26 April 2012

Negative Space?

"There is so much action in New York one is sometimes perversely excited by those moments, or those places, when one is not part of it. Where nothing is happening. These places, in turn, become little air-pockets of possibility—what I call negative space. They are unidentified, off the grid, the staging areas for trysts, seductions, encounters. They are the places where crimes are committed, of one kind or another." 
Central Park Lovers (1970s) by Dominique Nabokov
...and so Thomas Beller begins a tale of New York's Central Park in the 1970s, his high school "rich kid" friends, and the power of urban geography. Mr. Beller's piece in The New York Review of Books is a teaser for a story collection to be published soon, but for me it was an immediate window back to essential moments of my life.

I wasn't one of these kids - not a rich kid, not a private school kid, not a native of Manhattan, not on familiar terms with any doorman - but, small world that New York can be sometimes, I knew who hung out with these guys, but the city, the spaces, the concepts, are all deeply familiar.
WTC Plaza in 1978: Photo Joe Margolis via Flickr/About
"Long ago, when I was a kid, this whole area west of the Trade Center was just a giant beach. They'd filled all this land in, out beyond the old pier lines, when they built the towers, but then they'd argued about this place called "Battery Park City" for two decades. So it sat there, vast and empty and cool in the summer and icy in the winter and all we had to do was hop the fence and you could do anything out here, soccer, or stickball, drugs or sex, sunbathing or music – it was the most un-Manhattan place in Manhattan, and we loved it.

"We loved all of downtown then. Companies were fleeing New York and Tribeca hadn't happened yet and nobody at all lived anywhere around. The old folks bitched that the Trade Center was ugly and too big and too square and the plaza was horrible and boring and the shopping mall was just a shopping mall. But fuck them. The towers were fucking brilliant, transparent and glowing and changing colors with every twitch of the sky. For the price of fairly but not absurdly expensive drinks you could go hang out and get hammered up top at Windows with the best view on the planet. You could skateboard or rollerblade or dance all night to whatever music you could bring to the plaza and the lightposts had outlets right there for power. And after all the suits left the whole lower level was for play. We'd meet guys on the cleaning crew for soccer games lots of Sunday nights in the lobby of One."
That's a story of mine, called "The Beach," not in The New York Review of Books (but, whatchagonnado?), but talking - again even if not with the words - about "negative space."

Negative Spaces
, those spaces between, hold so much power for kids, and even more during adolescence. In one of my favorite books about education, Peter Høeg's Borderliners, the negative spaces are so small, carved in a fleeting bit of time in a stairwell, among the stacks in a library, deep in the night for those students boarded at the school... at one critical moment in that narrative it is only a snowstorm which provides the separation, that the power rises to almost unbearable heights.

Of course. It is only in these spaces between, these spaces off the grid, that kids can pause, look up the stars or down into themselves. It is only in these spaces that they can summon the courage to try the very new and very uncertain, or to let themselves experience their deepest fears. And it is only in these spaces that they can take ultimate risks - yes - including with each other.

So, in our panicked-about-safety-and-lawsuits-and-child-sexuality moment-in-time, is there any way to begin to give students in our schools something like "negative spaces"? In an age where a child unseen for a moment is viewed - immediately - as a threat, can we extend some sense of privacy to the students in our care?
Tommy James and the Shondells - I Think We're Alone Now
This is not about sex. Well, maybe it is. I told a group of principals last year that I thought it was wrong "to design our Middle Schools around the belief that any two students aged 12-14, left out of sight for two minutes, would have sex." "Maybe they will," I added, probably not winning any converts, "but if so, they were gonna do it anyway."

Yes, worst case I suppose, but this is really about allowing students to breathe. "It was a kind of no-man’s-land, a place of possibility," Beller says of Manhattan's green space, and I thought of all the "places of possibility" of my youth, from an abandoned military base to an abandoned railway station, from the catwalk above the stage in my Junior High's auditorium to the odd turret spaces which ended the corners of my high school, from the long corridor linking the high school library to the rest of the building - broken into caves by panels displaying artwork - to the tops of the stair towers overlooking the river in the Kresge Art Center at Michigan State. These were places I could breathe, dream, fantasize, imagine, hope, cry. I thought of how a curve of rock along a winter beach might be the safest place I knew at age 13, or how the space in front of the air-conditioner on the roof of Macy's might have been the most intimate at 15.
Above: Platform of the Wykagyl NYB&WRR Station in New Rochelle, NY (last used in 1929)
Below: Fort Slocum in its ruins (now all demolished) David's Island, New Rochelle, NY
or, Below: if you went to the top of The Mall garage behind Macy's and took
the ladder to the store roof, you had Long Island Sound spread out before you.
Superblue's Moatfield climber/shelter
Superblue, a London design firm mentioned in the previous "play" post, offers some "halfway" ideas. Their Moatfield Community Space creates both play possibilities and a level of possible privacy, as does their Radlett design. "The shelter has two seating spaces, one covered, one open. Running through the structure is a unique hexagon climbing strip which lets people climb up to the roof or can be used as monkey bars from below," the designer's say about Moatfield, which mixes that sense of privacy with security visibility.

Orestad College
in Denmark (3XN Architects) manages to create many "spaces between" without creating dark corners. A "Youth Factory" space for teens in Spain, and a Swiss athletic facility might add to your idea possibilities. Look to the parks kids love for more inspiration, and how teens group themselves in coffee shops. An Albuquerque, New Mexico High School has created a hotel-like lobby, with all the choices of levels-of-privacy that suggests.
Denmark's Orestad College (secondary)
Thinking about this requires a very radical shift in school design vocabulary. It requires a shift in how we imagine "time" as well... remember my post - long ago - about the magical impact on a high school of having ten minutes between classes? (negative space requires negative time). It also requires a shift in adult behavior. I've been told, many times, by school librarians that they need to be able to "see the whole room." But by this they mean that they need to see the whole room from one chair behind the circulation desk. If that's the plan, what you need is not a "learning environment" but a "panopticon," which is a prison, not a school.

For "negative spaces" to exist effectively and positively, the adults in the building must be mobile in space and in time, wandering - not on patrol but in search of interaction and opportunities to support. What made the Central Park of the 1970s still "relatively safe" during New York City's social collapse was the amount it was used. You might feel alone, but alone was a relative term.

(When I worked in one high school in the mid-1990s, I wandered the corridors all day as I built the school's highly sophisticated - for the time - network. Access to research CD towers from every classroom, every printer networked, high-end computers for every science class group table, etc. As I wandered those halls - on my random time - I saw lots of what even the "discipline assistant principal" never saw. Maybe I contributed to safety. I know that I found that no prohibited behavior was absent - though I never really saw anyone hurting anyone else.)

So I'm asking you to think about this. To consider how we all need those "negative spaces" during our days. And to consider how we might try to meet our students half way on this.

- Ira Socol

1 comment:

Andrea said...

As the graduate of a summer camp that not only allowed us to plan our own afternoons every single day of the session, but that also allowed me the freedom to get up early and walk around the lake by myself every day, I couldn't agree more that kids need the space to become who they will be. I do wonder though, if schools can accommodate that, or if the business of teaching kids limits our ability to give them that freedom.