SVA MA Design Research

SVA MA Design Research, Writing & Criticism1 is a one-year graduate program2
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The Space of In-Between: A formal design analysis of the car as a social space – SVA MA Design Research

Galina Yordanov

The Space of In-Between: A formal design analysis of the car as a social space

This is an excerpt from Galina Yordanov’s larger thesis portfolio titled “Driving Through Division: The Car as Actor in Lebanese Society.” It is a part of the Class of 2020’s graduate thesis presentation “Statements from Isolation.”

The Intimate Space

The average passenger vehicle fits four or five people, and is furnished to accomodate the needs of a small human clan. On the inside, the car is like a compact living room; it includes comfortable seats, an entertainment system, mirrors, charging capabilities, and amenities for food and beverage consumption. Even the climate within the vehicle can be controlled through heating and cooling devices regardless of the outside environment. The car has become a cocoon, or a “wandering cocoon” to be exact, a customizable mini enclave that can move across any environment and maintain the comfort of its occupant. In fact, in its production phase, the design of the car’s interior is as prioritized as its exterior counterpart. In an interview with Wired, Derek Jenkins, chief of design for automotive company Lucid Motors, said, “I look at the exterior as the love at first sight, and the interior as the long-term relationship. That’s very much where you have to spend time, intimate time, with the vehicle.” 

And intimate time is indeed spent in the automobile. As you’re driving past other vehicles, it’s not uncommon to encounter those who are applying makeup, picking their nose (if not ears or teeth), cleaning their fingernails, and having aggressive or affectionate moments with their passengers. It is strange to witness such compromising situations up close, ones that would normally call for averting one’s eyes. Erving Goffman would refer to these moments as “auto-involvements,” or actions that are too self-involved to be acceptable in a public setting. These are all the things that your grandma would refer to as ayb or shameful, and insist that they should only be done behind closed doors. But the automobile is private property and it mimics the space of one’s house, so it’s not surprising when it’s used as a private space. This is especially true in Lebanese culture where younglings typically share a house with their parents until they are married. One such case is that of Rami and Elsa, who got engaged three years after meeting in a car accident in Beirut in 2017. In an interview with the couple in February, they recounted the value of having a car towards the development of their relationship: 

It was the only space we really had on our own, especially given that he was living in an apartment with two other people and I was still living with my parents at the time, so the car really was our only space, where we really could just be on our own completely and just drive and talk and open up about certain things that could be embarrassing.

—Rami and Elsa, previous owners of a red Camaro Chevrolet, 2010 model

In moments like these, the car exceeds its design objective of transporting humans, rather acting as a vessel of intimacy, a home away from home that fosters relationships between people. But even if a car is used as a private space, that does not make it a private space. It’s important to make the distinction between the use of private defined as a thing or place that is individually owned, and the use of private as the state or condition of being free from being observed or disturbed by other people. While drivers may lose themselves to the homeyness of the car, they become increasingly aware of the gaze of others. 

A quite common situation is illustrated in Nadine Labaki’s movie Caramel (2008). While Nisrine and Bassam are having a private discussion in Bassam’s parked car, a police officer knocks on the window, indicating his lack of consideration for the car as a private property. In fact, he actively intrudes on the personal discussion happening within (fig.1), shattering the intimacy as he interrogates the couple, demanding to know what they are doing and why they are doing it on public property. This creates tension as Bassam defends his right to sit in his privately owned vehicle, while the officer maintains that the road is public property, allowing him to enforce his authority as a public figure. This entire incident is mediated through a particular design element, the car window. It plays devil’s advocate, isolating the interior of the car from its environment, while also allowing the officer to peer through it.

The in-between nature of windows

Glass cuts through the steel body of the car in the form of windows, leaving the bottom half opaque, and the top transparent. These openings serve an intentional purpose, to allow for visibility but still maintain the safety of the car’s passengers. In the System of Objects, Jean Baudrillard describes the paradoxical qualities of glass: “proximity and distance, intimacy and the refusal of intimacy, communication and non-communication. Whether as packaging, window or partition, glass is the basis of a transparency without transition: we see, but cannot touch.” Historically, glass has been the material of choice for achieving clairvoyance or clearer vision; it has neither scent nor color, allowing for the visual participation of those on the opposite ends of it. However, the glass used to make car windows isolates both touch and sound, creating exclusion out of a material that normally invites inclusion. 

The by-product of using glass in the form of car windows has been the development of a specific language using the top half of one’s body, the part that is visible and free to move. While the car was designed to have its own tools of communication such as the horn, turn signals, tail lights, and brake lights, it remains that at times these tools are not expressive enough to convey the right message or emotions, especially on the streets of Lebanon, where sticking one’s hand out of the window is a more effective way to communicate with others.

Not many Lebanese either use or understand indicators—a series of hand gestures, “You come through!” “I’m coming through!” “Thank you for letting me out!” is much more common. It IS worth using your indicators when driving in Lebanon, but you shouldn’t assume that other road users will register them.

