John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
That's the word that Japanese artist Genpei Akasegawa has assigned to doors leading nowhere and driveways blocked by fences.
In an architectural jungle as large as a city there are bound to be a few... mistakes.
We're talking about doors hovering on the exterior second floor of a building without staircases. If you were to use it, you'd sprain both ankles falling to the ground. Or a big brick pedestal for a statue that never got put up. Or a flight of stairs leading into a blank wall. Or how about this non-functional bicycle path in Leeds:
In this day and age, we might refer to these glitches in the city matrix as Urban FAILS. But Japanese artist Genpei Akasegawa has been thinking about such objects for more than 30 years, and has already given them a name. They're called "Thomassons," and you can find a delightful collection of them in Akasegawa's 1985 book, Hyperart: Thomasson, recently translated into English.
A Thomasson is any kind of "useless and defunct object attached to someone's property and aesthetically maintained," according to Akasegawa's definition. A publisher's blurb states that this includes the "doorknob in a wall without a door, that driveway leading into an unbroken fence, that strange concrete... thing sprouting out of your sidewalk with no discernible purpose." Learn more about what makes a Thomasson in the video below, which includes quixotic footage of real-life examples like a stairway ending in a window.
The artist, who's birth name is Katsuhiko Akasegawa, picked the word in tribute to Gary Thomasson, an American baseball player who whiffed on so many balls during his 1980s stint with the Yomiuri Giants that the Japanese media took to calling him the "Electric Fan" or "Giant Human Fan." Akasegawa was wowed by the innate conundrum of Gary Thomasson, who (according to the video) "had a fully formed body and yet served no purpose to the world." Interestingly enough, the term has been repurposed by author William Gibson in the sci-fi tome Virtual Light to denote a "useless and inexplicable monument."
Once you know about Thomassons, it's impossible not to think about them while strolling down the block. An observant spotter can catch one or two on the daily commute to work. Even Etsy is on the Thomasson trail, with one artist knitting a colorful cozy for a weird metal doohickey protruding from the pavement. Anybody who has seen a Thomasson in his or her city is more than welcome to mention them in the comments section.
He emerged on the Japanese art scene around 1960, starting in the radical "Anti-Art" movement and becoming a member of the seminal artist collectives Neo Dada and Hi Red Center. The epic piece Model 1,000-Yen Note Incident (1963-1974), which involved a real-life police investigation and trial, cemented his place as an inspired conceptualist. His irreverent humor and cunning observation of everyday life made him popular as a writer, peaking with his 1998 book Rõjinryoku, in which he put forth a hilariously positive take on the declining capabilities of the elderly.
The artist actually was convicted of currency fraud for his homemade yen, in a case that went all the way to Japan's Supreme Court.
H/T on the video to io9