• Saturday , 7 December 2019

10m²

Reflecting on the subject matter, I couldn’t help but let my mind wander across the depths of memories and experiences, in search of a personal account that could justify the argument I have put forward in my essay. Quite unexpectedly, my memory brought up a vivid image of a deceivingly soaring building block and my heart stirred. A milliard of images followed in a brisk projection, rolling before my eyes, summarising the associated five months of memories in one fleeting moment.

I recalled that building block, set within the suburbs of Montpellier, accompanied by five others like it. Its facade: concrete render painted crimson red – an unusual colour palette that intensified the presence of Mediterranean heat, rendering it visible to the eye. Sometimes, I saw the descending sun reflected in those walls and questioned whether the sun ever set here as the building never changed its colour to that of a sunrise.

In plan, they were a most peculiar shape: a Lycaste Flower or a strange three-winged propeller; reminiscent of Le Corbusier’s grandeur and yet in defiance of it. Their core, a stairwell – the only medium of circulation and a social mixer at that. On each landing, the staircase gave to a circular hall from which three corridors parted in opposing directions, innumerable doors lining up each of their sides. They terminated with a deceptively small window that only revealed its true size to the few who trekked the corridor lengths and conquered perspective distortion. For me, this distant square of blue represented the finiteness of the lengthy couloir, a symbol that left me feeling grateful every time I walked its stretch, concrete and tiles under my feet.

I lived on the third floor of Block no. 1 of Cité Universitaire, La Colombière. Like any other on the campus, Block 1 was partial to equality – all rooms were exactly 10m² small. I recalled the beginnings of this adventure. When everything was still a novelty, this tiny space felt cozy and safe – a return destination. However, with every passing day, as I settled and gained confidence in my surroundings, the room slowly shrank. New pots and pans, towels, toilet paper, breakfast cereals – material possessions have each stolen a piece of my space. Instead of returning to, my room became a place to escape from. I was constantly on the move, restless. My mind recalled the seldom week or two of rain and late-nighters that forced me into staying indoors and how anxious I grew with each passing day.

I froze. Theoretical assumptions may have some truth in them after all. I snapped back into reality and looked back at the stack of books and sheets sprawled across the table in a hap-hazard way – an unwelcome reminder of the approaching essay hand-up. Each of these sources had something to say about the consequences of constrained space on emotional and psychological wellbeing. These references, gathered thus far, were a clear give-away of the side I should choose to defend in this writing. Anxiety, social isolation, depression, stress – all these said to be a consequence of tight space and a further catalyst for anti-social behavior, hindered learning in children, frustration, and more. The arguments were many. However, the nostalgic image of Cité La Colombière, left me doubtful of the words I quoted. Although minimalistic living was a challenge and many of the assumptions I quoted in my essay found their confirmation in my own experiences at Block 1, I felt uneasy. How can it be that this building evokes so much nostalgia and finds itself among my most cherished memories?

If buildings had personalities, Block 1 was certainly a moody one. From late morning to early afternoon, it greeted me with an air of austerity and silence. Every now and then, a gentle door slam could be heard somewhere on the second floor, or a vague murmur of a hoover a few doors up. The coolness of its still, earthy air, from time to time broken up by a breeze, contrasted with the outside heat. In the afternoon, Block 1 was rather cheery. Laughter, footsteps, doors swinging back and forth, the instruments of cutlery and plates all accompanying each other to an echoing melody. Already the first step inside, had you exposed to this music, flowing swiftly alongside the sweet scents of cooking – delicious smells that immediately had your stomach rumbling. Taking the stairs at that hour was like taking a journey through a museum of scents, if such existed. From chicken curry on the first floor, through to cheese fondue, Bolognese, and fried rice on the uppermost level. The diversity of the building’s occupants couldn’t have been better felt than by the smell of their own cooking. The communal kitchen was the beating heart of the building, offering the most improvised and random of encounters. It was here that lasting friendships had their beginnings. On a weekend, everything about Block 1 seemed more relaxed. I would wake up to the sound of shutters rolled up lazily and to empty wine bottles shattering against the bottom of a recycling bin. The wind was always more gentle on Saturdays and birdsong more pronounced. Washing machines took a spin in the laundry below and a friendly chatter initiated between two strangers.

Looking back, I realise that although frustrating, 10m² was not the only fact to consider. If it weren’t for this, I wouldn’t have made any friendships in the kitchen nor have struck up deep conversations in the laundry. Life didn’t happen in the bedroom itself but everywhere else, and there was plenty of space there.

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