Physically, what separates one human from the next are a set of window frames and the few meters of space that lie in-between; that is the social space where dialogue happens. The window itself is an object of communication. An open window is an invitation to engage with one’s environment and be engaged with, although the nature of the interaction remains unpredictable. A common phenomena on the streets of Lebanon is for drivers to stop in the middle of the road and carry a conversation with another car. This happens when two acquaintances see each other on opposite lanes and feel obliged to catch up or give their Salemet, a sign of respect. What occurs in many of the cases is that the drivers are so absorbed in each other that they hold up a long line of traffic behind them while they conduct their hellos and ask all the appropriate questions. This type of exchange is inherited from a time when neighbors would walk past each other on the streets and exchange formalities. In order to understand the significance of this interaction, it’s important to get an understanding of the history of social spaces in Lebanon. 

An overview of social spaces in Beirut

Spaces of in-between have long played a role in the social making of the city. In the early 1800s, when Beirut was still a small port town, it had the constitution of an “Arab city.” Roads were narrow and winding, connecting private residences to the soûq,where community negotiations often occurred. There was no true centralization, but an organic network of alleyways that blurred the distinction between the public and the private realms. Notions of family and community predominated, so terraces, wide balconies attached to private homes that overlooked the streets, played a part in developing neighborhood ties. As the city developed, the French colonial authorities built wide boulevards that cut through the old city in order to create European-style neighborhoods and to accommodate the rapid growth of automobile activity. In Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan describes how the advent of the automobile altered the neighborhood: “the motor destroyed the city as a casual environment in which families could be reared. Streets, and even sidewalks, became too intense a scene for the casual interplay of growing up. As the city filled with mobile strangers, even next-door neighbors became strangers.” And indeed, as the roads expanded and neighbors were separated, the terrace, Beirut’s original social space, gave way to its smaller sibling, the balcony. And while balconies carried a significant role in the maintenance of societal relationships in the city, they remained stationary, linking their residents to the streets below them and the homes around them; their powers of dialogue limited to the extent of the peripheral vision of its occupants. Automobiles, however, continued to do just the opposite. 

Negotiating through car windows 

In their ability to transport people beyond their everyday spaces of residence, cars create a dialogue between a place and the strangers that pass through it. The nature of the dialogue, however, remains a result of the sociopolitical network in which the car operates. In Reassembling the Social, Bruno Latour proposes that at any given time, a social situation does not depend on the human actors alone; rather it is part of a larger network, a framework of non-human actors that has enabled what is happening locally. The automobile is an actor in a larger sociopolitical setting, and the interactions that happen through its windows are not only indicative of the humans driving them, but the cultural context in which it is all happening. 

This can be seen in a particular scene from the movie West Beirut (1998) by Ziad Doueiri. The term “West Beirut” refers to the division of Beirut during the civil war into the predominantly Muslim West and the Christian East. The division occured along the demarcation line, and shootings or bombings across this border happened on a regular basis. In this scene (fig.2), a taxi driver stops in the middle of the road to argue with Tarek (the protagonist) who had rushed onto the road without looking. As the angry driver insists on teaching the boy a lesson, the anxious drivers being held up start honking loudly at the scene, urging them to move forward. The loud ruckus gets the attention of the militia guarding the neighborhood, who start aggressively shooting in order to break up the scene. Here, the culture of entitlement, a markedly Lebanese trait, is met by the anxiety and fear onset by the civil war. Seeing as Tarek is a citizen of the neighborhood, and the taxi driver is a passenger on the road, it would be enough for both to apologize and move forward. However, in times of danger, where the government is nowhere to be seen and citizens have to rely on themselves for protection, a simple situation escalates dramatically to create a tense transaction between the residents of the neighborhood, the ones passing through, and the ones ordained to protect it.   

After insults are exchanged, a taxi driver stops in the middle of the road to express his anger with the pedestrian who crossed his path. As the situation escalates, neighborhood militia get involved and start shooting to break up the scene. Still from Ziad Doueiri, West Beirut, 1998 (30:15).

The interactions of the civil war marked those who were to follow for the next forty years. The roads of Beirut were filled with bullet-ridden steel bodies and taped-up car parts, indicative of the economic and psychological toll it had taken on its civilians. While the patched-up Mercedes became a symbol of the struggling working class, the tinted windows of political vehicles were representative of the surviving mafia (fig.3). The added layer of black was a display of power, embodying the distance between the average citizen and those who were considered above the law, who retained the privilege to observe others but not be observed in return—or be held accountable.

Left: Taxi drivers emerged from the civil war with patched-up cars, indicating their economic struggle. Right: Politicians emerged with brand-new cars with tinted windows, reflecting the power and privilege of the political class. Stills from Hady Zaccak, Marcedes, 2011.

So what exactly is the space of in-between? It’s the space that is neither public nor private, but somewhere in the middle. It’s the point of tension between two cars, like that between two circles that are almost touching, but not quite. This tension lies not only in the physical proximity of cars, but also in the interaction that could potentially ensue. It’s the space of judgment, the silence between one car window and the other that allows you to observe and create a perception of the other person without being challenged.