Love in the Middle
Love's facade. Site of the balcony; place beloved of lover's literature, place of the appearance of the Beloved. Site of the bedroom, with its tell-tale window, discreetly veiled, silent resting place of the Beloved. Love's facade. Drawing the aim of desire; ever-present target for arrows of love from the Lover waiting below. Boudoir of the Lady, dressing room of the gentleman; permanent position of the piano nobile. Love's facade. Making of us all - all passers-by, all wanderers in the city, all prisoners in the dream of transit - making of us all Lovers in our passing, in our passing stares (passing-by down below). For the passer-by, this is the last home of unguarded intention and final resting place of unspent desire. Love's facade. The 'Middle'.
The Middle. We already know what happens on the entry level; this is the floor of transit; the neutral space of passage. And we are not interested in what lies behind the graven symbols that touch the sky (in the absence of a dwelling, a penthouse, we assume the functional presence of winding gear and water tanks). But the Middle? This is the place where people live and work... We would know more, we would suppose more, we would assume more. In the Middle we find a home for our desire.
The Middle is a true and distinctive innovation of urban civilisation - a prop of the urban scene. A part to be defined differentially against the other parts that make up the visual field of city life. Like the other fundamental parts it presents itself as a horizontal slice of architecture, or better, its experience (our experience of architecture) its consumption in signs, its rendering into the world of images. Its range: from the windows overlooking the street, from the aptly named 'first' floor (not the ground floor mezzanine) to the upper-most story below, but not touching, the horizon (that potent privilege is reserved for another kind of symbol-bearing part, another 'part' of the experience of architecture). The horizon is never part of the Middle.
What kind of place is that lies behind the facade of the Middle. What kind of space is it that is the recipient of the desire, the fantasy, the ever-drifting imagination of so many, so often? This experiential zone is at once the space of the suburban bedroom, the high-rise apartment (when nearer the top than the middle, home of the gods) as well as of the compact urban flat and the ubiquitous city centre office. These are the places of life found between the entry level and solar regions of space; the places of life and our curiosity thereof. True home of our curiosity in others, in others' lives, and our curiosity about sex, about the sex of others (a curiosity driven by desire and its metaphoric associations rather than a desire for knowledge (of others) as such). Always more a mirror than a magnifying glass. A concealed microphone rather than a microscope.
Almost inevitably incited by the presence of a window. Porthole in the steel hull of another's privacy. Peep hole into the imaginary sex-show of others. 'Middle' or facade windows: from the chintz of the suburban upstairs to urban shutters, from the office wall of glass (now also in apartments) to the sculpted receptacle (trap for desire) the triphora of the loggia, pocket of plenty, sure sign of the presence of a piano nobile . And so to the back windows of the balcony, first revealing, then concealing the larger space further on within. True also of domestic architecture (for example, as exemplified historically in the paintings of the eighteenth century artist Thomas Jones, most notably in his Naples sequence). These windows conceal even as they invite, suborning us with their hidden interiors; manifesting the mark only of an interior, but proffering no further sign as to their contents. All is therefore left to the work of our imaginations (always eager to fill any vacuum, or even the suggestion of a vacuum): our imaginations with their default or habitual return to the ever-same, the usual (sexual) associations. These windows of the Middle pose the permanent question: how do people live, and what do they do there - behind their curtained windows? How do they interact with one another? What is their culture of dwelling together - or of dwelling as such? (Reality television is the bathetic realisation of the fantasy that is the driving force behind our relation to the Middle).
Love's facade. In what way do we care about what goes on there?
