The architectural imagination (3): representation and context

Third post (first | second) on the edX MOOC (course | communityFacebook | Twitter: #gsd1x) from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.

What with VideoNot.es  (alternatives: TurboNote | MoocNote) having fallen over and other events I’ve fallen way behind, and will set things on pause for a while – the content is available until the end of February 2018, so I will try to return to the three final modules over the summer. Definitely hard work, but worthwhile.

Update: David Rudlin, new chair of the Academy of Urbanism, on the urbanist and the architect.

Some linkage:

Here’s a summary of the final modules.

Module 8: Drawing utopia: visionary architecture of the 18th century

In the final three modules we deal more directly with architecture’s relationship to its various social and historical contexts. You will learn about what we call architecture’s power of representation and see how architecture has a particular capacity to produce collective meaning and memories.

As a professional practice deeply embedded in society architecture has social obligations and the aesthetic power to negotiate social change, carry collective memories and even express society’s utopian ideals. We’ve already seen this power at work – the first set of modules developed two fundamental prerequisites for representation: form and history. But representation can mean other things as well.

Architecture can perform like a linguistic metaphor or point to its mnemonic function, ie its power to carry memories that are historical, contextual, and collective. Architecture’s power of representation means that it performs like a cognitive map of society, giving us a diagram of society’s deep, complex structures, giving shape to an epoch’s particular character and nature, or linking the memory of different pasts to possible futures.

In this module we look at the work of the French ‘visionary architects’ of the 18th century and their use of architecture as a way of communicating meaning, what they called l’architecture parlante (speaking architecture).

Update, 27 May: had another look at this, and think not for me.

Seems like debates about France’s National Library are nothing new…

Module 9: The Pompidou Centre

In this module you will examine closely one particular example of architecture’s engagement with the culture industry: the Centre Georges Pompidou by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano.

This module puts to the fore not only architecture’s reflection of mass culture, but also architecture’s ability to engage deeply with politics, how a building can be not just an inert object but an active mediator between its historical context and our understanding of that context.

Module 10: Presenting the unrepresentable

In module 10 you will be challenged to conceptualize a work so minimal that some might not think of it as architecture at all; and yet, the project is tasked with the demand to carry the memory of perhaps the most profound of all human traumas.

The Memorial to Murdered Jews of Europe designed by architect Peter Eisenman is a project that uses the very abstraction and materiality that is inherent to the medium of architecture. This becomes the device with which to raise questions of architecture’s power of representation rather than answer them.

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The architectural imagination (2): enter technology

Second post (first) on the edX MOOC from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, where Walter Gropius chaired the architecture department from 1937-52. GSD offered a course on the legacy of the Bauhaus in 2015 and delivers an annual WG lecture. Its digital Bauhaus archive (story | tour) looks fabulous.

According to edX 25K people engaged with the course in week 1, 80% from outside the US (23% from Brazil), with over 100K enrolled. An earlier blog post stresses the intention of encouraging students to “consider architecture as a form of cultural expression as well as a technical achievement…architecture is one of the most complexly negotiated cultural practices there is…helps articulate history itself”, although the course starts by introducing “models, theories, and systems about how to think about architecture systems that transcend historical context and apply to architecture generally” before going on to “look at specific examples about how architecture produces these theories through buildings and projects in particular times and places”.

The lectures are filmed in the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, the only building in North America designed by Le Corbusier. So there.

Notes from weeks 5-7 below, although much more in VideoNot.es to be reused IDC. All quotes edited.

This part of the course addresses technology as a component of architecture’s realization and understanding. Architecture is embedded in contexts where technologies and materials of construction – glass and steel, reinforced concrete – are crucial agents of change. But a society’s technology does not determine its architectural forms.

You will discover ways that innovative technology can enable and promote new aesthetic experiences, or disrupt age-old traditions. You will witness architecture’s ways of converting brute technical means into meaningful perceptions and textures of daily life. The interactions of architecture and modern technologies changed not only what could be built, but also what kinds of constructions could even be thought of as architecture.

In our first set of modules we discussed some of the primary examples of what we might think of as the techniques of the architectural imagination. We discussed typology, which allows for comparison of the formal properties of architectural projects. We talked about the system of perspective understood as a formal construction that links subject to object. And we saw how these formal constructs can be used, both by the historian as analytical tools and by the designer as ways of rationalising architectural decisions.

