Contemporary culture presents new, many relatively unexamined, ways for people to engage one another as well as their surroundings.  Technology enables greater connectivity across greater distances, encouraging shorter attention spans but allowing almost unlimited communication.  At the same time, unmediated physical interaction—and its unpredictable effects—remains an essential part of human life.  Regardless of the mode of experience, popular culture has created a need to reassess our relationships, both to people and to our environment, through the lens of society at large.

In order to understand cultural interaction and engagement, we must understand ourselves and our environments as complex formations; “absolutes” are not relevant, complete autonomy nearly impossible.  The human being is, like all creatures, perpetually remaking itself in every aspect: our bodies regenerate cells, our senses and organs constantly recalibrate according to varying input, and our minds are continuously adapting our understandings of self and the world around us as information is processed.  Together we are part of a constant collective process of transformation, as the global population is almost entirely renewed every seventy years, and a new “generation” established every twenty-five.  Other constructions of life—from social groups to the built environment—are likewise perpetually in process, responding to and adapting to changes at varying rates.  A static definition will never adequately capture such entities; rather an understanding of ongoing relationships is necessary to begin to define almost any aspect of our human civilization.

An understanding of the on-going means understanding the in-between, the transitional moments from one state to the next.  People also inhabit the in-between; we inhabit space, defined by architecture as either in or around buildings—between the objects of architecture.  Despite this, architecture has been in the past frequently positioned in terms of polarized dialectic relationships.  This particularly Western dependence upon concrete objects and binary definitions was perhaps helpful in characterizing certain aspects of the discipline but at the same time has been incredibly limiting, forcing design to define itself in terms of one or another pole.

Understanding polarities as totalizing and thus most often inaccurate, contemporary academics and practitioners are trending toward the claim that architecture must occupy a realm “in-between,” operating at the intersection of multiple systems at various scales.  Dialectic terms are now used more often in order to define a vague synthesis that attempts to combine two ideas into one concept simultaneously, such as “glocal” or “digireal.”  However, because these terms rely wholly upon understanding two other diametrically opposed terms, they offer no specific definition of this new territory.  Similarly, theories of design as “ecology” are emergent, but, while compelling, this re-conceptualization also leaves the field in ambiguous territory, often glossing over this idea of “in-between” and so failing to characterize a clear role for architecture in society. 

Returning to the idea that understanding ongoing processes and relationships is integral to defining ourselves and our society, the “in-between” then must capture these relationships between one entity and another.  If architects are trying to pursue, reveal, make manifest new cultural “truths”—in order to continue to posit the designed built environment as relevant and necessary—then architecture must operate and be understood according to the interactive elements, forces, and contingencies, the limits and possibilities, that constitute contemporary life.  Architecture must explore the meeting of people and the meeting of people with the environment; we have the opportunity to capture these thresholds as the territory for creation. 


Interaction is a fundamental aspect of human existence.  As social creatures, people have always played out their lives together, interacting and forming relationships in various ways.  The ability to have such interactions is predicated on our individual and collective capacity to form identities, or in other words, the capacity to establish some defining or liminal characteristics to which an individual or a collective relates.  A person can distinguish himself or herself as a member or citizen of a group according to shared characteristics or interests; as such people are largely dependent upon social relationships to others in society in order to define individual identity.  Interaction then potentially becomes a process of confronting and crossing boundaries, in the sense of a person addressing personal, cultural, or other “defining lines” to relate to another who identifies with different characteristics.  Richard Sennett refers to this as “sociability,” the ability to “learn how to enter into the experience and interests of unfamiliar lives,” and holds that society gains when personal experience is not limited to the familiar.1


The continuous process of resolving possible conflicts and confrontations is productive because it can lead to the formation of new potentialities in society; it is out of “close encounters with the unfamiliar” that the possibility “for imagining and practicing a different form of urban experience resides.”2   Productive confrontation can be called politics, which necessarily require interaction with some “other” with the intent of resolving issues.   Because resolution can only materialize as the space between parts, the resulting “‘spatiality’ of social life” is “inherently and instrumentally political,” and always a result of contingent relationships.3   Understanding the contingencies of socio-political encounters furthermore teaches us to learn to live with multiplicity within ourselves.4   According to Rorty, “selfhood” can be dangerous because it implies that one is ignoring the total contingency of one’s beliefs or vocabulary, believing them to be absolute or true.5   If one can instead realize that these aspects are all contingent or self-created, one is then empowered to create one’s own context.  In other words, if an individual is able to develop a more complex subjectivity or sense of self, creating multiple images of one’s own identity, then more complex, open-ended social systems can evolve, allowing for more varied opportunities for productive interaction.  Thus confrontation of difference creates an open cycle that accepts change, innovation, and progress.

