Can architecture provide a counter-representation of youth mobility? Architectural designer and critic Stuart Shanks shows how space informs popular perceptions of global youth.
How space is utilized in photographs of young migrants has the potential to portray fully realized people--as well as the potential to diminish or deprive us their humanity. In these images, space becomes a character in its own right, even as it is presumed to be a habitat or a transitional feature. Sometimes, space is presented in place of a young migrant, as in the work of Mary Beth Meehan and in many of the photos featured here on Youth Circulations.
Meant to underscore the invisibility that individuals who are undocumented presumably feel, Meehan portrays space as shadowy, even haunted. The effect is captivating, but it is insufficient. It also sustains a powerful silence—the silencing of young individuals’ voices, movements, expressions, and manipulations of space. There is no indication of life that is creative or resistant or even particularly active. Not only do these photos present a static image of young migrants—notably through youths’ marked absence—but they also reflect space in a way that diminishes the power-filled relationship between youth and the places they maneuver through and inhabit.
The perception of youth of the world to the world—i.e., how global youth are represented—is increasingly through photographs easily accessed on your screen. The resulting disconnect, between the multidimensional physical world and the flat digital image, creates emotional rifts that are bridged by the photographer’s framing. Meehan's use of so many desolate and haunting shots thus creates a simultaneous sense of unease and familiarity. She uses space to depict how her subjects inhabit the fringes of the world, and she uses those fringe spaces to project her perception of reality onto us, the viewer.
In Meehan’s images, the rooms are rarely placed head-on; instead, the frame highlights corners or off-centered dead ends. The viewer is never offered an easy exit out of these rooms. Passages are covered or obscured. Some are false exits, curtains hiding bare walls.
The space we observe is always small, and yet the rooms are sparsely furnished. This combination—scarce furnishings in a small room—creates a strange dichotomy that is at once suffocating and uncomfortably expansive. The objects in these spaces are mismatched garage sale finds, unwanted. In this version of what occupies “undocumented space,” we might assume that the people who live here are as undervalued to the population at large as the possessions they own.
In her photos Meehan demonstrates the pain, loss, and needs a migrant presumably feels, in a sense willing the viewer to get closer and to care. It is a balancing act that, if done right, is very impactful.
Meehan’s techniques of placement can also be situated within a broader framework of architecture called wayfinding--the study of how people use and walk through space. Where do you look when entering a house? What room will you enter next? Is the room entered on an axis or off? Do you open a door or move through an archway? How does the ceiling or floor height change the dynamics in a room? If answered correctly, the space works exactly how the architect envisions it, never realizing these are decisions that have been made.
Arguably the most prominent American architect of the last century, Frank Lloyd Wright pushed himself into the American conscious in numerous ways. He re-envisioned how people live in their houses. He improved an American model of the suburb while creating lyrical sculpture that was as beautiful as it was functional. He reorganized and rethought what a modern museum entailed. Beyond his designs, many more people remember him for his cult of personality, for being larger than life. Indeed, at many points in his life, Wright's salesmanship and personal life seem to outshine his projects.
Today, a number of architects are similarly idealized. Rem Koolhaas, Bjarke Ingles, Norman Foster, and Toyo Ito may not have the same cachet as Wright, but they wield great influence in architecture and exhibit similar personal and professional largess. The only difference, it seems, is how--or if--they use architecture to re-imagine and influence culture at large. Wright and his contemporaries were masters of this, well before Wright became famous for being famous. Through most of the 20th century, these architects questioned how a space is used, what the space is used for, and how those answers have implications the world at large.
The modern architect of the 21st century no longer seeks to dialogue with cultural change as theory. Instead, such questions are an afterthought, only addressed when deciding how to sell a building to the client or to the public at large. Then, buzz words like “green,” “innovative” and “open” are tacked on to increase some bottom line. Architecture has become commodified as a means to an end. No longer is it a field of critical thinkers who explore how design can influence and change the future by critically questioning the present.
How, then, can architecture be both more introspective and publicly-engaged? Responding to Meehan’s work architecturally, and to the reality of youth mobility, may offer one possibility. Now, the questions are: Can architecture become a new tool for how youth can reclaim space for themselves? If so, how can architecture re-emerge to offer a counter-representation of youth mobility? How might architects use space to depict global youth as living, as opposed to envisioning space as simply "lived-in"?
In order for this to happen, architects need to instill in themselves an approach that most young people already employ: a deliberate, fluid, and keen awareness of ongoing shifts in transnational culture and technology. The architect’s response must be to create something now—something that can be edited and deleted, that can evolve and be mobile. Architecture can no longer be based on a perceived increase in returns from our established givens. Instead, it needs to exist for the sake of an actual increase on what people desire out of life. Only when space is imagined and designed with mobility in mind; with a recognition of individuals as creative and creating; and with attention to young people’s critical regard for the spaces through which they move and choose to stay will architecture better resonate with life, and vice versa.
Photos like Meehan’s draw people into a world that reveals an intimacy of transition and hardship—yet they tell us very little about the actual person who inhabits that world. Similarly, contemporary architecture has become a signature, and the space it physically creates the afterthought. Through architecture, young migrants should find a voice that, like the avant-garde of the last century, will resonate with a wider audience. Architecture offers the signifiers that morph and evolve into the formal public discourse of what is modern. By responding to how people live, architecture inherently questions the function of existing space; it interrogates everything from grand palaces to city streets to what it means to be one’s own race, gender, nationality, and sexual orientation. By questioning present architecture, youth voices will continue to question gray areas of what it means to inhabit private and public spaces, the legality of occupation and concerns over ownership. Instead of giving examples of this, I challenge the reader to critically see how space helps and hinders how youth and everyone for that matter use and move through space. How certain public spaces are specifically designed to discourage mobility, like skateboarding; how physical “security” barriers create a sense of foreboding and implicitly discourage interaction with and within the space; how spaces that have no discernible purpose in urban centers have been co-opted by those too often characterized as “marginalized” and transformed into perfect examples of city improvement and civic pride. With the fluidity to inhabit more than a single space, to create new answers, and to put forth multifaceted designs that reveal their functionality, relevance, and beauty over time, architecture is perfectly positioned to respond to and represent global youth.
Stuart Shanks is an Architectural designer and writer currently based in Princeton, NJ. He received his Masters in Architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago and has worked for numerous firms in the Midwest and east coast including Zimmerman Architecture Studio in Milwaukee, MoDE Architects in Chicago, and Komita Design in Philadelphia. His work bridges the gap between technical detailing and theoretical practice to give architecture a cultural relevance. His design work and writings are found at www.stuartshanks.com.