7 Spaces 7 Spaces


Street and square

The street is irreducibly public. It is a space for action, for doing politics and all sorts of other things like trading, playing, meeting, talking, sitting, watching. And for that reason it is a site of government, too.

The street is a conduit, a space of movement as much as of gathering. To control the street is to control movement along it. It can be stopped by a barricade, and its surface, its very fabric, torn up and used for missiles. The ‘politics of the street’ suggests unruly, antagonistic forms of action. We gather in a square for an event; we gather in the street because we have nowhere else to go.

The street is a space in which territory is marked out by fences, gates and barriers, boundaries and crossing points between public and private, sacred and profane. The buildings which line it begin with more or less sophisticated forms of sorting, by pass or entrance fee, taking a coat off, collecting a key. These processes are managed and watched over by porters, wardens, receptionists and security guards. Even and especially public buildings are controlled in this way, as our access to public space is carefully calibrated and measured. The street is a space of government as well as gathering, of administration as well as action.

The movement of cars along the street is directly governed by the traffic light and the traffic warden. The light works electrically and mechanically, controlled by sensors which make its operations responsive to the changing volume of traffic. The warden works socially in a similar way, her work a continual interplay of observation and encounter, judgement, honour, status, negotiation and ‘street bargains’. Traffic wardens are ‘street specialists’: they learn about the way the street works by trying to regulate it, and learn about regulation by observing and managing its effects in the street.

Streets are the dwelling place of the collective. The collective is an eternally wakeful, eternally agitated being that – in the space between the building fronts – lives, experiences, understands, and invents as much as individuals do within the privacy of their own four walls. For this collective, glossy enameled shop signs are a wall decoration as good as, if not better than, an oil painting in the drawing room of a bourgeois; walls with their “Post No Bills” are its writing desk, newspaper stands its libraries, mailboxes its bronze busts, benches its bedroom furniture, and the cafe terrace is the balcony from which it looks down on its household. The section of railing where road workers hang their jackets is the vestibule, and the gateway which leads from the row of courtyards out into the open is the long corridor that daunts the bourgeois, being for the courtyards the entry to the chambers of the city. Among these latter, the arcade was the drawing room. More than anywhere else, the street reveals itself in the arcade as the furnished and familiar interior of the masses.

Walter Benjamin, ‘The Arcades of Paris’, draft, 1928

The Greek agora and the Roman forum are intrinsic to classical conceptions of doing politics; they are the public spaces which make interaction and discussion, the trading of perspectives, the formulation, validation and announcement of decisions both necessary and possible.

The square is a made space, designed and built according to a plan, at an intersection of streets and thoroughfares. It is a space of gathering: a place to be, to talk, to protest, to celebrate, to remember. It often has a monumental aspect, affording significance to what goes on there; it may be named after a person or event, it will likely have a statue or memorial at its centre. Bounded, centred, populated, it is the archetypal political space. The square itself makes politics possible, has political effects.

As soon as people, or groups of people, entered the Piazza they responded to the proportions of the architectural space. They walked differently, discovering their innate dignity. They grouped themselves in unconscious recognition of their importance in relation to each other as human beings.

Barbara Hepworth, in Herbert Read, Barbara Hepworth, Carvings and Drawings, 1952

We have a need to be together in public… The piazza provides a kind of blank canvas for the whole gamut of human experience: friendship, courtship, politics, play, performance, growing up, growing old, eating, celebrating, mourning, rebellion… It is precisely because piazzas are the stable heartland of Italian civil life that they periodically become the opposite: places of social breakdown and dissolution.

Polly Coles, Italy Outdoors: The Piazza, 2018

Square of Free Citizens was a slogan which appeared in the streets of Sarajevo during and after the workers’ protests of early 2014.

This square was not part of any plan, it wasn’t even fixed, it moved around with those that made it. It went around as an expression of hope that a public space, a square, through some sort of constitutive power would create a space where change is possible. It was not meant to be but it should linger in our memory as a reminder that if things will eventually be sorted out (whatever this might mean) they will have to be sorted out in spatial terms also.

Boriša Mraović, ‘Notes on an urban imagination: Sarajevo’, 2015

Walls, doors and windows

Granted there is a wall, what’s going on behind it?

