Community and Place – an introduction

Ulrich Gehmann

Communities need place, and not just space. Place, the Aristotelian topos, is space as a place of concrete belongings, of immediate experience and affectivity and hence, of community. Since community, as opposed to mere agglomerations of people, needs personal relationships. The counterpart to the topos, the concrete place of concrete belongings, is the Roman notion of spatium, the neutral, abstract space of architecture. It is not the concrete space where life takes place, but a space of measurements, neutral geometry; it is an essentially homogenous, metric space opposed to the Topos, the space of community. [1]

Fig. 1: Spatium. San Francisco business district [2]

But Spatium does not really exist, nowhere; it is a space of imagination, a conceived space of neutrality, and homogeneity – an abstraction. Abstract space, says Lefebvre, is not really homogenous but has homogeneity as its lens, its perspective of how to look at things, as its aim. [3] That is: such a space has to be achieved yet, by a mental or actual tabula rasa-approach towards the real. We do not know what existed on the ground before those buildings of Fig. 1 were put into place, how many individual places had to be eradicated first.

Opposed to such abstractions, human beings need human places, spaces of the concrete where they can belong to. It was not so much technique that shaped human beings from their beginning, but the domestication of time and space, that is, the creation of a human space having its own time. [4] In the beginning, such a space and time were not (just and only) the ones pregiven by nature; nowadays, they are not the ones pregiven by business.

As regards space being a real place, it is about the anthropological place. It is characterized by identity, social, emotional, and cultural relations, and (out of all this) by history. [5]. It is the genuine human place, as space. We know many of such spaces, inter alias being the target of tourism: Venice for instance, other old cities and towns, and many other places that own “atmosphere”, genuine individuality, even romance.

Fig. 2: The historically grown (Asolo, Veneto/Italy)

Place was, and is, the problem of modern as well as recent architecture. We nowadays live in an age of super-modernity, states Marc Augè, primarily characterized by spatially extended and anonymous transit spaces, non-places making up a significant part of recent architectures.[6] Culminating in the logistic landscapes of a recent world, a new, second environment that became ‘natural’ for us; the normality of highways, airport areas, railway stations, etc. In prolongation of the modern formula form follows function, an architecture that obeys to the principle of infrastructure = landscape = architecture.[7]

Modern Times were an age that consequently replaced the grown historical space by spaces of abstraction, the abstract space of functionality. It was a momentum founded on “the modern world’s brutal liquidation of history and of the past.” [8]

Fig. 3: Non-Place. Part of airport Frankfurt/Main, Germany

If we take the notion of utopia literally, it denotes the non-place, the ou-topos. And we can easily realize when looking at the above image, like the first one presenting a scenario from the midst of our recent Lebenswelt, that utopia is not always located in a distant future. It can be already here, a place where human beings deserving the name ‘human’ cannot, or should not live. Not to speak about true communities living in proper places.

The situation becomes even more difficult by the recently prevailing frame conditions of a globalized capitalist economy driven by the ideas of private property and maximizing profits as first-ranked values (in disfavor of the idea of the communal) and in its wake, its addiction to growth – of profits, ecological and social problems, and other disruptions of the natural as well as human fabric. Like Spatium is, private property-space settles on an abstraction. Applied as practice, it leads to the dissociation of naturally and historically grown entities, and to their “subordination to the unifying but abstract principle of property.” The space emerging is “in itself impossible to live, even for the landowner, because it is juridical in nature, and hence external, and supposedly superior, to lived experience.” [9]

In its practical applied terms, it leads to the gated communities, gentrified zones and the splintering urbanism of today, a fragmenting and dissolving form of urban development. [10] It embodies a development in disfavor of the public place of former, more community-oriented planning. And to many forms of escapism and decline in the social ecology (the intactness of which is a premise for community), enlarging the distance between the ideal space of the mental and the logical/mathematical categories expressed in the respective spatial geometries, and the real space, the one of lived social praxis. [11] Like transit spaces, the kind of real space portrayed below became one of the predominant new public spaces of the present.

Fig. 4: Recent real space. Shopping Centre in the near of Paris

History and Beliefs

In all these regards, history, and in its sway, the desire for an anthropological, truly human place comes into play again, via the backdoor so to say. First and foremost, in designing architectures of, and for the future, we have to overcome a modern (and post-modern) age on the historical remnants of which we live. An era denying history – or using it just for tourism, in fantasy films or computer games – is itself a historical product.

But: in designing new spaces with places, we have to refrain from one characteristic of the anthropological place: from history. Since these new spaces lack the historical patina, they did not evolve over time; instead, they are ideal artifacts, constructed anew like every utopian construction. Which they are, by their very claim to provide, in terms of built space, a better frame for a better human future. This is a utopian venture, no matter if explicitly outspoken or not.

Fig. 5: A past architecture for the future. Centre Mondial (1913), frame

Related to utopia as an eu-topian or “good” place is the question of the human condition, in classical terms, the assumptions about an assumed general conditio humana. Which are the basic traits of human beings to be met by the respective utopian construction?

