The hedge is threshold, boundary land. It delineates, marks and divides. Poised between field and field or meadow and lane, it signifies the boundary it simultaneous enacts.

These are ‘landscapes of semiotic uncertainty’ (Kaczmarczyk, p.53). Look carefully at the tangle of bramble and leaf. For the hedgerow is a topological trickster. At times, fecund, green, abundant. At others, bare, barren, denuded. Caught in the twist of seasons, the hedge is home to both green man and ghost. It shifts shape at will.

IMG_1013And ambiguities multiply and enfold. For some, the hedge is a space of nest and burrow. A refuge from predator and storm where it is safe to roost and sleep. Yet this is also a place of danger – for concealment carries both blessing and curse. The eyes that spark in the undergrowth; the rank tang of fox or weasel. In the slanting dusk, the silhouettes of blackthorn and dog-rose invite the unknown. They are ‘uncanny artefacts’ that trouble and disturb (Kaczmarczyk, p.55). Perhaps all hedgerows intimate the zone rouge: this now fertile no-man’s land which bears its stain – and its dark bounty of bone and bullet – through the decades. For every Prince that finds his Sleeping Beauty, lie many others pierced and bleeding on the thorns.

Remember too that for the small and wily, the hedge is porous; a permeable barrier though which ancestral paths, the well-marked smeuses, form the old ways through bramble, branch and thistle. Yet, to the large and unseeing, the thorn and briar are as unpassable as the castle wall. But here, as Kaczmarczyk suggests is another ambiguity. For this is not a barrier of stone and mortar but one of fragile stalk and leaf. And there is tension in this contrast (Kaczmarczyk, p.57).

One final duality. By the spinney and at the end of the loke, I find hedges that proclaim their vegetal exuberance. But others, those that border my local lanes, are bushwhacked to a bristly conformity. Yet this will not last. For this is a liminal phase between growth and regrowth. And, in the land of the liminal, the blade only secures temporary control.

Yet there was a time when the blade and digger carried out more potent work. Since 1950 more than half our hedgerows have vanished, condemned ‘as old-fashioned relics that shaded crops, sheltered vermin, wasted space’ (Clifford and King, p.223). And life was lost: the birds flew, the animals retreated. This is, perhaps, a lesson our organisations have failed to learn. Hurdley talks of the ‘increasingly vulnerable position’ of corridors in traditional buildings (Hurdley, p.46). These ‘hedges’ in the office landscape  are under threat.

IMG_1015Elsewhere, the devastation has been unleashed. According to Dale and Burrell, seven miles of internal walls in the UK Treasury were removed, ‘literally dismantling the ‘corridors of power’’ (Dale and Burrell, 2010). To justify this destruction, those arguments of productivity and enhanced yield emerge from their 1950’s winding sheet. But here the grain and seed so eagerly sought are those of ‘interactive, complex, open-ended teamwork’ and the diminution of ‘hierarchies or status’ (Hirst and Humphreys, p.1506).

In Hirst and Humphrey’s study of ‘dehedging’ at a UK local authority’s new HQ, there are plaintive echoes of more literal counterparts. As part of the move, ‘de-cluttering’ was encouraged, with sanctions for those ‘who failed to leave their workspace entirely clear of all paperwork and personal items’ (Hirst and Humphreys, p.1516). You can almost hear the bushwhacker’s whine and roar. Yet, three years after this pruning and scraping, ‘many staff had ‘nested’’, their belongings defiantly on display. It is a suggestive metaphor – the domesticity of home and security once more restored to the open, wind-blasted ‘field’.

Elsewhere, the benefits of the prairie office plain are equally elusive. In a new study of food and eating in the workplace, Harriet Shortt observes how, in an open plan office ‘designed with collaboration, togetherness and teamwork in mind’ (Shortt, p.11), one interviewee talked of the loneliness and sense of exclusion such an environment engenders. It is the cake and pastries brought from home and shared ‘on desks and on locker tops’, that bring people back together and reconnect conversations – like birds noisily congregating around the hedgerow’s larder of haws, hips and sloes.

As we have seen, the hedgeless field offers exposure and threat: all who cross or linger are open to the gaze of others. In a recent paper, Hirst and Schwabenland reveal that in a newly configured office, visibility meant that ‘being observed was a constant possibility’ (Hirst and Schwabenland, p.170). For some women this visibility was ‘perceived as uncomfortable or oppressive’ with attendees for job interviews being ‘marked’ for their attractiveness by men in the team (Hirst and Schwabenland, p.170). Similarly, Kingma, in a study of the effects of ‘new ways of working’ in a Dutch insurance company, quoted employees who felt they were ‘constantly being watched’ (Kingma, p.16).

In an echo of this, Shortt notes how several women working flexible arrangements found the hot-desking arrangements exclusionary. They described themselves as ‘nomads’, ‘wandering around the office to find a desk’ – rootless travellers deprived of a home base or shelter from the workplace storm.

IMG_1011 2So maybe we should campaign for the return of our metaphoric organisational hedges. Allen identified ‘washrooms, copying machines, coffeepots, cafeterias’ as ‘interaction-promoting facilities’ that draw people to them increasing the occurrence of chance encounters and unintended communication (Allen, p.248). And these ‘hedgerow rendezvous’ have value: they are the ‘prime vehicle for transmitting ideas, concepts, and other information necessary for ensuring effective work performance’ (Allen, p.269).

Hillier stresses the importance of the ‘weak ties’ generated by buildings. These connections to ‘people that one does not know one needs to talk to’ are more likely to break the boundaries of knowledge that solidify when projects, functions and departments are localised (Quoted in Kornberger and Clegg, p.1105). The ‘generative buildings’ that result evoke ‘chaotic, ambiguous, and incomplete space’.  It is in these margins – where people who are ‘normally separated exchange ideas and concepts’ – that ‘creative organising and positive power happens’ (Kornberger and Clegg, p.1106). This is fluid, liquid, organic space or, if you prefer, the organisational hedgerows which shelter chance, promise and threat.

For, in these peculiarly liquid times of flux and change, it is important ‘to move quickly and easily across the team boundary’ (Dibble and Gibson, p.926). Contract workers, consultants, fledgling, entrepreneurial ventures all require borders that are permeable and porous. And, like the variety of flora and fauna engendered by the hedgerow, these organisational boundaries can be similarly diverse. Their form may be social, cultural, physical while the flow can involve people, information, resources and status (Dibble and Gibson, p.929).

So, if you hear the bushwhacker’s roar, remember the power of elder, dogwood, hazel and sweet briar. For it in these interlacing boundaries, fertile, pliable and everlastingly liminal, that the inventive and cunning will find the shaded gaps that lead to invention and, maybe, salvation.

Now the hedgerow is blanched for an hour with transitory blossom/Of Snow, a bloom more sudden/Than that of summer

Allen, Thomas J. (1977), Managing the flow of information. MIT Press.

