taCity

A site about the ephemerality of the socio-urban world


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Top 5 city destroyers of all time

When we reach the city…

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.

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Visualising Cities: Part 6… JB Cities

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.
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Conceptualising Fictional Cities

Coruscant, capital of the Galactic Republic, an ecumenopolis with a population of 1 trillion

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….

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Visualising Cities: Part 5… Get Lost.

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.


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Visualising Cities: Part 4 – Ecstacity

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.

Metro Map of Ecstacity (page 140)

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.


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Visualising Cities: Part 3 – “…starring, Sydney as Nowhere in Particular…”

Carrying on my series of visualising cities (see Part 1 and Part 2), I wanted to focus on one of my specialist cities….

No doubt you have all seen the Matrix films, and no doubt you would have recognised the fact that it was Sydney in the background, playing the role as that anonymous, gritty, futuristic city that the Waschowski Brothers wanted. What is also common knowledge is for that very reason, many of Sydney’s icons were erased from the film, deliberately not shown in order to preserve the placelessness of the city (although, it is easy for those who have spent any prolonged period of time in Sydney to pick out particular buildings and places that are used constantly throughout the film). The script of The Matrix and its subsequent sequels demanded anonymity, and although this annoyed many of the people in the upper echelons of Sydney’s corridors of power, Sydney remained relegated to a supporting role, a paradoxical role of always being in view but never being seen. Trawling the Internet sites and various blogs, it then becomes perplexing when people believe the city on show is Chicago. The reasons for which are the use of Chicago street names, the ‘Loop’ sign on the front of the subway train (referring to a train line in Chicago – even though Chicago has not got much of a subway, only an elevated railway) and the fact that the Wachowski Brothers are from Chicago originally. For some it can be infuriating that Sydney is so hidden from the world in such a successful film, but for others, the brief cameo roles played by the BT tower and the Allianz tower on Market Street, or the fountain on Martins Place, provide them with a sense of pride, a little wink to the world that they know where it is even if the rest of the world does not. Other films have used Sydney as somewhere else – with Kangaroo Jack (with Sydney as New York), and Superman Returns (as Metropolis).

Contrast this situation with that of Mission Impossible 2 which gratuitously shows Sydney in all its glory, with hanging shots of the Opera House and rugged cliff faces of Sydney Harbour. If the rumours are true, this was at the request of Tom Cruise who wanted one of his films to show Sydney to its full potential glory – something we have to thank Nicole Kidman for (although being in the run up to the Olympics helped  – in the same way the Mummy 3 was hastily put together before the Beijing Olympics to showcase Chinse culture). The difference of Sydney’s role in these two films (the Matrix and Mission Impossible 2) is immense, yet for Sydney itself the role it has played in film and the global film industry as a whole has benefited immensely from both these films. The opening of Fox Studios in Moore Park is the reason why these films (among many others) have been shot in Sydney – a move which was controversial at the time, and for many factions of the industry, still very much is.

Sydney is a favourite among Hollywood filmmakers precisely because it can double as pretty much anywhere in the world (you can read my journal articles if you’re interested to know a bit more), but seeing it disappear into the background in many films is testament to the aesthetics and architecture of the city itself. Cities in films are a crucial way in which they can gain popularity, and in fact film maps of particular cities are an important part of their tourism agenda (see Film London’s movie maps – the most viewed item on the website apparently). If a city is ‘erased’ from a film, then so are the emotional, iconic, rhetorical and personal networks associated with them. If a film (or TV series) is set in a city then there are already in place certain assumptions within the viewer, which can either work for or against the filmmakers. If the narrative of film calls for a generic city however then without CGI, the city identity needs to be erased. But can it ever be properly erased? Remember the scene in the Matrix when Morpheus loads Neo into a training simulation near a fountain (the one with the women in the red dress)? That fountain holds a prominent position in Martins Place in the centre of downtown Sydney, and therefore hold certain visual connotations to that city and cannot be truly ‘generic’ (also I distinctly remember seeing large amounts of Chicago in the Dark Knight’s Gotham City). This gives people a sense of place, be it through a personal memory or a recalled image, but links into the visual images of the film.

Cities, or more precisely, the buildings in them can be visually stiking and their skylines make for impressive aesthetics in films. Trying to erase or ‘unidentify’ a city is a perilous task and can only be achieved veneerily; the complexities, networks and chaotic structures of cities cannot be easily hidden.


