The show currently on BBC2, Mind the Gap, is well worth a watch as it covers many of themes that are important to modern urban geographical studies (you can watch it on the iPlayer, but only till 17th March), notably those being taught at undergradute level, not least by me for GG2053. The first episode ‘London and the Rest’, offered a useful insight into why London is a Global City, and what this means not only for the population of London, but for the rest of the UK and indeed the world. However, despite it’s rather glossy veneer and The Apprentice-style, helicopter, Gods-eye-view aesthetics that is so ubiquitous within mainstream documentaries, the program masked just as many important issues as it did illuminate. It failed to launch the visceral critique that its presenter threatened to do at times (his conservative approach masked an obvious desire to launch a tirade against this gargantuan urban behemoth), and in so doing presented a rather polemic, but no less informative pointer to why London has become the teeming Global City it is today. So I want to map out (using the traditional scalar model for clarity’s sake) a few points of departure from the episode that will help contextualise it in the wider relevant debates about contemporary urban studies.
It seems a day does not pass without a new professional time lapse film of a city landing in my Google Rea…, Feedly or twitter stream. They all seem to follow a similar pattern; they’re shot at night and from an elevated position perhaps with a slow pan; they contain a collection of shooting angles that span highways, bridges or capture the throng of a pedestrian-heavy zone; some will have the seemingly ubiquitous (and simply annoying) tilt-shift effect (which seems to make everything look miniature) perhaps added to increase the visual metaphor of the ‘God’s eye view’ of the city engendered by such films (a good list of the best ones can be found here). Some of my particular favourites are from Dubai, Sydney, Melbourne, Quito and this rather Miévillian offering of New York. Time lapse films represent the vibrancy, complexity and gleaming aesthetics of urban life, or at least a particular kind of urban life. For me though, the increasing proliferation and professionalisation of these films is an interesting trend because it could be seen to represent a number of cross-cutting contexts and themes that have been debated in contemporary urban geography discourse of late, but also, the time lapse video could be viewed as part of urban entrepreneurial strategy. Continue reading
Los Angeles is one of the most written about cities in the world, particularly from an urban geography perspective. Perhaps because of its magnificent sprawl, its constant mediation through film, television, music and other cultural artefacts, or its postmodern-inflected anti-liveable layout, no other city in the popular consciousness has such an imaginary that combines enigma, fascination, frustration, confusion and awe all at once (although I suspect that Shanghai, Mexico City and perhaps Johannesburg are giving it a run for its money). One of the major reasons for my fascination with it is the way it has been so scrutinised through film. Masterpieces such as Pulp Fiction, Timecode and Collateral portray the de-centred, fragmented, multiple, nonlinear and alienating characteristics of the city fascinatingly. However, for me the Terminator films (and here I refer to the first two, not the bilious and soul-destroying detritus of Terminator 3 and Terminator Salvation) put Los Angeles firmly in my minds eye as a city of fascination and wonder. The films themselves do not necessarily have a narrative that ‘gets’ LA’s character, but Cameron has utilised the cityscape as a platform for thrilling action and compelling story-telling perfectly. Continue reading
Verticality, claustrophobia, lawlessness, poverty. Just some of the themes that are stereotypically associated with tower block living, particular the old post-war brutalist, Le Corbusier-inspired monoliths that litter many cities not just here in the UK, but all over the world. Their architectural designs were meant to be liveable ‘streets in the sky’ but instead ended up resulting in lonely living, but with a panoptic overview of constant voyeurism from everyone else. The dystopic qualities are depressing and oppressive in equal measure, and as such make for fascinating arenas for cinematic narratives. The recent mini-wave of films set entirely in one tower block is evidence of this. The Raid, Dredd and Tower Block have all been released in recent months, and who can forgot John McClean in Nokatomi – all very good films in their own genre. What is it about these gargantuan concrete leviathans that make for such gripping viewing? This post tries to find out… Continue reading
I finally got round to seeing The Dark Knight Rises at the weekend. Don’t worry, this is not a review; but what struck me throughout the film (and in a sense, throughout the trilogy), is the narrative surrounding the city of Gotham itself, and how the director Christopher Nolan used it, for me, incorrectly. There a number of pieces of work (notably this one) about Gotham’s role in the Batman universe – the dank, dark, overtly gothic and crime-ridden city makes for a fantastic fictional playground of urban dystopias. However, for the purposes of this post, I will be referring to the Gotham seen in Nolan’s trilogy. Continue reading
I have made no secret of my distain for the recent Transformers films by Michael Bay. In my youth, I absolutely adored the original Transformers cartoons and toys, and the original animated Transformers movie, for me, is still one of the best films/stories ever produced. However, seeing the trailer for the third instalment of Michael Bay’s trilogy of detritus, I must admit to feeling slightly intrigued, if only for the visualisation of the destruction of Chicago. Regular readers of my blog will know I have a somewhat guilty fetish for immoderate, overemotional and visually-compelling destruction of cities on film, and Chicago is one of my favourite cities. So, like a moth to a flame, I will no doubt pay to watch Mr Bay’s latest monstrosity and sit through 2 and half to 3 hours of megalomaniacal BS just so I can gawp at Chicago getting ripped apart from the top down.
