Gone but not forgotten: Cape Town’s thomassons

A bricked-up window on Harrington Street in Cape Town. I like the fact that the bricked-up window looks fresher than both window and the door which are still in use.

A flight of stairs that leads into a wall, a door suspended high on a wall leading only to a two-story drop, a beautifully painted archway that opens onto a bricked-up entrance-way. These seemingly pointless urban phenomena are all Thomassons, elements of the built environment that serve no purpose but are still maintained.

Japanese artist Genpei Akasegawa coined the term Thomasson—a name borrowed from a very expensive baseball player never to have scored any runs during a contract with the Yomiuri Giants of Japan—after he noticed a flight of stairs that ascended to a small landing and then descended again on the other side, leadingn nowhere. The stairs may once have led to an entranceway that had since disappeared. What made this flight of useless steps special, however, was that someone had taken the time to repair a section of the balustrade even though the stairs no longer served any purpose.

“Could you even call it a staircase?” Akasegawa asks in his book Hyperart: Thomasson.“Of course you can’t. You can only call it art.”

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A blocked-off entranceway on the Kalk Bay main road. Useless? Yes. Maintained? Looks like it. The contractor who laid the pavement was even seduced into following the form of the dead-entrance with the paving stones. James Clacherty.

These vestiges of the urban environment, built into obsolescence by constant shifts in use and left in place due to oversight, convenience or perhaps a contractor’s sense of whimsy, are all over the place. During a walk through my suburb in Cape Town I discovered four potential Thomassons in only half an hour. An access ramp that ascended into a wall, two steps attached to a blank wall, and two sets of bricked-up windows. They are often quite unremarkable. But once you know what they are they become intoxicating.

I have started looking for them everywhere and now relish the feeling of excitement I get when an ordinary looking object I may have walked past many times suddenly takes on new significance. Their significance is, however, often ambiguous, which adds to their appeal. Every potential Thomasson is, first, a puzzle.

What was once a doorway leading into the Robbie Nurock Day Hospital. Central Cape Town
What was once a doorway leading into the Robbie Nurock Day Hospital. Central Cape Town. James Clacherty.

Outside of the art world, and a few appearances in literature—notably Ivan Vladislavić who describes being haunted by a stout 2.5-metre black and silver pole near his home in Johannesburg and William Gibson who tries ambitiously to expand the Thomasson metaphor by suggesting that the whole of San Francisco and “perhaps America itself was a Thomasson” (Virtual Light p.352)—these urban phenomena have enjoyed very little exposure.

Thomassons have made brief appearances in some academic literature (here for example) but there seems to be very little academic attention paid to these urban vestiges. This may be unsurprising since one of their defining characteristics is uselessness. But although the objects themselves may be useless, I can’t help but think that the metaphor is very useful.

A trough that once held water for horses but now only holds plants. The light at the top of the pole still works and so this one might not quite qualify. It’s not entirely useless but it certainly no longer serves its original purpose.
A trough that once held water for horses but now only holds plants. The light at the top of the pole still works so this example might not quite qualify. It’s not entirely useless but it certainly no longer serves its original purpose. James Clacherty.

Just like the scholarship on ruins and ruination that has burgeoned in the last decade or so, could we use the idea of Thomassons to help us understand more about how we relate to the built environment and particularly how we relate to the histories of the urban environment?

The Hurling Swaaipomp (swing pump) in Oranjezicht. Useless? More or less. The pump is no longer operational but it is a provincial heritage site so one might be able to argue that it still has some use. Maintained? Beautifully.
The Hurling Swaaipomp (swing pump) in Oranjezicht. Useless? More or less. The pump is no longer operational but it is a provincial heritage site so one might be able to argue that it still has some use. Maintained? Beautifully. James Clacherty.

Although Thomassons have a similar nostalgic value to ruins, their maintenance also suggests a vitality, even a hopefulness. As opposed to ruins, Thomassons are a sign that there is still life going on around the object. A bricked-up window shows that the building it occupies is alive, its function changes and its form follows suit. And what do Thomassons have to say about ruins that are partially restored such as the UNESCO cultural heritage projects or ruins in Jerusalem that are partially reconstructed as memorials to historically recent destruction described in Ann Stoler’s research? What does the maintenance of these ruins tell us about how we construct our histories?

These two make quite an artful pair. Only about thirty metres away from each other they have matching capitals and have both been adorned.
These two make quite an artful pair. Only about 30-metres away from each other they have matching capitals and have both been adorned. The one on the right still has a letter slot. James Clacherty.

Why is it that these vestigial elements of the built environment are so exciting for those who have learned to recognize their significance?

Genpai suggests that part of thomassons’ appeal is that they resist the dominant capitalist world order by existing in well-maintained uselessness in a world where everything has to have a purpose, has to be productively employed. Part of their appeal to me is that they make apparent the fact that buildings and urban spaces have histories, that they grow and develop. Perhaps it’s a form of haunting?

When I look at a doorway that no longer goes anywhere it conjures up images of the people who once walked through it. Maintaining these vestiges that no longer have any use value somehow preserves the memory of their previous users. Thomassons are constantly shifting between metaphor and material object. In considering the material object it is difficult not to see in it a past—possibly with a sense of nostalgia, possibly fear or melancholy—as well as the contemporary life of a city.

 

James Clacherty is an editorial intern with urbanafrica.net.

All photographs: James Clacherty.

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