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Visualising Cities: Part 2

Having described how I think that the image of a city in film can be an interesting and alternative way of capturing its complexity in a previous blog entry, I wanted to elaborate this idea after some interesting comments, most notably from my brother (cheap plug coming up), who hosts an excellent photo blog.

I was watching Cloverfield the other day, which as a film, is watchable, not as groundbreaking as everybody makes out (Blair Witch comes to mind, as does the excellent Korean film The Host), but what struck me was the visualisation of the destruction of New York City. From a shaky-cam point of view, or a more omnipresent God’s eye view that perhaps Independence Day offers (particularly watch the video between 3:05 – 3:09), the destruction of the city has always been used as a way of invoking total and utter chaos and dystopian ‘rapture’ to a narrative. In other words, in a film maker wants to ensure that their subject (be it an invading alien force, asteroid, sea monster or climate change) is ‘the real deal’, then get it to level a city (usually New York) and then we know the human race is in for it. Remember Jake Gyllenhaal, in the Day After Tomorrow, running from the cold?? Oh no, watch out! Its getting a bit nippy out! Run for your lives!!

In destroying cities, filmmakers are laying siege to the bastion of human development. Cities are the hubs of our inter-connected Castellian world and by destroying them on film is unraveling their complexity without our own perceptions/psyche/memories. If we refer to Bergson’s 1911 publication Matière et Mémoire, he stated that when an image is viewed, the association the content has with the viewers experiences, histories and (more generally) their mind manifests themselves as memories. The instant an image is viewed; subconscious memory (or automatic recognition) is masked by conscious memory (or acquired recognition). Hence,

“The faculty of mental photography…belongs rather to subconsciousness than to consciousness; it answers with difficulty the summons of the will. In order to exercise it, we should accustom ourselves to retaining, for instance, several arrangements of points at once, without even thinking of counting them: we must imitate in some sort the instantaneity of this memory in order to attain its mastery”.
(Bergson, 1911, English Translation, 2004; 101-102).

So when viewing the destruction of a city in film, the ‘instantaneity’ of automatic memory (which is where complexity is to be found – or ‘the void’ in Badiouian terms) is masked by our consciousness. This could be simply the realization that we are watching a film or a specific memory of that particular city or building. Badiou argued that the state of the situation requires a militancy which hides the ‘what-is-not-one’ (or inconsistent multiplicity, rhizome, body without organs etc), and it is this militancy of the consciousness which masks a cities complexity from us. Watching it unravel before our eyes when it is levelled allows to experience the ‘void’ or the rhizomatic nature of the urban, if only for an instant. But as Bergson states, “we must imitate in some sort the instantaneity of this memory in order to attain its mastery”. But as we’re fighting against our own ‘miltant consciousness’, this will take some doing. But if I have to watch anymore of those contrived, nihilistic, brain-dead  Hollywood tripe-fests then it may be little bit easier…


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Visualising Cities: Part 1

Cities are portrayed in films and television programs in differing ways, with the more acute filmmakers, casting the city as another character in the film – in some cases giving the city a narrative or human characteristics (Frank Miller’s Sin City immediately springs to mind). This, while making good story lines is for me, erroneous, as the city is too complex, too multiplicitous to be reduced to the functional and linear systematic mechanics of a human body (Doel and Hubbard, 2002; Smith, 2003a, b).

Is the image of a city (or of cities) more appropriate for characterising the fluidity and mutlifarious form, and in visualising them? We can use the unrepresented ether of memory, personality and emotion to attempt to ‘capture’ what a city is; or at least, what that particular city image invokes. Considering the city in film would take up a library of papers, book, thesis and film reels, and there are many more qualified personnel to do that than I. But, if we consider the city in a moving image, then we can begin to visualise the multiplicitous movement that befits a poststructural theorisation of them. That is, if the moving image is good enough.

For example, let’s take 24. A brilliant show I’ll admit. However, looking at the way Jack Bauer and company move around Los Angeles is in many cases laughable, with people being able to traverse the cavernous freeways, strangulating traffic, impossibly complicated pubic transport system with consummate ease. The real-time aspect of the show gives the production crew a credible way in which to explore the constrictive, striated movement through a city (as is the case with Richard Donner’s 16 Blocks), yet Los Angeles remains more akin to the Salt Plains with ubiquitous smooth movement across what is inherently a complex and sprawling city-region. Now, of course, this is not the point of 24 and I am being unfair to it, however, I only want to use it as an example of how a moving image (in this case a TV series) can help us (by displaying how it hinders us) to understand and get to grips with the multiplicity.