Thomassons: Vestigial Architecture

I was fascinated by this recent podcast and article over at 99% Invisible about “Thomassons,” architectural elements on structures or properties that no longer have a function and yet are maintained. These architectural leftovers–stairways leading to nowhere, boarded-up or bricked-up windows, telephone poles that no longer carry lines–are named after Gary Thomasson, an American baseball player who played for the Yomiuri Giants in Tokyo, Japan in the early 1980s. Thomasson was paid exorbitant amount of money for a two year contract, but lost his game in Tokyo and was benched for much of his contract (i.e. he had no function, but was maintained…ouch).

Japanese artist Genpei Akasegawa began studying Thomassons in Japan in the 1970s. He published a column in a photography magazine that included his photos and comments/musings, and readers would send him their various artistic renderings of Thomassons for inclusion and discussion. In 1985, he published a book on the subject, Hyperart:Thomassons, which had a cult following among the youth in Japan at the time. The recent (2009) translation of his work into English has encouraged others from around the world to observe these obsolete architectural elements in their own surroundings (you can see some excellent examples on the tumblr site, here).

This is the description for the translated edition of Hyperart: Thomassons, which gives the reader some insight into Akasegawa’s work and background:

“In the 1970s, estranged from the institutions and practices of high art, avant-garde artist and award-winning novelist Genpei Akasegawa launched an open-ended, participatory project to search the streets of Japan for strange objects which he and his collaborators labeled ‘hyperart,’ codifying them with an elaborate system of humorous nomenclature. Along with ‘modernologists’ such as the Japanese urban anthropologist Kon Wajiro and his European contemporary, Walter Benjamin, Akasegawa is part of a lineage of modern wanderers of the cityscape.”

Looking for and documenting Thomassons is both an artistic and archaeological activity (and one that I’ve participated in my entire life without knowing it had a name). Akasegawa called these leftover elements ‘art,’ reasoning that if they had no function and yet were maintained or not removed, they must be art. I like–but am not sure about–the idea that Thomassons are ‘unintentional art created by the city itself,’ but the real appeal of Thomassons for me is that training ourselves to look for them encourages us to be observant and to document our surroundings, noticing changes over time and looking for clues about how urban environments expand and contract on the micro-level.

There’s an element of exploration and discovery to looking for Thomassons that I also recognize in archaeology. On the tumblr site, photos are listed by “location, date, discoverer(s), title of discovery, and condition of instance (notable traits, context, etc.).” People often describe the Thomassons they see as “interesting finds.” There’s also a lot of discussion and collaboration involved; if you find a Thomasson, you can submit it via an online report form, and then it’s posted on the tumblr site, where viewers can weigh in with their own interpretations and suggestions about what it was or could be. Like archaeologists, people interested in Thomassons document what they find and use the material traces left behind to try to piece together the story and life history of a structure.

Akasegawa argues that Thomassons are the cracks or scratches in the smooth and shiny veneer of capitalism: “Capitalism doesn’t allow for this sort of uneconomical thing,” he says. “Everything in our capitalist society has to have a purpose” (see book trailer below).

Similarly, historical archaeologist Shannon Dawdy (2010) has argued that modern ruins (to which Thomassons are related in that they’ve both been rendered obsolete) expose the destructive forces of capitalism and “progress,” and that they “clear away the clutter that masks historical process and the verve of urban life.” Dawdy further argues, and I think Akasegawa would agree, that modern ruins continually evoke ‘thirdspace,’ or,

“…places continually recreated out of a conjunction of imagination and materiality. They reveal the lived environment as a historical process with an uncertain future. Among the ruins, the physical gaps of missing walls cite missing people, and their status as neither present nor past spells out the temporal ambiguity of real time. They provoke the imagination while their patina, dust, and jagged edges work on our senses” (Dawdy 2010).

As an example of how Thomassons and modern ruins both evoke and exist in this “thirdspace” of the urban landscape, take a look at this description of a Thomasson by Myleen Hollero: “This tiny nook with the closed-off archway was an exciting find. Is this a portal to the middle-ages? I like the brick work along the top. Is it part of either building? Chronologically confusing! Perhaps it’s a safe haven for certain species…”

Photo by Myleen Hollero, taken in San Francisco.
Photo by Myleen Hollero, taken in San Francisco

This structure clearly works on her imagination and blurs temporal boundaries (she wonders if the closed-off archway could be “a portal to the middle-ages”). Beautiful–and seemingly random–architectural elements lead her to wonder about the structure’s life history and its relationship to the buildings around it. She also considers possibilities for reuse and adaptation, and wonders what kinds of animals might live there.

Maybe thirdspace is what makes Thomassons “art,” as well. Even if someone only left an obsolete staircase in place because it was too expensive and inconvenient to remove it, it has a life and space of its own through its continued existence, and is connected to both the past and present. It isn’t clearly defined…it makes us stop and wonder and gets our imaginations working.

It’s interesting that Thomassons and modern ruins are both associated with architectural ‘failure’ to varying degrees. Dawdy notes that recent ruins, like Thomassons, are often viewed as negative spaces and evidence of modernity’s contradictions, because “modernity’s…temporality dictates that all forms lose value over time (if all is going well, progress means modernity’s own projects are being constantly eclipsed by the next new), but at the same time its hubris encourages the construction of monumental structures built to last.”

Detroit’s iconic Michigan Central Station is a good example of this. It was modeled after the Baths of Caracalla, referencing the enduring classical grandeur of Rome, and at the time of its construction in 1912 was the tallest rail station in the world. It was a tangible statement of city’s growing importance. Ironically, Detroit’s growth due to the expansion of the auto industry and its subsequent decline rendered the station mostly obsolete by the 1970s, with the last train leaving in the 1980s. It has now become a dystopic symbol of Detroit’s decline (and a harbinger of the calamity that could befall the rest of the world if the destructive forces of capitalism and modernity are not stopped).

