Staircase

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/.

Illustrations

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

 

Corridor #2

Let us return to the corridor – intrigued and delighted by Rachel Hurdley’s Radio 4 broadcast, The hidden history of the corridor. Poised between public and private; open and closed; movement and stasis; the pragmatic and the eerie, corridors are ‘time and ‘matter out of place” (Hurdley, p.50). From one perspective, opening the door to the corridor provides release and stimulates new modes of thinking. In the broadcast, Sir Christopher Meyer tells how deadlock in political negotiations might be broken by small groups convening in the corridor during breaks and solving hitherto intransigent problems. Movement into different spaces engenders fluidity of both movement and thought. The dynamics of the formal meeting room are recast by the new space encountered.

HeadWe have seen how the corridor is a place that welcomes storytelling. In other ways too, it is a space of production. Via a study of hospital staff interactions, Gonzalez-Martinez explores how medical staff use the corridors for brief and frequent conversations that rarely involve stops. The spaces are deployed for ‘informing someone of something; making enquiries about cases, colleagues or other matters; clinical conferring on a case; giving orders or instructions; making requests; checking how something is going; and offering help’ (Gonzalez-Martinez et al, p.525).  Similarly, Hurdley shows how a printer in a university corridor becomes a meeting place for research students to chat (Hurdley, p.55). A place for transit is simultaneously one of congregation. Here, the edgelands of a corridor ‘garret’ are transformed from mundane sterility to fecund possibility.

This play between those who walk purposefully along the corridor and those who linger is teasingly suggested by a work of art in a certain City of London office. In the corridor outside the client meetings rooms run a line of artworks representing 3-D walking figures. As you approach the installation, the figures are static; however, as you walk past them, they leap into life keeping pace with you. When you stop, they stop. The convention of engaging with art through static contemplation is subverted: here, appreciation requires you to walk away.  Preferably, quickly.

StatueOf course, we could read this artwork in another way. By encouraging us to navigate the corridor in a physically prescribed way, we are reminded how space acts as the ‘materialization of power relations’ (Taylor and Spicer, p.330). In Hurdley’s broadcast, the curator of Tyntesfield House describes how the corridor to the ‘virgins’ wing’ (where the female servants lived) was ‘protected’ by the Foucaldian panopticon of the cook’s bedroom: the senitel who detects and deters transgressive behaviour. In other grand houses, corridors are used to demonstrate monetary wealth and cultural learning. At Chatsworth, the Chapel Corridor evokes a grand collector’s gallery bringing together sumptious art works from the Devonshire Collection.

And just as the 3-D installation subtly manipulates our physical movement along the corridor, such gentle coercion can be experienced in many museums and National Trust properties. Our progress is often determined by signs, barrier ropes and the room attendants (as vigilant as any cook monitoring a misbehaving maid). Such routing can also reflect a particular narrative about the exhibits and artefacts that we are encouraged to absorb. This ‘organised walking’ is a ‘form of control that incorporates both mind and body.’ (Dale and Burrell, p.72).

There are also other ways to experience corridors. As spaces for potential anxiety perhaps. We wait there anticipating the summons: a doctor’s examination; a promotional interview; a make or break presentation. As we sit (or pace), vainly attempting to control our nerves, perceptions are disturbed – like static on a badly tuned radio station – by recollections of previous meetings. No experience is wholly in the present – the past intrudes, whispers, infects.

In The hidden history of the corridor, Karen Krizanovich notes how films often instil corridors with a sense of dread and foreboding. Her cited example is The Shining and the famous sequence of Danny Torrance pedalling his tricycle along the deserted corridors of the Overlook Hotel. For Mark Fisher, the very subject of the film is the ‘experience of a time that is out of joint’ (Fisher, p.20). The Overlook is a place ‘whose corridors extend in time as well as space’.

A Swedish series, Black Lake, that is about to conclude on BBC4, draws on many of The Shining’s tropes and themes. A snow-bound lodge; revenants from a tainted past; and, of course, corridors. For 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). In Black Lake, a significant plot device is a door to the cellar that constantly opens of its own accord (so consistent with Fisher’s definition of the eerie). The corridor outside is monitored by a camera but here the attempt at control is subverted. At crucial moments, the camera is found to have been turned away. There is a nexus between the corridor and power; but there is uncertainty as to the source of the power. Is it natural or unnatural?

BroadgateThe scent of the uncanny also infuses our quotidian places of work. Should we ever visit after hours or at the week-end, they always invoke, I feel, a sense of the strange. And this is most apparent in the corridors: quiet, denuded, almost sentient in their calm. This effect heightens perception: sounds are subtly amplified; and the signage and art work somehow appear more prominent.  We might attribute this to the failure of presence –  ‘there is nothing present where there should be something’ (Fisher, p.61).  This quality of the eerie is forensically explored by the artist Tim Head in a series of photographic collages showing de-humanised spaces: empty corporate receptions, hotel entrances, underground car parks. Enhanced by pale tinting, the collages portray the uncanny and alien while evoking the melancholy of lost and half-imagined futures.