Such an extravagant annihilation of a great city got me thinking, what are the best city-destroying forces of all time? Its an open competition, monsters, aliens and natural disasters are all eligible. Points are scored for the visual impact of the destruction, the innovate ways in which the built environment is obliterated, but also the frequency with which it destroys. Like all good ‘top X’ lists it is not based on scientific rigour or any actual reliable information, but more an arbitrary collection of what I think to be the best.
Does anyone else think that it’s not a coincidence that Jack Bauer and Jason Bourne have the same initials as James Bond? It’s more than a passing homage, the two nefarious super-secret agent characters, Bauer and Bourne have more than a passing resemblance to a ‘revamped’ James Bond 2.0 type character, even if it is a more ‘gritty’ symbolism and less womanising, martini-necking hedonism. As much as I’d like to go into an in depth psychological character assassination of the triumvirate of JBs (although I’ll admit to think that Bauer would win in a fight), there is a really interesting discussion to be had on the way in which they navigate the cities in which they inhabit. I’ll know look at the three of them in turn, or more specifically, the way in which they visualise cities.
Technology is reproducing cities very rapidly. Or shall I say producing cities? Not artificial cities, but experiential cities that are pure hyper-reality, a simulacrum space par excellence (to mesh Baurdiallardian and Deleuzian language). Reproducing cities is as easy as driving a car with a camera mounted on top and putting the results online, but virtually producing entirely new cities from scratch requires a certain technology that can interpret the most creative of urban planners/builders; a technology which has only really been available in the last few decades or so. Visual arts technologies are creating architectural masterpieces that we immerse ourselves in, allowing us to exit the desert of the real and enter an avatar-populated hyper-reality which invokes upotian, but often dytopian fantasies of excess, violence, hedonism and inequalities. Film and computer game technological production techniques are at the forefront of this process and our cultural landscape is awash with these hyper-real cities that we can plug into and add to our memories of mental cityscape construction (a notable exception to this is the wonderfully crafted Ecstacity by Nigel Coates which exists on the pages of it’s Guide Book). But given this increase in the variety of destinations, which city is the best one to visit? Liberty City? Caprica? How can we analyse these fictional hyper-real cities, and how can we navigate them to fully comprehend the multiplicities of narratives, read the layers of urban palimpsests and listen to the heteroglossic voices? This post tries to find out….
Well, I never thought that my visualising cities series would be one of the more popular posts on my blog, but then if you put a reference to the women in the red dress from The Matrix in a blog, you are bound to see the hit counter rise…
Google have recently taken their world domination agenda to the next phase by sending out their fleets of vehicles that can only be described as the Model-T meets war of the worlds to photograph every street in the major cities of the western world. With just a click of a button, you can now view the facades of buildings, the layout of roads and the blurred faces of your neighbours around your city without leaving the comfort of your own home. Cities, it seems are becoming more and more navigable remotely. This has many benefits, most notably the planning of journeys but it is also being increasingly used as the first ‘scouting’ of a particular part of a city. Say you were going to meet a friend for a drink – you could log on to StreetView, find a pub that looked nice and was in a nice area and head straight for it, rather than amble around looking for a local watering hole. Or if you are planning a shopping trip, you can now look at every shop that you would pass if you walked a specific route and tailor your trip to minimise effort and still visit all the shops you wanted.
Without revisiting the arguments made by the Suituationists and dérive, Google StreetView is short-circuiting the process of discovery by laying out a virtual city at our fingertips. De Certeau argued that walking a city is an experiential movement, evoking a sense of discovery and (to take a pedagogic stance) learning which not only shapes the individual, but also the city itself. If StreetView continues to pervade our cities then how long before businesses begin to use it as a factor in location decisions? Urban planners could theoretically use it to scope out potential place-making procedures, or see which parts of the city have gentrification potential. We will begin to see the city being shaped through the virtual environment. The dystopians among us will suggest that this self-fueling system will see the city implode on itself in some horrific multiple-layered virtual reality where we walk through the city a frame at a time with a massive white arrow at our feet. This is of course a discourse best left to the realm of science fiction (and indeed it is touched upon in premise of the Thirteenth Floor), however, using these virtual environments to explore the city eschews the inherent complexity and nonlinear urban fabric. It allows the ‘viewer’ (for want of a better phrase) to isolate a singular aspect or point of the city, extricating it from the complex relational web from which it was forged. The variance of emotions, ideas, memories and experiences that go to make up a city are lost (to a more or lesser extent) if we can cherry pick our navigation virtually, ‘before’ setting out.
