The Materiality of Die Hard


Last night I had the privilege of watching Die Hard on the big screen at the Filmopolis Christmas Party. A great night, with an even greater film. Die Hard is one of those films that you can watch repeatedly, and rarely strays from perfection. Despite containing now tired Hollywood clichés, it has aged remarkably well, and is now considered the quintessential Christmas film (on which I noticed last night the falling paper at the end of the film beautifully analogous to snowfall; hence the ‘Let it Snow’ song at the end). In watching the film, particularly the “TV Dinner” bit, I was reminded of a 2010 blog post by Geoff Manaugh (on the brilliant bldgblog) about the relational architecture of the film. The post itself spoke to many of themes I explored when I was working on the geographies of parkour, and is still a wonderful take on the how the film Die Hard espouses the malleability of how we use architecture. But 5 years on from that post, and having now seen the film countless times since, there are many other ways in which the film can be utilised to explore architectural and material geographies (yes, there will be spoliers). Read More

Toronto, “the World in One Place…”

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First off, an apology as I’m hideously late with this seeing as though I got back from Toronto at the end of June. But nevertheless, I felt that I should perhaps at least try to document my brief but exhausting visit to the ‘Hollywood of the North’. Thanks to the people at the Martin Prosperity Institute, I was invited over to their annual Experiencing the Creative Economy conference, and a big part of the scheduling is designed so as we get to see and experience as much of Toronto as physically possible in 4 days (short of an urban exploration tour with crowbars and manhole cover keys). Suffice to say, it was nowhere near as much as I wanted to experience, but as with any city I visit, I try to seek out as many instances of urban subversions or subcultural urbanity as I can. What follows then is a brief story of those which I saw…

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What a silly planker…

After the death of an Australian man who was ‘planking’, I can’t help but feel that the news coverage has been a little bit too ‘hang-ringing-y’ – and there have been some calls to ban it altogether (although further examination of this story suggests that the Australian PM did not call for a ban at all!). As an advocate for playful interaction with the urban environment, I have often called for and documented the ways in which people are using the city in creative, innovative and different ways. The city is a place we should explore with corporeality; cities function best when we utilise every neuron of our creative capabilities to interact with the urban topography.

Rockwell_Fountain - photo by bnycastro, Creative Commons

‘Planking’ (or the lying down game) as it has been called in the various social networks devoted to it (mostly though, it is that most dogmatic of social media Facebook) has been popular now for over 3 years or so, and this is the first death. How many deaths have their been from skateboarding parkour, urban exploration, base-jumping, tomb-stoning etc? I’m guessing not many, but even so, there is a sense that the media have latched onto planking because of it’s prominence in social media. Granted, it’s a visual stunt, but there a many more skateboarding and parkour videos littering the cyber hinterland. The death of an individual practicing planking is clearly a very tragic event, but the media coverage, it would seem, is blaming, albeit covertly, social media. It is not the first time we have seen this. We all know the phrase ‘Facebook murderer‘, and more recently, I saw a tweet which conveyed the shear maladroitness of a BBC journalist in light of the super-injunctions debate. The phraseology of the BBC, or Sky News, or which ever outlet you chose to waste your time watching, is of course sensationalist in this regard, but this does make it excusable to bat it away as inconsequential. The internet is a tool or human communication, and just when we speak to each other face to face, we can say some moronic things as well as constructive things. The man who fell to his death by trying to balance on a balcony railing only 5cm wide, 7 storeys up, is clearly someone who is not adverse to danger and may well have met his doom in some other risky practice. I’m sure the majority of ‘plankers’ will not attempt such a dangerous photo opportunity, but you will get the extreme minority who will (another example is Dan Witchalls, the man addicted to base jumping). This is symptomatic of human society in toto, not just because of the connectivity and communication afford to us by social media.

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The UK’s Cultural Quarters

The notion of the cultural quarter is one that has been around for a while, yet is still being refined. Many cities across the UK have initiated the planning and development of a cultural quarter in an attempt to to stimulate growth and attempt to ‘re-vitalise’ the local economy along the lines of culture, the arts and the creative industries. But are they working? Who are they really for? What kinds are there? Who was involved in their development?

