Liminality, a concept first developed by Arnold van Gennep in the early twentieth century, was originally a term in anthropology to describe the transition stage of rites of passage. In recent months, we have seen a resurgence of the term on social media – often connected to photos of empty or deserted spaces.
The Time of Transition
Liminality comes from the Latin word, limen, which translates to “threshold”. The folklorist, Arnold van Gennep coined the term to describe the passage of person from one status, location, or situation to the next. A typical example of the type of transition van Gennep was describing is the change from child to adult. Van Gennep felt like the change is so great that you need a transition time.
In architecture, liminal spaces have traditionally described transition, but a transition in space. They often serve no singular purpose. Porches, hallways, and waiting rooms are often typical examples of liminal spaces. Spaces like airports, hotels, and bathrooms can all also be considered liminal space – although recently these spaces have recognized an importance in acknowledging the history and culture of a place. Some other terms developed by influential architects that overlap with liminal spaces are non-places or junkspace.
Familiar and Unfamiliar
The liminal spaces that are currently being highlighted on social media are somewhat different from the traditional liminal spaces in architecture. They are often big and empty places of commerce. They give us an unsettled feeling. While there is nothing inherently scary about the place, they can feel spooky.
This spooky feeling comes from its ability to invoke the familiar while not being 100% right. They trigger feelings of nostalgia while being off enough that they feel wrong. We have all had the experience of feeling like every hotel or hallway is the same.
If you think about faces that are varied in their complexity, you start to understand how liminal spaces can invoke those feelings. A face that is extremely simple, like a smiley face, could be anyone. We can all see ourselves in that face. With a more complex faces, the number of people who can see themselves in the face drops. Liminal space exists in between those spaces.
Supermodernism came about from an effort by some architects to see liminal space as valuable. Modernism describes architecture that focuses on a lack of ornamentation and technology. They often rely heavily on large glass panes and feel incredibly open. They don’t relate to the history of a place and can exist at any place at any time. They seem to remove the threshold and blur the lines between the indoors and outdoors.
The height of liminal space came about during the era of the shopping mall. These spaces served as a neutral place for people to meet – a need that was previously outdated during the time of social media.
Is COVID-19 Driving the Interest?
During COVID-19, the liminal spaces are the spaces we have been missing the most. Places where we can get lost in a crowd or meet with people outside of our household – hotels, airports, hallways, malls, cafes, and streets.
Researchers have noticed efforts to seek out new liminal space to connect with our neighbors – namely, balconies. Bingo tournaments and concerts have been arranged on balconies. This has reclassified balconies slightly as more public space. They seem to fill a need that Zoom and social media can’t reach.