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Inhabitation

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For some time now I’ve been fascinated by buildings and spaces not being used the way they were designed to be used.

1979, December (Kyoto, Japan)

The first instance I can remember is from 1979. I’d only just arrived in Japan a couple of months earlier and though I was attending a language school in Osaka’s KitaSenri well north of where Expo ’70 had been, I still managed to spend a lot of time at clubs downtown. At the end of the evening – actually, it was already close to morning – a friend suggested we drive to a place he knew in Kyoto that ws only an hour away. We entered some building I remember was very narrow and took the narrow elevator to whatever floor, and entered what at first glance looked like one of those places in Japan that, irrespective of day or night, serves both alcohol and coffee. The room was narrow and probably painted black but was softly (dimly?) lit. The room was less than three metres wide and maybe only five metres long. At the far end was a wall of records behind a counter where the owner played whatever he wanted to. A second person, most likely his wife, took our orders and then silently withdrew to a space behind a curtain to prepare them. I remember wondering whether I was actually in a bar/coffee shop or in somebody’s living room that they were running as a bar/coffee shop. The owners made a polite amount of conversation with my friend who seemed to be a regular, and it occurred to me that this couple might just have simplified their lives to just this space and the people who came there. I don’t remember much else and I’m not saying I woke up speaking fluent Japanese the next morning, but I did wake up thinking that having the verb at the end of the sentence was a bit more natural than it had been.

2000 (London, U.K.)

Twenty years on, in London around somewhere probably Hoxton or Dalston, there used to be a building that was an elementary school during the day but used as a Vietnamese restaurant at night. Diners would eat Vietnamese food in a classroom at school desks covered in cheap plastic tablecloths. Some other room I never saw was being used as a kitchen but, as a customer, all that marked the transition from school to restuarant were the plates, bowls, chopsticks and those cheap plastic tablecloths.

2019, April (Dubai, U.A.E.)

Another twenty years on, I wrote a post titled Parklife that documented the ways car parks of large shopping malls were being used as low-rent retail space for car-related services such as washing, tinting of windows, policing in case of accidents, but also for services such as pet grooming that can be performed while shopping and without having to make a special trip.

2022, December (Wenzhou, China)

The post Feasibility Study ran with the idea of converting a disused shopping mall into residential.

2023, January (Perth, Australia)

My brother is an avid collector and took me to a shopping mall one Sunday morning. One level of its car park was used for a few hours as a weatherproof venue for a car boot sale.

2023, June 4 (Wenzhou, China, on Dubai, U.A.E.)

A recent post titled Hacking the City floated the notion of using cities in ways for which they were not designed. Until AI invents us a environmentally sustainable, structurally adequate and economical alternative to concrete, it’d be good to get our heads around this ultimate and probably inevitable repurposing, especially if producing one kilogram of concrete produces one kilogram of CO2. I can’t look at photographs like this next one without thinking of that.

2023, June 15 (Wenzhou, China)

Imagine a room almost three meters high, three meters wide and maybe six or seven long. One of the long walls is covered in 5xm x 5cm white tiles seemingly randomly interspersed with blue ones forming a pattern suggesting the proximity of a swimming pool. The entry end of the room has a regular-sized door opening off the corridor linking the reception lobby with the changing rooms and, it turns out, said swimming pool. The room doesn’t have any windows as it is below grade and, in fact, beneath the field and track. However, it could have had one since the room is between steps leading down to the swimming pool on one side but, on the other side (the side with the blue and white tiles) is an open lightwell with a small garden at the bottom. The room does have an in-ceiling air conditioner of the kind usually seen in offices, but it’s the absence of a window that makes me think this room wasn’t designed to be used as a staff room.

