Interstitial spaces are those that fall ‘in-between’.
Such spaces are often claimed by the in-betweens of society. In nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Australian cities, for example, young ‘larrikins’ (the Australian folk identity of the irreverent young male with no regard for authority and a quick mocking tongue) claimed intersections, vacant lots and building sites as their territory. What were for most ‘non-spaces’ became for these urban youths sites of meeting, conversation and entertainment — the larrikin’s equivalent of the gentleman’s club. An 1873 article in the Australasian Sketcher describes how Melbourne’s larrikins were ‘to be found in every street’, ‘in the way of people at the corners,’ and even ‘knocking respectable women off the pavement.’
The point of the article was to paint a picture of the ‘halting members’ of the ‘living stream of humanity’ — the social outsiders who stopped where others passed through. We might trace the same impulse to occupy between-spaces to Philadelphia street corners or to Melbourne’s State Library steps, where students lounge, neither in nor out. And, of course, we might apply it to street artists and taggers as they decorate the divisional spaces of walls, fences, alleys and lanes. These are spaces that the rest of us see as borders and byways — zones to cross, pass through or move along in order to reach a destination. They are not destinations in themselves, unless we choose to redefine them.
interstice — n. 1. an intervening space. 2. a small or narrow space between things or parts; small chink, crevice, or opening. Latin: space between. —interstitial adj.
The notion of interstitial space comes primarily from biology and medicine, where it describes the space and fluid surrounding the cells of a tissue. In the 1990s the art world appropriated the term to refer to artists whose work fell between the margins of traditional or familiar genres and media. In communications, the term is used for interstitial television programming (a brief segment between shows) and interstitial web pages (a transitional page like a welcome screen or age confirmation).
In architecture, interstitial spaces are those that neither fall inside any room, nor are outside the building — the gaps between floors and inside walls. Though we do not inhabit them, they can be integral to a building’s function. Entire accessible interstitial levels can be built in to accommodate the plumbing, electricity and mechanical systems of a building, particularly in hospitals, where flexible floor plans and accessible services minimise disruption. The first building to really take advantage of an interstitial space design was Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California (1959–1965), where large intermediate levels between the main floors provide access to the ducts, tubes and wiring that service the institute’s laboratories. Such a design allows building services to be continuously upgraded as technology advances — foresight critical to a research institute.
This section shows the Salk Institute’s three laboratory floors with an interstitial service space (with the striated ceiling) above each floor.
Image: University of Pennsylvania via Oxford Art Online
More recently, architects have used the term to describe spaces at the margins of built environments. This might mean a sharp delineation between building and natural landscape, or a blurred ground where inside meets outside, a transitional space that can profoundly affect our experience of the site. A covered porch provides a place to sit that is sheltered yet outside; a retractable wall of glass confuses the division between in and out. Architects also refer to the interstitial spaces between existing buildings, where new structures like New York’s Goldman Alley cause city space to converge and overlap. Melbourne’s famous laneway culture inhabits these gaps, blurring the boundaries of the intermediate and the experienced, or the journey and the destination.