“Curbside Cabanas and the Aesthetics of Impermanence”
Zed Adams (The New School)

part of: Toward a Third Place Aesthetics: An Afternoon Symposium on the Aesthetics of Communal Life
April 22, 2022, 4:00pm - 5:00pm
Department of Philosophy, New School for Social Research

Theresa Lang Community and Student Center (Rm. I202)
55 W 13th St
New York
United States

This will be an accessible event, including organized related activities

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Ray Oldenburg first introduced the notion of “third places” to identify enduring sites of communal life that exist in between home and work. Paradigmatic examples include bars, coffee shops, libraries, and parks. The permanence of such locations is an important part of his account: it explains not just how they foster and sustain communities that persist through time, but also how the communities that they inspire have concrete identities embedded in specific physical locations.

In this paper, I consider the question of whether third places must necessarily strive for permanence. This is not a question Oldenburg himself considers: he seems to assume that impermanence is incompatible with communal life. But his focus on the habitual dimensions of third places overlooks other sources of their appeal, especially their aesthetic dimensions. In order to give a broader account of what draws us to third places in the first place, I discuss the case of (what I call) “curbside cabanas”: the improvised outdoor dining structures that have emerged in NYC and other cities during the pandemic. These structures are manifestly impermanent; they are less than two years old and many are already in ruins. And they possess few of the habitual features normally exhibited by third places; one cannot rely upon them being open on a regular schedule, on having a regular clientele, or even continuing to exist. But they nonetheless provide us with a valuable test case for the attractions of communal life under pandemic conditions. Do they show that the notion of third places is more flexible than Oldenburg assumed, and that their appeal has a broader base than he recognized? Do these architectural innovations possess genuine aesthetic appeal that explains why we are building and using them? Or do they reveal instead that in the absence of genuine third places, we will sometimes accept counterfeits in their stead?

The specific focus of this paper will be on the connection between permanence and aesthetic appeal. In the NYC context, this connection is best illustrated by the Landmarks Law, passed in 1965 to protect and preserve “designated sites [that have] sufficient historical or aesthetic merit” (Steinberg 2011, 952). Since its passage, this law has functioned to enshrine the idea that any interventions in NYC’s built environment must first and foremost do so with an eye towards permanence. The idea is that only structures that we can imagine making a permanent contribution to the fabric of city life should be considered valuable. (It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the Landmark Preservation Commission views NYC sub specie aeternitatis.) Curbside cabanas are thus a significant challenge to this idea. Through a taxonomic study of the various forms they have taken so far, this paper aims to critically explore the possibility of an alternative aesthetics, an aesthetics of impermanence. What are we valuing, and why are we valuing it, when we frequent improvised outdoor dining structures that are unlikely to make a permanent contribution to the cityscape? 

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