Engage The User

Architecture’s failure to satisfy new human behaviors has drawn individuals to places free of familiarity in order to manifest their sublimated desires, seeking not nature or its memory, but that of the industrial, waste and construction sites to engage our imagination. These minimal zones are the new public spaces of tomorrow, writes Kurt Franz.

April 8, 2012


‘Architecture is defined by the actions it witnesses as much as by the enclosure of its walls’.

The state of today’s city exists despite architecture’s failure to engage new human behaviour, leading individuals to discover places free of familiarity,  creating new public realms for themselves. These new public spaces are not progressions of the English garden, but evolutions of waste and construction sites. Entropic sites are a common occurrence along the city’s periphery, often secluded due to their bastardized urban status. However, the extensive spread of the built environment has led people to these spaces mostly for self enjoyment. Contemporary leisure in uninhabitable spaces has developed a new twist to “eating oysters with boxing gloves.” The heterogeneous mix of the social metropolis in a space without architecture has stimulated the user’s sublimated desires to create new culture from unstructured space.

An eclectic unification of these spaces is found upon examining the post industrial metamorphic suburbs in Western Europe and Middle America. What is consistent among these peripheral landscapes is the unfinished construction site or “ruins in reverse.”; these mutating spaces of construction and waste are unusually interesting, poetic and inspiring – not only from the standpoint of a lawless space without ‘code’, but also in relation to the feeling of engendered freedom. Intentional and unintentional use of such space is present in Zurich, Switzerland’s District 11 and North Brabant, Netherlands, in which people inhabit construction sites for their enjoyment.

District 11 lies north of the city of Zurich and is comprised of the three cities: Affoltern, Oerlikon, and Seebach. The five square mile district is unified by scattered green agricultural spaces and leisure, which constantly remains under construction. What is unique about the development is the process in which it has evolved relative to adjacencies: instead of constructing the building first and finishing with a landscape design, the complete opposite is true. Leisure-scapes of swimming, BMX-biking, viewing platforms, ping pong, and general park activity are intertwined within the construction of the building. The idea behind the inverted development is to build greater value in the property in a premature use of its recreational areas. What is actually created is a civically-oriented construction site, and thus a new typology of public space.

Similar open space typologies, but less premeditated than those of District 11, are evident in the large 1,900 square mile region of North Brabant, just East of Rotterdam. North Brabant is slightly unique to the Netherlands because it resides mostly above sea level and is largely consumed by agriculture and some automotive industry. This vast expanse contains many sites of overproduction in addition to the industrial and agricultural, which the Dutch embrace for leisure. Hedonists trespass and use this space for various activities including off-roading, remote control car racing, raves, dirt biking, swimming, paintballing, painting, fishing and concerts. North Brabant’s places of non-urbanity invite the users to define the space for themselves, thus creating an intriguing juxtaposition, well captured in the work of Bas Princen, a Dutch photographer.

Both North Brabant and Zurich’s District 11 create similar spaces respectively, consequential and intentional, that forms a new typology of public space. This anti-spectacle becomes a prominent atmosphere that vacillates between the constructed city, suburb, entropy, industrial manufacturing, agriculture and future development. This pressing global phenomenon of growing ruins has led people not back to the memory of nature, but to the investigation of these spaces and their sublimated desires. The question then lies, ‘what does architecture and construction gain from this new freedom and what does this tell us about the future of social metropolis development?’


“On an urban scale, the zone is what dust is on the scale of the single dwelling: it is the waste that inevitably accompanies production (which is necessarily, according to Bataille, overproduction).

The phenomenon of people finding their desires in alien spaces is explicitly represented in the 1979 Russian movie Stalker.  The plot revolves around three men travelling through a post-industrial wasteland called the ‘Zone’, sanctioned by the government and free of laws and control. The ‘Stalker’ cautiously leads the ‘Professor’ and ‘Writer’ through the wasteland, who become sceptical of the Stalker’s caution as there is never any apparent danger. Throughout the open landscape, they discuss the shortcomings of society while in search of a room in which their “deepest, innermost desires” will be fulfilled.

Recent urban and architectural thought has precipitated conditions like these zones by migrating closer to indecision. There is no permanence of sublime ideas for precept and the building process that produces such a contemporary phenomena. The dilemma has publicised new ideas of landscape urbanism, light urbanism, and ‘green design,’ all as possible antidotes to problems of overproduction. Still, the majority of architecture produced today is solely concerned with aesthetics of spectacle and a negation of genuine social interaction. Past anti-spectacles of ‘anarchitecture’ as Gordon Matta-Clark expressed, seek out the potential of continuous spatial mutability to progress a social utopia. Gordon’s thesis of inhabiting the uninhabitable has become a reality by the contemporary investigation of similar spaces by urban dwellers.

Architecture theses continually split ideological hairs in search of new parameters of how to define our actions and motives. In the past ten years, landscape architecture has progressed from mere ornamentation to an urban theory. The construction site has begun to undergo a similar transformation, expressed by the stalking urbanite inhabitation. The process of physically constructing the edifice has changed the least out of all the disciplines involved in building, while every other part of the process has gone through more rigorous scrutiny. The mass amount of architecture today has succumbed to the conventions of construction, rarely examining the potential of its process. This has resulted in repetitive designs and moreover, a human desire to leave the city, ironically moving back to the construction site. Construction zones are therefore open to the most investigation of the building disciplines and consequently will gain from the newfound freedoms.

