Transitional Space

Posted: December 23, 2018 in Artistry, Culture, History, Idle Nonsense, Tacky, Taste
Tags: , , ,

For ambulatory creatures, vision is arguably the primary sense of the five (main) senses. Humans are among those species that stand upright, facilitating a portrait orientation when interacting among ourselves. The terrestrial environment on which we live, however, is in landscape (as distinguished from the more nearly 3D environments of birds and insects in flight or marine life in rivers, lakes, seas, and oceans). My suspicion is that modest visual conflict between portrait and landscape is among the dynamics that give rise to the orienting response, a step down from the startle reflex, that demands full attention when visual environments change.

I recall reading somewhere that wholesale changes in surroundings, such as when crossing a threshold, passing through a doorway, entering or exiting a tunnel, and notably, entering and exiting an elevator, trigger the orienting response. Indeed, the flush of disorientation before one gets his or her bearings is tantamount to a mind wipe, at least momentarily. This response may also help to explain why small, bounded spaces such as interiors of vehicles (large and small) in motion feel like safe, contained, hermetically sealed personal spaces. We orient visually and kinesthetically at the level of the interior, often seated and immobile, rather than at the level of the outer landscape being traversed by the vehicle. This is true, too, of elevators, a modern contraption that confounds the nervous system almost as much as revolving doors — particularly noticeable with small children and pets until they become habituated to managing such doorways with foreknowledge of what lies beyond.

The built environment has historically included transitional spaces between inner and outer environments. Churches and cathedrals include a vestibule or narthex between the exterior door and inner door leading to the church interior or nave. Additional boundaries in church architecture mark increasing levels of hierarchy and intimacy, just as entryways of domiciles give way to increasingly personal spaces: parlor or sitting room, living room, dining room, kitchen, and bedroom. (The sheer utility of the “necessary” room defies these conventions.) Commercial and entertainment spaces use lobbies, atria, and prosceniums in similar fashion.

What most interests me, however, is the transitional space outside of buildings. This came up in a recent conversation, where I observed that local school buildings from the early to middle part of the 20th century have a distinguished architecture set well back from the street where lawns, plazas, sidewalks, and porches leading to entrances function as transitional spaces and encourage social interaction. Ample window space, columnar entryways, and roof embellishments such as dormers, finials, cupolas, and cornices add style and character befitting dignified public buildings. In contrast, 21st-century school buildings in particular and public buildings in general, at least in the city where I live, tend toward porchless big-box warehouses built right up to the sidewalk, essentially robbing denizens of their social space. Blank, institutional walls forbid rather than invite. Consider, for example, how students gathered in a transitional space are unproblematic, whereas those congregated outside a school entrance abutting a narrow sidewalk suggest either a gauntlet to be run or an eruption of violence in the offing. (Or maybe they’re just smoking.) Anyone forced to climb past loiterers outside a commercial establishment experiences similar suspicions and discomforts.

Beautifully designed and constructed public spaces of yore — demonstrations of a sophisticated appreciation of both function and intent — have fallen out of fashion. Maybe they understood then how transitional spaces ease the orientation response, or maybe they only intuited it. Hard to say. Architectural designs of the past acknowledged and accommodated social functions and sophisticated aesthetics that are today actively discouraged except for pointless stunt architecture that usually turns into boondoggles for taxpayers. This has been the experience of many municipalities when replacing or upgrading schools, transit centers, sports arenas, and public parks. Efficient land use today drives toward omission of transitional space. One of my regular reads is James Howard Kunstler’s Eyesore of the Month, which profiles one architectural misfire after the next. He often mocks the lack of transitional space, or when present, observes its open hostility to pedestrian use, including unnecessary obstacles and proximity to vehicular traffic (noise, noxious exhaust, and questionable safety) discouraging use. Chalk this up as another collapsed art (e.g., painting, music, literature, and poetry) so desperate to deny the past and establish new aesthetics that it has ruined itself.

  1. motorala says:

    So I am not the only one to notice this, however, my experience involves residential buildings, especially houses. If I might be permitted a rant…
    A major development boom has been going on in Seattle for some time. A casualty of this has been our stock of older homes, especially of the craftsman and late-victorian type . The replacements are of a quasi-scandinavian modernist lego-block style generally lacking in just the type of transitional space you mention. Gone are the welcoming and neighborly porches, the small buffering yards with their trees, grass, and flowers. There is little or none of the intermediate, hybrid space that bridges the totally public with the totally private. The effect is abrubt and almost brutal. “Go away, don’t even think of talking to me” is the impression such “houses” give, and how could they be otherwise, since the public is right outside your window. Further compounding the visual assault is the paucity of textural variety in the siding (mostly thermal concrete panels with a little token wood here and there), no overhangs, exposed soffets, peaked roofs or inset windows. Apart from occasional obtruding block-forms, elements are uniformly flat along the same plane; there are no pockets for the eye, or birds, for that matter, to rest in. The space they create is claustrophobic and anti-social; the harsh, grating style completely out of synch with the soft, muted quality of this place.
    The crowning cherry on all this? In the process of “going green” via density and efficiency upgrades, developers buy these houses, leave them empty and rotting a few years before sending them to the landfill and then cut down the trees and strip out the vegetation. So much for our botanical air cleaners.
    As cultural indicator species, architecture may be equal to music.

    • Brutus says:

      Thanks for your comment. We are in total agreement. Your final comment hits hard, too, though as with architecture, I suspect musical aficionados would dispute our assessment.

      Considering the themes of this blog, it’s also not a stretch to observe that the aesthetic betrayals in architecture that make homes unhabitable extend to the conditions in the ecosphere that make the planet unhabitable. I’ll withhold my rant on that topic.

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