Jean Tardieu, cit Georges Perec, Species of Spaces, 1974

The wall is an ancient if rudimentary way of doing politics: we think of castle walls as serving a dual and inextricable function of protection and exclusion. They are perhaps a form of anti-politics, a presumption against gathering and meeting because interaction might lead to fighting as much as talking. The Great Wall of China and Hadrian’s Wall were extended castle walls, in this sense, but we should not forget the way in which cities grew up similarly around castles and strongpoints: the city is predicated on security.

Walls were characteristic of the divided cities of the twentieth century, such as Berlin and Belfast, and remain the basic political technology of the West Bank and the US-Mexico border. For the most part, however, their effective borders are now close to the centre of most states, at their major airports, and are built and maintained electronically rather than in stone, brick and concrete.

All borders – the lines and symbols on a map, the fretwork of walls and fences on the ground, and the often complex enmeshments by which we organise our lives – are explanations of identity. We construct borders, literally and figuratively, to fortify our sense of who we are; and we cross them in search of who we might become. They are philosophies of space, credibility contests, latitudes of neurosis, signatures to the social contract, soothing containments, scars.

Frances Stonor Saunders, ‘Where on Earth are you?’, 2016

Geert Mak picked up a hitchhiker in Hungary, a woman who had been at the Pan-European picnic on the Austrian border in August 1989, when East German refugees were briefly allowed to pass through. ‘When it came right down to it’, she said, ‘the notorious border was only a wooden gate with a sliding bolt’.

Geert Mak, In Europe, 2004

Borderwall as Infrastructure was an entry in an architectural design competition which reimagined, in detail, how the barriers built between the US and Mexico might serve integrative and productive functions. Different ideas included incorporating into it renewable energy systems, a library, theatre, a jogging path and cycle track, even a Catholic confessional.

Friendship Park was built in 1971, in a circular form bisected by the fence. Though they were still separated, communities from both sides could share what had been reconceived as a single space, and took part in artistic, political and religious events, bilateral NGO meetings, weddings, parties and more. The park was closed on the US side in 2009.

Barricades are thrown up in insurrectionary times, usually across city streets. Their immediate function is to block the passage of police and military personnel seeking to restore a version of order. But their significance is to question the nature of that order and to assert a different kind of order behind the barricade, to order the world differently.

In our building there had been a whole debate about whether to resist or not, and we ended up deciding that we would spread out in the building, in small groups, and barricade ourselves in different classrooms to make it as hard as possible for them to get us out and the main doors were barricaded and people poured all this industrial soap on the staircases so that they’d be really slippery, so when the word came that the police were massing and the bus was finally here we all dispersed to our assigned rooms, and put all the furniture up against the doors and they turned the electricity off so that the lights were out and we huddled in a circle, waiting… we suddenly heard crashing and screaming as they broke down the doors and started throwing the furniture off the stairs, you could hear it coming closer and closer as they worked their way up, and finally the door to our room was smashed in, and it was terrifying…

Tessa DeCarlo, ‘Counterculture and protest’, 2018

The door breaks space in two, splits it, prevents osmosis, imposes a partition. On one side me and my place, the private, the domestic… on the other side, other people, the world, the public, politics. You can’t simply let yourself slide from one into the other… You have to have the password, have to cross the threshold, have to show your credentials, have to communicate, just as the prisoner communicates with the world outside.

Georges Perec, Species of Spaces, 1974

For the most part, however, the physical and practical boundaries between the small, bounded social systems that make up our lives – the household, the school, the workplace – are ‘such mundane things as walls, doors, window shades, and locks’, Arthur Stinchcombe explains. ‘In modern society few of these are made to withstand a concerted effort by a group of men to breach them (in contrast to feudal societies, for example). Yet these fragile doors and windows effectively prevent police or private citizens from interfering with our sleep, our classrooms, our toolbenches, or our bars, at least most of the time. This is because a door is a legal entity of great importance: legitimate concerted social efforts to break down a door may only take place on legally defined occasions.’

Only to humanity, in contrast to nature, has the right to connect and separate been granted, and in the distinctive manner that one of these activities is always the presupposition of the other…. The people who first built a path between two places performed one of the greatest human achievements. No matter how often they might have gone back and forth between the two and thus connected them subjectively, so to speak, it was only in visibly impressing the path onto the surface of the earth that the places were objectively connected. The will to connection had become a shaping of things… This achievement reaches its zenith in the construction of a bridge…

The door represents in a more decisive manner how separating and connecting are only two sides of precisely the same act… [In erecting a hut] (a) piece of space was brought together and separated from the whole remaining world. By virtue of the fact that the door forms, as it were, a linkage between the space of human beings and and everything that remains outside it, it transcends the separation between the inner and the outer. Precisely because it can also be opened, its closure provides the feeling of a stronger isolation against everything outside this space than the mere unstructured wall. The latter is mute, but the door speaks.

