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Transforming Cities

Metroplex, the Transformer City

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… Continue reading

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Motorways as Lefebvrian Urbanisation

Spaghetti Junction in the Midlands – a wonderful transportation palimpsest

Those of you in the know will perhaps shudder at the amount of time I spend hurtling up and down various stretches of England’s motorway network (all within the speed limit of course and always keeping left unless overtaking). The banality of the endless asphalt whizzing by with only 5live to keep me company (any other station requires constant retuning) can, at times, be infuriating when all you see is a line of sleek black snaking into the horizon punctured by red brake lights; but also simultaneously some of the most explicitly urban encounters one can ever achieve.  Continue reading


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“To City or not city”

72 hour Urban Action - an innovative planning scheme in Tel Aviv

I read an article on Urban Acupuncture that cropped up on my RSS feed not too long ago and given it’s proposal of more community focused and localised approach to urban planning, it certainly struck a chord. Eerily reminiscent of what Jane Jacobs proposed back in 1968, the Finnish architect, Marco Casagrande who is credited with the term ‘urban acupuncture’ could be accused of simply recycling a common urban ideal for 21st century urbanites. Indeed, the idea of ‘micro-planning’ conducted informally by local residents is nothing really new – instances of re-use of abandoned buildings or derelict spaces as micro-parks or mixed-use urban lounges can be recounted throughout many cities across the world. Whether it’s artistic interventions or playful appendages to functional urban artifacts, people have been ‘micro-planning’ for many years. There are countless examples, but for a fantastic resource of some of the best, one has to look no further than Pop-up City blog, or the Urban Subversion twitter feed. The 72 hour urban action scheme started Tel Aviv, shown in the picture above, is also a great example of the way in which planning can be interventionist, local and above all, useful.

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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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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 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…