Clifford, S. and King, A. (2006), England in particular: a celebration of the commonplace, the local, the vernacular and the distinctive. Hodder & Stoughton.

Dale, K. and Burrell, G. (2010) ‘All together, altogether better’: the ideal of ‘community’ in the spatial reorganization of the workplace’, in van Marrewijk, A. and Yanow, D. (eds.) Organizational spaces: dematerialising the workaday world. Edward Elgar.

Dibble, R. and Gibson, C. B. (2018) ‘Crossing team boundaries: a theoretical model of team boundary permeability and a discussion of why it matters’, Human Relations, 71(7), pp. 925–950.

Eliot, T.S. (1944) ‘Little Gidding’, in Four Quartets. Faber.

Hirst, A. and Humphreys, M. (2013) ‘Putting power in its place: the centrality of edgelands’, Organization Studies, 34(10), pp. 1505–1527.

Hirst, A. and Schwabenland, C. (2018) ‘Doing gender in the “new office”’, Gender, Work and Organization, 25(2), pp. 159–176.

Hurdley, R. (2010) ‘The power of corridors: connecting doors, mobilising materials, plotting openness’, The Sociological Review, 58(1), pp. 45–64.

Kaczmarczyk, K. and Salvoni, M. (2016) ‘Hedge mazes and landscape gardens as cultural boundary objects’, Sign Systems Studies, 44(12), pp. 53–68.

Kingma, S. (2018) ‘New ways of working (NWW): work space and cultural change in virtualizing organizations’, Culture and Organization, (Online), pp. 1-24.

Kornberger, M. and Clegg, S. R. (2004) ‘Bringing space back in: organizing the generative building’, Organization Studies, 25(7), pp. 1095–1114.

Macfarlane, R. (2015), Landmarks. Hamish Hamilton

Shortt, H. (2018) ‘Cake and the open plan office: a foodscape of work through a Lefebvrian lens’, in: Kingma, S., Dale, K. and Wasserman, V., eds. (2018) Organizational space and beyond: The significance of Henri Lefebvre for organizational studies. Routledge [In Press].




Ghost Sign

They are there. And you have seen them. Perhaps from a train as it lurches and jolts over the points and junctions outside a city terminus. A glance through the window and they emerge into view. Or, perhaps, on a busy street, you raise your eyes from pavement and shopfront to glimpse what you have never noticed before. Faded, translucent; pallid imprints on brick and stone. Maybe an advert, no longer shouting but whispering about a long-forgotten brand – clothing, cigarettes, flour, razors. Or a sign that tells of former use and occupancy: grocer, hostel, furrier. These are ‘vestiges of spaces and places, industries and individuals’ that tell stories of ‘history, identity, cultural memory, desire, nostalgia, and erasure’ (Shep, p.209).

The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps (Italo Calvino, quoted in Shep, p.210)

IMG_0974These signs – material and metaphoric – ‘both reveal and hide their identity’ (Shep, p.209). They exist in plain view yet their meaning has to be negotiated via erosion, neglect and decay. Like Baudelaire’s flaneur detective, we need to decipher and deduce (Benjamin, p.37). For these signs exist at the liminal convergence of topography, typography and temporality (Shep, p.210). They inhabit multiple margins; permeate many thresholds. And this very materiality is, of course, liminal. As scouring wind, rain and pollution ‘transform the qualities of matter’ (DeSilvey and Edensor, p.477), their journey of transition is constant: as ‘palimpsests, they register change over time’ (Shep, p.209).

These signs are also ghosts. And ghosts, we know, are spectres of the liminal. They are the ‘non-object, this non-present present, this being-there of an absent or departed one’ (Derrida, quoted in Orr, p.1055). They show us ‘that which appeared to be not there’ (Edensor, p.159). A brand of beer last drunk in the 1950s; a business whose final invoice predated the dot-matrix printer.

FullSizeRender 6And there is something both poignant and heroic about these ghost signs. Even though their purpose – their signified is absent – they continue to signify to an intended audience that, in all probability, are ghosts now too. It brings to mind an abandoned turntable endlessly playing the same track to a long-departed listener. For these ‘names and slogans…were not meant for our contemporary eyes’ (Roberts and Marshall, p.3). And this, maybe, is what captures our gaze from train and street. This prickling of curiosity; a glimpse of something we can’t immediately comprehend yet sense, in some way, to be important. The sudden sound of static that interrupts our car radio on a moonless country road: significant but unknowable.

IMG_0966Such ghosts ‘haunt the present in such a way as to suddenly animate the past’ (Edensor, p.159). As I walk up the lane towards the sign of the former Chequers pub, I am conscious that my steps echo those of villagers who, for many years, would have tramped the same route after a day working the fields. And their embodied practices and daily rituals are now re-enacted by those now drawn by the sign.  The past is reinvented and reimagined with each step. As Edensor notes, we ‘perform the past by putting our bodies into its flow’ and, in so doing, ‘it ceases to be pure memory; it is lived in the present’ (Edensor, pp. 150-151). And these experiences, these micro-narratives we co-create through such embodied empathy, although fragmentary and seemingly incoherent, ‘offer opportunities for constructing alternative versions of the past, and for recouping untold and marginalized stories’ (DeSilvey and Edensor, p.471). The ‘enigmatic traces’ of the Chequers pub invites me to ‘fill in the blanks’ (Edensor, p.162). My imagination – via stories – aims to ‘impose a formal coherence on what is otherwise a flowing soup’ (Weick, p.128).

And confronted by ghost signs, maybe we too become liminal.  In Stefan Schutt’s account of ghost sign hunting through the streets of Adelaide, he speaks of an ‘initial sense of estrangement and disconnection’ (Schutt, p.55). It as if, gently shifted from our usual, habitual way of perceiving the world we become more attentive to those ‘talking walls’ (Shep, p.209). And, in becoming attuned to these new frequencies, this unfamiliar language, we are, momentarily, disorientated. Our senses are truly betwixt and between. Schutt reflects that in searching for old signs, ‘elements of serendipity and arbitrariness break down invisible barriers formed by habits of use, letting the walker see their environment in new ways’ (Schutt, p.54). This quest on foot is also a ‘space of enunciation’ that ‘affirms, suspects, tries out, transgresses, respects, etc., the trajectories it ‘speaks”(de Certeau, p.99). Here we find estrangement, enlightenment and transgression: the liminal experiences that our search for ghost signs engenders.

As a final reflection, we should not forget that in reanimating the past, urban ephemera also serve ‘to illuminate and transform the present’ (Massey, quoted in Schutt, p.57). For these signs gift us a warning. We are complacent in our organisations – comforted by the demand for products we make and services we offer – yet, if we glance in the shadows, the memento mori gather. Edensor identifies the mirthless irony of ghost signs faded to indecipherability – a bitter way to  mock ‘the energy expended on fixed meaning through branding and advertising’ (Edensor, p.162). Like the ochre and yellow wall paintings of the three living and the three dead uncovered from the peeling plaster of a medieval church, our ghost signs have an admonitory message: such as I was you are, and such as I am you will be. Organisations and institutions rise and fall. Products and brands come and go. Are we any different?