Georg Simmel, ‘Bridge and door’, 1909

Important is the twofold character of the gates in Paris: border gates and triumphal arches.

Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project

A window is a permeable boundary; like a door, it makes for certain kinds of exchange between inside and outside, private and public. It allows those inside a building to look out, and sometimes, less effectively, those outside to look in. But the window, like the door, is seen nevertheless, and in this way marks the kind of relations those inside wish to have with those outside. In this limited sense, all windows are display windows.

A key material quality of the window is its ‘susceptibility to destruction, to smashing’. To break a window is to damage the fabric of a building, but serves also as a symbolic assault on the property relations it seems to stand for.

When we smash a window, we aim to destroy the thin veneer of legitimacy that surrounds private property rights. At the same time, we exorcize that set of violent and destructive social relationships which has been imbued in almost everything around us.

Anarchist N30 Black Bloc Communiqué, 1999


Like any other built space, the corridor had to be invented. Its special, dual quality is to promote access and communication, while also protecting privacy and secrecy. People move between rooms unnoticed by the occupants of other rooms on a corridor, while what goes on in those rooms remains uninterrupted by – and often unknown to – those outside. Corridors sort and separate people and functions.

The show’s signature idea was the walk-and-talk: an elaborately choreographed tracking shot which follows several characters at a time as they navigate the corridors of the White House while engaged in multiple, overlapping conversations.

David Trotter, ‘Stir and bustle’, 2019

Mark Jarzombek describes the use of a corridor in a military barracks near Saumur in 1770 as ‘the all-defining and autonomous element of the design. It is an antimetaphysical space that cuts soldiers out of the natural order of life and family to reconstitute them in a new social order’. And it is an essential component, likewise, of the order and function of the monastery, the prison, the hospital, the school and the university, as well as the office building and the shopping mall. It is a key feature of Charles Barry’s English Houses of Parliament begun in 1834, which includes a Commons Corridor, a Lords Corridor and a Chancellors Corridor. These were an expression of concern for a specific Victorian social structure, and guaranteed not only that everyone was in their right place, so to speak, but that in moving around the building they would encounter only others of the same social rank. Over time, in Westminster as in the Capitol and other national and local legislatures, the corridor has become an in-between space, the lobby, in the building but not in the room, a place for private exchange about public affairs. It’s where the action is in The West Wing.


To live together in the world means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it common, as a table is located between those who sit around it; the world, like every in-between, relates and separates men at the same time.

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 1959

The table is a social object: it is both instrument and document of what people do at it together, whether eating, talking, playing, writing, meeting or just sitting.

Tables are gathering places for both people and things.

Ian Sansom, ‘Je suis un table’, 2014

The desk is different. It’s always somebody’s: the Director’s desk, or Sarah’s desk rather than the kitchen table, or the cabinet room table. Only the Director sits at her desk and only Sarah at hers; others might sit near it but always apart from it, never at it. The desk is the Director’s territory.

In Antonello da Messina’s painting of St Jerome in his Study, the saint sits at his desk on a central dais, while the architecture around seems to serve simply to enclose him: ‘The whole space is organised around the piece of furniture’ Perec emphasizes, ‘(and the whole of the piece of furniture is organised around the book)’.

Both tables and desks cut the body in half, presenting faces and signs of status (such as jewellery, jackets and the institutional insignia they bear) to the public, while hiding the dirty zones of genitals and feet. Sitting without tables or desks leaves bodies exposed to each other.

We want at least six tables, and a table at the front.

Oliver Escobar, ‘Scripting deliberative policy making’, 201

In Oliver Escobar’s study of public engagement practitioners, tables were used to create ‘political microcosms’. The table at the front served as quasi-stage, from which speakers would address the rest of the room; it gave them a vantage point from which to articulate and express generic, framing narratives, which presupposed a shared perspective among the audience. And because it faced all the other tables, it also functioned as a watchtower or observation post, a site of surveillance. The other tables in the room were for discussion among purposefully selected and distributed participants.

