Download Leysdown Rose-tinted the booklet outlining the Vision for Leysdown here, read about the projects, the process and the context of this art-led regeneration initiative, funded through the Sea Change programme by CABE (Commission for the Built Environment). The booklet also contains my piece ‘A mark on the grass’.
Playing Patience: design for waiting room
Paper for Waiting Time conference, NYU, 16–18 April 2009
Today’s presentation is part of a series on waiting room which explores the state, the activity, the architecture and the place of waiting – an interstitial space between here and there, now and then, between public and private, facing in and outward. Rather than present a series of physical architectural designs, I will raise questions and offer ideas that are part of the work of designing waiting spaces, physical and virtual.
I write spaces into existence; and I use text, image and sound, often together to do this. From non/fictions to criticism in book, building or website, I recognise in my work the pleasure and fear involved in the threshold, the almost private/not quite public. In his keynote address on Thursday evening Marshall Berman commented that all modern life is waiting – I’d suggest extending that into postmodern and beyond as well as backwards into the premodern. Waiting is embedded into our cultural lives, and in both public and commercial buildings and spaces of lived experience. This has certainly been the case at least since the advent of public transport and public health facilities. Waiting space and time are largely regarded as negative and aimless, ignoring the enjoyment of anticipation and the activities of contemplation and preparation. On the other side of the alienation and hostility towards whatever might follow is curiosity and excitement about new possibility.
The piece examines how waiting room – including health, transport and hospitality facilities – might look and sound and at what can happen there, at ways in which to disturb the boundaries between waiting and activity, between the timeless and the time-dependent. It asks what if …
What if it were possible to go beyond the positive/negative dyad to design for the passing of time so that time spent in the interstices of waiting room was neither forbidding nor wasted, rather a space of communication, reflection, expectation?
Somewhere between captivation boredom languor, on the watershed of anxiety and exhilaration, I wait, on the cusp of desire and apprehension. While I’m waiting, I’m playing Patience, playing for time, waiting for an idea, waiting for inspiration. Or perhaps I’m just wasting time?
How do you feel about waiting?
Can you wait while I play a round of Patience?
How long can you wait?
Waiting for the lights to change, for the sun to come up, waiting to move in time and space.
More prosaically: waiting characterises our daily lives from the morning queue or line for the bathroom to the evening wait to be served in a restaurant: waiting to be waited upon, in fact.
The aim of waiting space might be immersion or dislocation. I’m waiting; playing at being patient, playing a game of cards, specifically designed – apparently named even – to displace impatience. In the US Patience is called Solitaire – its quality of individual, isolated play defining it, rather than its purpose. The nature of waiting is inherently changed depending on whether it’s solitary or shared, short or long-term, whether the space is vacated individually or en masse.
Further, on this occasion, and so many others, the space I was waiting in, where I was playing Patience, was a virtual space. When the character Durandarte in Don Quixote says ‘patience, and shuffle the cards’, he refers to a Spanish proverb (Cervantes 1605, pt2 ch 23). People who lose, shuffle the cards for a long time as though that will bring a win. It’s the exceptionally long ‘shuffle’ tone that makes online Patience so satisfying – but I can vouch that you spend a long time waiting for a win.
I kept on dealing the cards and going through the motions. Playing for time I said, but actually I’m playing to make time pass until I get to what I’m waiting for – some kind of win. You may well have your own means of diversionary activity, which you may or may not incorporate into the work you’re trying to produce, as I have here. But however you play it, there’s no beating the clock.
The particularity of the relations of space and time inscribed in film lend the medium a special position in relation to waiting room. On film these are always open as sanctuary for runaways and cast-offs, always offering a narrow wooden bench to sleep on. In the morning, someone may come to bring you home. Because that’s the perceived nature of waiting room: something has or is about to change, or not.
A few examples of films: There’s Brief Encounter (dir. David Lean, GB), the original made in 1945, where the waiting room provided a stage for a doomed affair. There’s waiting in line at the movie house in Annie Hall (dir. W Allen, US 1977). In Closely Observed Trains (dir. J Menzel, Czechoslovakia 1966), a Czech New Wave film the waiting room is space for all sorts of unauthorised activities. In Planes Trains and Automobiles (dir. J Hughes, US 1987), you might remember, a lot of waiting takes place.
And on UK TV BBC4 broadcast a celebration of the often frowned-upon activity of hanging out, in a series of 30-minute docs titled The Waiting Room (BBC4 series, UK 2007). Its unusual lack of narrative hook was described as ‘refreshing’ by cultural historian Joe Moran, whose work on queueing I have drawn upon (Queuing for Beginners: The story of daily life from breakfast to bedtime, Profile, London 2007). Georges Perec described waiting in line or queueing as the ‘infra-ordinary’ (Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, Penguin 1999, trans. John Sturrock). There are nonetheless staggering, world-altering instances of it, such as South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994. Still considered peculiarly British – although outmoded even as a stereotype, it endures and is also used to epitomise a certain view of the old Eastern bloc.
Film is not the only choice for representations. My series on waiting room has been published in short story and multimedia form and is designed to be delivered in different distribution formats (‘design for waiting room’
in outsidedge 2005 www.thelondongroup.
com/outside/outside_3; ‘missing you’ in Ideas Above Our Station, Route 2006). The first publication in the series was ‘design for waiting room’, a work of text, image and sound, e-published in outsidedge. I described this multivoice piece, based at Kent International Airport, a non-place of transit, outside yet completely focused on time, as ‘A talking wallpaper of writing, ambient sound, stills and found images.’ [I played a brief section from it, titled ‘what are you waiting for?’]
