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That Lingering Urban Sadness That Looms Over City Dwellers

It’s early morning and you’re racing towards the airport to catch a flight. The sun looks weak as it struggles to climb its way through the mist. Once you near the airport, you kick into practical mode. Everything moves like clockwork from here on. You pull out your ticket and ID, keep them in hand to get past the gates. You walk in briskly, scan the electronic boards for flight and terminal info. You wait in the queue and step up to get your boarding pass after exchanging a “good morning” with the airline staff. Your boarding pass is stamped and you move towards security check—bags, belts, phones in the trays. Beeping, the whirr of the belt, the cold metal prodder of the security check. The boarding pass is stamped and you’re waved through. You get your bags and now, all you’re left with is time on your hands, until the flight. The interiors of the airport have mall-like showrooms, lights sparkle brightly to lure in customers and sell off some overpriced stock. You look around, it’s all arching glass ceilings, shiny metal surfaces, and space as far as the eye can see. It doesn’t look like morning anymore nor night. You have no idea what time it is. It could be any time but you won’t know which time zone you’re in. You feel removed from time and space. It is airport time.

How to spend all this time? People walk briskly past, someone sips coffee, some sitting in the waiting area, stare at you vacantly as you pass by. 

It’s late at night and there’s a 24/7 with blinking lights. You step in and walk past a bored cashier scrolling on his phone. You stroll towards the fridge and look in. You take some time to pick a drink. You open the door, gust of cool air, fluorescent lights, and what is that feeling? It visits you again as you walk back home under the street lights as cars whizz by and the backdrop of the urban landscape shifts with your footsteps. The feeling is fleeting, it goes as quickly as it comes. But it settles in like deja vu as you look out the window to see the street lights turn the echoing streets yellow. It’s a strange desolate feeling, a transient state where you exist outside reality for a few moments, detached from your surroundings. A feeling that you’re missing something that you never had. You’ve felt it too. It’s urban sadness. 

In an increasingly noisy and chaotic world, there are rare days when we are visited by nuanced, almost instinctive feelings. They’re fleeting, they slip by before we can snatch at them to comprehend what we’re feeling. A Tumblr post I found quite by chance sums it up well, 

A tumblr post saying 'That strange feeling of longing when you are at a train station, in a 24/7 open market, when you are buying a coke from a vending machine, watching the city lights glow from your window, when you're walking aimlessly on a busy street after 5 pm, that feeling as if something is missing in your life and it will never come back although it was never there in the first place; that inexplicable urban sadness.'

It is inexplicable, we can’t understand where this urban sadness comes from and what it represents and even, what it’s called. 

Auge’s non-places and supermodernity 


This is where anthropology comes in. 

We live in an age of supermodernity. Supermodernity is characterised by accelerated time, an overabundance of events around us, a short memory span, and oversight of the future – all the challenges accompanying modernism that we cannot overcome. This is reflected in spaces around us, leading to the creation of non-places defined by French anthropologist Marc Auge in his book Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity.  

A busy urban road with cars whizzing by against a backdrop of lit city apartment lights. A man stands by the roadside.

A place is characterised by its people where identity remains intact and is empowered when they meet other people with whom they share social references. The references may arise from birth in a place and identifying that place as one’s own, assimilating and integrating it into one’s identity. These places and people share common historical legacies, act as the locus of events, and form the fabric of communities. The identity relates to places that are saturated with history and landscapes are in harmony with the relationships between humans and the world. 

However, urban architecture is replacing places with non-places that are ‘other’, they disturb and remove the concept of identity. Supermodernity and its resultant architecture focuses on spatial production in transitory places where humans are merely actors. They pass through these places anonymously and cannot relate to or identify with such places where no social action takes place. 

An empty train station lit up with fluorescent lights.

Such places are public spaces – huge, spatial airports of glass and metal, hospitals, labyrinthic supermarkets, shopping malls, and movie theaters. These spaces are wiped clean of ‘residue from human practices’. Individual identity here is reduced to a number. Your identity is checked at the gate and reduced to a stamped boarding pass. Other places stamp your hand with ink, ‘your body is marked’. Non-places are artificial, formal and purely functional. They fit the demands of supermodernity which is marked by impatience and lack of time.