From the first chapter of Capital: ‘A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing and easily understood. Its analysis shows that in reality it is a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. So far as it is a value in use, there is nothing mysterious about it… The form of wood is altered by making a table out of it; nevertheless, this table remains wood, an ordinary material thing. As soon as it steps forth as commodity, however, it is transformed into a material immaterial thing. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in the face of all other commodities, it stands on its head, and out of its wooden brain it evolves notions more whimsically than if it had suddenly begun to dance.’ Cited in Franz Mehring, ‘Karl Marx und das Gleichnis,’ in Karl Marx als Denker; Mensch, und Revolutionär, ed. Rjazanov (Vienna and Berlin 1928, p 57 (first published in Die neue Zeit, March 13, 1908).

Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project

In small but important ways – ways both visceral and more explicit – the coalition’s modes, limits, possibilities, and sense of itself are slightly reconfigured with each move of the table. As groups gather around a differently located table, there is a palpable sense that ‘here we are again, at our table, but this time it is the table that your specific community gives us, with your color, your history and traditions etched in these walls and floors, your stories still subtly reverberating in the corners of the room.

Romand Coles, ‘Moving democracy’, 2004

During the Soviet period, small circles of intimate friends were able to talk to each other without concern for the present party line round the kitchen table… this was the private place that was most remote from official mandates and controls… [Here was] public life hidden in a private space.

Jeffrey Goldfarb, The Politics of Small Things, 2006

It was important to have a table for meetings. In fact, one of the distinguishing features between a meeting and a therapy session was the presence or absence of a center table. Tables were preferred or present in meetings and absent in therapy. Of course, meetings did occur without tables, but if it was at all possible to create some type of table in the room in which a meeting would be held, this was done…

Their most important function… was probably as a buffer or barricade between individuals and groups, as well as serving as a central object around which talk could be focused, reinforcing the meeting as a single-focus communicative event. Tables were also an object around which individuals could symbolically align themselves and communicate this alliance information.

Helen Schwartzman, The Meeting, 1989

He instinctively notes the two chairs facing the desk behind which Giscard stands and, at the other end of the room, more chairs with a sofa beside a coffee table… depending on whether the president wishes to maintain some distance between himself and his visitors or, alternatively, give the meeting a more convivial feel, he can welcome them from behind his desk, which acts as a sort of shield, or sit around the coffee table and eat cakes and biscuits with them… a book on Kennedy, placed ostentatiously on an escritoire to suggest the young, modern head of state that Giscard also aspires to embody; two boxes, one red and one blue, set on a roll-top desk; bronze statues here and there; stacks of files at a carefully calculated height: too low, they would give the impression that the president was lazy; too high, that he couldn’t cope with his workload. Several old-master paintings hang on the walls.

Laurent Binet, The Seventh Function of Language, 2015

Look a bit more closely at the meaning of the spatial arrangement of the court, the arrangement of the people who are part of or before a court, the very least that can be said is that this implies an ideology. What is this arrangement? A table, and behind this table, which distances them from the two litigants, the ‘third party’, that is, the judges. Their position indicates, firstly that they are neutral with respect to each litigant, and secondly this implies that their decision is not already arrived at in advance, that it will be made after an aural investigation of the two parties, on the basis of a certain conception of truth and a certain number of ideas concerning what is just and unjust, and thirdly that they have the authority to enforce their decision. This is ultimately the meaning of this simple arrangement.

Michel Foucault, ‘On popular justice’, 1972

I can tell you that the sandwiches are really terrible… the coffee is even worse than in American hotels… the rooms themselves were designed to torture whoever is in there… they are neon-lit, you feel like a battery chicken in there, you have these tables that are the form of a very large rectangle and you have screens in front of you because you can’t see everybody in the room because the table is so large and you’ve got minders sitting behind you whispering things into your ear and it’s mind-bogglingly soul-destroying.

Yanis Varoufakis, Minister of Finance, Greece, describing his negotiations with the EU, 2015

Participants in a recent radio discussion on the WTO were full of ideas. The WTO should do this, the WTO should do that, they said. One of them finally interjected: ‘Wait a minute. The WTO is a table. People sit round the table and negotiate. What do you expect the table to do?’

What is the World Trade Organization?

…and a bed

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the government of France, then as now, was centred on Paris, or more precisely in the woods just to the south-west, on Louis XIV’s chateau at Versailles. At the centre of the chateau was the King’s Appartement, and at the centre of the Appartement his bed, where his rising would be attended each morning by courtiers and subjects. For he was the King, and in an elaborate ritual of washing and dressing became the King again each morning, and it was there they might catch his attention.


