Architecture is communicative at its core: a building, by its ornamentation (or lack thereof), its arrangement, and each facet of its design, broadcasts to those who see it exactly its purpose. This is often simpler than it sounds: as a precept, communication through design means that houses usually end up looking like houses, factories like factories, and tombs like tombs. Our campus looks quintessentially New England and undeniably academic: the rectilinear brickwork, shingled roofs, and picturesque quads advertise to us the prestigious and enlightened purpose which these buildings have imbued.
Designed space is therefore rich with cues as to purpose, suggesting how the space should be used. A building is therefore at its most fulfilled when its stated purpose aligns exactly with what it is actually used for. A house, for instance, should be divided into living spaces, kitchens, bedrooms and bathrooms; and adorned with couches and tables and bits of familial miscellanea — chargers, mail piles, soap — that are the result of living in that space. There is a unity to such a structure, where the architectural cues of the environment match perfectly its use.
This sort of unity is the basis of comfortable space, where knowledge about how the space is used is clearly broadcast to anyone who steps into it, whether they have ever been there before or not. “House” is a concept that many people are familiar (and comfortable) with, and having seen a house before makes assigning a comfortable and familiar narrative to an otherwise-unfamiliar space easy. This ease of learning-by-association about the particulars of a space is also a factor in design — hostility and inscrutability are often synonymous when it comes to building space for people.
When unity between purpose and use, stated ideal and lived experience, is disrupted, spatial cues become more and more confused. What looks like a house, when it is obviously not being used as a house, is suddenly rendered less legible by how (or whether) the space is inhabited. Since lack of legibility is a barrier to familiarity, that discord between what I think should be familiar (a house) and how I read the space (not a house) creates a sense of strangeness, a vague wrongness about my lack of familiarity with a space built to be familiar.
I think this process works because of a general human impulse to narrativize the spaces we exist in. There is a story to a house: it was built one day, and thereafter it was lived in by people who used it and continue to use it as a house. There is a story to an office space, a factory, or a coffee shop that is equally easy to interpret, again building comfort by ease of understanding.
Interpretation is perceived knowledge (the best kind one can hope to have), and knowledge is key to familiarity and comfort because knowledge brings safety and assuredness in the social norms of a given space. Safety is therefore intimately connected to knowledge, so all that’s needed to create an unsafe space (in feeling at least) is to remove knowledge.
Abandoned spaces are therefore a perfect case study of architectural uncanniness. What was once an easily-interpretable and therefore safe space now has a viscerally-perceived temporality which begs for a narrative to be imposed upon it. The problem: there is no way to figure out exactly what that narrative is. The abandonment of a space is the shifting of a space from an inhabited space that is used for something known to an uninhabited one that is used for something horribly unknown. Something must have happened to create the conditions for de-inhabiting, but what? And the more unexplainable the geometries, the more strangeness in appearance, the more pressing the questions become. Entering an abandoned space saddles me instantly with questions of when, of how, of why, that often simply cannot be answered by interacting with the space itself. Narratives break down in abandoned spaces because familiarity is denied. Even if one were to figure out (from patterns of rust or knowledge about the growth of moss or years stamped in building materials) the age of the building and the time of its de-inhabiting, it would be impossible to determine who left, or why.
Abandoned spaces are for that reason uncanny. Entering one fills me with a tension, a stress that doesn’t exist in a coffee shop, an office building, or a house. Abandoned spaces are without unity, and therefore are less safe.
But abandoned spaces are not alone in disrupting interpretation. Even spaces that are not only designed to be familiar but are by definition inhabited can become uncanny and uncomfortable because of factors that go beyond design.
Take, for example, the Rodeway Inn. Visibly, the Rodeway is a hotel, with some of the markers of an abandoned space: the exterior doors aren’t really functional, the parking lot is largely deserted, there are no hotel staff behind the check-in counter, which is piled with testing supplies and devoid of characteristic computer monitors and tall-ish chairs. However, it is also obviously inhabited, as on-call staff both monitor and supply the variably-sized collection of sick students which occupies some of the hotel’s rooms. The experience of getting Covid is thereby an exercise in unfamiliarity in this way, as one is forced to get used to living in a space which is inescapably removed from its original purpose.
But the strangeness of the Rodeway is deeper even than that, for not only is the Inn officially not in-business, it isn’t really an inn. The space’s primary goal is the isolation of its inhabitants, and its features, from meal bags to supervised outdoor-time, are trademark features of a hospital.
At the Inn, there are procedures and guidelines for every aspect of living — even well-being is codified in scheduled Zoom calls (with, in my case, the nicest person in the world) and requests for time outside. The Rodeway is a medical facility dressed up as a living space, and while it succeeds absolutely in that purpose (I even had a pretty good time for most of my stay), it’s not exactly harmonious.
I felt an uncanniness in the room as soon as the hotel-looking door closed behind me. The trim was worn and the pillows were few, but the mirrors and lamps were numerous, like it was an ex-hotel room dressed up to look like it was still in use. The window-screen was bent at the corner just enough to make it very easy to pop right out of its slot, turning the once-barred hole into a doorway. Outside the door, at around noon, the hallway would be lined with paper bags, set in front of each blank-faced door that was a portal into someone else’s entire life, contained in the room. We had no key cards, so I had to prop the door open with that hoop-looking lock common to hotel doors every time I left the room to pilfer a bag of chips from the snack room (an exercise room, converted with a folding table). The way I lived told me, for certain, that I was not a hotel guest. Why, then, did the place look so much like a hotel?
I got used to it, of course. Every decision made makes sense, and out of necessity, the Rodeway is probably the best solution to isolation housing that seems eternally useful. But it is eerie to live in. Its design is not directly opposed to what it’s used for, but the two chafe against each other just enough to produce a dissonant tone, to make the place seem just a bit uncanny. All that, on top of a foggy brain and an easy, constant exhaustion, means that getting Covid is super weird.