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Terrain vague and the Fallow City

blog posted January 28, 2010 (Link here)

“Terrain vague” is a French term with multiple layers of meaning:  the roots of the word “vague” suggest “empty, unoccupied” yet also “free, available, unengaged (Sola-Morales 119).”  Sola-Morales describes how these spaces, often defined in the negative (“empty,” “unoccupied,”) can also be viewed as full—full of possibility, promise, and freedom.  Sola-Morales writes:

Perhaps we are drawn to these spaces because they reflect our own sense of alienation and marginality, as well as a desire to escape the dominant system of power and its spatial organization: “the urban order calls to the indefiniteness of the terrain vague (Sola-Morales 121).” Sola-Morales also relates our fascination with these places to a persistent Romantic sensibility that values memories of a lost past. This sensibility is present in those who would view Detroit as an illustration of the lost glory of America’s industrial age. These places make us reflect on the awe-inspiring speed of change in the modern world: Sola-Morales writes that terrains vagues conjure up despair for ”the speed with which the whole world is transformed” (Sola-Morales 122).

“What is to be done with these enormous voids, with their imprecise limits and vague definition? Art’s reaction... is to preserve these alternative, strange spaces, strangers to the productive efficiency of the city... The enthusiasm for these vacant spaces– expectant, imprecise, fluctuating–transposed to the urban key, reflects our strangeness in front of the world, in front of our city, before ourselves.
In this situation the role of the architect is inevitably problematic. Architecture’s destiny has always been colonization, the imposing of limits, order, and form, the introduction into strange space of the elements of identity necessary to make it recognizable, identical, universal. In essence, architecture acts as an instrument of organization, of rationalization, and of productive efficiency capable of transforming the uncivilized into the cultivated, the fallow into the productive, the void into the built.
When architecture and urban design project their desire onto a vacant space, a terrain vague, they seem incapable of doing anything other than introducing violent transformations, changing estrangement into citizenship, and striving at all costs to dissolve the uncontaminated magic of the obsolete in the realism of efficacy (Sola-Morales 122-123).”


PDF copy:  Solid Morales Rubió, Terrain Vague"
(in Anyplace (Cambridge, MA: Mit Press, 1995). 118-123.

LINK: ARCHITECTURE OF APPROPRIATION On squatting as spatial practice
Het Nieuwe Instituut, NL  2019
From the homepage, there is link to download the book.


Quote from  ARCHITECTURE OF APPROPRIATION On squatting as spatial practice. p98

"Framing it as a criminal activity makes it easier to ignore the structural societal problems addressed by the squatting movement, such as housing shortages and real estate speculation, which have far from disappeared. The movement has been an important political factor by researching and calling attention to vacancy, real estate crime, and other social ills.

Moreover, experimental spatial and social practices originating from or strongly related to squatting have had a significant influence on architecture, urban culture, policy, and real estate. Its practices have been adopted, inspired spin-offs, and even been turned against the movement’s own agenda through appropriation and commodification.Whatever society’s least favored building type or urban environment at a certain moment in time, it can still provide space for the reimagination and reuse of human environments. Forsaken buildings and urban wastelands that became blind spots on the general population and investors’ mental maps — houses, apartment buildings, schools, factories,warehouses, churches and offices — have been fruitful grounds for the emergence of new domestic compositions, architectural typologies, cultural spaces, and places for work. In many ways, the squatting movement has been an example for practices and policies for the greater social good, but unluckily also for exclusionary developments."