So, the next time you walk along a corridor, just pause. Take time to look around and listen, breathe deep, touch. For this is not just a corridor. This is a space that materialises power, subversion, production, congregation, solitude, creativity, anxiety, movement, stasis, excitement, foreboding and, of course, liminality. It is a space where the ordinary becomes extraordinary.

 

Dale, K. and Burrell, G. (2008), The spaces of organisation & the organisation of spacepower, identity & materiality at work. Palgrave Macmillan.

Fisher, M. (2012) ‘What is Hauntology’, Film Quarterly, 66(1), pp. 16–24.

Fisher, M. (2016), The weird and the eerie. Repeater Books.

González-Martínez, E., Bangerter, A., Lê Van, K. and Navarro, C. (2016) ‘Hospital staff corridor conversations: Work in passing’, Journal of Advanced Nursing, 72(3), pp. 521–532.

Hurdley, R. (2010) ‘The Power of Corridors: Connecting Doors, Mobilising Materials, Plotting Openness’, The Sociological Review, 58(1), pp. 45–64.

Taylor, S. and Spicer, A. (2007) ‘Time for space: A narrative review of research on organizational spaces’, International Journal of Management Reviews, 9(4), pp. 325–346.

The hidden history of the corridor (2017) BBC Radio 4, 29 September. Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b095tkgx (Accessed: 30 September 2017)

Illustrations

Head, T. (1982) Transient Space 3 [Hand tinted photographic collage]. Parafin, London. Transient Space, 21 July – 16 September 2017.

Rodwell, I. (2017) Broadgate, London

Rodwell, I. (2017) Veiled Vestal, Chatsworth

 

 

Ruin

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). The abandoned warehouse or the tumbledown barn reveal a memory of the past and simultaneously a projection of our own futures. In the medieval motif of The four living and the four dead, four young nobles, hunting with hawk and hound, are confronted by four cadavers. Their hoarse and emphysemic breath utters the warning ‘As you are, so once were we…as we are now, so you will be’. Ruins provide a mirror on our own decay while hinting at their own survival: a ‘fragment with a future’ (p.11) which will outlive us.

SmithfieldBut these suggestive, liminal ruins are betwixt and between in other ways. Their journey of transition is constant as agents such as wind, rain, lichen, moss, birds and insects recast their identities and ‘transform the qualities of matter’ (DeSilvey and Edensor, p.477). This is not necessarily a cruel or pitiless destruction.  Looking into a marble fountain,there is ‘intimacy in the contact’ between stone and water that ‘here produces a gleaming surface veined with unsuspected colours, here magnifies fossil or granular structure’ (Stokes, p.26). Ruination can be gentle, caressive, revelatory.

A place for ruins is also a site for the uncanny – Das Unheimlich – where ‘the familiar and homely suddenly become strange’ (Edensor, 2005, p.835). Let us, for example, walk through the ruined church of Tivetshall St Mary in Norfolk. As we stand in the open nave with the sky above and incomplete walls around us, we sense a familiar space. We orientate ourselves around the chancel and mound where a tower once stood; the piscina full of dust a recognisable feature. Yet the customary is subverted. The floor is surreally experienced as a meadow – for grass grows where flagstone and marble are expected. The flint and mortar that line the nave are not cool to the touch but warmed by the sun high above us. Our perceptions and senses are tilted.

St MarysFor this is a place where the visual is less privileged and where, unlike the usual tourist spaces, ‘the tactile, auditory and aromatic qualities of materiality’ are enhanced (Edensor, 2007, p.219). We are keen to the sound of the strimmer in the overgrown churchyard; the smell of the cut grass in the porch; the feel of the twig that bends underfoot as we navigate around fallen gravestones.  This is Lefebvre’s perceived space – the ‘phenomenologically experienced spaces, that may be taken for granted through the habits of the body’ (Dale and Burrell, p.8). Note how we stoop past the shrub overhanging the south door – an automatic, reflex action.

And, as we might expect, this is also a site for stories. The official narrative – how the church was destroyed by a sonic boom in 1949 following years of neglect and increasing dereliction – can be found on a noticeboard by the entrance.  Such histories ‘seamlessly banish ambiguity and the multiplicity of the past’ (Edensor, 2005, p.831) but ruins ‘offer opportunities for constructing alternative versions of the past, and for recouping untold and marginalized stories’ (DeSilvey and Edensor, p.471).  Like ghosts, ‘involuntary memories come upon us, rekindling the past through unexpected confrontations with sounds, ‘atmospheres’, and particularly smells’ (Edensor, 2005, p.837). And one such story springs to mind, prompted by the sound (and fresh wheat aroma) of harvesting on a neighbouring field. A story of how a farmer, ploughing late on a winter’s evening, saw something in the churchyard illuminated in the sweep of his tractor’s lights as it rounded the headland.  Whatever it was (he never said), it was enough to make him flee, the tractor engine found still running the next morning.  This reminds us too that liminal spaces are sites of transgression – albeit often more ludic than demonic: children playing on the fallen houses of the Blitz or, strangely, beachcombers seeking illicit liaisons with a a statue…(Andrews, p.163)!

