy to dismiss his ideas: with an ‘of course non-places don’t exist, wherever we inhabit we bring meaning to, a place we are in can’t be meaningless’ assault. But rather than go for the obvious, I highlighted some of the nuances of Augé’s arguments, and tried to show their usefulness.

Fittingly (for yesterday’s conjunction of events) Augé writes at length about airports as the epitome of (nearly) non-places, framing them as places of pure transit, the arrangement of such hubs simply being to facilitate the passage of persons between other – meaningful – places (the place that they want to leave; the place that they want to go).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

For Augé a non-place is an ideal-type, and extremity unlikely to be encountered in pure form. It marks out a spectrum: non-place at one end and the mostly richly connected-to space at the other.  The extent of a place’s existence can thus be measured (somehow) by reference to the amount of engagement/meaning given to it by the user/dweller, and (for Augé) specifically in how ‘based’ (i.e. grounded) in that localised site the dweller actually is. Augé’s argument is essentially one aimed at his fellow anthropologists and their fondness for equating place with community attachment to a group-defining locality (something he styles ‘anthropological place’). He argues that with the rise of globalising forces and technologies, modern life (which he styles supermodernity) entails weaker and more individualised engagements with place, thus we pass through rather than dwell in places.  The static and certain communities and localities that we used to be quintessentially based in, now have a less powerful, less directive role in our identities.  He concedes that such ‘weak’ places are not like the stable bounded worlds of the ‘primitive’ communities that his colleagues might ordinarily focus their studies upon. But he urges them to also study the anthropology of supermodernity – and precisely in order to understand how increasingly individualised meaning making still manages to construct stabilised ‘singularities’ (and thereby maintain at least some localised semblance of place and notions of what to do there).

If we accept the impossibility of a pure non-place, we are left with the challenge of understanding weak, or individualised (and/or commodified) places, and to grapple with the conditions under which they come into being, subsist and die. This links back to Matthew’s work on visualising military airspaces – for they ‘come and go’ during the course of the day, and few are in existence 24/7. They are also ‘creations’ (places) known only to their makers (the military and NATS) and users (pilots). By they are vitally important to these people, even though they are near non-places to passengers who are transiting through them. Likewise (if we return to the ground), at airports the passengers have a very weak place attachment to the airport – it is simply a means to an ends – but what about the staff who work there? A cleaner, for example, will have a very intimate and meaningful task-driven attachment to the washrooms and their surfaces that they must regularly inspect and traverse with their mop and sponges.

Even in supermodernity places are still made meaningful by people in symbolic and physical interaction with portions of the world – sometimes those meanings are strong, aggregated notions that excite and direct action. Sometimes the meaning is individualised, improvised and/or a product of personal biography or events. And the meaningfulness of places changes moment by moment. If Augé is proposing a place/non-place spectrum, and we view this as a dial then in the places of supermodernity the needle is constantly moving – and each of us has our own dial. We cannot speak about any place being a non-place per se, for all times and all people.

These thoughts were helpfully set in train by Emma Fraser’s talk in Sheffield earlier in the week. Emma gave a talk on ‘Salvaging the urban obsolete’ as part of UCLAN’s In Certain Places programme, talking of her ongoing work at the University of Manchester upon ruination and people’s engagement with ruins. Emma posited that a ruin is never static, and that to watch a ruin is to watch a process of physical and social dissembling – thus that is an observable process of place unbecoming, as both matter and meaning irresistibly decay.

Emma’s talk paved the way for artist Victoria Lucas’ film After (2013), the result of her residence in the Castle Market complex, Sheffield’s ultra-Modernist 1960s markets, now facing demolition. As Emma observed, the moment that ruination starts is rarely witnessed by an analyst. Victoria’s short film (below) thus helpfully (and evocatively) captures the early to mid-stages of the unbecoming of the markets as a place-for-many. But it never becomes a non-place, because it remains populated by security guards – and for a time by Victoria – with both bringing a sense of place and activity to their ongoing engagements with it. But we do witness part of the material and social process by which ‘closure’ of the market triggers a collapse of this place into ruinspace.

Victoria Lucas (2013) After

And finally, back to Newcastle. Alistair Bonnett is speaking, reading extracts from his book Off The Map. He draws forth two types of non-places, which at first glance don’t appear to have any connection. First the intentional non-places of rendition and other ‘black-ops’, the places that the state does not want you to notice. These – says Alistair – are ‘redacted’ places. There is an art to hiding such facilities ‘in plain sight’, and a lot of effort is expended in achieving it. Matthew Flintham’s presentation was also addressing this – the ubiquity of inaccessible (to bodies and/or comprehension) militarised landscapes. Then Alistair points to banal, non-functional rump-spaces, that have ‘non-place’ character because they have no clear purpose, such as undercrofts beneath motorway flyovers. But these get colonised by psychogeographers or rough sleepers, so even these don’t fit the non-places ideal type.

There is some tension in applying the ‘non-places’ label to both the ultra-top secret and the ultra-banal. But I was aiming for a middle point in including bunkers in my own talk – the bunkers I’m concerned with are ubiquitous bunker-ruins. They are no longer secret or access-restricted. I don’t deny that secret and dark places still exist in operational mode, but it is the ‘what happens after’ question that intrigues me. Abandoned bunkers – and I’m thinking here of the national array of 1,500 Royal Observer Corps fallout monitoring posts, are often of the ‘hidden in plain sight’ type, but now that hiddenness is not maintained by anyone. So, they are just ‘in plain sight’ and available for those who wish, to project their meaning onto them. They are not non-places, they never were. They have always been meaningful to some people (although ‘who’ these people are has changed over time). And this meaningfulness is not entirely individualised – it is developed, shared and sustained through ‘communities of practice’ (Wenger, 1998) and their ways of doing, knowing and seeing a bunker.

If we can get past the popular view that Augé’s book consigns certain types of places to a negative or meaningless ‘non-place’ status, we can find that actually it helpfully advocates the worth of studying how types of places fade in and out of notice, and – by extension – what representational and/or pragmatic logics are at play at any particular moment of a localised built structure’s material life, as it moves along its journey of unbecoming.

Photo credit

STANTA battleground airspace in East Anglia – photo and 3D model by Matthew Flintham


Marc Augé (1995) Non-Places: an introduction to [an anthropology of] supermodernity, Verso: London (Trans. John Howe) [NB: for the 2009 second edition of the English translation the words ‘an anthropology of’ is dropped from the subtitle, obscuring the original audience that Augé was directing his argument to]

University of Newcastle’s Cultural Significance of Place Interdisciplinary Research Group:

University of Central Lancashire’s In Certain Places programme:

Matthew Flintham:

Emma Fraser:

Victoria Lucas:

A review of Alistair Bonnett’s off The Map book:

Etienne Wenger (1998) Communities of Practice – learning, meaning and identity, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge