Finding The Hidden Pockets Of Humanity In Urban “Under Spaces”

Photographer Gisela Erlacher goes between bridges and under expressways to document the leftover spaces in the world’s densest cities.

In her book, Skies of Concrete, Austrian photographer Gisela Erlacher documents the overlooked spaces that are wedged between concrete pillars and hidden beneath bridges. In the introductory essay, Lilli Licka refers to these overlooked spots as “non-places” (a term coined by French anthropologist Marc Auge). Erlacher herself calls them “under spaces” and, by photographing them, reveals the unlikely crevices and ad-hoc habitats that result from overcrowded cities.


“There are countless publications on bridges and highways, and a lot of impressive images of beautifully entangled highway interchanges from bird’s eye view,” Erlacher writes in an email. “But I was interested in the bottom-up perspective—the view of a passer-by—and the ways of life that can be discovered down there.”

Shepherd’s Bush IV, London, GB, 2014© Gisela Erlacher

Erlacher got the idea for the series after watching the completion of a bridge near her home in Vienna leave a house crammed between two bridges, the infrastructure forming a “kind of ‘protecting roof'” over the garden. Despite having concrete structures all around and above them, “the inhabitants stayed,” Erlacher says. “I was deeply touched by that.”

It wasn’t until a visit to China some time later, however, that the idea really took off. In the dense cities of Chongqing and along Shanghai’s web of criss-crossing elevated expressways, Erlacher found tucked-away lunch spots, secret playgrounds, urban horse stables, and columns overgrown with plant vines, creating a sort of hidden industrial forest. One of her favorite photographs shows the Yuzhong district in the heart of Chongqing, where a guard in a gray uniform stands confidently outside his cinderblock surveillance hut, dwarfed by monolithic concrete piers of an overpass. “He was perfectly happy just standing there, relaxed and at ease with himself–which was absolutely perfect in this incredible, almost surreal surrounding,” she says.

Many of Erlacher’s photos give a kind of magical quality to these leftover spaces that have been creatively transformed–either officially or otherwise–into useful parts of an urban landscape. But they also highlight the fact that in most major metropolises, space is a finite resource. Erlacher traveled beyond China for the series–Skies of Concrete includes images of her native Vienna, as well as cities in England and the Netherlands–but she points out that the density problem is especially prevalent in Asian cities.

“I recently read that in Beijing, around 2 million people live underground—in basements—and that this number is likely to increase,” Erlacher says. “There, the pressure is much higher than we in Europe could possibly imagine. But also in the West, fallow land in the cities is disappearing. Whatever can be used, will be used and developed.” Even if it’s just the space in between.

All Photos: Gisela Erlacher

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.