Brutal Liminality

Examining humanity’s relationship with the built environment

There are certain places in our built environment that evoke strong emotions of longing; a sort of loneliness that is somehow amplified by the surrounding architecture. Places that were designed to accompany many people, but in the present moment, there is only one: You. There is a word to describe such places, and it is ‘liminal’ — situated at a sensory threshold. Liminal places are often where transitional movement occurs. Essentially, these places exist only for the transit of a person between places or states of existence.

It can be easy to forget our roots as humans — our intimate connection with nature, not as something separate, but as something one with us. The built environment often encompasses our entire perception of reality, obscuring what it truly means to be alive. Even when we separate ourselves from the physical built environment, a monumental task in and of itself, it is only more difficult to separate from the metaphysical built environment. Before I go any further, I will clarify that by ‘built environment’ I am referring to every structure, both physical and intangible, created by humans. We assign these structures an inherent reality within our perception, and based off this reality, we assign an inherent importance. It is this assigned reality and importance that leads a young student to believe their exam grade is a matter of life or death, when in reality, the school building and the entire grading system are simply figments of human imagination. In reality, the only matters which are truly life or death are those pertaining to food, water, and shelter. Human society would be unable to function if each person focused only on securing his own food, water, and shelter, and thus we must assign a reality and importance to creations like school and grading systems. Just because we have assigned this reality and importance to these things makes them inherently real or important.

It is an uncontested fact that the environment of a city is entirely created by humans. Even parks, which appear to be natural, are planned creations of humans. If we have complete control over our built environment, though, then why is it that liminal places exist? Why would humans ever create a structure that doesn’t serve to benefit the happiness of the person interacting with it?

Liminal spaces evoke an eery sensation because they offer us a glimpse into the void from which we arose. It is a core tenet of Buddhism that creation exists because emptiness exists, and that everything is truly empty, although emptiness is truly everything. This may be hard to grasp at first, but allow me to dive deeper. The Big Bang created our Universe out of nothing. Our solar system was created in a void. A void is only possible with creation, for it does not exist simply on its own as a void. Inversely, creation is the only possibility within a void. In the same way that our planet was created, life itself was created. Further, life continues creating, endlessly, as evidenced by the Earth’s magnificent array of species. Like flowers blossoming, life created consciousness in humans, and this consciousness proceeded to create things like art, music, and the built environment. Liminal spaces make us familiar with the emptiness from which we sprout, and they are unsettling for any person entrenched in the built environment as the one, true reality.

Some things, like art and music, are created out of the pure act of creation. Other things, like childbirth, are created out of the act of survival. The rest of things, like our buildings and networks, are created out of a mix of pure creation and survival. Regardless, all acts of creation share the commonality of bringing something new out of the void. When we create out of the pure act of creation, the result is pure beauty. Colors and sound frequencies interlock with elegance, as though speaking the language of life and love itself. When we create out of a need for survival, the result is also pure beauty. The energies of life come together to defend and sustain life — Mother Nature compassionately guarding her kin.

Mother Earth, Quebec

Cities, however, are antithetical to the creation and nourishment of life. They are not created out of survival, as we can survive fine without them; yet they do increase the average life span of the inhabitants. And they are not created out of the pure act of creation, as they are programmed to maximize material production while destroying the individuals within the system. Cities are the symbol of the grand illusion that anything is real, so when we are confronted with liminal spaces it is uncomfortable, for the illusion is failing.

Boston City Hall entrance

We have determined that cities exist not for the purpose of survival, nor for the purpose of creation. Cities exist to destroy the life spirit of their inhabitants; to encourage submission. In a city, the life of an individual is not cherished for its true creative potential. Instead, life is seen as a tool to be utilized in a capitalist illusion of survival and creation.

Thus, it is no wonder that the architecture of these cities isn’t designed to inspire true creativity. But it isn’t the space itself that is eery. It is the fact that such a space was designed to intimately guide life through its networks of passage, and in this moment, it is empty just for you.

Written by

Journalist, entrepreneur and student - Boston College, University of Otago. Buddhist. Expert adventurer and consultant for conducting business in Asia.

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