We then discussed how these formal constructs must always be understood as arising in history, as both enabled and constrained by history. But they’re not exhausted by those historical constraints. Architecture is deeply historical, but it also exceeds its formative origins. It produces memories, but it also produces possible futures.

In the next three modules we’ll be shifting our focus, somewhat, to how architecture has a fundamental relationship to materiality. We’ll look at how modern architecture used technical advances in materials – mainly iron, steel, and glass, but also reinforced concrete – and we’ll look at the modern development of industrial building components. But we don’t leave form behind. We will see how architecture uses these new materials, and new construction techniques, to advance its own expressive possibilities. We’ll discuss how technology gets mediated by the compositional and typological intentions and operations
of the architectural imagination.

Module 5: The Crystal Palace: infrastructure and detail

In module 5 you will begin to explore the core question of part 2: architecture’s fundamental relation to materiality. We first turn to a pivotal moment in the history of glass and steel construction techniques. As Professor Picon states, “Few buildings have marked as important a moment in the history of architecture as the Crystal Palace. Not only was the building emblematic of a new way to build, using iron at a scale unprecedented, it was also a major turning point in terms of its use, since it hosted the first world fair and introduced a whole new spatial experience“.

From the reading, Space, time and architecture (1941; 47 pages? sorry): Sigfried Giedion makes the argument that a “gap…opened in the course of the 19th century between science and its techniques on the one hand and the arts on the other, and hence between architecture and construction”).

Evidence for this idea of a schism between science and art can be found in eg the separate existence of the École des Beaux-Arts and the École Polytechnique, and for the modernist solution to the schism in eg:

  • unpretentious 19th century buildings for public markets, whose designers are not ‘great’ architects
  • the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris (1868)
  • quotation by Lothar Bucher (1851): “in contemplating the first great building which was not of solid masonry construction spectators were not slow to realise that here the standards by which architecture had hitherto been judged no longer held good”
  • quotation in L’Esprit nouveau (1924): “The century of the machine awakened the architect. New tasks and new possibilities produced him. He is at work now everywhere.”

While Giedion understands the development of certain industrial construction techniques and materials as necessary technological precursors to modern architecture, he does not consider them ‘proper architecture’ as such…in contrast, Professor Picon suggests that certain properly architectural effects do indeed derive from constructional innovations and new materials.

All very exciting, and rather more accessible for non-architecture students. I even watched the videos, taking notes using the estimable VideoNot.es. Maybe I’ll revisit Kant and Hegel IDC.

Module 6: The dialectics of glass and steel

Giedion emphasised the difficulties in coming to terms with the architectural potentialities of the new materials and construction technologies of the 19th and early 20th centuries, out of which the Crystal Palace produced unprecedented architectural experiences and almost unintentional architectural effects. Next, we’ll pursue examples of the refinement of the aesthetic intention and the very willful expression of the representational power of the new architecture of metal and glass.

We will study examples of architects who, with more explicit intention, sought to expand architecture’s expressive capacity. The perceptual effects of the new materials of metal and glass – including thinness and tautness of wall planes, and the transparency and reflectivity of enclosing wrappers – had to be gauged, and their potentials developed. New spatial freedoms were found in the ability of metal to span large spaces. Load-bearing walls could be eliminated in favour of column grids. At the same time, fundamental questions of the relation of column to wall remained, and architects sought for certainties in theoretical models of spatial organisations.

From stone to steel…architecture, from its very beginning, has been made of stone, and when it hasn’t been made of stone, it’s been made to look like it has. Windows may have glass in them, but windows in a stone wall are simply openings. The glass itself is not important.

The development of technologies that allowed the production of large sheets of glass and materials with tensile strength, like steel, had the power to enormously change the way buildings are made. But how would that necessarily affect architecture? How would that change architecture’s representational function? How would that change architecture as the art of building?

The advances in modern technology and the invention of new materials were not an inevitable helpful contributor to the goals of architecture culture. How can one apply an already existing symbolic architectural language developed over thousands of years as an expression of the heavy compressive forces in masonry, to lightweight and thin structures of metal and glass? How does one achieve the requisite monumentality and profundity with such flimsy materials? This was the primary problem for the architects of the 20th century.