But maybe dissolution is not inevitable. Yesterday, I went searching for a particular ghost sign in Clerkenwell. However, this sign advertising the now vanished Black Cat Cigarettes brand has, itself, vanished. Completely hidden by a new residential block which has erased it from view.  But perhaps not erased from existence. Although hidden, it merely sleeps: suspended between past, present and future; revelation and enclosure; communication and silence. And, as fashions change, perhaps the new apartments that conceal it will, in their turn, succumb to the demolition notice. Then, as the wrecking ball strikes, the Black Cat – a typographical Sleeping Beauty – will wake again. And just as some deceased brands – like East Anglian beers, Lacons and Bullards (but alas not Morgans) – have risen like Lazarus from their corporate graves, so others may emerge blinking in the light. For, in the final reckoning, our signs are indeed ghosts; but ghosts who speak not only of decay and negation but of resurrection too.

Benjamin, W. (1983). Charles Baudelaire: a lyric poet in the era of high capitalism.Verso

De Certeau, M. (1984), The practice of everyday life: University of California Press.

DeSilvey, C. and Edensor, T. (2013) ‘Reckoning with ruins’, Progress in Human Geography, 37(4), pp. 465–485.

Edensor, T. (2005). Industrial ruins: spaces, aesthetics and materiality. Berg.

Orr, K. (2014) ‘Local government chief executives’ everyday hauntings : towards a theory of organizational ghosts’, Organization Studies, 35(7), pp. 1041–1061.

Roberts, S. and Marshall, G. (2017) ‘What is a ghost sign?’, in Schutt, S., Roberts, S. and White, L. (eds.) Advertising and public memory: social, cultural and historical perspectives on ghost signs. Routledge.

Roberts, S. and Groes, S. (2007) ‘Ghost signs: London’s fading spectacle of history’, Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, 5(2). Available at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/september2007/robertsgroes.html (Accessed: 27 April, 2018)


Schutt, S. (2017) ‘Rewriting the book of the city: on old signs, new technologies, and reinventing Adelaide’, Urban Geography, 38(1), pp. 47–65.

Shep, S. J. (2015) ‘Urban palimpsests and contending signs’, Social Semiotics, 25(2), pp. 209–216.

Weick, K.E. (1995). Sense making in organisations. Sage.


Rodwell, I. (2018) Clerkenwell, London

Rodwell, I. (2018) Spitalfields, London

Rodwell, I. (2018) A loke, Norfolk


Imagine a country crossroads. It is dusk on a late Autumn afternoon. You are alone – or so you think. There is a grassy triangle where the road divides. A leaning sign – not unlike, in this fading light, a gallows – offers direction. Maybe you are lost and the sense of adventure you earlier felt is now compromised by creeping concern. There is relief that these ways are trodden; but confusion as to which path to take.

IMG_0805 2But then, this should not surprise us. For the crossroads is a place of contradictions. A liminal space caught between borders and possibilities. It is a ‘real place between imaginary places – points of departure and arrival’ (Komunyakaa, p.5). We stand poised between where we have been and where we might, in the future, find ourselves. This is the ‘intersection of the timeless moment’ (Eliot, p.42). Opportunity, danger, enchantment, despair, salvation and damnation insinuate themselves, like a twilight mist, around our lonely fingerpost.

Some folklorists claim the crossroads is ‘the most magical spot in popular tradition’ (Davidson, p.9). In Suffolk, a cure for ague relied on the sufferer going at midnight to a crossroads, turning around three times and then driving a tenpenny nail up to its head in the ground (Ewart Evan, p.86). The potency of iron entwined with the potency of place. Such enchantment may also blur temporal boundaries. Puhvel describes the custom of scattering hemp-seeds at a cross-roads then whispering an incantation. The prize? A glimpse of your future lover (Puhvel, p.170).

Urban settings are not immune from this magic. Ghassem-Fachandi explores how, in the Indian city of Ahmedabad, the magical remains from exorcisms are placed at busy crossroads. Such ‘interstitial spaces, city fords and thresholds, it is said, confuse the evil spirits and ghosts, and they cannot find their way back to their bearer’ (Ghassem-Fachandi, p.24).

Other traditions reinforce such crossings between the living and the dead. In Richardson’s study of thresholds and boundaries in British funeral customs, she notes how, in Wales, the burial procession paused at each crossroads for prayers to be offered (Richardson, p.97). Was this because the cruciform shape suggested a safe and hallowed place; or to confuse the restless spirit and deter it from returning home?  Or, maybe, the crossroads acted as stepping stones for the spirit – a physical enactment of the perilous post-mortem journey described in the ancient Lyke Wake Dirge.

From Brig o’ Dread when thou may’st pass,
Every nighte and alle,
To Purgatory fire thou com’st at last;
And Christe receive thy saule.

IMG_0878The ambiguity of the crossroads is also seen in the tradition of burying of suicides. Halliday notes that although the law in England stipulated that a suicide should be buried in the King’s highway, the chosen site was often a crossroad by a parish boundary (Halliday, p.82).  I frequently pass one such site. In 1785, Richard Knobbs, a brickmaker in the Norfolk village of Hempnall, was suspected of murdering his son and hanged himself from a tree.  The junction where he is buried is still known as Nobb’s Corner. Halliday argues that such interment acted as a deterrent. Excluded from the community of a churchyard, burial in a ‘remote, anonymous grave without a funeral was a casting-out; the person no longer belonged to society’ (Halliday p.82). Yet, maybe, such a place provided comfort too: the topographical cross bestowing some remnant of sanctity on the lost and, in every way, marginalised.

So here, at the crossroads, the borders are not just physical but metaphysical. This is where we transgress boundaries to contract with higher powers. Think of a young bluesman meeting the devil at a Mississippi crossroads to seal his own Faustian pact. Yet listen carefully to Robert Johnson’s Cross Roads Blues and there are intimations of more tangible threats. Here, at the rural intersection, cars slow down offering the hitchhiker the promise of a welcome lift – ‘standing at the crossroads, tried to flag a ride’. This is a place of opportunity bearing the gift of progress or return.  But with the sun going down, the singer’s plea for salvation – ‘Asked the Lord above “have mercy, now save poor Bob, if you please”‘ – suggests this is also a place of danger. The fear is not, necessarily, that of eternal damnation but one that faced any young black man of that time, alone and far from home: vagrancy charges or, even, lynching (‘Cross Road Blues’, 2018). The crossroads is not a safe place to linger.

So what, you may think, has the liminality of crossroads to do with the organisations in which we work. For surely these are places devoid of such magic, enchantment and old traditions? Yet, look carefully enough, and you will find ghosts, tricksters and graveyards. And, of course, our buildings have physical crossroads (of sorts). Let me describe one to you.

