The ‘terrain vague’ as material – some observations* 

Luc Lévesque

At the crossroads of many, often contradictory trains of thought, jostled by the accelerated pace of change in modern society, the urban environment evolves along lines that are increasingly difficult to read. In this volatile context, a renewed interest in the ‘terrain vague’ has become apparent in the last fifteen years or so. Post-industrial urbanization creates more and more spaces whose murky status raises many questions.

Two opposing visions generally polarize discussion of these spaces. The first decries the disorder they represent in the city. The second, by contrast, highlights their potential interest as spaces of freedom in an urban environment that is increasingly standardized and regulated.

In the first view, the vacant, indeterminate zones that punctuate the urban landscape represent unacceptable socio-economic deterioration and abandonment. In the absence of the will or ability to overcome the root causes, the issue is often limited to one of ‘image’. The ‘terrain vague’ runs contrary to the desired image of a prosperous city. Because it punctures the ideal of plenty and order, generally associated with urban prosperity, it presents a problem. While waiting for future development to solve the problem, people try to ignore the ‘terrain vague’, abandoning it to lucrative parking lots or trying a quick cosmetic fix to minimize the possibilities for use.

For those who hold the second view, the ‘terrain vague’ offers a counterpoint to the way order and consumption hold sway over the city. Offering room for spontaneous, creative appropriation and informal uses that would otherwise have trouble finding a place in public spaces subjected increasingly to the demands of commerce, the ‘terrain vague’ is the ideal place for a certain resistance to emerge, a place potentially open to alternative ways of experiencing the city.

These two antagonistic views – briefly summarized here – are limited, each in its own way, by a degree of idealism. The ‘terrain vague’ may well symbolize economic stagnation, and, it is often associated with careless investors and permissive municipal authorities, but consigning it to urban decay, simply because it does not correspond to the ideal of a functional city, is reductionist at best. At the same time, to make the ‘terrain vague’, a priori, a territory of emancipation is to risk wallowing in a romantic vision with some disconnection with reality. The ‘terrain vague’ cannot be dissociated from the forces that produced it, forces linked in most cases to purely speculative motives unrelated to the public good; moreover, the forms of marginality it is likely to attract are of course not limited to the emancipated, creative and open-minded.

How can we move beyond these sterile arguments, which appear to limit the issues raised by the ‘terrain vague’ to an all-out struggle between order and disorder? To establish a hypothesis – ‘the ‘terrain vague’ as material’ – is to try to approach the issue by another path. It is to place in parentheses the qualities usually connoted by the ‘terrain vague’– whether debasement or emancipation – in an attempt to capture the conceptual and experiential dimensions, like so many substrates that might feed the eye and the intervention.

In this way, shifting from factual observation of the vacant lot to the more abstract concept of interstitial space expands our perspective to include a range of notions apt to stimulate discussion, whether linked directly to the ‘terrain vague’ or not. Etymologically, interstitial denotes something found ‘in between’ things. Referring to the notion of interval, it also means  ‘a space of time’. Thus the interstitial embraces not only such notions as openness, porosity, breach and relationship, but also those of process, transformation and location.

More specifically, it is also possible to approach the interstitial condition of the ‘terrain vague’ as an urban resurgence of the wild. At the confluence of modern brutality (industrial infrastructure, dominance of roads and highways, real estate tabula rasa, etc.), ruderal colonization (flora and fauna), and urbanity (collective appropriations, user-friendly, local practices, etc.), urban wilderness confronts us with raw environments that embody the troubling contradictions that societies tend to repress or mask elsewhere. They are remnants that speak, in many cases, of the violence and irresponsibility of a world devoted to breakneck production, but also of the adventurous, tenacious forms of life that emerge, strengthened, by these hostile environments.

The ‘open’ city can become the laboratory for an intensified experience that offers new opportunities for urbanity, as long as we do not keep insisting on standardizing it at all costs. The idea here is not to favour the temporary or the natural systematically over the permanent and the planned, but indeed to aim for an active amalgam of heterogeneous components that broaden the terms of the experience. This approach is still underused in landscaping, where the tendency too often is to create a decor that is complete in itself, that represses or forgets the crucial role of bodies, the plurality of material tonalities and the richness of the unexpected. By contrast, what we see as important in an urban intervention is its capacity to start from what exists and generate new connections to reality, new ways of experiencing and imagining the city. Beyond the notion of re-landscaping, the issue of the ‘terrain vague’ summons up ways of approaching urban intervention today. At a time when the immediacy of electronic networking constantly reshuffles our perceptions of the world, looking at the ‘terrain vague’ as material means working at building with the indeterminate to generate a hybrid dynamic, one that is ‘in sync’ with the issues of our time.

Luc Lévesque, 2002.


*This article has been published in HOUSE BOAT / OCCUPATIONS SYMBIOTIQUES , Hull/ Gatineau, AXENÉO7, pp.6-7. An earlier version of  this article appeared in Paysages, (newsletter of  the Association des architectes paysagistes du Québec), Montréal, June 2001, pp. 16–18, under the title “Le terrain vague comme matériau”.