Ruins infiltrate our organisations too. Some are physical: our own spatial edgelands or dark terrains.  In Hirst and Humphrey’s study of spatial redesign in a local authority, they contrast the new central office –  ‘a very large, bright space, with light flooding through the glass roof and walls and reflecting off the pale, polished limestone floor’ (p.1513) – with the paper storage unit located in an out-of-town business park. Placed close to wasteland, a sewage works and a derelict railway, the conditions of this unit are ‘austere, with several discomforts, such as artificial light, dust and cold.’ (p.1518). I am sure we know similar ruins – the less privileged parts of our buildings where transient teams seek shelter: the desks scuffed, the IT antiquated and the chairs threadbare.

But, if we look carefully, other more ethereal ruins emerge: the rubbled remains of past initiatives, projects, ways of working.  Some were, like half-finished tower blocks, prematurely suspended, victims to changes in strategy, new technology or structural re-organisation. Others were completed but lie superseded by new priorities. Sometimes such ruins are manifested through physical traces: the forgotten folder of past business plans or the office directory with faded photographs from years past.  Like any ‘bare, ruin’d choir’ these are stimuli for involuntary memory and story – ‘Goodness, there’s a photo of X – do you remember that occasion when…’. But often such archaeology is virtual: excavating document management systems for spreadsheets and emails (where the recipients, once so urgently cc’d, are now often ghosts – long departed, absent, forgotten).

And like St Mary’s destruction by the sonic boom, such ruins carry official narratives to explain their failure or demise. Promulgated via the established channels, these stories serve as our guidebook and exhibit caption. Yet, as we know, ruins carry ghosts that are hard to exorcise. Unofficial stories – traded in corridors, cafes and the other liminal spaces we inhabit – are the mischeivous revenants that playfully subvert grand narratives.  However, are stories but ruins themselves?  Like the marble fountain, they are sculpted and worn – not by water but through memory, caprice and intent. For the stories we tell are not necessarily the same as the stories we hear. So, maybe, in the sharp (artificial) light of day, ghosts are not to be believed in after all.

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.

Dale, K. and Burrell, G. (2008), The spaces of organisation & the organisation of space: power, identity & materiality at work. Palgrave Macmillan.

Dillon, B. (2011) ‘Introduction: a short history of decay’, in Dillon, B. (ed.) Ruins: documents of contemporary art. Whitechapel Gallery and the MIT Press.

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

Edensor, T. (2005) ‘The ghosts of industrial ruins: ordering and disordering memory in excessive space’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 23(6), pp. 829–849.

Edensor, T. (2007) ‘Sensing the ruin’, The Senses and Society, 2(2), pp. 217–232.

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

Stokes, A. (2011) ‘The pleasures of limestone’, in Dillon, B. (ed.) Ruins: documents of contemporary art. Whitechapel Gallery and the MIT Press.

Corridor

img_2552

The meeting ends.  Papers are collected, laptops closed, pens gathered and briefcases refilled.  You push back the chairs, retrieve coats and scarves and, trading true english courtesy, invite each to go through the door first.

Then something happens.

More often than not, the conversation – previously focussed on objectives, next steps and deadlines – then abruptly shifts gear.  You and your fellow conferees begin to talk about the journey home (“and where do you come in from?”), plans for the weekend or coming holidays.  It’s also the place where the stories emerge.  Such is the transformational magic of the corridor.

I remember once where, having immersed ourselves in serious topics for an hour, the three of us stepped out of our meeting room and the client immediately began a story about…and conscious about betraying confidences…a somewhat explosive end to a corporate dress-down day shortly before Christmas.  In that short story, I learnt more about the organisation – its culture, values, political niceties – than I could from any press search or annual report.

So why the corridor?  Maybe it’s the sudden opening of the physical environment after the confines of an enclosed room.  Such subconscious and metaphoric liberation might similarly loosen the chains on what we feel we can and should talk about.  Maybe, it’s the long vista that stretches into the distance and invites us out of our current state to somewhere else.

In this sense, the corridor is a liminal space.  A locale for transit, for movement and progression.  It leads from one place to another and not just in a physical sense but in a symbolic way too.  From the formal, serious room of discussion and commercial imperatives to the exit and a world of the normal, the day to day, the social.  And maybe, it’s this shapeshifting quality – still part of the business environment but one whose clarity is slightly blurred and out of focus –  that encourages different conversations and elicits our stories and tempts them out into the open.