On the fourth floor of a corporate HQ, there is a long, open corridor that leads past a café and then forms a ‘crossroads’ with passages that continue to the restaurant and meeting spaces. At the junction, there is a widening of the corridor – often used for displays – but, always occupied by small groups, talking, chatting, laughing. These constellations – formed by serendipitous encounters – reshape and reform with random regularity. So, where we expect transit, we counter-intuitivly encounter stasis. In Dale and Burrell’s study of space and community, they distinguish two types of spatial formation. Socio-petal arrangements ‘produce spaces where people are encouraged to gather together’ (Dale and Burrell, p.26). In contrast, socio-fugal spaces encourage people to move on and through. But our crossroads here is betwixt and between both socio-petal and socio-fungal. It brings people into constant contact yet then provokes them to linger and commune.

Like the Mississippi cross-roads, this may invoke threat and anxiety.  Just who might you bump into? (For the devil can be found anywhere!). Yet there is also the promise of opportunity and fulfilment. Allen notes how organisational traffic patterns directly influence communication by promoting chance encounters and aiding ‘the accomplishment of intended contacts’ (Allen, p.248).  This underpins the flow of information and the exchange of problems and experiences. Similarly, Iedema explores how a spatial bulge in a hospital corridor ‘drew people into it’ (Iedema et al, p.43) and, by providing a space where professional boundaries and organisational rules could be suspended, enabled clinical staff to ‘connect formal knowledge to the complexity of in situ work’ (p.52).

So perhaps there is little to distinguish our smart, open plan office intersection from our rural grassy triangle. Just as the latter are ecologically acclaimed as places where ‘a small nature reserve flourishes’ (Clifford and King, p.205), so the former are equally fertile: seeding communication and harvesting knowledge, insight and experience. And like any fragile and threatened ecology, these are valuable spaces we need to recognise and protect.

Allen, Thomas J. (1977), Managing the flow of information. MIT Press.

Clifford, S. and King, A. (2006), England in particular: a celebration of the commonplace, the local, the vernacular and the distinctive. Hodder & Stoughton.

‘Cross Road Blues’ (2018) Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cross_Road_Blues (Accessed: 30 March, 2018).

Dale, K. and Burrell, G. (2010) ‘All together, altogether better’: the ideal of ‘community’ in the spatial reorganization of the workplace’, in van Marrewijk, A. and Yanow, D. (eds.) Organizational spaces: dematerialising the workaday world. Edward Elgar.

Davidson, H.E. (1993) ‘Introduction’, in Davidson, H.E. (ed.) Boundaries & thresholds. The Thimble Press.

Eliot, T.S. (1944) ‘Little Gidding’, in Four Quartets. Faber.

Evans, G.E. (1966), The pattern under the plough: aspects of the folk-lore of East Anglia. Faber.

Ghassem-Fachandi, P. (2012) ‘The city threshold: mushroom temples and magic remains in Ahmedabad’, Ethnography, 13(1), pp. 12–27.

Halliday, R. (2010) ‘The roadside burial of suicides: an East Anglian study’, Folklore, 121  (April), pp. 81–93.

Iedema, R, Long, D. and Carroll, K. (2010) ‘Corridor communication, spatial design and patient safety: enacting and managing complexities’, in van Marrewijk, A. and Yanow, D. (eds.) Organizational spaces: dematerialising the workaday world. Edward Elgar.

Komunyakaa, Y. (1997) ‘Crossroads’, Ploughshares, 23(1), pp. 5-6.

Puhvel, M. (1976) ‘The mystery of the cross-roads’, Folklore, 87(2), pp. 167–177.

Richardson, R. (1993) ‘Death’s door: thresholds and boundaries in British funeral customs’, in Davidson, H.E. (ed.) Boundaries & thresholds. The Thimble Press.


Rodwell, I. (2018) Nobb’s Corner, Hempnall, Norfolk

Rodwell, I. (2018) Fingerpost, Norfolk



Let us return, one year on, to the beach. This is a ‘place of strong magic (Preston-Whyte, p.349); a trickster margin between land and sea, eternally shifting shape as the tides contest, claim and reclaim. Perhaps it is the ‘archetypal liminal landscape’ (Thomassen, p.21) – an alchemical strand poised on multiple ambiguities. For, as Meethan notes, it is rarely inhabited but often used; a space of play and a place of work; a scene of recreation yet one where hazard and peril grimly lurk; a haunt for the solitary and a magnet for the rowdy throng (Meethan, p.70).

Beach2And, like all liminal spaces, the beach offers promises of transformation. In Rob Shields’ fascinating analysis of Brighton’s cultural positioning, he argues how the Prince Regent, later George IV, popularised the ‘reputedly restorative powers of sea-bathing’ (Shield, p.75). For the sick and valetudinarian, this was a pilgrimage covenanting physical renewal. And the reward for the devoted traveller was the ‘Cure’: a programme of prescribed sea-dippings (the rites of the liminal phase) officiated by ‘Dippers’. These ‘priests’ carefully (or forcefully) assisted their charges from the bathing machines: ‘mediaries between two worlds, civilised land and the undisciplined waves’ (Shields, p.84).

But where there is transformation, there is often transgression. For, in the liminal, in the ‘gap between ordered worlds almost anything may happen’. (Turner, p.13). As the Regency sea-water pilgrims gave way to the mass holidaymakers of the later 19th century, Shields identifies the emergence of Bakhtin’s carnivalesque: ‘a temporary suspension…of hierarchical rank…permitting no distance between those who came in contact with each other and liberating them from the norms of etiquette and decency imposed at other times.’ (Bakhtin, p.10). Here, betwixt work and home identities, the crowds of holidaymakers were free to imbibe, flirt and play. Liberated on the seashore, the adult became child –  ‘expected to fool around, build sandcastles…and perform other “childlike acts”‘ (Baldacchino, quoted in Andrews, p.153).

This ‘aliveness’ of the carnivalesque, Shields argues, was reflected in the mass market success of the comic postcards. Here, authority was inverted as policemen, vicars and colonels became the victims of innuendo, embarrassment or lewd slips of the tongue. Yet there was a limit to this transgression: for ‘if they wink at such practices they also exert a kind of governing influence by playing so much on the breaking or bending of taboo’ (Shields, p.98).

IMG_2708Remember though – the beach of summer becomes the beach of winter. And this brings more caliginous meanings. The borderlands and margins are ‘also places of anxiety replete with darker images of threat and danger.’ (Preston-Whyte, p.350). These ‘placeless places’ of No Man’s Land and crossroads – where the gibbet stands and the graves of suicides and witches lie –  invite the liminal’s shadow (see Trubshaw, 1996). In M.R. James’ A Warning to the Curious and Oh, Whistle, and I’ll come to you, My Lad, the landscape of the beach reflects a ‘temporal instability’ where an artefact from the past has the power to exact a dreadful vengeance in the present.

wide-open sands with their wind-bent trees transport the viewer to a place out of time, where the omnipresent past is felt only in the ganglia or seen from the corner of the eye. (Easterbrook, quoted in Scovell, p.45)

And the beach’s multiple, symbolic meanings resonate in our worklives too. Historically, the seaside was the traditional locale of the works’ outing. Indeed, in my first job, an orders clerk in a Battersea warehouse, our reward for the fulfilment of a particularly onerous order was a day trip – on a coach, or charabanc if you romantically prefer – to, inevitably, Brighton. Here, our liminal day unfolded. Our dress reflected our holiday status and suggested no boundary between packer and managing director. We were liberated from the ‘normative practices and performance codes of mundane life’ (Shields, p.84) and true to liminal form, we embraced the carnivalesque: sun, drink and a somewhat frank exchange of views with senior management on the increasingly hungover return leg along the South Circular.

