You may or may not be aware at the archival potential of Google Street view, but ever since the search engine behemoth has been photographing and spying on as much of our cities as it can, it has created a rather useful, freely accessible public archive of outdoor space. Archival research has long been the preserve of historical geographical research, but as Keighren (2013: 577) has eloquently argued (and still does to this day in our regular corridor conflabs, and with the same level of eloquence)…
“The skills associated with historical research – critical evaluation of sources, triangulation of data, attention to the beliefs and opinions of particular cultural groups – are precisely those which are encouraged and valued elsewhere in the human geography curriculum.”
While taking a few minutes to scroll through the historical images that Google has stored in its ongoing panoptic assault on everyday urbanity does not, nor should not, replace the much longer time needed to conduct archival research in situ, it provides students a gateway into the vibrancy of archives and how they contain a real impact upon research of the contemporary condition. And in the age of the pandemic and online digital learning, it’s proved extremely useful for urban research.
The best scrolling beat ’em up: The ultimate neoliberal fight against urban decay?
The first computer game I can recall playing was Target Renegade on the Amstrad. Essentially, you would scroll through various urban landscapes, kicking and punching other men (and some women) along the way. You had to walk through car parks, urban streets and snooker clubs(?!) using nothing but your fists and feet (and the occasional appropriated weapon; a baseball bat, chain, mallet and yes, a snooker cue) to fight your way to the end-of-game boss. A tried and tested format which became one of the most important computer game genres of the 80s and 90s.
Of the many scrolling beat ’em ups that adorned our consoles over those years – Final Fight, Streets of Rage (1 and 2, 3 not so much) and even Two Crude Dudes – there was a similar trope being played out. A violent crime syndicate had taken over the city, and a group of dedicated, tough and very talented mercenaries took it upon themselves to clean up the streets, and perhaps rescue a loved one along the way. Like other cultural artefacts, do these games (and the genre more widely) reflect their contemporaneous social trends and anxieties, in this case, US inner-city decline of the 70s and 80s and the rise of neoliberalism and ‘enterprising self’ as the mode of social progression? Read More
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
Metroplex, the Transformer City
Cities, on the surface at least, seem stable. The imposing physical materiality of concrete, steel and glass projects an endurance that is ‘built to last‘. Yet decades of urban critique have elucidated the fluidity of cities. From Walter Benjamin’s Arcades, through Cedric Price’s Fun Palace to Nigel Coates’ Ecstacity, people have been envisioning cities that are mobile, mutable and malleable. These concepts of literature, art and architecture articulate cities that are far from static; they are fluid assemblages that wax and wane in response to cultural representations, economic global processes and social practices. And one only has to take a short walk through seemingly any city today before they encounter some construction or development of some kind. This affirms that the urban landscape is constantly changing in response to development pressures, policy tweaks and financial speculation. The ‘stability’ of cities is hence only an illusion; there is far more than meets the eye… Read More
China Miéville’s ‘The Scar‘ is the second novel in the Bas-Lag series, and quite possibly, the best. There are plenty of excellent reviews of the book elsewhere and I don’t intend to add to them here. Rather there is an interesting allegorical reading (one of many it has to be said) to be gleaned from the wonderfully multiplicitous world that Miéville creates.
The story revolves around Bellis Coldwine, a fugitive from New Crobuzon, on her way to a distant city when her ship gets set upon by pirates. They commandeer the ship and take it to Armada, an urban conglomerate that is made up of hundreds of ocean vessels that are roped, chained and linked together. Armada floats the sea, ruled by The Lovers, a couple who cut symmetrical scars into each other’s face during their ‘intimate’ times. The Lovers have a plan, involving raising a Leviathanical sea creature called the Avanc, yoke it to Armada and navigate to The Scar in the Earth, a site of mystical and untold power. The story is however full of so much more complexity, intrigue and fantastical aesthetics though, and is by far the most enjoyable of Miéville’s Bas-Lag series to date. Because Miéville is an articulate, competent and highly accomplished Marxist weaver-of polysemic narratives, it is no surprise therefore that the story has resonance with the way in which we can critique the capitalistic idea of the Global City. In what follows, I will attempt to conceptualise Armada’s Global City-ness, and show (through links) how it can be used to narrate the contemporary paradigm itself. Read More
Doom v Rabbit or Moses v Jacobs?
Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) is no doubt a classic film. It was technologically innovate, and spliced the detective film-noir genre with the comic, slapstick animation of classic ‘toons of the 1960s and 70s. Truly, a masterpiece of Hollywood cinema, and if you are not familiar with the film, you can read a great review of it here. One aspect though that often goes unnoticed is the urbanist narrative that runs through the film’s plot. It is set in 1947, and essentially, ‘Judge Doom’, the evil protagonist of the film, is plotting to destroy ‘Toontown’ (the suburb of Los Angeles where the animated characters live) and replace with a freeway. The film therefore is very much a critique on the ‘freeway-ization’ of LA, with overt glorification of the city’s transit-orientated past. Such a mantra is signposted early on in the film with the main hero ‘Eddie’ sitting on the back of a trolley car proclaiming, “Who needs a car in L.A.? We got the best public transportation system in the world!”
The Americana, transit-orientated history depicted in the film
In his famous villain’s speech where he reveals his dastardly plan to the heroes, he claims that the freeways will revolutionise LA, and create a vast automobile-based city that will “be beautiful”. You can see his speech in the video below.
This short segment highlights one the film’s most overt social critiques, namely that of the automobile dominated city that Los Angeles had become in 1988, and still is to this day (relatedly, you can read about my day-long trip around LA by car in search of the film locations of The Terminator films here, and my ode to UK motorways here). With this narrative in mind, it becomes extremely obvious that ‘Judge Doom’ and Toontown are simply comic metaphors for the classic urbanism argument of ‘walkability’, most readily articulated by the battle between Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs. Read More
MInd the Gap: London and the Rest (Source: BBC)
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. Read More
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. Read More
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… Read More