Thomassons function in a similar way, though on a much smaller scale, by serving as tangible reminders of the incomplete transition between the outmoded past and the new-and-improved present. It’s this potential of Thomassons (and other modern ruins) to expose the fragility of our linear notions of time and progress that Akasegawa argues allows them to give the city back its humanity, and which Dawdy argues gives archaeologists and anthropologists a unique opportunity to challenge our own preconceptions about the divisions between past/present.

Michigan Central Station, Detroit, MI. Photo Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post.

I started thinking about some of the more compelling Thomassons in places where I’ve lived. There are many buildings on Indiana University’s Bloomington campus that began their lives as single-family homes, duplexes, apartments, dormitories, fraternities/sororities, and even hotels, which all later became offices, classrooms, or businesses as the campus expanded. I’m always interested in seeing how that transformation plays out, what changes and what gets left behind when you convert a home into a work space or a business.

For example, Memorial Hall on IU’s Bloomington campus opened in 1925 as a women’s dormitory and was converted into offices in the late 1970s. The doorbells on the outside of the building are present, but not functional (I might’ve tried one once…), and there’s a quote from Walter Scott carved in stone on near the door: “Evil Spirits cannot enter an inhabited house unless invited” (which would be kind of random if the building hadn’t once been a residence, but probably isn’t a Thomasson). The original door numbers on the dorm rooms were painted over in many cases, but are still clearly visible. There are small sinks and closets in the offices, and sometimes there are still showers and tubs in the bathrooms that are now used for storage or simply left empty. Some of the common areas, like the one pictured below, were preserved when the building was converted into offices, so there are still places students can and do sit together and work. Other common areas or dining rooms were converted into lunch rooms or larger offices for staff and faculty.

Tea in a common room of Memorial Hall, 1939. Photo courtesy of IU Archives.
Photo of room in Memorial Hall, taken 1939, courtesy of IU Archives
A room in Memorial Hall converted into Army quarters, 1943. Photo courtesy of IU Archives.

Are any/all of the leftover architectural elements in Memorial Hall Thomassons? Is a doorbell or a shower stall “maintained” simply because it’s allowed to keep existing despite fact that it doesn’t function? Are they art? I don’t know. But I do know that I’ve spent inordinate amounts of time wandering around Memorial Hall, looking for traces of its past life. It captures my imagination, and from the conversations I’ve had with some of the people who work there (who, once I start the subject, will often take me around to show me the strange or cool things they’ve found in the building) I’m not the only one the structure affects in this way.

In the comments of the podcast, someone asked why Thomassons were interesting or surprising, because to him they’re just a natural and unavoidable part of urban life:

“So, occasionally you’ll find cities where people have lived for decades or longer. And occasionally, over time, those people may have expanded their city, or made improvements or changes to it. And occasionally, through the course of these changes, workarounds are needed. Why is this interesting? Or even surprising? In the real world, workarounds happen. Retrofits happen. Sometimes the problem is the cost of tearing everything out and starting fresh. Maybe the problem is the disruption it might cause. Maybe it’s just poor planning, or poor execution.”

The fact that these workarounds and retrofits are so mundane and ordinary is the point, though, isn’t it? Thomassons are about noticing and asking questions about things that we often overlook because they’re just part of our everyday environments. The goal is to explore your surroundings, to be observant of and curious about the life and history of a structure/property, not just it’s most recent incarnation. When you start looking for Thomassons, all of a sudden you see them everywhere…it’s a shift in perspective.

Today I went looking for other examples of Thomassons locally, and I didn’t have to go far. Up the street in the neighborhood of Thissio is a pair of tram tracks running down a street now lined with restaurants. These meter gauge electric tram networks operated in Athens from 1908 through the 1960s before being replaced with other modes of transport (buses and an expanding metro). It would probably be inconvenient to remove them, but it has been done in other parts of the city. They’re not in the way, and I think people actually like having them around as a reminder of the area’s past.

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Trams in Omonia Square, Athens, 1950s. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

I wonder if Thomassons are limited to parts of structures/properties, or if it can be a whole structure, like the Parthenon. Many historical structures no longer have a practical function, but are nonetheless maintained. I have a feeling that they don’t ‘count,’ but it would be interesting to consider why that is…

The Parthenon…and a Thomasson? It has no practical function, yet is maintained. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

I plan to use Thomassons as a teaching tool this spring to encourage students to start thinking and seeing archaeologically (luckily I’ll be teaching in a building similar to Memorial Hall, so we shouldn’t have to go far to find good examples).


  1. This is fascinating; I’ve always been interested in these, but never knew what to call them–“Thomassons” is clever. My own pet project has been to collect “Thomassons” that are remnants of the pay phone era: namely, nooks and alcoves that were clearly built for pay phones but no longer serve any purpose. I’m also fascinated by curiosities in buildings that reveal the way they were built in stages with add-ons and renovations. Interior windows and brickwork are good clues.

    Thanks for posting! I’ll be looking for more Thomassons around Austin

    1. Thanks for your comment! In Indiana University’s Memorial Union building, there’s a wall of older pay phone booths–small, with seats and a ventilation fan and everything. I’ve always been fascinated by them (and yes, I sat in them a couple of times, which is how I figured out the ventilation fans work–haha). When I first started going to school there almost 10 years ago(!), a couple of the booths still had phones. Now they’re empty and the space is unused. Here’s a link to a blog post about IU’s older campus–if you scroll down, there’s a photo of the booths:

      And I am also fascinated by different stages of buildings–I lived in a house built 1920s that had interior windows and brickwork. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out when the add-on took place! Haha.

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