This post was written by Rex P. Nielson, BYU Humanities Center Director.

A threshold marks a distinction between two kinds of space. We typically experience thresholds as the common elements of an entrance: the line at the base of a door that separates the outside from the inside. But thresholds may also bear powerful metaphorical meaning for how we understand space. This concept will not be new to those familiar with the great theorists of space Pierre Bourdieu and Henri Lefebvre, who wrote insistently that human space is built in both real and symbolic terms. Bourdieu, for example, uses the concept of “social space” to discuss the ways groups form in society and “to explore metaphors of social distance and proximity that are connected to processes of inequality and social domination” (Reed-Danahay, 1). For his part, Lefebvre similarly argues in The Production of Space (1974) that “mental space” must be understood through the complex and ever-changing relationship between social and material space. Perhaps no architectural feature more clearly illustrates the real and symbolic dimensions of space than that of a threshold.

Thresholds symbolize difference. They invite us both to see the world and even to behave differently once we have crossed over. A threshold may also even change who we are, how we identify, how we relate to others. The air we breathe, and maybe even how we breathe, might be different from one side to the other.

I was thinking about thresholds recently after visiting the United Nations building in New York City for the first time. My purpose in going to this unique place was to see two murals painted by the Brazilian artist Candido Portinari. In 1956, Portinari finished the largest project of his career: a set of two murals commissioned for the United Nations. Titled War and Peace, the two murals are massive in size. Standing at over 45 feet in height and 32 feet wide, they are more than two stories high! The murals are part of a permanent exhibit in the delegates’ lobby of the General Assembly building, and they are positioned so that as delegates enter the main assembly hall, they must confront the image of War. As delegates exit the room, they leave with a full view of Peace.

It is not by chance that War and Peace mark the threshold of the main gathering space of the United Nations. They symbolically invite delegates to change their minds. They represent the transformation that should happen when meetings take place in this space, when groups in conflict gather to seek resolution, reconciliation, or a peaceful end to disputes. Delegates enter in one state of mind and leave in another.

Although I was already quite familiar with the images of Portinari’s murals before visiting the United Nations (yes, this time I had in fact done my homework! ), I confess that seeing them in person moved me. That is, seeing them in the physical space of the United Nations building touched me in a way I had not anticipated. The feeling surprised me. In preparing the murals, Portinari employed what he called “simple and pure forms, bathed in light” to suggest a “brotherhood of understanding among men.” Standing in the U.N. building, I could not help but feel a sacred spirit as I reflected on the uniqueness of the building, one of the few spaces on earth designated by near universal international accord for pursuing peace among nations. The space is built upon both hope and aspiration. Arranged at the threshold to the General Assembly hall, Portinari’s murals War and Peace not only provide a visual framework for negotiations, but they invite all visitors and member delegates to change their minds and actions in the work of bringing peace to the world.

Thresholds do not come into existence by chance. They are built. And they are not only physical—part of the material reality of a structure—but they can be temporal (think Tennyson’s “The year is dying in the night; Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.”). They can also be experiential in nature. College in general is sometimes referred to as a threshold experience. We might even think of a specific class or even a specific assignment as a threshold experience. As we begin a new calendar year, I similarly invite you to think of your work, and especially those who are teaching this semester, in terms of thresholds. How will you be different in this class? How will your students? My hope and prayer is that this upcoming semester will in fact be a threshold experience for us and our students, that we will be changed by the experiences we have as we are engaged in the scholarly work of building a brighter and more peaceful world.


Works Cited

Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Blackwell: Oxford. 1974.

Reed-Danahay, Deborah. “Bourdieu, Social Space, and the Nation-State: Implications for Migration Studies.” Sociologica, 2 (2017), 1–23.

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