Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Deconstructing the Ziff - Part 1

Up, Down and Around or The Chamber of 32 Doors

"There were doors all 'round the hall, but they were all locked; and when Alice had been all the way down one side and up the other, trying every door, she walked sadly down the middle, wondering how she was ever to get out again." (Lewis Carroll Alice in Wonderland)

On the University of Leeds campus we often find new buildings 'shoe-horned' into small 'leftover' spaces, much like the Marjorie and Arnold Ziff building which was opened for business in January 2009 and operates as an administration centre, primarily for students. The building appears squeezed in between the end of a Victorian terrace and one of the lecture blocks, the Michael Sadler Building.

This recent building has the effect of drawing attention to the buildings either side of it if you make an effort to look, but despite these architectural differences urban space operates such that it naturalises the very space that it forms, hiding those differences. Postmodern space is hugely complex because of the history on which it sits; yet there is a type of homogeneity also operating which smooths that space and presents it to the viewer like it has been that way 'forever'.

This is one of postmodernism's paradoxes well noted by Fredriç Jameson. He explains how the notion of a dialectic opposition is not something that appears in the analysis of postmodern society in the same way that it did in a more modernist or Marxist period. (2009: 344) He goes on to say that the cultural objects considered under postmodernism often seem to "fold back into each other". (ibid.) This is apparent when viewing postmodern space, especially in the examples Jameson offers, such as the Westin Bonaventure building consisting of four mirrored columns which simply reflect Los Angeles back to itself.

While it would not be possible to describe the Marjorie and Arnold Ziff building with the same intensity that Jameson describes the Westin Bonaventure - it is not exactly a postmodern hyperspace - it does share some of its qualities, to varying degrees. There are two entrances to the Ziff building. The main one is obvious and is the one that you would first come to if you were encountering the campus from the main university entrance. Here you are taken in to the queueing area that students who require administrative assistance would use. There is also a staircase straight ahead that takes you up to the café on the floor above, which once you are a few feet into the foyer, you can see opening up at the top of the stairs and overlooking the administration area. However, from the other end of the building there is a much smaller, less obvious entrance which takes you on to a level which is between these two floors, requiring you go down a few steps to enter the student admin area, and up a few steps to enter the café. This is slightly disorienting if you have previously only ever entered the main entrance before, as you are not necessarily aware of the slight incline on which the building is built, even if you regularly walk that slight uphill path on your way elsewhere. The image below shows almost the full length of the building on that side, which is not a great distance. However, it is enough to mean this smaller entrance cannot take you directly onto the ground floor of the building inside.

Once just inside this other entrance, while you can work out where the administration area is in space (it is still visible from outside these windows you see in the image above), the café has suddenly disappeared from view. It is closed in at this end of the building and it requires a moment for you to realise that you are entering the building on a different level, and that since there is only one staircase that goes up, it must be that direction you need to take. This disoriented moment is fleeting, but nevertheless is a common side-effect of postmodern buildings, an example of which was recently expressed to me by a friend attempting to orient herself in the newly opened shopping centre Trinity Leeds, which truly is a postmodern hyperspace.

Part 2 of this blog will look further at the mirroring effect of the glass surface of the Ziff building.

Bibliography: Jameson, Fredriç. 2009. Postmodernism or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (London and New York: Verso).

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