But these are more sophisticated times. Yet perhaps the ubiquitous awaydays, offsites, retreats and conferences we enjoy (or endure) are the beach’s close, metaphorical cousins. Rina Arya, in an investigation of the awayday involving a solicitor’s firm and a retail chain, identified the ‘opportunities it provides to have fun – to socialise, dress down and to enjoy treats courtesy of the employer’ (Arya, p.24). Indeed, as one of the interviewees commented: “it felt like a mini break”.  Or, a day trip to Brighton, in all but name. With the boundaries loosened between work and family life, some experienced the away day as an opportunity to define their identity, to reflect, to ‘take stock of things’ and, on returning to the workplace, ‘felt more uplifted and fulfilled’ (Arya, p.27).  Such spiritual and psychological revival mirrors the physical rejuvenation of our ancestors seeking the ‘Cure’. And perhaps we too have our contemporary ‘dippers’. Although here we call them facilitators or trainers guiding their initiates through the rites of workshop and breakout session and bearing the sacramental vessels of post-its, flip charts and PowerPoint.

We can also distinguish elements of the carnivalesque as hierarchies are relaxed and the lines between roles, functions and structures blur and coalesce. Elsewhere, transgression may come to the fore. In a study of hotels as liminal sites, Pritchard and Morgan observe how conferences and conventions ‘create opportunities for illicit sexual encounters’. They see this as a consequence of the very liminality of hotels – ‘as crossing points into the unknown, as places of transition and anonymity, hidden from familiar scrutiny’ (Pritchard and Morgan, p.769).

And, for some, the awayday will always be the ‘placeless place’: a source of anxiety or frustration where there is pressure to ‘act a part, to conform, to perform even’ (Arya, p.30). Here identity is constrained not liberated and the guiding hand of management suspected and distrusted.

So, as you plan your next awayday, reflect on the multiple meanings and symbolic resonances that your carefully scheduled event subtly invokes. Remember the dippers, the blushing vicars in McGill’s comic postcards and M.R. James’ vengeful revenants.  Which ones do you wish to invite? Whose stories do you wish to hear? And, as always, be careful in your choice.


Andrews, H. (2012) ‘Another place or just another space? Liminality and Crosby Beach’, in Andrews, H. and Roberts, L. (eds.) Liminal landscapes: travel, experience and spaces in-between. Routledge.

Arya, R. (2011) ‘Transitional spaces: the phenomenology of the awayday’, Tamara Journal for Critical Organization Inquiry, 9(3/4), pp. 23–33.

Bakhtin, M.M. (1984), Rabelais and his world. Indiana University Press

Meethan, K. (2012) ‘Walking the edges: towards a visual ethnography of beachscapes’, in Andrews, H. and Roberts, L. (eds.) Liminal landscapes: travel, experience and spaces in-between. Routledge.

Preston-Whyte, R. (2004) ‘The beach as a liminal space’, in Lew, A, Hall, C.M. and Williams, A (eds.) The Blackwell’s tourism companion. Blackwell.

Pritchard, A. and Morgan, N. (2006) ‘Hotel Babylon? Exploring hotels as liminal sites of transition and transgression’, Tourism Management, 27(5), pp. 762–772.

Scovell, A. (2017), Folk horror: hours dreadful and things strange. Auteur Publishing.

Shields, R. (1991), Places on the margin: alternative geographies of modernity. Routledge.

Thomassen, B. (2012) ‘Revisiting liminality: the danger of empty space’, in Andrews, H. and Roberts, L. (eds.) Liminal landscapes: travel, experience and spaces in-between. Routledge.

Trubshaw, B. (1996). Why Christopher Robin wouldn’t walk in the cracks: an introduction  to the liminality of place and space. http://www.indigogroup.co.uk/edge/liminal.htm (accused 17 February, 2018)

Turner, V. (1974), Dramas, fields and metaphors: symbolic action in human society. Cornell University Press.





As we peer in through the railings or seek shelter in the lych-gate, escaping the rain that drips impassively from yew and ivy, we are poised by a threshold space.  The graveyard navigates many borders.  It is ‘marginal or liminal (in both social and geographic terms)’ (Young and Light, p.64) and, drawing on Maddrell and Sideways’s definition of deathscapes, can ‘intersect and interact with other moments and topographies, including those of sovereignty…memory…and work, life and beauty’ (quoted in Young and Light, p.63). This is a place of multiple meanings. As Clements observes, ‘it may be a gateway to heaven (for Christians), the end of life (for atheists), and a taboo place for the superstitious’ (Clements, p.471).

Grave1Strolling along the well-tended gravel paths or clambering over crumbling, bindweed ensnared masonry, we can easily slip between multiple worlds. In their considered and sensitive study of roadside memorials, Clark and Franzmann note how these sites challenge ideas about what is public/private or secular/sacred space: they blur the ‘somewhere that  is nowhere in particular rather than a special place, and something that is passed by rather than permanently set aside as a place of pilgrimage’ (p.586). As we stroll or clamber, are we visitor, pilgrim, the transitory or the purposeful?

Yet, at its very heart, this is hallowed ground where ‘the terrain of the living meets with the terrain of the dead’. (Miller and Rivera, p.348). Such communion shapes a place of rite and ritual – from the scattering of earth and roses to the wreath at Christmas gently laid. Here, absence become presence and we, the living, both commune with the past and glimpse our own futures. These are foci – our memento mori – for grief, loss, remembering and meditation.

However, this relationship between living and dead has, historically, been one in flux. Situated next to the church, graveyards were, until the late eighteenth century, at the heart (both geographically and metaphorically) of the community: there was ‘familiarity and spatial intimacy between the living and the dead’. (Johnson, 2008, p.780). Then, as space became scarce and fear of contagion grew, the dead were relocated to the margins. New cemeteries were built on the edge of towns surrounded by walls, hedges or railings: physically and symbolically ‘sequestering the dead from the living’ (Rugg, p.262). These were ‘other’ spaces ‘clearly differentiated from the ‘everyday’ spaces of the living’. (Young and Light, p.64).