In the lecture you will learn how four architects interpreted Gottfried Semper’s model of the primitive hut and appropriated it as an example of a ‘universal’ organising type to one of their buildings (I have notes):

The four fundamental architectural elements of the hut:

  • hearth and fire, associated with the industrial crafts of ceramics and metal (fire is the beginning of society itself, and it needs the help of architecture to lift it off the earth)
  • base, associated with masonry (the base elevates the hearth, and the material associated with this is masonry, with its inherent attachment to the earth)
  • roof and support (tectonic frame), associated with carpentry (deviating from the classical understanding of a trabeated system, Semper theorised a kind of tectonic assembly that would rise from the masonry base, where the walls and the roof together formed a tectonic system)
  • enclosure, associated with weaving (Semper didn’t imagine the enclosing membrane would be the same as the stereotomic system of masonry; rather, he imagined that the enclosing membrane was a cloth or a tapestry or some sort of woven material)

Example of transposing Semper’s architectural elements to Behrens’s factory, describing the constructional technique or material associated with the element:

The AEG base is concrete, so it is a slight transformation from Semper’s brick base. But, in contrast to brick, which is laid or stacked, concrete is poured and cast, involving formwork and processing.

Your starter for 10…

You have now become familiar with the dominant forms of architectural representation and have learned how to read plans, sections, elevations, and perspective drawings. Now synthesise your knowledge and produce a reading of a building as a whole in an expository essay of 750 words (or about 5 paragraphs).

In an expository essay, the writer explains an idea, theme, or issue using personal opinion and specific evidence in the form of examples, definitions, comparison, and contrast. As with other forms of representation that we’ve explored, writing contains a point of view. Make an argument for how Mies’s use of materials operates to suture what Sigfried Giedion called the ‘schism’ between architecture and technology.

Module 7: Technology tamed: Le Corbusier’s machines for living

In the last module we focused on examples of how modern architects brought the new materials of metal and glass, and the new programmatic demands of industrial and commercial building, into the corpus of the great architecture of the past, while at the same time producing unprecedented expressive effects.

Now we will learn of another modern architect’s extraordinarily inventive of use of new materials and construction systems. For Le Corbusier the inherent properties of reinforced concrete were crucial for the development of his architectural ideas, most notably as expressed in his domestic buildings.

When you consider Corb’s ‘machines for living’ don’t think just of how machines look (the so-called ‘machine aesthetic’). Instead, think of a machine as an organized assemblage of parts that connect and perform in different ways. You may also be prompted to recall Alberti’s use of geometry and proportional systems to organize diverse building parts, or Palladio’s logic of the villa type. Corb brings similar compositional techniques into his habitation-machines.

You will explore in detail three of Corb’s villas and learn how his Five points formed a theoretical model for the possibilities of reinforced concrete – a material which provided an opportunity to break free from the constraints of load-bearing masonry walls.

Both Behrens and Mies, in different ways, maintain deep connections to the ongoing classical tradition in their new architecture of steel and glass. They use classicism to tame technology in order to give representation to the new corporations that arose from technical and economic advances.

But there are other ways of exercising aesthetic control over standardisation and mass production and of producing architectural effects with new technical means. We next look at a powerful example of how new techniques of concrete construction supported the pictorial and spatial elaborations of what Le Corbusier, called his ‘machines for living’.

The Dom-ino house is an open floor plan structure designed by Corb in 1914. A combination of the Latin word domus and innovation, the house is more of diagram than a building, a ‘chassis’ onto which any number of variations of houses can be outfitted. A kind of primitive hut of the modern, it was a prototype of potential of the new technology of reinforced concrete, glass and steel, an objet-type, an example of the materialisation of pure form, refined over time to become more perfect (see the 1922 Ozenfant House).

The three villas (I have notes): Villa La Roche (1925), Villa Garches (1927), Villa Savoye (1931).

Corb developed his five points of a new architecture (1921) as a result of putting the Dom-ino system into practice:

  • the pilotis – a grid of columns that lifts the floor slab above the earth; a reversal of the classical podium, which anchors the building to the earth, and a rejection of the traditional domestic basement, which Corb regarded as dank and unhealthy, leaving ground level open for recreation, circulation, transportation etc
  • the roof garden/terrace – for exercise or leisure; replaces the pitched roof and the attic with an open air room recalling pre-industrial life lived more outside, a regenerative inspiring and hygienic force
  • the free plan – created by freeing the columnar structure from interior partitions; allows a much more open arrangement allowing an interpenetration of spaces one into the other, often including ramps and stairs that guide the body through a spatial ‘narrative’
  • the ribbon window – a corollary of the free facade, a window that can be cut into a wall as the wall is not load-bearing; negates the idea of a framing window which is about one individual positioning himself in a vertical rectangle; instead one long horizontal window producing a panorama, a cinematic rather than a painterly version of a window
  • the free facade – a thinner wrapper that encloses the building and emphasises its volumetric qualities over static compression; establishes the compositional pictorial availability of the wall, allowing the window to be extended without interruption and other kinds of opening, more varied and composed geometrically and visually rather than determined constructionally or structurally

How did reinforced concrete determine each of the five points?