It is in this realm - neither the sacred realm of the solar skyline, nor the world of commodities and reflected identities of the ground or display floor - that we find the zone of life. Of work as life, if the vista we survey takes in the office levels of the city-scape. Of sexual relation or expression when habitation is involved. It is here that are acted out the negotiations and intimacies of sex and recognition (the omni-present desire for others and for the signs of acceptance from others' selves, and the often embarrassing curiosity about their bodies which reminds us, perhaps anecdotally, of the behaviour of our ethological cousins). This is the zone of actual life and in this sense alone it is perhaps less imaginary than the other two zones. As the place of life or the place of work - this is the place where most time is spent (this is even true of suburbia where more time is spent on the ground floor, but it is the bedroom nevertheless that remains more interesting from the outside). This 'real time' is opposed to the imaginary times of its external perception, as experienced when viewed from without, with the past or future as the place of the deferred event (deferred because of the lack of immediacy, because mediated by glass and stone and distance). Never present before us as is the street and its level within which we pass, nor present as symbol as in the skyward location of the horizon; not then the fullness of the moment nor the sense of the outside of time of the other two zones. Zones where time is spent: lost, dissipated in the upper regions; compressed into a full-frontal presence in the lower. There is an intuitive sense of both real and imagined life as taking place in the Middle; the shared ground of all office and domestic interiors, not least of suburban exteriors - although most specially the bedroom (enigmatic light in the upper storey).
(In this sense the experience of architecture parallels the experience of the canvass (also the window and the screen): the presence of the foreground; the possibility of either pastness or futuricity of the middle ground; the ethereal potentiality of transcendence residing in the background, the sky. The regions of time are differentiated by the regions of the eye.)
The Middle is the site of the smaller everyday rituals of work and domestic life. The big rituals of communal identity and social meaning are symbolised by the solar level: whilst the public rituals attending transit and exchange (commodity and recognition) take place on the ground level, place of the transition of thresholds (place of exchanges over, and in the face of thresholds). The relations masked by the facade of the Middle involve the exchanges of recognition on the intimate and habitual level as opposed to the mass recognition rituals of transit or the mass 'festive' or intense rituality of seasonal religious events (or if so only on a scale permitted by the space available, or as a simultaneous participation in a generally celebrated cyclic festival such as a religious festival, or singularities such as the festivities attending the end of war). Not either therefore the commercial or commodity-based exchanges symbolised by the ground level (regardless of whether the purchase will be linked to identity support or recognition rituals); nor the implied sacred conversation and very real (economic) exchange of money (space) for sign (of the solar top). Rather the everyday domestic or workaday exchanges of the Middle. Exchanges rendered exotic only by our imaginations, as we pass and glance up (up, but not all the way up to the bright rim of the horizon) exchanging, as we pass, our well-trodden experience of actual human relations for the rumoured suspicion of ideal sex.
Lovers meet in the Middle. This is the site of office romances (real or imaginary); of the apartment and the affair; of the adultery that is the implied pole of contrast to the steady world of suburbia. Sex behind the window; sex in the afternoons; 'sex in the head'. The world of the painter Edward Hopper; scenarios of boredom and desire.
The Middle is the setting for architecture's novel.
Curiosity of the other, for the other, for others' activities. A curiosity played out here, on this level between levels (the level of the other) sandwiched between the big picture, the mega-beliefs fed by the horizon, symbolised by the skyline (at once the level of the Absolute Other and the Absolute Same, the absent ground to collective belief) and the currency of objects and faces, the circulation of objects and faces that regulates the flows -slow in suburbia, fast in the city- of the ground (the level of identity, the level of the Same). The fantasy of the other and of the self, or same, as other, finds its home in the windows of the Middle. The place where the contact, the communion, imagined, fantasised, elsewhere (here, in the place of yearning down below) can, or is believed, to take place.
The Middle implies the tangle of intimacies that (we believe) must teethe behind the epic vision of the Gurskian anthill.
The Middle. The hidden presence of the future past; sign of the second order temporalities, less present but giving time its sweep, life its duration, existence its rhythms, and offering memory and anticipation their true homes. (By contrast there is the eternal presence of the ground, also our eternal ground of presence; and the eternity alluded to by the solar regions).
Individual and collective recognition find their place in the other levels, in other parts; here, in the Middle, the recognition of the other as matter - as other than just idea - comes about through the medium of desire.
The Middle shows us ourselves at play, but also at production (it ignites our tendency to supposition, stokes it to its most fantastic, yet also offers the combination of the other with time and with desire, with the sensuousity of matter in memory and anticipation). As ever this ineluctable propensity for creation shows itself equally in the snarl on the face of destruction, as in the gentle smile attendant on humanity's moments of benign and harmless fancy.
The Middle: white screen onto which we paint the colours of our desire.
Like the walls of the museum, the walls of the urban womb are festooned with a thousand framed pictures under glass.
Copyright 2004 Peter Nesteruk