Foucault and the Meatpacking District & Sola-Morales and the Riverside Hospital

by Tassos Lockbird

1. What is compelling about Foucault’s essay is the fact that it can be read through a vast variety of points of view and can be related to many issues. The first time I read it, it was as part of the theoretical framework of the 1st Biennial of the city of Thessaloniki, in Greece, which had the same title; “Heterotopias”. The second time was as part of my research for an anthropological art project I did for my undergrad in Athens, concerning the duality of a certain neighborhood. Finally, I re-read this essay for one of my courses last semester. The course was “Televisuality” and we would interpret Foucault’s notion of “heterotopia” as a characteristic for television, and interestingly enough, almost all -if not all!- of the principles could be applied to the “programming” and “flow” of television. Reading it again for this class certainly made an additional impact to me and I was more attracted to the second principle of Heterotopias.

“The second principle of this description of heterotopias is that a society, as its history unfolds, can make an existing heterotopia function in a very different fashion; for each heterotopia has a precise and determined function within a society and the same heterotopia can, according to the synchrony of the culture in which it occurs, have one function or another.”

I think that the Meatpacking District is an area that could be characterized as a “heterotopia”, since from the beginning of the last century it held a very special role in the city’s functions. It started out as a neighborhood that hosted slaughterhouses, over the years it became one of the “worst” parts of the city, where criminality, drugs and prostitution would flourish and at the same time it was the center of certain aspects of gay life. By now, it has become one of the most expensive and “fashionable” parts of the city, giving home to high-end boutiques and overpriced bars and restaurants.

 

2. Reading Sola-Morales’ text was a real pleasure. The way he establishes his subject and analyzes its every aspect, etymologically for instance, is very satisfying. What I noticed and thought is quite interesting is when he talks about architecture as a means to “impose” order and organization. It reminded me of Mary Douglas’ text, when she is saying that culture, in general, provides a specific set of orders to “follow” and that “dirt” is what “must not be included if a pattern is to be maintained”. Accordingly, the “terrain vague” that Sola-Morales is referring to are places that probably had been used as instruments of rationalization and/or productivity but now they are not part of the pattern anymore.

An amazing example of a “terrain vague” in NYC is the Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island. Not only it is an empty space of a medical facility that has been abandoned for more than 50 years, it is really interesting to add into the equation the fact that Riverside Hospital was a “quarantine hospital”, a hospital to heal various kinds of “anomalies”, to cure people who did not fit in the “pattern” anymore, “waste-people”. There is an amazing series of current photographs of the remains on this blog: http://kingstonlounge.blogspot.com/2011/01/north-brother-island-riverside-hospital.html

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