Third Places

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Richard Beck, as always, is getting me pondering. This time it's about his latest series, Alone, Suburban and Sorted. At this point in the series Richard is talking about the need in our culture for "third places", those Cheers-type spaces that are not work, are not home, but are the third shared places where the potential is for everybody to know your name. No show-runners required.

This rings true for me like a giant gong. It is, in fact, the central drawing card for the gallery space idea I have been rolling around in my mind. An idea which will most likely morph over time to become something completely different. But an idea for a place, a central space, a cultural glue. No jacket required. A comforting sort of an idea.
Third places are not hosted places. No one is guest, no one is host. The place is shared or neutral. This allows for independence and freedom. As Oldenburg summarizes, "There must be places where individuals may come and go as they please, in which none are required to play host, and in which all feel at home and comfortable."

According to Oldenburg, the reason third places need to be neutral is that they help resolve a paradox of social mixing. Specifically, we need a degree of distance and autonomy from the very people we might seek to associate with. Our interactions need to be voluntarily initiated and dropped if we are to agree to participate in them. Anyone who has ever been forced into social mixing knows exactly what Oldenburg is talking about. Churches make this mistake all the time. Compulsory mixing is forced and effortful and we quickly avoid or distance ourselves from it. Oldenburg cites Richard Sennett's assessment: "People can be sociable only when they have some protection from each other." The protection offered by the third place is that one can come and go and interact with others as one pleases.

A space where, as Beck points out, conversation is the main activity. A safe place where we get to interact each other to each other instead of all moving around inside public spaces ensconced in our mobile phones, mistrusting each other, feeling like we are interloping into our own spaces. Thank God for global financial crises where we are going to be forced to confront and learn to live with each other again.

Becks' series, which I recommend fulsomely in its entirety, is thought-provoking stuff. Reading this hones for me why I get so frustrated at certain places like, for example, the MCG or Telstra Dome (or whatever it's called these days), and make my poor mother sigh. But I am not just ranting for the sake of it. I am ranting because these spaces are important if we are not all to go completely insane, and yet they have been co-opted by the powers that be, over and over.

We are informed, in a myriad of different ways, that none of our spaces are really ours. We must share them with giant big screen televisions and giant airbrushed billboards and jingly jangly pokie machines. We allow our technology to take us away from each other even from our public spaces. And we like it thus. Because we really don't like each other very much.

The MCG is as close to a third space that I experience on a regular basis for half of the year with people I know and people I don't know. This is why I get so incredibly frustrated that this space has been turned into a giant lounge room - not the cosy sort, but the sort where the giant plasma is the absolute centre of everything and relationships are pushed, as they are always pushed in crackpot land, to the periphery. Alienation. Continual and unabated. No wonder we're all half mad.

You're not half mad? Oh, must just be me then, heh :)

We need to relearn how to be around each other. We need to relearn how to love each other. Sounds funny, doesn't it? Especially if you refuse to believe that you haven't been born knowing how to lurve. But maybe we only know what has been first demonstrated to us.

Which makes me grateful that I believe in a God who loves us. His life drips down the way the free market is supposed to :) I learn to love because he first loved me. Now, if only I could begin acting like it ;)


  1. Ha, ha... back when I was still drinking guess what greeted me every time I walked into one of the bars I was a regular at? Right... 'NOORRRMMMM!!!!!'

    Now the same thing happen sometimes at my new 'third place' - the rooms of A.A.

    Beck & Oldenburg's observations ring very true regarding the way interaction has been transformed within these last 10,20,yikes! 40 years. Technology that was intended to fascillitate communication has left us isolated and socially awkward. We do need to regress somewhat, turn off the distractions and simply get face-to-face and talk, talk, talk.

  2. Haha Norm. What else would greet you in a bar but that, right? That's funny that you get greeted at AA like that - hehe :)

    It's scary a bit, isn't it, how much has changed. I really do hold out hope that the tide has begun to turn somehow, that people are beginning to see how we all need each other.


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