|Lucy’s Service Counter, Charles Schultz (source)
Though not in fact shelter, the counter serves as the most fundamental structure of exchange. Extending along a horizontal plane floating in between waist and chest height, it is not limited to the domestic; its smooth top indicates the interior of the narrowest taxi stand or noodle shop to be actively trading in goods and services.
Along with its ideological variants for the kitchen, including the optimally compressed work surface fitted into Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky’s Taylorist designs, there are looser definitions: the bank teller window, the service desk at the British Library controlling access to closed stacks, a younger sister’s occasional lemonade stand.
When properly functional, the counter’s planarity marries opposing expectations. What is ‘over-the-counter’ is legally tendered, a deal openly agreed to on both sides. Illicit affairs upset this fragile equilibrium easily, and it would be unthinkable to find the panic button anywhere but below the counter’s ledge. This duplicitous power structure lends political potence, too. Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, Ezell Blair Jr. and the late David Richmond’s open challenge in 1960, which localized national discontent and spurred a radical civil rights movement, was critically situated at a Greensboro lunch counter.
|Kumbh Mela, Allahabad, India, 2001 (source)
Home for winter break my freshman year of college, I took a job as a pedestrian counter for the Portland Chamber of Commerce. My tallies of the number of people approaching a street corner from each direction would be used to help calculate the retail value of commercial properties. I was given a small piece of plywood with four handheld counters attached to it—one counter for each direction—and asked to sit outside a downtown property for eleven hours, counting the confluence and the becoming public. My mission, it seemed, was to quantify transience and to pin down whatever was left over; to mine the uses of the city, to harness the consumption and replacement of space and skim the accumulated presences off the top. Though the numbers on the counter precisely indexed the number of individual passersby, the process of counting was really just massive speculation: an estimation of potential profile were something worthy of attention to appear, an effort to fold unconscious or tactical uses of city spaces into an overall strategy for development. The default mode of the city within the context of this action was passivity, the presumed subject consumed by tunnel vision or a blank stare, an unengaged individual occupying an inattentive non-place.
While my counting activity was used to generate speculative future values, other counting methodologies are employed retroactively to gauge the value and political impact of various uses of public space. Unlike the counting of the incidental passersby, the counter in this case is charged with the numbering of purposive individuals, his counting framed by the same intent that has brought everyone else together. Lefebvre talks about the absolute spaces of religion subsumed by the abstract spaces of capitalism. In the case of these mass gatherings however, it seems that the divine almost always trumps capitalism. Most of the largest gatherings in human history have been devoted to one deity or another, from the 2.6 million people who made the Hajj to Mecca in January 2005 to the 60 million people who gathered in Allahabad, India for Kumbh Mela in 2001. You can quantify it, you can build it, and they will come; but in the end it’s the absolute that really counts.