Objects Not In Use


Herds on the streets of Paris. As I was preparing this post, sorting through the photos I have, I started thinking about what constitutes a herd and what doesn’t. A herd, I decided, is a group of similar objects that have chosen to gather together. (Or their respective owners have chosen to gather them together, as the objects lack agency.) This excludes merchandise for sale (one common owner; a herd represents compound decisions) and things that operate as indivisible objects (a metro train can be thought of as a herd of cars, but properly the train, while divisible, is an indivisible object—it needs all five cars to operate) and short-term high-turnover clusters of objects (buses arriving and leaving—there is something static to a herd.)


These photos, on the other hand, show proper herds: Static groups of diffuse, divisible objects that have clustered together through the actions of disparate owners. The motorcycles are an exemplar of the proper herd; these herds of police and medical vehicles are a little harder to define. If the place they gather is formally set, and not ad hoc as the motorcycles’ is, do they still constitute a herd? I would argue they do: Much as herds of animals can cluster out in the field, they can also cluster inside a defined corral. The motorcycles in this example are “out in the wild”—away from their respective home bases—and the emergency vehicles are “in the corral”.


The definition of a herd also assumes a lack of purpose and agency: A farmers’ market isn’t really a herd of humans, because the farmers have chosen to gather themselves there with an explicit purpose. These herds just are—waiting, in most cases, for their owners to return or for them to be pressed into use. The point of a herd is that it is inactive, that when active it is necessarily diffuse


Herds, lines, groups, order: The ways in which we organize our common existence.


The ways in which we segregate items from our realities. Sudden discrete herds.


How items are grouped, made indiscrete, and removed to storage or disposal. Objects not in use.


Leaves, chairs: A Paris park prepares for winter.


De-branded spaces are startling: Silence amidst the din of advertising. An urban pause, emptiness within the frenetic swirl.


Ramp equipment at CDG. Look: you can see baggage tugs (just past the crosswalk), and some tow tractors just past them. In the middle, above the minivan, you can see baggage containers on carts and what look like mobile APUs. If you really squint (or click through to the larger image) you can see an HSBC ad on the jetway just in front of the Air France 747.


The standards on which we rely; a 747 must be serviced a certain way. A global archipelago of compatible standards, built to follow our islands of capital. We see the world as easily interconnected only because it is. We do not have the incompatibles—changes in railroad grade, shipping container size, segregated national telephone networks—that were an accepted part of earlier ages. 


The temporal colonization of space: Turn around a jet in 30 minutes. They don’t make money when they’re sitting on the ground. The ease with which this idea is extended to people: Minutes necessary to eat, hours necessary to golf. Spatial products built on expectations of turnover. (Seating at McDonald’s is built with plush seatbacks but hard plastic seats so that it becomes increasingly uncomfortable the longer one stays.) Linger in protest.

(The diagram and Gant chart are both taken from Aviopolis, an interesting take on airports through the world-as-network lens. There’s only one more CDG post, I promise, and then we’ll finally leave the airport and actually make it to the City of Lights.)

And looking, frankly, a little ridiculous.

The ways in which we organize our world; the physical manifestations of mental/metaphorical/social organizational schemes. The balancing act between temporary and permanent.

Never miss a chance to rep your brand: Peeking out of the right column is the logo for the Port of Seattle. (A logo, interestingly enough, that was retired in October. Have they replaced the ribbons between the stanchions? Freshness, and the message sent by being up-to-date.)

Hidden, at least, until you need it. These outlets are designed to blend into their surroundings by exploiting architectural blind spots: They are low to the ground, unobtrusive in color, and, most importantly, blend into the vertical line of the single tree and horizontal line established between the trees.

More than this, we are taught not to notice infrastructure, to ignore outlets and pipes. We are taught to experience spaces as humans, not as electrons or water molecules. We must learn to see buildings infrastructurally.

Of course, outlets can also hide under things, like bushes or overhangs. The surroundings of the outlet are less important than its proximity to expected needs.

(This post, drafted waaay back in August, also represents This Material World’s first brush with the law: A UVillage security guard stopped me to ask what I was taking pictures of (“Um, the outlets.”). Fortunately, he was also an architecture major at the University of Washington.)