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Parkour paper

Just a quick post to let you know that the guys over at American Parkour have published my Environment and Planning D paper ‘Parkour, the City, the Event‘. You can read it here. If you don’t have access to the full paper from the journal website or your library doesn’t stock it, then you can read the full, pre-copy edited article here (it’s pretty much the same, just a few minor changes to language etc). Of course, as usual, if you reference it, please use the full EPD paper.

Toward a utopia of difference?

Having been looking into the realms of urban subcultures for the past 12 months (mostly through parkour, but I find myself constantly amazed by people’s creativity and innovate capacity in their usage of urban space), I recently re-read David Pinder’s book, Visions of the City, as it is a fantastic insight into what utopian thought, and striving for it, has done to planning and urban geographical debates in general. And having re-read it, the book brings to life the role of the Situationist International group (in particular, Guy Debord) and infuses it with the many themes of urban sub-culturism in contemporary society.

The over-riding ethos of the urban sub-cultures which engage with the urban terrain in innovate and alternative ways (which elsewhere, have been coined ‘urban subversions’) is often seen as one of reaction; a critique and subjugation of capitalist meaning in urban architecture by a more playful and sometimes ironic use of the built environment. This is something which I have argued is slightly erroneous when charged at these subversions in general, although often applies at the individual level – and something which the situationists debated. As Pinder (2005:  149) notes;

“Since the principle of the spectacle was based on contemplation and nonintervention, the letterists and the situationists sought to counter its powers by intervening in the city and experiencing its spaces directly as actors rather than spectators. They resisted dominant depictions of the city as a space of capital and traffic, and opposed restrictions on play. They attacked the way in which functionalist approaches to architecture and urbanism were seeking to eliminate play entirely, and mocked designers who implied that their schemes were being ruined by people’s tendency to play”.

The urban utopias that are alluded to in Pinder’s book often emanate from a planning perspective, most notably Ebenezer Howard’s attempts at the Garden City (which was fiercely critiqued by Jane Jacobs). Hence, the role of the Debord (at least in Europe, and perhaps Jacobs in North America) in bringing agency into the utopian rhetoric cannot be understated. The staunch anti-capitalism that is rife with the situationist mantra often overcomes any attempts at co-operation and cohabitation with capitalist thoughts,yet in my own research into urban subversions, I find increasingly that Debord and the situationists message ringing through the motivations for why these urban subversions are proliferating – or at least gaining more infamy and public attention. (NB: The internet clearly catalyzes these activities, although as it applies to all facets of communicative life, in true Latourian style we can ignore the internet as a mediator and concentrate on the real dynamism that is of interest, namely the growth in interest and participation of these subcultures.) The idea of utopia and those who try to achieve/plan/map/dream it is one which, I would argue, is crucial to society’s progression and hence is an important facet of academic and political debate – however, to always begin this debate from a purely spatial perspective, i.e. from a planning point of view, negates those who are contemporaneously appropriating the urban environment via innovation and creative use of urban tools.

The urban terrain, as I blogged recently is homogenising and for some utopian thinkers this is clearly a good thing as it seems that many utopias lack heterogeneity and shun diversity as a potential arena for conflict and schism. However, there are movements in the social science (notably human geography – although I would say that…) which suggest that the constant restriction of these types of activities under the auspiciousness of ‘health and safety’ or ‘political correctness’ are beginning to be resisted. Psychogeography (wonderfully outlined by Bradley L. Garrett on his blog) is a good example of a ‘movement’ (or at least an area of interest) that is seeking to dissolve the homogenised urban landscape theoretically, as well as empirically, creating a realm of horizontalised knowledge and urbanity, rather than hierarchical power and structure – something which, Pinder points out, utopias tend to favour.

The defiance of urban authority by those individuals who participate in urban subversions and their constant creativity which sparks into life other urban spaces and functionalities which otherwise not exist, are creating a different urban cultural landscape that is at odds with commonly held utopias – and as such, we may need to rethink the way in which utopias and utopian thinking informs how our cities are formed, i.e. a utopia of difference.