By the later nineteenth century, the role and purpose of cemeteries received another twist. Now enclosed by the towns they once delineated, they were ‘increasingly conceived as places to be visited and incorporated into everyday practice’ (Young and Light, p.65). Today, they are not only sites for remembering but for dog-walking, eating lunch, tracing family history or, for realising less innocent purposes: drink, drug-taking and sexual encounters. As we saw with the Victorian railways, liminal sites often attract transgression. A re-assertion of life perhaps in the midst of death?

Grave2For Foucault, the cemetery is an example of a heterotopia: sites which ‘mirror and at the same time distort, unsettle or invert other spaces’ (Johnson, 2013, p.790-791).  It is a place ‘unlike other cultural spaces’ (Foucault, p.4) yet which is connected with all sites as ‘each individual each family has relatives in the cemetery’. As Johnson notes, cemeteries incorporate many of the characteristics of heterotopias that Foucault identified. They are ‘privileged or sacred’ sites reserved for a critical rite of passage; they ‘contain multiple meanings; and they are both utterly mundane and extraordinary’ (Johnson, 2013, p.799). Intriguingly, they also begin ‘to function at full capacity when men arrive at a sort of absolute break with their traditional time’ (Foucault, p.6). The graveyard elides ‘slices of time’ since ‘the dead are outside of time, relegated to what Foucault terms a quasi éternité‘ (Gandy, p.733).

The churchyard as a site where time warps and folds in on itself is beautifully captured in David Gladwell’s 1976 experimental film Requiem for a Village. A dark and poetic meditation on change, loss, belief and tradition, it elegaically melts the ‘barriers of logic, physics and time’ (Scovell, p.81). An old man tending the graves in a Suffolk churchyard – himself out of time in a world of estate development and already decaying shopping centres – recollects episodes from his past: casting witchbones as a folk-cure for horses, the day of his marriage, working on the harvest. As the narrative inflects past, present and future, memory becomes tangible as the dead companions from the old man’s youth literally rise from their grave and form a procession into the church where he joins them for his wedding vows. This temporal dislocation is playfully caught when the grave tender addresses an anecdote to an unseen companion he calls ‘David’. We assume this may – in the style of a documentary – be the film-maker; until the camera cuts to show the inscription on the grave being tended. The body it contains is that of ‘David’.

Grave3So before we leave our graveyard, let us take a final look around. We may see toys, flowers, photographs, candles and other personal artefacts placed carefully around the graves. They reassure the absent (and, of course, those that remain) and ‘link the tangible present to an intangible past (and future) of imaginary times and spaces’ (Clements, p.476). They also invite stories; and, with the epitaphs and inscriptions, offer clues and plot-lines that we craft into narratives breathing life into those that lie beneath us.

But graveyards can be found in our organisations too. Perhaps as a metaphor: ‘it’s like a graveyard around here’; or ‘welcome to the graveyard of good ideas’. Yet look carefully and they have a more pervasive, almost tangible presence. As we saw in Ghost, photographs of former business school deans – a ‘picture book of the dead’ (Orr, p.1047) – or a former colleague’s chair are memorials as potent as any funerary urn. They console, challenge, intrigue, inspire. Beyond that the very warp and weft of organisational life are testament to those that have gone: the buildings we work in; the strategies we execute; the processes we follow; the cultures we engender. Former hands and minds have played their part in shaping these and it is incurious of us – and perhaps dangerous –  to overlook the memorials that surround us. Our gaze is often too fixed on the future: we forecast, we plan, we scour the horizon for opportunity and threat. But, as Requiem for a Village darkly reminds us, the past has power. It also has wisdom and knowledge – and we neglect this at our peril. And each fading photo, each duty chair is our own memento mori – our presence is but transitory and we too shall pass. What is the memorial we leave behind; what communions shall we have with the living? For by ignoring the elegiac, we perhaps compose our own and final elegy.

Clark, J. and Franzmann, M. (2006) ‘Authority from grief, presence and place in the making of roadside memorials’, Death Studies, (30) pp. 579-599.

Clements, P. (2017) ‘Highgate Cemetery Heterotopia: A Creative Counterpublic Space’, Space and Culture, 20(4), pp. 470–484.

Foucault, M. (1984) [1967] Des espaces autre. [Of other spaces] Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité 5, pp. 1-9.

Gandy, M. (2012) ‘Queer ecology: Nature, sexuality, and heterotopic alliances’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, (30) pp. 727-747.

Johnson, P. (2008) ‘The modern cemetery: A design for life’, Social and Cultural Geography, 9(7), pp. 777–790.

Johnson, P. (2013) ‘The geographies of heterotopia’, Geography Compass, 7(11), pp. 790–803.

Miller, D. S. and Rivera, J. D. (2006) ‘Hallowed Ground, Place, and Culture’, Space and Culture, 9(4), pp. 334–350.

Orr, K. (2014) ‘Local Government Chief Executives ’ Everyday Hauntings : Towards a Theory of Organizational Ghosts’, Organization Studies, 35(7), pp. 1041–1061.

Rugg, J. (2000) ‘Defining the place of burial: What makes a cemetery a cemetery?’, Mortality, 5(3), pp. 259-275.

Scovell, A. (2017), Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange. Auteur Publishing.

Young, C. and Light, D. (2016) ‘Interrogating spaces of and for the dead as “alternative space”: cemeteries, corpses and sites of Dark Tourism.’, International Review of Social Research, 6(2), pp. 61-72.



Stories of the nativity are stories of the liminal.  A baby – both corporal and divine – born of a virgin in a place that belongs ‘partly to animals and partly to humans’ – neither a ‘house nor the open air’ – and worshipped both by royal magi and lowly shepherds. As Hutton notes, this birth of a hero occurs ‘at the junction of many worlds’ (Hutton, loc 207). The uncertainty of the betwixt and the between suffuses the days of December and beyond. At midwinter, as at midsummer, the sun appears to rise and set in the same place for several days (this is the solstice – the time when the sun stands still). In the pagan Roman calendar, this period was a ‘quiet and mysterious one’ bordered by two festivals: Saturnalia and the Kalandae (Hutton, loc 241).

Christmas1For the days of Advent are days of both preparation and closure. The year is dying with a new year soon to be born.  This is a season that slips the net of classification: it assumes, like the liminal persona in a rite of passage, both the symbols of death and decomposition and those of growth and regeneration (Turner, 1967). The green yew that decks the ‘altar, font and arch and pew’ (Betjeman, p.41) defies the withered leaves strewn on the gravel path outside.

And so these days reflect not only a Christian mythology but a parallel tradition. Hutton argues that there is sufficient evidence from Anglo-Saxon, Viking and Welsh heritage to argue for a major pre-Christian festival ‘marking the opening of the new year, at the moment at which the sun had reached the winter solstice and its strength was being renewed’ (Hutton, loc 386). This duality – this intertwining – is seen in how, before 1038, the feast of the Nativity was starkly described in Anglo-Saxon literature as ‘midwinter’ (midne winter or middum wintra)’ (Hutton, loc 329). There was no Christmas here.

