Source: Terrain Vague – de Sola Morales

A formative source in thinking about indeterminant spaces is Terrain Vague, a 1995 essay by Spanish Architect Ignasi de Sola-Morales.  The essay starts with a discussion of the idea of photography, which is mentioned by the author as vital to our understanding, particularly through photomontage and their inventive juxtaposition of forms, aiding our ability to explain the urban realm. Conversely, with its ability to frame and ‘edit’ the urban conditions – resulting in a disconnect of image from reality.  As mentioend by de Sola-Morales, “When we look at photographs, we do not see cities – still less with photomontages.  We see only images, static framed prints.” (109)  From this jumping-off point of photography comes the ‘non-space’ of terrain vague, as defined by the author:

“Empty, abandoned space in which a series of occurrences have taken place seems to subjugate the eye of the urban photographer.  Such urban space, which I will denote by the French expression terrain vague, assumes the status of fascination, the most solvent sign with which to indicate what cities are and what our experience of them is.” (109)

The etymology of the definition is explored, due to the lack of a clear translation into English.  First, the concept of terrain (as opposed to the concept of land) is more expansive, including more spatial connotations and the idea of a plot of land fit for construction, meaning that it has more direct ties to the urban.  Vague, on the other hand – has ties to a range of ideas.  From German ‘woge’ which is tied to the movement of seas – we get “movement, oscillation, instability, and fluctuation.”  From French, the roots lie in ‘vacuus’, which yields connotations of vacancy, emptiness, and availability.  Another meaning is derived from the Latin ‘vagus’ which is most closely related to the origins in landscape urbanism thinking giving “the sense of ‘indeterminate, imprecise, blurred, and uncertain.'”  (110)

Thus the dual concept of a plot of land defined by indeterminacy is the key to understanding of terrain vague, which has both a spatial as well as a social connection – defined by what it is, but that being specifically defined by how the space is used.  As de Sola Morales mentions, these become “spaces as internal to the city yet external to its everyday use.  In apparently forgotten places, the memory of the past seems to predominate over the present.” (110)

These spaces have an innate duality – due to their marginalization, they have the sense of externality ot the order and security of the city making them alluring as a way of out the typically homogenized urban realm, meaning they become “both a physical expression of our fear and insecurity and our expectation of the other, the alternative, the utopian, the future.” (111)  Identified as a certain ‘strangeness’ which has been cataloged throughout urban history as tied to the social dislocation of our shift to urban dwellers – most notably captured in Georg Simmel’s ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life‘ and our evolution to the blase cosmopolitan. 

This is captured by de Sola-Morales as ‘estrangement’ which becomes the formative construction of the terrain vague: “The photographic images of terrain vague are territorial indications of strangeness itself, and the aesthetic and ethical problems that they pose embrace the problematics of contemporary social life. What is to be done with these enormous voids, with their imprecise limits and vague definition?”   Thus these become fertile ground for artists whom “seek refuge in the margins of the city precisely when the city offers them an abusive identity, a crushing homogeneity, a freedom under control.  The enthusiasm for these vacant spaces – expectant, imprecise, fluctuating – transposed to the urban key, reflects our strangeness in front of the world, in front of our city, before ourselves.” (112)

Terrain Vague is a difficult concept – being essentially ‘non-design’- but is also powerful in its ability to theorize on the margins of the ordered world in which we reside.  On the difficult side, the actions of a designer is somewhat in opposition to the unstructured configuration of these spaces.  As de Sola Morales mentions:  “the role of the architect is inevitably problematic.  Architecture’s destiny has always been colonization, the imposing of limits, order, and form, the introduction into strange space of the elements of identity necessary to make it recognizable, identical, universal.”  (112)  This innate desire to transform disorder into order leads to a catch-22 in the employment of design ‘agency’ within these structures, as mentioned in the text:

“When architecture and urban design project their desire onto a vacant space, a terrain vague, they seem incapable of doing anything other than introducing violent transformations, changing estrangement into citizenship, and striving at all costs to dissolve the uncontaminated magin of the obsolete into the realism of efficacy.” (112)

While design is about form, there is still plenty of potential in exploring the concept of terrain vague, as it offers the opportunity to give shape (both spatial and social) to an existing urban phenomenon of indeterminancy, tapping into the city inhabitants continual seeking of “forces instead of forms, for the incorporated instead of the distant, for the haptic instead of the optic, the rhizomatic instead of the figurative.” (112)  It is still unclear how we use this, but further investigation should yield the possibilities of learning from this existing urban condition – not trying to recreate it, which is inevitably an exercise in futility, but looking at the ability to allow disorder, not fall into the trap of modernism in trying to rationalize and organize all of the spaces within a narrowly defined set of uses.  Can it work?  de Sola Morales posits that:

“Today, intervention in the existing city, in its residual spaces, in its folded interstices can no longer be either comfortable or efficacious in the manner postulated by the modern movement’s efficient model of the enlightened tradition.  How can architecture act in the terrain vague without becoming an aggressive instrument of power and abstract reason?  Undoubtedly, through attention to continuity: not the continuity of the planned, efficient, and legitimized city, but of the flows, the energies, the rhythms established by the passing of time and the loss of limits… we should treat the residual city with a contradictory complicity that will not shatter the elements that maintain its continuity in time and space.” (113)

More on this as we tie together threads of the ‘terrain vague’ with the ideas of ‘heterotopias’ and other models of indeterminate ‘otherspace’ in the urban context.  In classic urbanistic inquiry, the field of study has been identified, theorized, and classified – the translation of this into actions of architecture, urban design, planning, and landscape architecture – is another, more difficult jump.  But then again, that’s the fun, no?

Originally published in ‘Anyplace‘ – edited by Cynthia C. Davidson (1995) – citations here are from ‘Center 14: On Landscape Urbanism‘ (Almy, ed. 2007)

7 thoughts on “Source: Terrain Vague – de Sola Morales”

  1. That IS the fun. The idea of leaving space unplanned, unprogrammed in a project or area (as we have talked about)faces many obstacles, including the client and cultural expectations. But perhaps that indeterminacy is exactly what is needed for a space to remain relevant over time? How else can a project, heavily designed and programmed, remain relevant as the space, culture, and people around it change? Ah, it makes the mind twist just trying to think about it.

  2. Good to see how relevant this important text is even 15 years after it was written. The loss of de Sola Morales was a big blow to the field (excuse the pun).

  3. Good to see how relevant this important text is even 15 years after it was written. The loss of de Sola Morales was a big blow to the field (excuse the pun).

  4. This is a great post—I am really enjoying your analysis. The impossibility of “designing” these marginal, undefined places and keeping their true free and subversive nature made me think of examples of attempts to capture the past in ruins, such as The Mill City Museum (, where the crumbling facade is no longer within the dynamic creation-deterioration cycle, but is a frozen artifact. The artifact is in a clean, safe state for visitors, belying the edgy nature of the vacant buildings they were in the recent past. The question of how to plan for transitory, creatively edgy places to exist within a designed city is problematic. As soon as they are defined, even if to be left alone, they become an artifact of the design. Maybe it is necessary to admit that the urban designer is a “destroyer” of the indeterminate, in opposition to these subversive spaces, as subversion can only exist in a true state of opposition? In the inevitable decay of a diversity of ordered design, new subversive spaces will naturally crop up. The artists’ warehouses of today were once the center of commerce. But I wonder, what is the role of ecological forces, which are the ultimate subverter of the ordered built environment? What is the implication of working with ecological flows in urban design? Thanks for the great work on an informative and thought-provoking blog!

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