We rarely see them. Or rather, we see but fail to acknowledge. They inhabit a shadowland of the banal, the unremarkable, the unnoticed. Concealed in their own mundanity, they gently erase themselves from view. Yet in Christopher Herwig’s remarkable Soviet Bus Stops, these drab artefacts of lane and street are re-invented, as Jonathan Meades observes in his foreward, as ‘components of some unimaginably vast pyritic bauble’ (Herwig, p.5). Exuberant, modernistic, audacious, these ‘cubistic concrete tents’ resemble the bunkers described by A Year in the Country as ‘artefacts from an almost science fictionesque future that never was, a form of hauntology possibly.’
This elision of time, a never realised past imagining of the future in the present, marks their liminality – as does their gentle ruination. For ruins pose a constant negotiation between glory and dissolution; success and failure; substance and nothingness. They ’embody a set of temporal and historical paradoxes’ (Dillon, p.11). And these liminalities compound. Meades notes how, ‘deserted and neglected’, these bus stops were ‘cut off’, ‘not close to villages or even hamlets’ (Herwig, p.5). Designed for a purpose, this purpose is now absent. They function without function. The effect is puzzlement and curiosity. And maybe a sense of the eerie too? As we view the photographs, there is disconnect between the often barren landscapes and the exotic bus-stops in the foreground. They should not be there but they are. For Mark Fisher, the eerie is ‘constituted by a failure of absence or by a failure of presence…where there is something present where there should be nothing.’ (Fisher, 2016, p.61).
This sense of disappearance and appearance manifests in the taxi drivers, who ferrying Herwig across Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, speed past the bus stops ‘as if they were invisible’ (Herwig, p.9). Yet, occasionally, one would develop ‘an appreciation for something he had forgotten existed’. For them, the banal is re-enchanted; the lost are resurrected. Inspired by Herwig’s quest, the taxi drivers see with new eyes. Like their liminal cousins, the beach, these bus stops function as a ‘space of defamiliarization’ (Burleigh and Jung, p.246).
And, as we have seen, the liminal attracts the social. Meades is struck by two men meeting at an isolated bus stop to open cans of beer and ‘put the world to rights’ (Herwig, p.5). These are ‘drop-in centres’, a ‘place to hang out’ which function as an ‘adhoc social service’. As Kavalkova-Halvarsson notes, ‘every day the same people met at the same bus stop, talking, exchanging ideas, arriving and departing’ (Herwig, p.11).
This communality suggests another way to view the bus stop. In a study of chiropody clinics, Karen Pettigrew introduces the concept of the ‘information ground: an ‘environment temporarily created by the behaviour of people who have come together to perform a given task, but from which emerges a social atmosphere that fosters the spontaneous and serendipitous sharing of information’ (Pettigrew, p.811). In later research (writing as Fisher), she identifies the ‘ambient role of place’ and the ‘specific effects of social settings on information flow’. These include places of worships, restaurants, cafes and ‘hostage phenomena such as self-service laundries, stores queues and, yes, bus stops (Fisher, Landry and Naumer, 2007).
We might also conceptualise these bus stops as an example of Oldenburg’s third place: a neutral ground that hosts the ‘regular, voluntary, informal…gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work’ (Oldenburg, Loc 760) and where the primary activity is conversation (via which, no doubt, information and stories flow).
But what is it about the bus stop or shelter that nurtures this eruption of sociality? From a study of photocopying rooms, Fayard argues that settings must have the ‘correct propinquity, privacy and social designation to afford formal interaction’ (Fayard, p.611). And these elements are influenced by architecture, geography and function. For the two men, sitting alone at their bus shelter in Kazakhstan, cans of beer in the plastic bag at their feet, the ‘concrete tent’ affords an element of privacy – or, at least – separation from the environment around. The open aspect also enables surveillance. It is private because those approaching can be easily seen – they are subject to the gaze.
Propinquity manifests in the functional centrality of the bus stop. This is the place to go if you want to catch a bus (if the buses still run). Or, if the spatial function is more that of ‘drop in centre’, this is the place to go if you want to drink, converse and simply hang out. These affordances are bolstered by the bus stop’s social designation: a ‘set of imperfectly shared expectations and understandings about what was appropriate and normal there’ (Fayard, p.624). What strikes Meades as noteworthy and dissonant is, for the actors themselves, an unremarkable ritual in the daily round.