A Paradox of the Urban Condition

Gary Bridge once asked “Surely it is time to banish reason, with all it’s exclusivities and homogenisations, from the city, and to let difference in?” (Bridge, 2004: 1). A poignant issue, given that that more and more people are flooding into our cities. And yet, they continue to show signs of convergence – aesthetically, politically, sociologically and ideologically. Globalisation is often blamed for the homogenisation tendencies of world cities and with some justification; however to suggest that cities are buckling under pressure from an Adam Smith-esque invisible fist of global homogenising change is to underplay the role that cities themselves are performing in this very process. Sassen famously said that cities are the ‘command and control centres of the global economy’, and this being the case, then they are responsible for their own fate, and cannot be labeled as victims of the somehow ‘out-there’ global economy.

So, the modern urban condition is inherently paradoxical. Urban officialdom (and by this I include city and local councils, politicians, development agencies, quangos, private property companies, planners and security forces) is relentlessly restrictive on urbanites, with surveillance and restrictions on movement and behaviour increasingly commonplace. This restriction is a symptom of the capitalist society in which (the majority) of world cities are situated in, however, it is a truism that this constriction of urban practices prioritizes particular processes, usually profiteering, and marginalises a myriad of misdemeanors. Yet, with the inevitable increase in the urban population, the variety of our hobbies, pastimes, interests, likes and dislikes will increase the diversity and heterogeneity of the urban cultural and social fabric. There in lies a disproportionate and reductive paradox – the urban cultural milieu is broadening, while the law-makers and policy implementations are narrowing.

Counter-arguments in this regard are often leveed at the fact that this ‘narrowing’ is an illusion, indeed, we see policies that encourage cultural experimentation, as well as officialdom actively encouraging disparate and disruptive innovation. However, I would argue that these efforts are merely crystalising a more fluid and ephemeral ‘plasma’ of urban heterogeneity, into a more commercialised and ‘bite-sized’ version of ‘urban culture’. In other words, it is only skin-deep and creating a commercial veneer to a rhizomatic ether of urban activity.

A classic example (and one which I have recently published on) is that of the dualism that is parkour and free-running. This dichotomy is due a blog post (and then some) all of its own, but suffice to say, parkour was the original format of running, jumping, playing and experimenting with the urban terrain in new and innovative physical ways. It is less a ‘sport’ or a ‘sub-culture’ more a philosophy or way-of-life. ‘Free running’ is more ‘showy’, the people who partake in it perform more spectacular stunts, and there are free running world championships, sponsored by Barclaycard. The osmotic movement of parkour to free-running is indicative of the commercialisation tendencies that work at ‘centralisation’, i.e. bringing activities and disparate urban cultures into the realms of capitalism and profit-making.

Now, don’t get me wrong, this is not a bad thing at all – free-running is fantastic to watch, and the athletes who partake in it are spreading fitness and healthy living to a society in dour need of it. The message here is that while there is a rhetoric of cities embracing alternative cultures and pastimes (in this case free-running), it comes diluted, detached and distanciated from the urban fabric. And anyone practicing parkour ‘illegally’ on private property or in a way that defies the health and safety leviathan, is immediately subjugated.

This march of the profiteer is clearly a logical prerequisite for cities, in that they are self-perpetuating machines with the lubricating grease of money coating their many gears. However, to limit the functionality of the urban topology to one cause is at best limiting, at worse, selfish. There are increasing and alternate ways in which the city can be reappropriated, and for examples, there are a number of information sources (you could do worse that join the Urban Subversion network , or follow them on Twitter). In answer to Gary Bridge’s question, the answer as you now forsee is a resounding ‘yes’. Difference and variety are essential for the proliferation and health of urban life, and by marginalising certain activities, we are at risk of essentially dividing the city – which is diagnostic of catastrophe.

Now, I appreciate that I now stand before you with an empty can and worms strewn all over the place, however, I am actively developing these arguments in future publications so watch this space – and feel free to comment/make suggestions/argue/shoot down as you see fit. However, take note from history…

“He knew what they were thinking and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is destroyed, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand”.

(Matthew, 12: 25, International Standard Version)