Civic Construction

The many transitional states of the building assembly are far more forthcoming and intriguing than that of the end product. Rarely is there publicized documentation of the building process that developes such fascination. The overwhelming amount of final building photos is, however, always rendered in the not too distant past. Upon viewing the different moments, the evanescence of contemporary buildings is understood but not fully conceived. The lack of familiarity with the exposed, crudely dynamic process opens an individual’s imagination. Construction is then able to take on a key urban role as a spatial think tank. Here, conventions are challenged and disorient the user causing them to act and be cognizant of their behavior, hence avoiding preemptive social actions of spectacle. It then becomes unlikely that the final building will produce anything as interesting unless it takes on a similar function and ceases to be ‘a building.’

Inhabiting various construction sites breaks from the local to the regional due the vast space construction takes up in metropolises today. Nomadic sites are able to host events for personal enjoyment in the metropolis like that of Gordon Matta-Clarks ‘Cuttings” or ‘Pig Roast.’ What the user does here for enjoyment is not dictated, but discovered in the absence of regulation and planning. Once the building is constructed, users move onto engage the finished product and/or look for the next site. The whole metropolis becomes a metamorphic scape in which construction and destruction are the catalysts of evolving public space and subcultures.

Formalization of construction types asks users to subconsciously engage their desires and imagination. The rupture of boundaries, “…when it becomes formalized, it transforms every reality, takes on the energy of poetry, conjures up and aids chance and makes possible the actual meeting between thought and matter.” Adriaan Geuze expands on the union of thought and matter by explaining that the one-dimensionality of public space ignores the intelligence of the user, and by provoking them, the pre-programmed behaviors are negated to give way to a detached culture, that the city-dweller creates. Formalizing the sanctioned area of construction growth and decay, such space is created and social utopian progression is able to occur as touched upon in Zurich’s District 11 and North Brabant. Contemporary public space dictates behaviors by codes, media and myopias while the opposite is true for informal spaces. Users are able to engage their subconscious voracity while simultaneously manifesting them in space without dictatorship. The ephemeral vague space scours the land, constantly reinventing itself by activating individuals’ fantasies.


Contemporary life has been trapped in postmodernism, accepting its conventions. People are engaging their desires to “wallow in [the] impurities” of the land because of the dissatisfaction with society’s attempt to fulfill us. This boredom has turned people into neo-Matta-Clarks finding ‘dust’ for themselves to “demonstrate its repressed manifestations in the urban context.”  This is evident on all levels of existence today. The greatest invention in the past century is used for pornography and to steal from one another. These are the wants of people, sublimated by society, and it is no accident this behavior happens in places of non-space. This is a perverse beauty however, because it is through our waste, primal instincts, impulses and writings on the bathroom stall that we learn the most about ourselves.

If people accept themselves as beings of instinct and impulse, then architecture cannot fully abide by proportion and beauty; these are things of ration. New functionalisms of green design cannot fully govern space because of the seclusion of people’s desires.  Architecture and public space are distorted circus mirrors that reflect the prefect self back to the viewer, as they are not rational beings of organized society. Humans have a monotonous desublimated gaze that was used by the surrealists to explain what modernism could not. The modernist utopia could not account for society’s primal impulses, sexuality, perversions, nightmares and unconscious. The endless gridded cities full of once beloved steel, concrete and glass, do not reflect the beauty of ourselves that people today wish to see.

Thus the sites of waste, infrastructure and industry of America are not problems at all, but long avoided solutions. Developers, architects and planners have ignored possibilities in this regard because approval of these spaces goes against the very definition of their professions; creating systems, regulated by a plan, to fulfill the dream of escaping entropy. However, users leaving the plan to investigate their own imaginations contradict this sense of control and human ideal, being a direct criticism of architecture and man. The new public spaces that people inhabit are precedent for the future evolution of architecture. This paradox of creating new architecture from its antithesis frees contemporary thought of acceptable human environment to facilitate future freedoms of the public metropolis.  Engaging the user, not only from productions of unconventional space but the actions it witness, progresses heterotopias which the contemporary urbanite stalks.


Bernard Rudofsky, Architecture without Architects, A Short Introduction to non Pedigreed Architecture, MOMA, New York, 1964; Bernard Tschumi, Advertisement for Architecture, 1976

Koolhaas, Rem. Delirious New York. New York, The Monacelli Press, Inc., 1994

Smithson, Robert. “The Collected Writings”, ed. Jack Flam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996)

Yve-Alain Bois, Formless: A Users Guide. 2nd ed. New York: Zone Books, 1997

Geuze, Adriaan, Artificial Landscapes. Netherlands, Distributed Art Pub Inc., 2000

Moure, Gloria, Gordon Matta-Clark Works and Collected Writings. Barcelona: Ediciones Polgraphia, 2006


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