Sociability and subjectivity are intrinsic to life in urban environments; cities offer the freedom of direct, physical, bodily experience with others, the “concrete materials” for developing an “active consciousness.”   Because such experiences are possible but not guaranteed, the challenge in urban life is then “how to make the complexities a city contains actually interact.”6   The city has long been associated with confrontation as the site of civic activity and creative encounters as well as bureaucratic power games, the “site of freedom and space of tyranny and exploitation.”7   Cities thus cultivate a certain balance of both centripetal and centrifugal social forces, centripetal being those that hold class and identity stable and centrifugal as those that can break apart class lines.8   Such a role for the city is not only desirable, but could be argued as necessary to the survival of the city.   The continued survival of the city as an entity depends upon its ability to adapt to changing conditions, to create fertile ground for future innovation by foregrounding meaningful interactions.

Now, at a moment when massive “urbanization” is spreading around the globe, and in an era during which our relationships to physical space as well as to one another are being continuously reconfigured by technology and mobility, it is vital that we interrogate the role of urban environments in fostering sustained interaction, confrontation, and innovation.     On one hand, “urban” has come to represent the ubiquitous condition of social life, and the characteristics of an environment that qualify it as “urban”—or, for that matter, “public”—may have more to do with its connectivity to global networks than to immediate physical contexts.   Yet as stated above, the fabric of the city itself and its physical inhabitation remain a powerful opportunity for engaging these issues in a meaningful way.  Physical urban space can in fact be considered the most effective forum for political engagement today.   Political activities, for example, become visible only at the street-level, where subjects do not have to depend upon a formal political system or massive media technologies to bring attention to specific local struggles.  In this way “the space of the city is a far more concrete space for politics than the space of the nation,” or of the digital.9     Moreover, through the aggregation of oppositional places—islands of independent historical, social, and environmental formations—political form can occur at the scale of the city.

So if urban and public are too broad as terms, physical urban environments with this potential for political activation could be defined as democratic or civic.  Civic space comes to mean “a shared space that, given its collectiveness, defines a form of political coexistence among individuals” while physical elements remain accessible to all.10   These spaces have complex relationships to users of the city, however, as they are less frequently completely open plazas—reminiscent of lively Italian piazzas for example—and more often “interior” to a system of enclaves—a master-planned community, for example, or a festival marketplace.  The “civic” nature of these spaces must be carefully analyzed, as they lie within some boundary of control that might dictate the exclusion of unwanted persons, compromising the democratic-ness of the space.

As cities seek to physically urbanize with construction of new towers, iconic buildings, and grand “public” spaces, it is important to consider the choreography of new potential civic spaces that are not interiorized.   “Third places” in the urban fabric, the bounded or interstitial spaces between or exterior to home and work, should offer shared territory for connections to and within space, enabling physical territory itself to ground interactions and to create new connections and opportunities among diverse users.  Designing this space of “political coexistence” should be integral to the process of determining the contemporary architectural forms of the city.

Las Vegas, as one such city in which urbanization has become a top priority, offers a particularly challenging set of conditions in which civic space and connected urban environments are trumped by the powerful image of “Fabulous Las Vegas,” home of The Strip and glamorized around the world.   This image of the city has contributed to an overly powerful boundary condition in which urban borders at many levels demarcate severe divides within the city and cultivate “negligible public space.”11   Understanding that boundaries can be useful in identity formation and productive confrontation yet at the same time detrimentally segregating, we are challenged with addressing conditions of liminality in order to create new civic space that can offer synthetic connections across urban borders.

1 Richard Sennett, “Capitalism and the city,” Future City, ed. Stephen Read, Jurgen Rosemann, and Job van Eldijk (London: Spon Press, 2005), 114.

2 Krik Swyngedouw, “Exit ‘post:’ the making of ‘glocal’ urban modernities,” Future City (2005), 133.

3 Edward W. Soja, “Inside exopolis: scenes from Orange County,” Variations on a theme park: the new American city and the end of public space, ed. Michael Sorkin (New York: Hill and Wang, 1992), 127.

4 Sennett (2005), 114.

5 Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

6 Sennett (2005), 114.

7 Referencing Debord in Swyngedouw (2005), 125.

8 Samuel R. Delany, “…Three, Two, One, Contact: Times Square Red, 1998,” Giving ground: the politics of propinquity, ed. Joan Copjec and Michael Sorkin (London: Verso, 1999), 39.

9 Saskia Sassen, “Reading the city in a global digital age: between topographic representation and spatialized power projects,” Future City (2005), 153.

10 Aureli (2008), 119.

11 Mike Davis, “The Strip Versus Nature,” Metropolis Now, ed. Ramesh Kumar (2000), 104.

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