It is 7 pm on a Thursday, the metro train advises you to mind the gap as you make your way into the cramped compartment. The commuters, like you, rush in to grab the empty seats. Among them, those who have lost the battle- stand in the middle, some towards the gate, almost leaning on the doors. The announcements barely stop, but no one seems to be interested. With earphones plugged-in, the passengers’ thumbs continue scrolling their screens and you’re once again revisited by that strange feeling- a longing, aching, yearning feeling– as if something is missing in your life and it will never come back, although the sad part is, it was never there, to begin with. It’s late at night and you’re now in a 24/7 open market, buying a coke from a vending machine when that inexplicable desolate feeling rushes back to your system making you wish for a place and time that possibly do not exist. In the end, the chatter of the customers around you alongside the whirring sound of the machine brings you back to reality. It is before dawn now, you’re watching the city lights glow from your bedroom window and you sense yourself feeling detached again, you seem disconnected, removed from your physical surroundings- and that bottomless, unfathomable urban sadness returns.
So, what is this enigmatic concept that befalls on so many of us? That, above mentioned, feeling of ‘urban sadness’ has been explained by Marc Augé in his book ‘Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity’. Augé, who is a French Anthropologist, coined the term ‘non-place’ back in 1992, to refer to spaces where concerns of relations, history, and identity are erased. These spaces could be anything and anywhere, ranging from motorways or hotel-rooms to shopping malls and airports. These have been defined as the ‘opposite of a place’, as in they have no real identity and thus hold no true emotional connection with the users or customers. They exist to fulfil a specific need and that’s it. According to Augé, when we moved from modernity to what he calls “supermodernity”, we ended up creating these non-places. Supermodernity or hypermodernity is considered to be a period characterized by an awareness of the risks and flaws of being modern, but a stage which has not been able to overcome modernity’s troubles. Ultimately, it captures the essence of our present period of modern exaggeration.
The perception of a space like a non-place, however, is strictly subjective: any given individual can view any given location as a non-place, or as a crossroads of human relations. For instance, a shopping mall may not be a non-place for a person who works there regularly with colleagues and relationships. Non-places evoke in people a feeling of estrangement and loss of identity since everyone remains a stranger to everyone else. Their only intention is to envelop an individual into anonymity and loneliness for these spaces continue to be shrouded with transition and temporality. In the contemporary world that we live in, spaces are no longer perceived in the same way as they were before. Approaching from another vantage point, non-places could be seen as heirs to everything that has created discomfort or annoyance in the history of human spaces, and even today we find these spaces continue to evolve and plague some corners of the human psyche.
Rem Koolhaas, a Dutch architect, in his essay titled ‘Junkspace’, discusses a similar concept where he critiques contemporary urbanism and city-building. According to him, architecture as we know it has ceased to exist, and whatever has taken its place is yet to be identified and analysed. He defines ‘junkspace’ as something which is born out of a capitalistic lifestyle, as space which is huge and ‘full of absence’, something which follows no rules has no inherent order and subsists with no connections between its parts. In Junkspace, cities of production and consumption grow to reach the climax of modernism, leaving the inhabitants with no chance of escape. Furthermore, Koolhaas argues that bigness has become the definitive trait of contemporary architecture, and total transparency its ideology. The new buildings emerging in cityscapes worldwide are characterless and standardized, with no clear function, and way larger than they need to be. These faceless, bland, random buildings grow out of projects prepared by teams, where the signature of the author gets lost, and where no attention is paid to how the structures blend with the city skyline; they become separate entities, leading to a “rich orchestration of chaos.” Consequently, these ‘generic cities’ tend to make citizens struggle with their identities, further leading to that unceasing feeling of emptiness and what we call ‘urban sadness’.
‘Urban sadness’ can also find its trace in gentrified or renovated neighbourhoods, where the old homes are gone and have been replaced with larger fake-old-style units that not many can afford, where historic family-run businesses have been superseded with expensive cafes and one finds it hard to get an affordable cup of coffee. Spaces, where the play structures in the park have been stripped down and sitting anywhere without a purpose, is considered to be ‘loitering’; in fact, there is no place to sit. How the capitalist lifestyle has turned malls into emotional blackholes, casinos are now bloated on filters and chemicals, and airports have gotten worse and worse over the years, sickeningly starch and blind to our humanity. These spaces may initially excite you but they quickly leave you feeling empty, lost and detached; for these places cannot be grasped, they may be flamboyant yet unmemorable, desirable yet deplorable as if they are designed to exclude you.
However, there exists another aspect of this idea. While some consider non-places to be eerie and almost haunting, others have found a feeling of comfort in that detachment. People have experienced a sense of timelessness that the ever-humming neon lights bring, even finding it peaceful. The lack of any explicit personality and connection, makes them relaxed, taking away any pressure- the pressure of being known, the pressure of expectations and finally the pressure of simply being.
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