It is a principal question for architecture, but in particular for architectures aiming at a better future: for which kind(s) of human beings which kinds of architecture are suited? Or more general: is there something like a ‘universal’ architecture meeting the ‘universal’ character traits of making humans human, and if so, what has to be done to install such an architecture? It is a question that reaches far beyond the scope of practical necessities of the day, e.g. in our times, of climatic change, proper resource management and ecological sustainability. In making architecture, we have a certain image of man, of human beings inevitably underlying the respective construction. For instance, what an image of man was prevalent in the construction of an architecture of Bruno Taut, or Le Corbusier? What an image led to the constructions of an El Lissitsky, or Tatlin? Opposed to those of a Frank Lloyd Wright, or to the assumptions triggering the lead ideas of an “International Style”?

Such a perspective can be focused in case of architectures that are destined for erecting the frame for a better future. Again, it is about place these assumptions about a Conditio Humana are leading to. Which places, first of all which public places need human beings destined to become better human beings? Better in which directions, for what sake?

Fig. 6: A better world, for better humans. Entrance to the Centre Mondial (frame)

In other words: utopia, particularly its eu-topian variants, and a Conditio Humana intrinsically belong together. To improve human beings, or at least their base of existence (in which directions ever; depends on the resp. utopia), is an inherent driving force of making “better” architectures and hence, architectures for the future. Does liberation make humans better? Which is a modern Western, individualistic approach. Or is it community, the prevalence of the communal over individual desires and aspirations? Which is a Socialist approach, throughout different cultures and times. Here, too, liberation plays a role. But it is not the individual as a single person that has to be liberated, it is the one of community as a whole which then leads to a liberation of human character traits assumed as positive.

In any case, central assumptions about the human leading to a certain Menschenbild, a specific image of man, are the base of architecture.

These assumptions and images rest in what is called a “cultural memory”, which again is a matter of history. As a body of knowledge, they mostly resemble an unthought known, a knowledge which is accessible but not explicitly reflected.[12] Being embedded in a cultural memory, these assumptions and images are more than just purely personal but depend on the sociocultural background in question, and on its history, means cultural evolution. It is about a Weltbild whose images – and hence, the architectures derived from them – are anchored in, an entire imagery about “the world” (as such, and in toto) mostly embodying an unthought known; that world’s genesis, i.e. essential history included. What made humans to humans? Why civilizations emerged? Why is “the” world a competitive place? And so on. Those inner images about the world, states a recent observer, are not always of an individual nature; but even in those cases when they are of collective origins we internalized them so much that we think of them as being solely our own, individual ones.[13]

Fig. 7: Architecture and the unthought known

The architectures we build, particularly those for the future, depend on what we believe.


[1] Böhme, Gernot (2013): Architektur und Atmosphäre. Munich; Wilhelm Fink: 15f., referring to these two basic conceptions about space in European philosophy (as he says).

[2] All photos are from U. Gehmann

[3] Lefebvre, Henri (ed. of 2007): The Production of Space. Malden, MA, etc.; Blackwell Publishing [Original (1974): La production de l’espace. Paris; Editions Anthropos]: 238, 287   

[4] Leroi-Gourhan, André (1984): Hand und Wort. Die Evolution von Technik, Sprache und Kunst. Frankfurt/Main; Suhrkamp [Original (1964-65): Le geste et la parole. Paris; Albin Michel]: 387

[5] Augé, Marc (1995): Non-Places. Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. London; Verso [Original (1992): Non-Lieux, Introduction à une anthropologie de la surmodernité. Paris; editions du Seuil]: 52

[6] Augé (op. cit.), describing these spaces in different perspectives. To the logistic landscape see Kuhnert, Nikolaus/Ngo, Anh-Linh: Servicearchitekturen. Von Korridoren und Black Boxes, Big Boxes und Logistischen Landschaften. In: Arch+, Zeitschrift für Architektur und Städtebau Nr. 205, March 2012:11-10; cited p. 10

[7] Graham, Steven/Marvin, Simon (2001): Splintering Urbanism: Networked Infrastructure, Technological Mobilities and the Urban Condition. London/New York; Routledge: 30

[8] Lefebvre (op. cit.): 49 (hist./abstract space), and 122 (liquidation)

[9] Lefebvre (op. cit.): 252. He says that this process begun in the Roman era already and is not finished yet. In terms of etymology (cultural memory) the Latin privare is associated with both to rob, and to be robbed of something.

[10] Graham/Marvin (op. cit.): 385-87, to its relation to a capitalist context.

[11] Lefebvre (op. cit.): 14

[12] To the concept of an unthought known see Bollas, Christopher (1987): The Shadow of the Object – Psychoanalysis of the Unthought Known. London; Free Association Books 287f.

[13] Belting, Hans (4th ed., 2011): Bild-Anthropologie. Munich; Wilhelm Fink: 21