Liminal spaces have often been a topic of discussion in the fields of psychology, art, and architecture. It translates to a space between where you are in a given moment and where you want to be. It is derived from the Latin word ‘limen’ which means threshold. It is the threshold between what is and what will be. Liminal space could be a physical space we experience or a mental phenomenon that imitates the experience of being in that space. To create a mental image of what we understand by liminal- imagine an abandoned shopping mall in your town or the dimly lit passages of your school at midnight. These spaces make one feel uncomfortable and eerie as they lack human presence and are characterized by abandonment, isolation, or absence.
In architecture, the physical passage leading us to where we intend to reach can often be an experience tricky to interpret. It could also be said that these spaces are barely perceptible to the human mind and can thus create a feeling of confusion. Famous architect Rem Koolhaas authored an interesting article on what he calls ‘junk space’ in which he focuses on the human debris in the planet as a result of modernism. Some architects also termed these liminal spaces as a result of super modernism. As the word suggests, ‘super modernism’ is the stage after modernism has run its course. These spaces are often eerie in ways it appears to be monolithic or under-detailed. They embrace technology, which often leads the spaces or structures that do not belong anywhere specific. They do not connect to historical, cultural, or human values making them alien to the people that experience them.
When one comes across images depicting liminal spaces, it is often difficult to explain what one feels or perceives from the given space. It is unsettling to see a supermarket aisle at night or an empty street at an odd hour. The absence of a living character in such images makes us wonder if we are living in this detached reality, away from nature and its elements. Even in familiar spaces like our homes, schools, and offices, we might feel this weird spaciousness that disconnects us from the reality of life. Architect turned photographer Bas Princen elevated how one captured these liminal spaces. His work often exhibits buildings that appear to be in a ruined state or in the process of construction- and you cannot tell them apart. This creates that feeling of not knowing where this space might lead us. Mostly characterized without humans, some of the photos have human subjects- they appear overshadowed by the massiveness and lack of detailing of the landscape. His work is exhibited on gigantic screens and textiles, and at unique locations to create the experience of liminal spaces.
Famous neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud termed it as uncanny- the feeling of being familiar but at the same time feeling lost. We could relate this to architecture in a way that we might recognize these spaces enough to understand their setting but not enough to know where it belongs. Liminal images often have enough details for us to know what and where these spaces might be but one would not be able to recognize the exact location of the given space. It could be anywhere and nowhere. Even if one has not visited a particular space depicted in the image one might relate it with a space with the same lack of details. Airports, underground tunnels, hotel lobbies, and medical facilities behave as a transition between where we are and where we want to be physically and literally. These spaces lack similar details and thus create a similar feeling that is familiar but somehow makes us feel like we do not belong there. Is it safe to say that these are transitional spaces? Or does the concept of liminal spaces also apply to habitable spaces? Once a shopping complex full of people and experiences can convert into a liminal experience once it is closed down as humans move on to better spatial experiences. What happens to these spaces after they are forgotten? They remain there, with no human intervention over long periods, and then become a subject of discussion. Are these spaces a concern or should we let them be?
French anthropologist Mark Auge termed these as ‘non-spaces. Spaces that have a transitional, economical, and commercial function but lack any relation to the history, identity, or relation where these spaces exist. The function of these spaces is limited to transit or exchange and ends up making people feel lonely even when they might be surrounded by others.
Let us say that the spaces like hallways that do not provide any hint as to where it leads, or a dark alley with an unpredictable destination make us feel lost and disconnected. Feeling lost in the forest is different, but feeling lost in our everyday spaces raises concerns about the spaces we create for ourselves. Good architecture has always aimed to aid functionality and uplift human experiences. A liminal space does the very opposite of that – more than often. These spaces raise the question of what would happen to all these magnificent human creations long after humans are gone. Would they remain untouched and haunt these larger-than-life structures? Or will natural forces play their part and take over these spaces? Maybe nature would play its part in making these spaces feel familiar and not very uncomfortable because we all are extensions of nature. Everything that comes from nature and rests in it is where humans find solace.
SOURCES | Liminal Spaces
1)Stewart Hicks. (2021, March 4). The Architecture of Liminal Space [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pL3bqQRLvsQ
2)Koolhaas, R. (n.d.). Junksapce. OMA. https://www.oma.com/publications/junkspace
3)R. (n.d.). LIMINAL SPACES – LOST IN UNKNOWABLE LONELINESS OF MODERN ARCHITECTURE. Sabukaru. https://sabukaru.online/articles/liminal-spaces-the-era-of-realizing-false-promises
4)Hernández, D. (2021). The Architecture of Liminal Spaces. Archdaily. https://www.archdaily.com/958016/the-architecture-of-liminal-spacesHernández, D. (2021). The Architecture of Liminal Spaces. Archdaily. https://www.archdaily.com/958016/the-architecture-of-liminal-spaces