Non-places such as airports (which, I would suggest, are waiting room repackaged, resized, reconfigured) are defined, according to Marc Augé, by words and texts as signage, slogans, regulations (Non-places: introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity, Verso, London 1992, trans. John Howe). [images of signage]
Rules, communicated by signs, make non-spaces purposeful. Through these methods, a fiction of place is established – literally signposted, not unlike a mise en scene in film. To have no signage would be silence. And silence is considered a void waiting to be filled … Silence is most likely to be filled by intrusive imposition of music though it would be easy to install and provide sets of headphones and mp3 selection or radio access in waiting room and/or mark out quiet zones – enabling a sense of privacy to be carved out.
A veritable industry exists for off-the-shelf soothing sounds and images for relaxation, redolent of conventions of visualisation, for use in public, commercial and domestic premises. But not everybody needs or wants to be pacified into patience while they wait.
A poetics of waiting room might explore the pleasure of moving from one place to another that looks, smells, sounds and feels different. The waiting room might be reconfigured as listening chamber, screening box, recording studio, library, garden, its purpose written by those who use it. This image from the Ecuadorian Amazon, taken on a recent student field trip (Cuayabueno reserve, Oliviu Lugojan-Ghenciu, Architectural Association, Intermediate 7) follows some of these conventions, as a long-focus image of the natural environment, but lacking a view of the horizon like the sunsets and seascapes. I’m going to purloin a phrase by Brett Parker (University of Calgary) who gave his presentation on Friday: ‘the horizon of expectation.’ It’s personal choice and this works for me: I could spend some time wondering about the ominous quality of the dense greenness, about what’s around the bend of the river and about what I would hear there.
If waiting can be uncomfortable, we might ask whether it can be made comfortable, whether it is uncomfortable physically or psychologically; whether some measure of uncomfortable can have a positive outcome. Can waiting room take its willing, resigned or captive participants somewhere interesting, thought-provoking, catalysing? What if the subject of waiting can be diverted from the tedium/anguish/inconvenience while remaining alert enough to notice when it’s her turn? She who waits can be refocused away from what she’s waiting for but not to such an extent that she’ll miss the call- the boarding announcement, the receptionist, the cue. What if … the energy of impatience could be channelled? What if the aim is to harness the adrenaline instead, to be stimulated or enthralled? What if instead of a cosy open fire, we have dynamic images of heat and light?
We could continue along the route of play areas for grown-ups/activity centres as high or low-tec and as child-like or adult as you like with lightboxes, film clips, reading and drawing materials, walk-in kaleidoscopes … The experience of waiting is dependent too on management, provision and organization. I only have time here to mention a few physical issues. Low-end specification and poor maintenance result in an institutional reek of bad ventilation, damp and formaldehyde-based materials. In dispensing with this the smell and experience of waiting would already be transformed.
Light and reflection can be used to extend territory and help to create spaces perceived to be safe. Protection, presentation and visibility can be balanced and enhanced through use of porous walls with screens and partitions, and glass for transparency, opacity, reflectivity.
Comfortable chairs of different sizes and heights, of material that is not cold and hard to the touch are particularly welcome in health environments. Provision for in-patients, such as suggested here by my colleagues at muf art/architecture might involve individual covers for a beanbag to provide a taste of the personal in an institution – a major departure from the bolted-down arrangement of hard chairs that often constitutes a public waiting area.
We read in WG Sebald’s novel Austerlitz (W G Sebald, Penguin 2002, trans. Anthea Bell), about the non-fictional Antwerp Centraal Station’s Salle des pas perdus, translated variously as the hall of lost steps or useless pacing, standing room, and waiting area (this last is a term Marc Augé has described as the antithesis of place). Sebald’s narrator clearly disagrees, calling it: ‘a magnificent hall more suitable, to my mind, for a state ceremony than as a place to wait for the next connection to Paris or Oostende’. He sees it as a fantastically fertile place. Austerlitz, the novel’s eponymous main character, finds it a spur to drawing, writing and discussion as a solitary traveller glad to be spoken to.
According to the perennially unreliable Sebald the waiting room later became the employees’ canteen, which gives some idea of how physical and imagined spaces may be reconfigured.
For a more local version, we need only look uptown to Grand Central, again featuring in numerous films, and a location in the documentary My Architect (dir. N Kahn, US 2004). Director and subject Nathaniel Kahn is searching for his father, his architect, and waiting to meet the man who called an ambulance when his father, the architect Louis Kahn had a fatal stroke there.
So you might say that waiting room, wherever, whatever it is, validates the passing of time by awarding it a venue. Sebald underlines the importance of place in the experience of waiting. Back in a less fictional present, technology turns over the next card and dispenses with the physical space, suggesting – often misleadingly – that immediacy has replaced the experience of waiting. The space of waiting is wherever your cellphone is, waiting to be put through, for connection, for a signal.
This is only one way that technology has transformed waiting room and time. Online processing is part of our everyday lives. I’m working on another project about representing waiting, going against received ideas of the online world’s velocity, which focuses on the metaphorical relationship to delays and lag on the web.
It’s said that everything comes to those who wait, suggesting that patience is a virtue. While patience and the benefits of passivity may be considered overrated, waiting and room in which to do it are integral to lived experience, across cultures and generations. Digital or physical, dedicated or aimless, waiting room can usefully be shifted into a realm of place where something might happen, it might be good and it might be now.