Joel Richman taught me about traffic wardens and much else besides: see his Traffic Wardens, An ethnography of street administration, Manchester: Manchester UP, 1983

‘Streets are the dwelling place of the collective…’: Benjamin, Arcades Project, op cit, p 879

‘We have a need to be together in public…’: Polly Coles, Italy Outdoors: The Piazza, BBCR4, 10 September 2018; 2:42; ‘As soon as people, or groups of people…’: Barbara Hepworth, cit Herbert Read, Barbara Hepworth, Carvings and Drawings, 1952, in Nathaniel Hepburn, Barbara Hepworth. The hospital drawings, London: Tate Publishing,2012, p 46

‘This square was not part of any plan…’: Boriša Mraović, ‘Notes on an urban imagination: Sarajevo’, The New Metropolitan, 2015

‘Granted there is a wall…’: Jean Tardieu, cit Georges Perec, ‘Species of spaces’, in Species of Spaces and other Pieces, ed/trans John Sturrock, Penguin, 2008, p 39

‘All borders…’: Frances Stonor Saunders (2016) ‘Where on Earth are you?’, London Review of Books 38 (5)

Geert Mak, In Europe, op cit, p 614

Ronald Rael, Borderwall as Architecture. A manifesto for the US-Mexico boundary,Oakland, CA: U California P, 2017

On the barricade, see Mark Traugott, ‘Barricades as material and social constructions’, in Catherine Flood and Gavin Grindon, Disobedient Objects, op cit

Tessa DeCarlo is remembering Columbia 1968 in ‘Counterculture and protest’, op cit

In modern society.. Stinchcombe, A L (1963) ‘Institutions of privacy in the determination of police administration practice’, American Journal of Sociology 150-160, pp 150-151

‘The door breaks space in two…’: Georges Perec, Species of Spaces, op cit, p 37

‘Only to humanity…’: Georg Simmel, ‘Bridge and door’, in David Frisby and Mike Featherstone (eds) Simmel on Culture, London: Sage, 1997; pp 171-172

On the window, see Shirin Hirsch and Andrew Smith (2017) ‘A view through a window: social relations, material objects and locality’, Sociological Review 1-17; ‘susceptibility to destruction…’ is p 5

The Black Bloc communique was written by the ACME Collective, and posted on Urban 75, 12 December 1999

On the corridor, see Mark Jarzombek (2010) ‘Corridor Spaces’, Critical Inquiry 36 (4) 728-770, where the quoted material is pp 749-50, and David Trotter (2019) ‘Stir and bustle’, London Review of Books, 19 December 2019, 11-12, which is a review of Roger Luckhurst’s Corridors: Passages of Modernity, London: Reaktion, 2019

‘To live together in the world…’: Hannah Arendt, Human Condition, op cit, p 48

Ian Sansom talked about tables in his Furniture – a personal history of movable objects, episode 3, ‘Je suis un table’, BBCR4, 9 April 2014; this line comes at 08:23

On St Jerome in his Study, see Georges Perec,’Species of spaces’, op cit; the quotation is p 88, italics in original

Oliver Escobar explores the function of the table in his ‘Scripting deliberative policy making’, op cit, p 8

‘From the first chapter of Capital…’; Benjamin, Arcades Project, op cit, pp 196-197

Jeffrey Goldfarb discusses doing politics in the Soviet era in The Politics of Small Things, Chicago: U Chicago P, 2006, and this observation appears p 10

‘In small but important ways…’: Romand Coles, ‘Moving democracy’, op cit, p 695

‘It was important to have a table for meetings…’: Helen Schwartzman, The Meeting, op cit, pp 122 and 123-4

Foucault’s observation about the court comes in ‘On popular justice: a discussion with Maoists’, which originally appeared inLes Temps Modernes, and is translated in Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge, edited by Colin Gordon, Brighton: Harvester Press, 1980; the quoted passage is p 8

Giscard’s study is described by Laurent Binet in The Seventh Function of Language, London: Vintage, 2017, p 60

Yanis Varoufakis appeared in the Guardian podcast ‘Can you take on the EU and win’, 8 November 2018, min:sec 05:15 to 08:55

Participants in a radio discussion on the WTO are cited on the WTO’s own website, on a page asking What is the World Trade Organization?

Edward Hollis, The Memory Palace. A book of lost interiors, London: Portobello Books, 2013