Movement in these places is restricted and controlled. When we are in such places; wandering through aisles of a supermarket or looking around in an airport, interaction is limited to signs or words which serve as instructions. They may be prohibitive ‘No smoking’, or informative ‘Please stand behind the yellow line’ or ‘Take the right-hand lane’ or some may simply be signs like arrows indicating the path one must walk on or the red glaring no-entry sign. Interaction takes place not between individuals but between an individual and signs and texts. The entities that use them are usually institutions of the state or commercial companies.

Neon signs in a station or airport indicating where to go.

Then non-places, very simply put by Auge, are defined by what the places are not. The organic virtue of a place is recognised by relational and historical features that intimately connect with a person’s social and individual identity. Non-places with their excessive space lend to a discomforting loss of identity and the resultant empty feeling of urban sadness. 

A woman stands holding a pole in a metro train. Other passengers sit, engrossed in their own worlds.

What we dimly realize is that these shiny spatial non-places are slowly replacing human interactions. You buy your vegetables now from a supermarket with a squeaky trolley. There is no haggling with the vendors or asking if the vegetables are fresh. The amount you must pay is indicated on a sign , you walk to the cashier who silently checks in your purchases and takes your money. The local family-owned Kirana stores are being edged out, you’ll now get your drinks from a machine. Talk is replaced with the tinkle of coins and a ka-ching.

A vast brightly lit supermarket.

© Pexels

The perception of a non-place is subjective


Of course, like all human perceptions, the perception of a non-place may be subjective. A non-place ceases to be one for a person who works there and interacts with their co-workers. Solo travellers who are impulsive travellers go through landscapes that race parallelly, imprinting their minds with a series of flickering images and perceptions – mountains, railroads, valleys, fields, zig-zags of cable networks. These inaccurate perceptions are later relayed to others. 

Non-places are not absolute and sometimes they have the potential to become places. If an elevator breaks down in a building, the people stuck in it may start a conversation. Movie theaters may turn raucous with shouted exchanges and in the case of one small movie theater, had rockets set off during a Salman Khan movie (not advisable). Empty train stations may become the haunts of a beer-drinking, graffiti crowd.

Graffiti on a wall which contains among other things, a caricature of a man saying 'Beware of the beast!'

Some people may even find solace in the idea of non-places. Far from being vaguely disturbing and haunting, they may find themselves cocooned in anonymity. The comfort of the detachment under the hum of countless neon lights – there’s no pressure to identify oneself, no expectations, and no burdens in that space and time when you can do nothing but wait to board your flight. 

Rem Koolhaas’ Junkspaces: A critique of contemporary urbanism 

For Rem Koolhaas, a Dutch architect, architecture is no longer what it used to be. Modern architecture is a product of capitalistic life, huge and ‘full of absence’ with no apparent rules or connections between its parts. Junkspaces are spaces where architecture and cities reach the climax of modernism with no escape for the inhabitants. 

Vast lit skyscrapers in a city.

© Pexels

Architecture is now consistent with bigness and transparence. Bland buildings of steel and glass grow with no regard as to how they blend with the city’s natural skyscape. They have become standout entities – ‘ a rich orchestration of chaos’. These generic cities then have their people grappling with identities, and voids that cannot be filled, leading to ‘urban sadness.’

Large junkspaces are interior and so vast that you cannot gauge its limits. The reflecting mirrors, polished gleaming surfaces, and echoing space leave a person feeling disoriented. Their newness may excite initially but soon its sterility that remains indifferent to humanity and identity, leaves you feeling empty, lost, and detached. These places are not inclusive. 

A person crosses the road as a bus/train approaches on a snowy night.

Millennials and their urban sadness


Millennials have already been dubbed by studies as the ‘loneliest generation’ and as the ‘burnout generation’. We have lifestyles different than our previous generations. We are in no hurry to get hitched, we cope with immense pressure at work and we grapple with new realities of an ever-changing world. In the incoherent, chaotic rush of every day, we barely get a moment to stand still and analyse our emotions. 

Even so, urban sadness may not affect just one particular generation. It may assail our previous generations or the upfront Gen Z. Whichever generation you may belong to, if you find yourself in non-places where you feel alone, where the moment has stood apart from time and an empty feeling tinged with sadness fills you, you have now known urban sadness. 

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