A Sense of Place, a Sense of Time
Most of us don’t attach much importance to the mundane architectural settings of our everyday lives. We go in and out of supermarkets, fast-food restaurants, and gas stations without a second thought, perhaps because we understand these places so well that they seem merely a part of our natural surroundings. It’s necessary to think back to childhood to recall what it was like when such ordinary places were new and strange. Iremember my first schoolroom, with its imposing hierarchy of many little desks and one big, important desk. Or the first time I was taken to a museum, with its succession of large, silent rooms filled with labeled glass cases. Or the first, truly strange experience of a movie theater:sitting alone, in a crowd, in the dark. As children, we explore these unknown, exotic places like anthropologists in a new world, without the encumbrance of foreknowledge; we are obliged to decipher for ourselves the meanings of the new place, and to find our own place in it.
As adults we may feel more or less at home more or less everywhere. This is not just a question of habit. I don’t mean that there aren’t locales that appear exotic—but it’s rare that we find ourselves in places that are truly incomprehensible. This is not just because buildings fall into recognizable types (a concert hall designed by Frank Gehry is still a concert hall, the relationship between performers and audience follows a well-understood convention) but also because television and movies have brought us in contact with so many places we would never ordinarily visit: prisons, morgues, missile silos. Last summer I toured a World War II submarine moored alongside San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf; it was the first time I had ever been on board such a vessel, but thanks to Lloyd Bridges’s Sea Hunt and many submarine movies, the confined, mechanical interior felt, if not exactly familiar, at least not unfamiliar. Similarly, when I was obliged to go to a hospital, a place I had not been in for thirty years but had seen innumerable times on television, the layout of the long corridors flanked by dreary wards, and the curious hospital atmosphere that combines boredom and urgency, personal attention and impersonal neglect, felt quite normal, and I think Iwould have been surprised had it been otherwise.
So Ididn’t expect to come upon a new kind of place, that is, a place that demanded unknown rules of behavior, not twenty miles from my house, and certainly not in a shopping mall. I think this encounter happened about fifteen years ago. I was walking through the mall, which had recently opened, when Icame upon a large, open area with many tables at which people sat eating. There were no waiters visible, and the food appeared to come from a series of take-out counters where young people served food that could be taken away on trays, cafeteria-style. The counters were located in …