Upon entering the room and immediately to the left is a refrigerator full of fresh vegetables eggs and noodles. Any remaining space is stuffed with two brands of beer, Budweiser and 雪花: “Snow flower” – a Chinese beer – quite nice and very light like a pilsner. Along the long wall in front of the refrigerator was a low table with kitchen cooking implements and condiments on top and various containers for plates and bowls below. Abutting it and projecting into the room is a folding dining table and stackable plastic stools, maybe six.

Next to this low table along the same wall was a bed a little wider than a single but narrower than a double. The bedcovers had been removed and folded so it could seat two along the long side of the table. On the other side of this bed was a lightweight wardrobe of plastic covering a metal frame. Underneath and around it were changes of shoes. Opposite the wardrobe and with its head against the wall at the other end of the room is another bed, this one a little wider. Like the other, its bedcovers are also folded on the bare mattress.

It was clearly a room for resting either before or after shifts or, as is the Chinese way, having a quick after-lunch nap 12:00–1:00 pm. (It’s not polite to knock on anyone’s door before 1:15.) It struck me that everything in this room was generic and fit-for-purpose. Everything had obviously been designed by someone yet the entire room was design-free. The only thing special about this room was its total absence of design. There were no decorative items that are the usual indicators of claiming a space, of making it feel like home. I don’t for a moment think this room was anybody’s full-time residence but, at the same time, I couldn’t say it wasn’t, or couldn’t have been. There were no indicators of the space being claimed but all the indicators of inhabitation were there. The room was being used as a home but what makes a home anyway? I had been invited for lunch and lunch there was.

On the table are five dishes ready to be eaten Chinese family style with people not using serving chopsticks but helping themselves directly from the shared plates. It signifies familiarity and family. I was honored. The stewed eel had pride of place in the middle, surrounded by two vegetable dishes and two fish dishes, one cooked and the other raw to be eaten with a dipping sauce – sashimi style. I think the fish may have been Yellow Croaker but I can’t say for sure. Fish don’t identify with the nomenclature of land people, and the names of fish rarely translate. Wherever you are, they just have to be learned all over again. The main event however, was the noodles. Halfway through the meal, noodles and beansprouts were added to the electric wok and cooked and drained while another person used the now empty wok to prepare an omelette to be added to the noodles along with some chopped spring onions and a mysterious liquid everyone vociferously disagreed on how much to add. The work surface for these tasks was the floor but the final assembly and stirring was done on the table.

After the meal, dishes were industriously scraped and stacked and taken away to be washed as the room had no sink – which also makes me think the room wasn’t designed to be a staff room. Regardless of what it was designed to be, for about one hour it was the nicest place in the world to be, even if I could barely make out less than a tenth of those parts of the conversations in Standard Mandarin. Three of the six people around the table intermittently spoke the local dialect notorious for being one of the most impenetrable in China. We were three a side. When learning a new language, it’s good to have kindhearted and patient friends.

In last week’s post I wrote about household activities conducted in public. I don’t understand it yet but there’s a link between this post and that. Perhaps it’s something to do with the unselfconscious use of space. The event I just described took place in a room that wasn’t in any sense public but nor was it private. When growing up, I naturally associated the act of living with the house my family lived in. It was only later when I was living in rented rooms in multi-story buildings that I’d customize them by painting the walls, carefully arranging the furniture and adding houseplants and other items both decorative and functional. I later learned that the word for this type of customization was claiming the space. Even with short-term rented accommodation, the rules for doing this were fairly standardized and, whether the space was rented or owned, people would tend to say things like I like what you’ve done with the space. Claiming a space is much the same as colonizing it. It’s about displaying the rights of possession, or a representation of them.

Inhabitation is different. It’s doesn’t care about space or even about the objects that enable the space to be used, other than that they enable the space to be used. It’s certainly not concerned with the display of wealth via objects, and definitely not concerned with diplsaying the occupation of that space over any length of time. It’s pop-up living. All it requires is a space and the minimum of things for cooking and the sharing of meals for living (and resting – the other side of the coin) to take place wherever it can. Inhabitation seems to be a force, rather than a thing.

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