There were once stores so busy that parking lots expanded for miles to accommodate their traffic. There were once gas stations so coordinated that travelers were easily accommodated to and from their destinations. There were once industrial parks so filled with work and productivity that the idea of an economic collapse seemed ludicrous, almost unreasonable.
Images by Andrew Evans
Now, vast stretches of America are post-industrial, post-economic, once-productive wastelands. Strip malls, big-box stores and industrial parks that once tore disdainfully into our pristine landscapes now sneer at us as eyesores, rotting away in slowly-depreciating lots for cars we can no longer afford to drive. Now, the purpose of these spaces has become unclear to us, and the boundaries that were drawn between these dilapidated places and their surroundings have gently dissipated to obscurity.
The architect and theorist Ignasi de Solà-Morales used the French term terrain vague to describe these places, which once only infrequently dotted our land. Terrain vague is no longer economically productive soil. It was built for a single, specific purpose and is now, simply, built. It no longer serves any social purpose.
Yet, our society has a compulsion to notice these terrain vagues—the dark corners of unused industrial lots, dilapidated convenience stores on the outskirts of town, indefinitely closed big-box properties—and strain for new ways to revitalize them to their former states.
But Ignasi de Solà-Morales’s terrain vague, as way of looking at the world, does not. Instead, there is a reason these spaces return to obsolescence: simply, they were not designed to meet the challenges of our modern world. Our updated way of life killed their one and only function, and now, they are useless.
Outside the confines of capitalism, measurement and usefulness, terrain vague requires a lot of trust. They are arbitrary, indistinct, unsystematic and ever-changing locations to fill with ideas. They are no longer limited by commerce, function or requirements. Usages, codes and rules have only damned these spaces to former obsolete functions, incapable of dealing with the harsh realities of the contemporary life.
We are no longer the society that needed their original functions. These terrain vagues are the ruins of our modernity; the first round of modern architecture we have legitimately cast aside to the ages. But unlike the pedestal on which we place the classical ruins of ancient cultures, we disdain their cast-off illegitimacy, calling them blights on the landscape while we hunt incessantly for ways to shoehorn them back to their former single-uses. But they are so much more than that now- they have history, depth, variability and fickleness. Their functions are now as complex as we are.
Featured image: Andrew Evans, The Spectrum, Philadelphia, 2010-11