And, is it any surprise, that when we view our organisations through the kaleidoscope of these traditions that such liminality shifts, transforms and transmutes. In their study of the sacrilization of Christmas commerce, Bartunek and Do see a complex interplay between the sacred and the profane. This is not just a simple paradox which revolves around a Christian holy day and a secular occasion for commerce. Rather, the ‘paradox of Christmas is that organized commercialism has become sacred, and the religious experience of Christmas has lost a good deal of its sacred character’ (Bartunek and Do, p.803).

Christmas2And, as a liminal time, is it any surprise that the organisational Christmas is marked by rite and ritual? Speaking to friends and colleagues, they revealed the Christmas work customs they enjoyed. The responses were varied. The donning of Christmas jumpers, ‘secret Santa’, home-made treats communally shared, mince pies in the meeting rooms, a seasonal quiz over lunch, directors serving lunch in the staff restaurant. Their eager emails hinted at the sense of belonging and conviviality such customs engendered. Burtunek and Do identify how Durkheim’s definition of the sacred includes the set-apart which has no connection to the supernatural or religious. Rather, it involves beliefs, rituals and duties that comprise a ‘symbolic projection of the group identity’ and provide a ‘source of social cohesion (Bartunek and Do, p.796). So, maybe, we should re-appraise these seemingly trivial customs – not trivial but sanctified by the sacred?

If we look hard enough, we see further evergreen evidence of the betwixt and between. In his study of a Christmas party at a US advertising agency, Rosen categorises the event as both a ‘party’ and an ‘organisational activity’.  It is both work and not work: a ‘relatively free space in which people can and do play, but it is also a space in which ‘fun’ has been institutionalized’ (Rosen, p.468). Such parties are surely similar to the business dinners we encountered in an earlier post on restaurants: they are ‘liminal spaces where the burden of many of the rationalistic rituals of the organisation is suspended, lessened or proscribed’ (Sturdy et al, p.930).

Christmas3And, of course, the party is also a space for transgression. It integrates ‘dance, music, food, alcohol, performance, laughter, sex and talk’ where the ‘hierarchically arranged relationships of the office are to a degree stripped and levelled during and through play’. (Rosen, p.468). Like the directors serving dinner (a tradition mirrored by officers serving Christmas lunch to the ranks), the hierarchy becomes, albeit temporarily, topsy-turvy. For, as Turner observes, the liminal phases ‘invert but do not usually subvert the status quo’ (Turner, 1982, p.42). When the lunch ends, the roles reverse again; and this time for good. For Rippin, such formalised misrule is a feature of carnival and, quoting Bakhtin, once the carnival is over, the ‘normal order is quickly and completely restored’ (Rippin, p.824).

Maybe such rituals are betwixt and between time too. Their modernity conceals deeper roots: older, sometimes darker, traditions. Hutton shows how the the misrule involved in role reversal reaches back in time to the Saturnalia, the Feast of Fools, the tradition of the Boy Bishop and the school custom of ‘barring out’. In an entertaining analysis of how festive headgear helps us understand contemporary organisational rituals, Rippin sees the humble paper hat – our modern manifestation of a magi’s crown – as symbolic of this power to be king for a day (Rippin, p.825). She also identifies the office Christmas party as a convergence of two further traditions: the feasting of craft guilds and the donning of disguise. The mummer – or ‘guiser’ – took advantage of their camouflage to entertain and/or extort money as they visited door to door. Their behaviour was frequently ‘lively’: at the end of December 1657, a west countryman called Frome complained that he had been beaten up on the 26th by a group who had been ‘drinking, playing cards, and fiddling all day in disguised habits’ (Hutton, loc 698). In my area of East Anglia during the 19th century, agricultural workers engaged in a winter street performance called Molly dancing.

Disguised with blackened faces and women’s clothing, they performed versions of local social dances in exchange for largesse. They could be destructive, drunk and disreputable in appearance. (Bradtke, p.199)

Is it but a step from such guising to the weaving office workers navigating from pub to pub, paper crowns, tinsel halos, Father Christmas hats and reindeer antlers jauntily – or forlornly – displayed? For Rippin, such reindeer antlers reach further back in time. They represent the ‘reintroduction of masculine, ‘natural’, unmediated nature into organizations’ (p.892). They belong to the ‘Green Man whose function might be to bring new vigour to moribund organizations’. This brings yet another liminal turn; for, as we have seen, the Green Man thrives in the margins; the corners; the places we overlook. He is also of all time and every time: our tinsel, baubles and lights mere kitsch simulacra of a face wreathed in ivy, holly, laurel and bay.

To end where we began. Both the liminal and midwinter breathe stories, so here is one I heard many years ago. A friend told of three senior consultants from his company who had travelled to the States to research new clients. As they travelled through tumbleweed states from business to business, the three consultants drove through the December night and dusty, abandoned towns: one at the wheel, one navigating, one asleep. And finally their perseverance brought success in the form of a new account. So why did such a simple tale take such deep roots in my memory? Perhaps because it is a secular re-telling of the Journey of the Magi. Three wise men (for they were, sadly, all men), royalty in their own organisation, who came from the East and endured hardship and a long, sore journey before they found a salvation (of sorts).  So, just as Eliot recast a sermon by Lancelot Andrewes, ancient stories are reinvented for modern times: the ending never written; forever betwixt and between.

‘A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.’

(Eliot, p.97)

Bartunek, J. M. and Do, B. (2011) ‘The sacralization of Christmas commerce’, Organization, 18(6), pp. 795–806.

Betjeman, J. (2006) ‘Christmas’, in Williams H. (editor) John Betjeman. Faber.

Bradtke, E. (1999), Truculent Rustics: Molly dancing in East Anglia before 1940. The Folklore Society.

Eliot, T.S. (1954) ‘Journey of the Magi’, in Selected Poems: Faber, pp. 81-93.

Hutton, R. (1996), The Stations of the Sun: a History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford University Press.

Rippin, A. (2011) ‘Ritualized Christmas headgear or “Pass me the tinsel, mother: it’s the office party tonight’, Organization, 18(6), pp. 823–832.

Rosen, M. (1988) ‘You asked for it: Christmas at the bosses’ expense’, Journal of Management Studies, 25(5), pp. 463–480.

Sturdy, A. Schwarz, M. Spicer, A. (2006) ‘Guess who’s coming to dinner? Structures and uses of liminality in strategic management consultancy’, Human Relations, 59(7), pp. 929–960.

Turner, V. (1967), The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Cornell University Press.

Turner, V. (1982), From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play. PAJ Publications.


There is a throng outside the lift. Or, maybe, we wish to avoid the taint of guilt that comes with ascending or descending so effortlessly, so painlessly. Decisive, emboldened, we make the decision: “let’s take the stairs”. Perhaps though, what attracts us is a suppressed taste for the marginal, the overlooked, the liminal. For, make no mistake, as we push open the doors clearly marked ‘Stairs’ or, more opaquely, ‘Fire Escape’, liminality has claimed us.