And for those in rural England, we need not look as far as the former Soviet Republics to appreciate such spatial affordances. For the village bus stop is not solely reserved for those desiring to travel. As dusk falls, this becomes the haunt of more youthful phantasms. The detritus of cans, broken cigarette and runic scribblings on the brick walls marks their presence. For this is also a youth club, congregation point and playground. A ‘third place’ for the young and spatially dispossessed with its perfectly imbricated blend of privacy, propinquity and social designation. It also conceals a sly subversion of power. Applying a Lefebvrian lens, the conceived space of the architect and planners – which designates the actions and behaviours to be carried out there – is resisted and contested. Our phantasms have appropriated it for other uses: their routines and behaviours (perceived space) belie the sanctioned use (Lefebvre, 1974/1991).
So just as every village has its physical bus stop, perhaps every organisation has its metaphoric bus-stops too. Those reclaimed spaces where the symbolic kinsfolk to Meades’ old men gather with their lumpen bag of beer cans. Or where the youthful whisper behind cupped hands and mark their tribal allegiances and enmities in paint can and marker pen. Harriet Shortt tells of hairdressers reclaiming towel rooms and fire escapes as spaces to share information, build relationships and construct a sense of identity. While, Sarah Warnes, in a fascinating study of the staff in an English cathedral, shows how corridors and pathways – spaces of transit and movement – are ‘manipulated’ by one employee’s slow walking pace to create a social space to ‘mingle and linger’ And such lingering creates opportunities to ‘share problems with colleagues, together forming resolutions and therefore increasing productivity at work’ (Warnes, p.199).
So, as we close the pages of Soviet Bus Stops, let’s open our eyes to these elusive, liminal spaces which hide, modestly of course, in plain view: recognisable to all but visible to few. Let’s celebrate their unremarkable uniqueness and the quiet joy they instil in those who inhabit them. For beige, I hear, is this year’s black. And, as we have seen, beige is rarely quite what we expect it to be.
A Year in the Country. (2016) ‘Paul Virgilio’s bunker archaeology and accidental utilitarian art’, A Year in the Country, 18 August 2016. Available at: http://ayearinthecountry.co.uk/week-3352-bunker-archives-4-paul-virilios-bunker-archaeology-accidental-utilitarian-art/ (Accessed: 21 October, 2017)
Burleigh, P. and Jung, S. (2010) ‘The beach as a space of defamiliarisation’, Journal of Visual Art Practice, 9(3), pp. 245–257.
Fayard, A.L. and Weeks, J. (2007) ‘Photocopiers and water-coolers: the affordances of informal interaction’, Organization Studies, 28(5), pp. 605–634.
Fisher, K.E., Landry, C.F. and Naumer, C. (2007) ‘Social spaces, casual interactions, meaningful exchanges: ‘information ground’ characteristics based on the college student experience’, Information Research, 12(2). Available at: http://www.informationr.net/ir/12-2/paper291.html (Accessed: 16 August, 2018)
Fisher, M. (2016), The weird and the eerie. Repeater Books.
Herwig, C. (2015), Soviet Bus Stops: Fuel.
Lefebvre, H. (1974/1991), The Production of Space: Blackwell Publishing.
Oldenburg, R. (1999), The great good place: cafes, coffee shops, bookstores, bars, hair salons, and other hangouts at the heart of a community: Da Capo Press.
Pettigrew, K.E. (1999) ‘Waiting for chiropody: contextual results from an ethnographic study of the information behaviour among attendees at community clinics’, Information Processing and Management, 35, pp. 801-817.
Shortt, H. (2015) ‘Liminality, space and the importance of ‘transitory dwelling places’ at work’, Human Relations, 68(684), pp. 633-658.
Warnes, S. (2015) Exploring the lived dimension of organisational space: an ethnographic study of an English Cathedral. PhD thesis, University of Essex, UK.
Rodwell, I. (2018) Bus Stop, Tivetshall, Norfolk
Rodwell, I. (2018) Bus Shelter, Eye, Suffolk