On Experiencing Space

I’ve always had a sort of desultory interest in how we experience space. Not outer space, although I’ve also always liked science fiction, but the everyday spaces around us: the streets we walk, the shops we frequent, the rooms in which we work, play, think, read, teach, learn.

That interest has followed me around in a number of different ways. Most obviously in my line of work, it led me to an interest in teaching spaces, and in exploring ways to use the physical resources of the classroom. I’ve been particularly lucky in being able to use some pilot Active Learning Classrooms in my work over the past few years, and in being able to contribute through experience to the creation of more of them on my campus.

As a graduate student, I wasn’t really consciously thinking about space as a factor in my work, but it was there. My thesis on medieval plays — which were performed in all kinds of different spaces — played a role in shaping my thinking, as did my focus on rhetoric, which, I’ve come to understand, uses spatial metaphors as a way of organizing many of its basic principles. Over the years since then, I’ve started to read more about space and how we experience it; writers like Bachelard and Lefebvre, urbanists like Sudjic and Jacobs, troublemakers like Debord, creators like Calvino.

I suppose the problem I’ve always had is that, as I say, my interest is a desultory one. I’ve never really been able to figure out what I want to do with all of this. The pleasure of spaces is for me a meandering one, not an argumentative one, despite rhetoric’s use of spatial metaphors. Many of the writers I’ve mentioned above work meandering right into their work. Bachelard’s Poetics of Space is a lyrical, often confusing wander through the phenomenology of houses and what can be found within; Calvino’s Invisible Cities is a mythopoeic ramble through emblematic, symbolic cities of Kublai Khan’s empire; Debord and his Situationist colleagues turned the aimless dérive through city streets into a political and creative act.

But in the world as we have it, we want direction. The rambling intellectual journey to and from nowhere in particular has never exactly been recommended. Today, it is even less valued; you need a project, a direction, a goal. You need, if you wish to be a paid thinker, to be able to explain in an elevator pitch what you’re doing, where you’re going, what you expect to find when you get there.

I sometimes wonder if the intellectual world itself needs a dérive. Perhaps that would do it some good.