Alleys, Gangsters, and Cinemas — why “Places” matter more than “Spaces”

Biograph Theatre in Lincoln Park, now called Victory Gardens Theatre (photograph by Marc Heiden)

My name is Anijo Mathew, and I am an Associate Professor at IllinoisTech’s Institute of Design (ID) in Chicago. Two years ago, I founded Vamonde because I saw that most institutions did not have a way to engage their audiences through technologically enabled cultural narratives. For these institutions, Vamonde provides a unique ability to present their narratives through temporal and spatial extensions that go beyond the four walls of their establishment. We then empower these narratives through a multi-channel network where partners can connect to the cultural traveler through very unique hyper-local experiences. No other platform does what Vamonde can do. But before we arrived at this place, we had some very interesting lessons along the way.

When we started crafting what would eventually become Vamonde, we decided to use ID methods of design research to understand our beachhead user — the cultural traveler. Chicago has some great architectural and history tours of the city, including those offered by our friends at the Chicago Architecture Foundation. We thought this would be a perfect place to start. But instead of going to a CAF tour, we did a more popular tour on a popular subject. The tour was called “Blood, Guns and Valentines”. From the name, you can probably guess what the tour is about.

One of the key stops on the tour was the Biograph Theatre in Lincoln Park, one among Chicago’s oldest cinemas. It’s claim to fame? It was here that John Dillinger, the gangster, was finally shot and killed.

When we finally arrived, our docent took us into the lobby of the cinema. Inside the theatre, you can feel the age of the place — the wood floors creak, there is a musty smell that surrounds you, and the building feels old. You are there co-located in the same space where history happened. Soon after we’re lead outside the theatre, standing in front of this infamous alley, where the supposed murder of John Dillinger happened. It’s a typical Chicago winter and everyone was bundled up in their coats. What happened next was what surprised us all. Everyone on the tour, including my team, and me pulled out our smartphones and took a photo…of an empty alley. An empty alley!

When we came back to our office, we talked about what happened. Why did everyone in the audience pull out their phones to take a photo of an empty alley? Then it struck us. On any other day, that empty alley is just another alley in the city. But on that day, with the docent’s narrative, it came alive. It gained meaning. We didn’t take a picture of the alley; we took a picture of her narrative. Or at least that’s what we were attempting to do. Through our limited technology, we are trying to capture this new experience that our docent had created for us.

Space is physical. It is made of form and material; it responds to your body. It is the four walls and the couch that make up my house. Place on the other hand is experiential. It is made of memories and sub-material information; it responds to your emotions. It is the memory of my daughter jumping on the couch in the four walls of my house. Place is what makes my house a home! This is not a new concept (researchers including me, have been talking about it for some time) but it’s important. As an embodied social being, we create and experience place through the spaces we inhabit. But we don’t remember spaces just because of the architecture or the material it is made of. We remember them because of the memories we associate within the architecture and material. The stories, the narratives that are embedded in our spaces are what give them meaning. This meaning, this narrative is what we try to experience by being “there” and what we want to capture and share with others.

Think about it. The city is full of “place”. Just waiting to be discovered. Invisible. Layers and layers of memories and narratives hiding behind the architecture, the infrastructure, the bricks and the stones. Whether is the story of Jens Jensen, a Danish architect who eloped to America with his lover and then built Humboldt Park as a prototype for all his park designs. Or Edgar Miller who along with Andrew Rebori build these beautiful handmade homes in Old Town. Or the secret bedroom of Frank Nitti, one of Al Capone’s hitmen, who used to live on the top of Harry Carry’s steakhouse. Vamonde as a platform brings these narratives to the forefront through temporal and spatial extensions. So that information layers (our memories) can live at the same level as material layers (our architecture). Through Vamonde, you can stand next to a space and open up, discover and share “place” as easily as you can open up and share physical “spaces”.

So the next time you are in front of an intriguing alley in Chicago, take a moment to wonder if something interesting took place here. Maybe if you are lucky, you could find a hidden narrative you can re-live through Vamonde. Or maybe, it’s just waiting for you to add your own narrative. Either ways, we welcome you to come on our platform and check it out.

Academic, startup founder, and innovator who works with organisations globally on design-led innovation and urban technology.

Academic, startup founder, and innovator who works with organisations globally on design-led innovation and urban technology.