What Makes a Space a Place

John Middleton
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September 4, 2019

This week I have asked one of our coworkers to share a little bit about her project and how coworking at the OpenSpace has been essential in her project. Please share your thoughts in the comments and tell us if you’d like to share something for a project you are working on.

Coworking is a way of working that specifically seeks to create open collaborative communities where ideas can be shared and where they can interact and catalyze community change. Kimberly Spragg is an OpenSpace member who recently moved back to the states where she was Director of the Australia Studies Centre, a study abroad program in Brisbane. Her program provided a structure to encourage students to experience the local culture in a way that enriched their experience. When she described what she was doing there to create awareness and curiosity in her students and the way that she was trying to develop a micro-pilgrimage experience here in the states, I had to know more. One of our keys at the OpenSpace is building community and in order to build community, we need awareness of the people and resources. When we recognize the people and resources around us we find motivation to create new things for that community and we experience it in new and exciting ways together.

“In the modern world . . . we are surrounded by a general condition of creeping placelessness, marked by an inability to have authentic relationships to place.” – Tim Cresswell

“Creeping placelessness” certainly feels like an apt descriptor of contemporary life these days.  But it’s more than just feelings, researchers in a variety of fields agree. Their findings highlight the disconnectedness of our post-modern lives. We don’t really know our neighbors or neighborhoods; social media has left us lonely; mom-and-pop local businesses are the exception rather than the rule; we vote in federal elections but overlook local candidates; and we even drive such a long distance to church that we don’t have time to meet fellow parishioners during the week. Even at work, it’s harder to get to know our colleagues as telecommuting and freelancing become more and more prevalent.

These forces are strong and can feel overwhelming. Yet, the practice and place of coworking can be a critical way to resist our isolation and disengagement. But, resistance requires more than just a group of people sharing an office, it asks that the coworking space become a place.

Most people use the terms space and place interchangeably, yet they are actually unique concepts. Space is an abstract fact of life, similar to time. It is an impersonal idea that describes an area and it’s volume. Space doesn’t have much meaning on its own, it’s just a thing. Place, on the other hand, is not just an abstract idea or thing. Place has meaning, it’s a way in which we understand the world. Place is how we appreciate and know the value and significance of spaces. Place is a felt and lived reality and is never abstract. Place is specific, it involves senses, emotion, imagination, story, and memory.

I’m came into Rockwall Openspace so I could think and write about the different ways people interact with space and place. I believe humans are designed to function as embodied and locally engaged beings, but our modern cities encourage us to be anonymous residents, more like ghosts than neighbors. We interact with each other through texts, online and other disconnected media. When we ignore our embodiment (the fact that we are more than just brains in containers) we miss out on an integral part of what it means to be human: that is to be local, connected, physical, and situated in a place.

The philosopher Charles Taylor approaches this same issue from a distinct perspective. He argues our modern life has produced a kind of disenchantment. In the Middle Ages people believed in God, in invisible spiritual forces, and in relics and sacred places. The world was full of mystery and supernatural power had actual effects on individuals and society. But modern Western society has come to understand the secular world as separate from the sacred. We no longer see the world as enchanted and we are left with a non-spiritual, natural world that is untouched by divine presence. Even religious people often experience this disenchantment and overlook the sacred or magical in the ordinary places around us.

So, religious or not, most of us miss everyday transcendence, we disconnect from our bodies, and we forget to pay attention to our surroundings. Simone Weil puts it like this, “[s]omething in our soul has a far more violent repugnance for true attention than the flesh has for bodily fatigue. . . .  That is why every time that we really concentrate our attention, we destroy the evil in ourselves.”

As an intercultural educator, I’ve spent my last 10 years working with study abroad students in Australia. In the process I’ve become convinced that the practice of pilgrimage is an essential activity that can help student pay attention to where they are and connect on a deep level when they visit a new place. I designed my study abroad program to encourage students to engage with their experience more as pilgrims than tourists, and also to take this practice home with them.  Now that I’m back in the U.S.A. I am exploring how the practice of pilgrimage might be practical for busy professionals and parents. My students were privileged to enjoy a focused pilgrimage in Australia, yet my overworked, weary, preoccupied friends and workmates could also benefit from a similar kind of journey, even if it’s not somewhere far away.    

So, I am designing a workbook for how we all can engage our location more intentionally. Last year I read a fascinating book by Matthew B. Crawford called The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction. Crawford helped convince me that humans need to participate in activities that structure our attention and help us refocus it on our local places. The idea for my workbook is to create activities where people can engage their city or neighborhood through condensed, local, pilgrimage experiences (or what I like to call “micro-pilgrimages”). I hope this journal will be a tool to help people to participate in mystery and transcendence, to connect and pay attention to their local community and place.  

A pilgrimage is a journey of transformation. Traditional pilgrimage has three components: memory or roots (the place you journey from); an experience (the place you journey to); and a future hope (the goal or purpose of the journey). It’s important for a pilgrim to know where they have come from so that their journey is an intentional exploration into the deeper questions of life. The pilgrim’s journey often requires some form of disorientation or discomfort or a shedding of the normal routines of life. Embodiment is a key component of pilgrimage. It’s not a journey we take in our mind, rather it is sacramental in nature. Pilgrims physically pass through material places that are regarded as sacred or which become sacred when they experience transcendence in that place. Since pilgrimage recognizes a hallowedness in certain localities, it can help us “re-enchant” the material world and remember its profound mysteries.

This journey of transformation is physical, but it doesn’t have to be far away.  The pilgrim’s journey can be deep rather than distant. So these micro-pilgrimages can be a local nature trail, a historic monument, a cathedral or chapel, a community garden, an art installation, or a cemetery. It’s how we experience these places, what we do when we are there, and how we allow them to shape us that makes all the difference.

I came to Rockwall Openspace searching for a space to write about pilgrimage as a transcendent practice. But coming here has also reminded me that it’s our mindset and our practices that shape spaces into places (whether those places are far away or right around the corner). Coming to work every day isn’t the pilgrim journey, but it still can be a sacred place, a place that pushes back against “creeping placelessness”, a place where we practice connection, hospitality, and encouragement. Our work can be spiritual and placed in a way that so many of us miss out on in our modern lives. Networking, relationship building, brainstorming, environmental sustainability, paying attention to each other and our surroundings, and gathering for the good of the local community are transformational practices. It’s in those local practices that a coworking space has the potential to becomes a place.

Or as the tagline reads here at Rockwall Openspace, it’s “coworking with purpose.”

John Middleton