Kenopsia and Heritage?

Several years ago artist John Koenig began a word project by coining new words for odd emotions and experiences in contemporary life. They may not be in the OED yet, but some of the words resolve some of those unexpressed feelings that are hard to explain when working in the field of heritage.

Heritage is unfortunately wrapped in many emotional responses – passionate people who are activists or professionals trying to ‘save’ a place from destruction. Often, their passion is redirected to their colleagues causing self-destruction of many. (I have met too many young people who have tried to be involved in the field, but eventually are dissuaded because of the dominance of some and the exclusiveness of others.)

To examine the emotions of heritage one doesn’t need to look far. Nostalgia, a powerful emotion of recalling the past, is often connected to heritage. In a negative sense, it may shroud history and play with facts. It can elicit pleasure and sadness, depending on the memory. This wistful emotion once explained homesickness, (Greek nostos – to return home), but has since been romanticized to embrace many more feelings of yearning for the past. Lowenthal has written on the role of nostalgia in heritage.

What of the emotions that we experience in heritage, but can’t quite seem to pin down? Enter John Koenig’s newly created emotional states that are hard to explain. One of his definitions that touches me is Kenopsia:

n. the eerie, forlorn atmosphere of a place that’s usually bustling with people but is now abandoned and quiet—a school hallway in the evening, an unlit office on a weekend, vacant fairgrounds—an emotional afterimage that makes it seem not just empty but hyper-empty, with a total population in the negative, who are so conspicuously absent they glow like neon signs.

I have worked on places that have lost their vitality and have tried to revive them through other means (commemoration, museum, tourism etc.), in some cases successfully, in others, perhaps not. Koenig’s poetics permit us to finally have words in heritage that can explain our reaction to the state of a place. Kenopsia’s dark atmosphere can also elicit attraction and inquiry. Often when places are abandoned, they draw us nearer, but also elicit a wish that these abandoned places remained hidden. It is the irony of heritage: an abandoned place, neglected and forlorn is more attractive as heritage than an active and living place.

A recent example of Kenopsia, was the abandoned CBK transmitter station in Watrous, Saskatchewan, owned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

2Y1A9369-m
CBK Transmitter, Watrous, Saskatchewan (Claude-Jean Harel, Exploring Canada, 2014)

 

The CBC is not obligated under federal legislation and/or policy to manage its places using conservation principles and has limited budgets as the current federal government reduces its public funding. The Art Deco transmitter station was designed by CBC Chief Architect, Gordon McKinstry as a shrine in 1939 to the aural age of wireless transmission. Yet since the 1970s, the place was disused and neglected (cue a scene from a Cohen brother film). If visited, you would have had a ‘kenopsic’ experience…What a wonderful word, but the transmitter will be demolished. Now we need a word for demolishing a place without understanding if it is important to our culture.

Heritage & Loneliness

The theme of loneliness in a digital world keeps coming up in various articles I have recently read. Last weekend’s Globe & Mail article by Elizabeth Renzetti profiled various people who are isolated in the Global Village. While the article was somewhat unscientific and selective in choosing her stories, it seems that the modern condition of the 21st century is not the alienation of the industrial capitalism of the last 150 years, it is now about our lack of sociability in a digital age. The irony of this post-modern condition is not lost on any of us, however she did refer to the design of our cities as a consequence of our loss of community. Increasing developments of intensified city cores: the Vancouver model was noted. Renzetti writes:

Research has shown that a varied streetscape will cause people to slow down, and perhaps even exchange a smile or flirtatious glance, and that even a brief exposure to nature – cutting through a park – makes us feel more generous, and more social.

Charles Montgomery has recently examined this view of cities. The issue of varied human-scaled cities has preoccupied architects for the past 40 years, especially in Canada by architect Jack Diamond and others who came to urban design in the 1960s.

Can protecting heritage encourage sociability and reduce the unwanted loneliness felt in many highly developed nations? Perhaps. If interesting streetscapes, visual variety, dense yet low-rise buildings, meaningful historic places, roots in communities and cultural diversity are aspects of heritage, then the discussion on countering loneliness must include heritage values. The notion that social media frames people within isolated worlds may be better framed when you imagine the coffee shop in a historic building. True, the people there may be working in their own head space, but their social space is within that cafe. There may be less ennui, less sense of displacement or placelessness felt in that adaptively reused coffee shop than in many contemporary environments.

Many ‘Millenials’ live in a mediated world, determined by their links through various on-line platforms. Are they any lonelier than other generations in human history? Probably not. Are they less engaged with interpreting the world, maybe…

Heritage matters to us because of its Gestalt effect. It engages the whole, yet can focus on the particular. The challenge is to convey the importance of its effect. Loneliness in the 21st century could be a symptom of many conditions, whether the digital age, the condofication of our cores, the impact of suburban planning (though this may be debated). Faith Popcorn’s coining of the word ‘cocooning’ in the 1990s has returned now that social media is our obsession. Yet, we remain social and where best to meet but in places that are meaningful to us. It may be in a suburban plaza, a rehabilitated historic warehouse district, a large mall, a restored community centre or even as ancient as Stonehenge. All these gathering places are heritage to whoever is brought out of their cocoon and into a community.

To alleviate loneliness one need only to visit a historic place. History is identity and heritage is social.