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From L8 to LA: 'Place and Non-Place' and the Urban Experience American Studies Today Online

A report on the Jim O'Donahue Travelling Scholarships 2000-2001: architectural visits to Hamburg, Boston and Los Angeles.

Dr Robert MacDonald, Reader in Architecture, Centre for Architecture, School of Art and Design, Liverpool John Moores University.

Urban place-making
Urban non-places

Liverpool has long existed as a city of urban mythology, somewhere between Hamburg, Hollywood and Los Angeles. The great American engineer R. Buckminster Fuller once said that there were two kinds of people: those that stay put and those that keep on moving west. Despite all the educational funding difficulties, the 'grand tour' remains an essential aspect of architectural education; Hamburg and Los Angeles have supplanted Athens and Rome.

In 2000-2001 two post-graduate architectural students of Liverpool John Moores University and Liverpool University won Jim O'Donahue Travel Scholarships. Recently, they talked about their experiences at the Liverpool School of Art and Design, the spiritual home of John Lennon.

Both students started in Liverpool with its substantial drama of the docks: brash self-confidence only to be rivalled in Chicago's Loop. Until 1861 the price of Southern cotton was fixed in the Liverpool Cotton Exchange. The complexion of the place was conscious of its rapports with Savannah, Mobile and New York. Memories of Liverpool may often be casually evoked in Boston or Galveston; but American Liverpool is an early twentieth century phenomena. Abrupt, grand and eclectic office blocks abound in the city core. Liverpool exists on the Atlantic seaboard with its west facing collection of mildly lunatic monumental piles: three graces, two cathedrals, Albert Docks and numerous Edwardian pubs. The great Professor of Architecture Sir Charles Reilly knew of the Liverpool connections with America. Reilly was a quasi-Irish impresario who was very pro-American and encouraged Trans-Atlantic westward perspectives; New York, Chicago and Los Angeles still call out to many architectural students.

Urban place making

Debbie Bathurst travelled to Germany to study Urban Culture, natural urban design and human-design relationships. Her first stop, appropriately, was Hamburg, where she investigated the typology of the dockside warehouses. Like Liverpool, Hamburg was once a gateway to America. Now a new future is developing for the port; buildings are being recycled and places reinvented. In Berlin, new places continue to be created; Block 103 contains the original urban pioneers and they are still innovating but now with vertical reed beds. This project was the first greywater recycling system in the world. Duisberg also has many converted industrial relics, including the Museum of Modern Art by Herzog and de Muren, using terracotta and concrete walls. In Munchenberg, a library by Shinkle has been restored with a modern insertion of a 'ship-within-ship' building. Urban blocks, in Hanover, are being updated for energy conservation. The Frankfurt 'Öcohaus' is a pioneering project using water landscape techniques and 'roof greening'. All these projects are examples of the new urban building biology and they require new skill training to work with the new urban place building materials.

In Germany, many of the new urban projects are based on making life-affirming places and the formative processes of Rudolf Steiner. They seek to create urban places, unlike the Hanover Expo 2000 which represents a technological and environmental disaster area: placeless and soulless.

Urban non-places

James Hall, a diploma student from LJMU, was especially interested in visiting the USA to contrast the experience of Liverpool as a place, with non-place as represented in Boston, Los Angeles and the Getty Centre. Marc Auge defines non-place as having no identity, no history and no urban relationships. Non-places are transient spaces for traffic, communication and consumption, from inside a car on the freeway to the transit zones of an airport. Non-places are defined by the logic of excess information and they create a new anthropology of 'supermodernity'. The new architectures of non-place consist of spatial flows, movement and transitional zones.

Boston still has the European legacy of place; Quincy Market has a square and market hall with spaces to sit and talk. Six glass towers mark the six million victims of the holocaust, a real urban place marker with a powerful identity. In contrast, the airport is the archetypal non-place, a transient nodal space on the global network. Airports have corporate identities without a history; memory in the airport atrium only covers the previous 24 hrs, or even less. Outside, along the freeway, places become the readings of non-places and abstract direction signs.

Los Angeles airport is completely surrounded by car parking, access roads and subways. Metro-stations break through the surface; here is a complete lack of boundary and public space. The non-place largely exists from within the automobile, inside cyberspace, inside the chat-room; all going somewhere but with no-place to go. Spaces spill over from mall to mall, the large extensive spaces of supermodernity. Global chains of 'marts' and hypermarkets are the places where everybody recognises and only buys the corporate brand logos.

Perhaps the nearest that Los Angeles gets to a place is Malibu, an actual street where people hang out. It has a certain urban identity including pedestrian areas and places formed by the cultural identity of the people who use it, a real place of dropouts, drugs and drinkers. Non-places represent the complete contrast, the fall of public man and the rise of self-observing man. Private man lives a new form of urban solitude defined by passwords, pin-numbers and card-numbers.

Beyond Los Angeles are the secluded private place-worlds of the Getty Centres; exclusive art supergalleries. To visit the Getty, travel through a sea of non-place; ride a private monorail to a hidden entrance, internal courtyards, intimate galleries and a secret maze. Once inside this exclusive world, place is defined by water and travertine marble, imported all the way from Classical antiquity, framing the distant views of Los Angeles.

Back in the non-place of the Bonaventura Hotel there exists no interior/exterior interface; glass facades merely reflect the environment, sending back its own image. Places like the Bonaventura and the Getty claim to be perfect, self-sufficient cities; cut off from the real city below, more than they interact with it. You cannot fathom these places; they have no urban mystery, for everything connects without any two eyes ever meeting.

Increasingly, are all US cities becoming the same? Down below on the street individual urban nomads do not look at each other; you must avoid contact to escape the potential discharge of human contact. ''All round the tinted glass facades of the buildings are like faces with frosted surfaces. It is as though there were no one inside the buildings, as if there were no one behind the faces. And there really is no one.'' Baudrillard.

Looking across the pond, from here in Liverpool it seems that, back in the old USA, on a clear day, we can see the birthplace of the global cities of non-place?


  American Studies Today Online is published by
American Studies Resources Centre, Aldham Robarts Library, Liverpool John Moores University, Maryland Street, Liverpool L1 9DE, United Kingdom.
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The views expressed are those of the contributors, and not necessarily those of the Centre or the University.
Liverpool John Moores University and the Contributors, 2011
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