IMG_0526Stepping between floors, we are, spatially, betwixt and between: poised between one zone of experience and another. Or, as AA Milne (and, yes, the Muppets) phrased it: ‘It isn’t really anywhere! It’s somewhere else instead!’ In a recent Radio 4 Thought for the Day broadcast, Rabbi Dr Naftali Brawer describes the painting by the Baroque artist Jusepe de Ribera called Jacob’s Dream. The sleeping Jacob dreams of a ladder that climbs to heavens with angels ascending and descending. Brawer draws attention to how Ribera depicts Jacob’s face: it ‘exquisitely captures the betwixt and between of liminality, reflecting Jacob’s suspension between two realities; the terrestrial and the celestial.’

And where there is liminality, there is possibility, opportunity. A few years ago, a friend showed me the open plan office where he worked. “What do you see?” he asked. “Well, nothing”, I replied: there was no conversation, no energy. People worked, heads down, fearful of disturbing their colleagues. My friend and I agreed how ironic it was, that a space designed for collaboration engendered its very opposite. Or, to recast it in a Lefebvrian light: conceived space was demonstrably at odds with lived space (Dale and Burrell, pp.8-10). “So, I asked, where do the conversations, the stories occur?”. With a grin, he took me by the arm, led me around the corner and through a door. “Here,” he replied, pointing to the utilitarian, white walled, concrete stairwell that rose before us.

For my friend, the stairs represented a space for random exchange or, as the short broadcast by Monocle (The Beauty of Stairs) notes, a ‘stage for incidental conversations’. And where there are conversations, there are always stories. Curiously, the metaphor of the stage is also identified by Patrick McGuinness in his recollection of childhood – Other People’s Countries.  He observes of a couple’s arguments that they were ‘always held, like dialogue in Racine, in transitional spaces – hallways and corridors and staircases’. [and thank you Mark Gould for the reference].

Stair2The staircase serves as a vertical corridor – a space for serendipitous encounter and exchange. Such happenstance can, of course, be gamed. Gieryn indicates how innovation in high-tech companies was enhanced by the artful design of micro-geographies that provoked the unexpected.  For example, by installing a single stairwell, ‘open and inviting enough to encourage lingering talk’ (Gieryn, p.477). Such a stairwell may not possess physical centrality yet it is functionally central (Fayard and Weeks, p.615). It also, I suspect, embodies Kornberger and Clegg’s ‘architecture of complexity’ where ‘space has to contain possibilities, which might be perceived as emptiness’. Such ‘generative buildings’ create ‘margins where things are loosely coupled’: for example, stairs ‘which invite us to stop and pause for a minute’ (Kornberger and Clegg, p.1106). Underpinning this is the opportunity for movement. As Markus (quoted in Dale and Burrell, p.282) notes:

The traditional means for movement were cloisters, corridors and staircases – static spatial systems through which people and objects moved. Lifts and hoists reversed this; there was now a dynamic system where a piece of moving space contained static people or objects.

Yet our movement up and down stairs is perhaps more conscious than that along cloister or corridor. The perils of a fall or stumble are always present. Edensor discusses sensual engagement with ruined spaces and, just as he is aware of the ‘well-worn smoothness of a wooden stairway’s handrail’ (Edensor, p.119), we too are alert to the secure feel of a step underfoot. And maybe this heightened consciousness where touch and sight elide is another sign of the liminal. With flux comes perception.

But stairs have other uses in our organisations. In her superb study, Harriet Shortt explores how hairdressers make meaning out of the liminal spaces that surround them. Stairs become places for privacy and refuge: intimate ‘dwelling places’. Away from the public spaces of the salon or staffroom, the margins can be reclaimed, recolonised.  Once, when descending to a damp and fungal basement, I found a colleague contentedly sitting on a cold step: sandwich, cheese and onion crisps and tabloid by his side. Like Shortt’s hairdressers, he had reconfigured this desolate pace to create ‘a sense of belonging and attachment and meaning’ (Shortt, p.654).

Yet liminality, as Brawer indicates, is also ‘ambiguous and disorientating’. With each twist of the staircase, the view below and above is obscured. Who knows who – or what may be coming?  For T.S. Eliot, the first turning of the second stair reveals the ‘same shape twisted on the banister/Under the vapour in the fetid air’ while the first turning of the third stair brings the ‘hawthorn blossom’ and the ‘broadbacked figure dress in blue and green (Eliot, p.87).  It may stimulate congregation and creativity but the staircase is also haunted by Nosferatu’s shadow.

Stair3In a perceptive analysis of white spaces, Connelan notes the visceral reaction of one interviewee to the staircase in an art school: it ‘gives me the creeps, it reminds me of [the detention centre the person was incarcerated in] (Connelan, p.1543). There is a ‘brutality inscribed into the identity-less space’. The blank institutional whiteness of steps and stairs create a stark backdrop against which it is easy to be seen. You are isolated, silhouetted, the object of the carceral gaze. Here, white materialises power and exerts control. This creates not Foucault’s mobile panopticon but a ‘ubiquitous panopticon’ in which ‘watchfulness is everywhere and nowhere’ (Connelan, p.1545). The staircase encourages us both to linger and to escape.

So next time, you visit a new building, resist the lure of lift and elevator. Instead seek out the liminality of the stairs. They may bring possibility, comfort, enlightenment. For, as the song – which always remains the same – reminds us, the stairway leads to heaven. Yet never forget, stairs go both up and down: so, beware, your destination may – equally – be warmer than anticipated.

Brexit: the power and danger of liminality (2017) BBC Radio 4,  24 October. Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p05kszgw.

Connellan, K. (2013) ‘The Psychic Life of White: Power and Space’, Organization Studies, 34(10), pp. 1529–1549.

Dale, K. and Burrell, G. (2008), The Spaces of Organisation & the Organisation of Space: Palgrave Macmillan.

Edensor, T. (2005), Industrial Ruins: Spaces, Aesthetics and Materiality: Berg.

Eliot, T.S. (1954) ‘Ash-Wednesday’, in Selected Poems: Faber, pp. 81-93.

Fayard, A.-L. and Weeks, J. (2007) ‘Photocopiers and Water-coolers: The Affordances of Informal Interaction’, Organization Studies, 28(5), pp. 605–634.

Gieryn, Thomas F. (2000) ‘A Space for Place in Sociology’, Annual Review of Sociology, 26, pp. 463-496.

Kornberger, M. and Clegg, S. R. (2004) ‘Bringing Space Back in: Organizing the Generative Building’, Organization Studies, 25(7), pp. 1095–1114.

McGuinness, P. (2015), Other People’s Countries: A Journey into Memory: Vintage.

Shortt, H. (2015) ‘Liminality, space and the importance of “transitory dwelling places”, Human Relations, 68(684), pp. 633–658.

The beauty of stairs (2017) Monocle, 16 June. Available at https://monocle.com/film/design/the-beauty-of-stairs/.


Rodwell, I. (2017) Stair 1, Stair 2, Stair 3