Hannah Nicklin, recently blogged about an ‘exploratory performance’ which she ‘encountered’ (I sympathise with her difficulty in finding an appropriate lexicon) that encourages people to walk around a small section of Covent Garden while listening to an mp3 dialogue of someone’s experiences of the same area. In doing so, there is a sense of discovery, exploration and achievement which is only obtainable via this (albeit augmented) type of dérive. Particular targeted usage and reasoning of the city (i.e. shopping or going for a drink with a friend) is clearly facilitated by such technological advancements, but sometimes the best way to improve our understanding of the city in which we live is to do away with StreetView, or our GPS and maps for that matter, and just get lost.
During the course of navigating the gargantuan library of literature and visual material on urban life, finding a book which encapsulates the complexity of the urban condition succinctly and concisely is much like searching for some sort of knitting implement in some sort of stack. This is in part due to the inherent paradox that our linear, one dimensional mode of communication, language is woefully inappropriate for conveying the vastness of emotions, experiences, memories, attributes etc that are associated with the modern day city. Hence, it becomes all the more important to embrace books and films that attempt to convey the city in a non-linear way. By stretching the comfort zone of the reader’s or viewer’s capacity to enjoy an uncomplicated narrative, authors or filmmakers can sometimes evoke urban complexity, if even for the briefest of moments before our brains begin the computation process which establishes order and functionality upon such chaotic neuron activity.
That is why, happening across ‘Ecstacity’ was a very exciting moment. This 2003 ‘book’ (the scare quotes will become apparent if you have ever flipped through it’s pages) is part of a wider spectrum of media from the architect slash urban designer Nigel Coates. The premise of the book is to coagulate 7 cities together – London, Bombay, Tokyo, New York, Rio de Janeiro, Rome and Cairo – to form a ‘factional’ city called Ecstacity.
However, the book acts a kind of surreal ‘tour guide’ of Ecstacity, pointing out the experiences and emotions connected with its various artifacts and places. The amalgamation of these seven cities is most visually evident in the maps on pages 134-5, and the metro guide (page 140-1 – pictured to the left). Placing the Vatican to the north of Blackfriars station, and the Cairo Museum next to Tokyo station creates a visually representative version of a world city network – collapsing cities from around the world in on themselves and emphasising the fact that many ‘world cities’ have more in common with each other than they do with national neighbours (Taylor, 2004).
More than this though, Ecstacity painstakingly creates an urban environment that is centred around the emotional, experiential and architectural difference that is so absent from many contemporary world cities. Creating and celebrating difference is key kernel of thought in this book; and while it is partly a vehicle of the (sometimes downright) weird architectural urban designs, and some of Nigel Coates’ real-world pieces have been the focus of considerable debate (the Body Works in the old Millennium Dome is one that immediately springs to mind); there is a sense of chaos, complexity and convolution throughout the book which resonates with the urban condition in ways unparalleled by other books, films and other media. The complexity and short-circuiting of urban areas is exemplified in the following quote, part of the section ‘Around the world in Ecstacity’:
“Ethnic places in Ecstacity are full of distraction and scramble the choices on offer. Activities interfere with one another constantly. A single door may connect quite different cultures. It’s the inhabitants of Ecstacity who make sense of it, and not the buildings. Check the Japan Centre on Picadilly, or Babington’s Tea Rooms in the Piazza diSpagna. Go through the right door and they’ll join up” (Coates, 2003: 265).
The mixing of city cultures and styles and reliance on the inhabitants to make sense of them is symptomatic of world cities across the globe. More than this however, Ecstacity’s architectural mantra is inherently ‘networked’ with the city itself, and not isolated from the functioning and operationalisation procedures of the city by what Coates calls ‘pumplanning’:
“For some reason, [twentieth century] architecture felt safe by separating itself from the day-to-day world. ‘Pumplanning’, had reversed all that. Pump up the body, pump up the city. Every act of lobbying counts, whether online or picketing parliament. Pumplanning is Ecstacity’s mechanism that fields the contest between control and everyone’s desire, however different. It regenerates the city in a way that straight planning never by working with what’s literally there” (Coates, 2003: 143).
Following Thomas More, Ebanezer Howard and other utopianists, Coates is purporting a city of calm and overriding tranquility. However, unlike these other utopianists, Coates’ utopia is based on a disjointed, multifarious heteroglossia, but is connected through the collaboration between people, places and buildings. Echoing the concerns that Jane Jacobs (1961) had with utopianists, Coates’ Ecstacity rejects a central planning ethos, instead embracing complexity, difficulties and in many cases, untruths.
This ‘book’ is not without it’s faults, and a reading of it is difficult, disjointed and confusing. But given that these are the prevailing qualities of the contemporary world city, then for me, it is essential reading for anyone wanting to gain a theoretical and philosophical grasp of the city.