All this came together in an architectural promenade (Quora | THES & Flora Samuel)  as demonstrated in the Villa Savoye, the synthesis of the genre begun with the Dom-ino diagram.

On concrete (Stanislaus Von Moos):

Concrete, it might seem, is less likely to determine architectural form than any other building material. Its early use in 19th century building had little impact upon style; it merely supplied architects and the building industry with a universally applicable means of crystalising and multiplying existing formal vocabularies. Being malleable, it provided carte blanche for any sort of eclecticism.

Yet, parallel to the use of concrete as tectonically neutral ‘plastic’ mass, the 19th century discovered other possibilities inherent in the new material. Once applied under the conditions of strict economy, reinforced concrete proved capable of producing better structural results with less material bulk than any previously known material with the exception of the steel frame. Only in combination with economy, that is, the principle of achieving maximum results with a minimum of work, could concrete become the starting point for an architectural renewal. This is what happened in the works of the French pioneers of concrete building, and it was from here that Le Corbusier and some of his contemporaries proceeded in their attempts at translating the possibilities of concrete construction into a new architectural vocabulary.

The task this week was to design your own villa in the manner of Le Corbusier, well beyond me, but we have a couple of tweets:

And a vid from the GSD team (there’s no sound, folks):

The control of movement and view in the work of Le Corbusier produces an almost cinematic concept of representation. It is this dynamic spatiality that in some way supersedes the perspectival mathematical stability of Brunelleschi and Alberti. The account of Le Corbusier, then, recapitulates some of the early principles of the course and is a good transition to the final set of modules.

Bybilleder: writers and artists on Copenhagen

Update: I’ve now also had a look at another new find, Her er DK (2017) – see the foot of the post for details

Place writing in the British mould is thin on the ground in Denmark so I have to take what I can get.

Bybilleder: kunstnernes og forfatternes København (2016) consists of 75 snippets from Danish literature over the past 250 years set against 75 paintings, selected and presented by art historian Bente Scavenius and literary critic Bo Tao Michaëlis; 360 pages for DK 399. Reviews: Kopenhagen Magasin, Litteratursiden, Love Copenhagen.

Another of those too-big-to-handle offerings from Strandberg, this one had generøse bidrag from a total of nine fonde, but still could hardly be considered an impulse buy. Borrowed from the library on a 14 day loan, so an academic style read will have to suffice. And I’m not likely to buy it as a trophy to sit on a shelf.

In the authors’ respective forewords there’s lots of the usual glowing prose which sucks the life out of me: for BSc it’s a hyldest to Copenhagen, an oplevelse, noget til inspiration for hjerte og hjerne…then we’re heads down into the paintings and the extracts, some on different coloured paper, mainly poetry, often so short as to feel pointless (probably the shortest contribution is eight lines Uden titel (1969) from Inger Christensen), and in largish print, introduced at considerably more length by our two authors, with brief biographical notes pointing to the subject’s main works.

We are taken chronologically through the great and the good, uncritically and seemingly unselectively. It’s an encyclopedia, a reference book – a text book, even – in presentation and style. What aids are there? Zilch – just an a-z list of authors and source without page numbers, nothing for the paintings. I’d quite like to know there are two pieces from HuskMitNavn, feks, and an index by place and a timeline wouldn’t go amiss either. There are some nice pieces, but it doesn’t come together as a whole, lacking comparisons between the genres and any form of analysis. And psychogeography it ain’t – the excerpts may mention a place, but it’s rare they are _of_ a place. Which tends to be the problem, as identified already.

The usual place related suspects (from Kierkegaard and Hans Christian Anderson to Amalie Laulund Trudsø via Hermann Bang and Tom Kristensen) are represented in the 75 strong selection, of which I have probably heard of around two thirds of the writers and a third of the artists. Sadly, there is no space for Asger Jorn’s Fin de Copenhague – he is instead represented by Døddrukne danskere (1960) –  but there is room for a poem apiece from half-Danish film actor Viggo Mortensen and a certain Prins Henri (husband of the queen), which I originally thought was a performance art style joke. It passes without comment from BTM.

A quartet of artworks which caught the eye:

  • Allan Otte’s Nørrebro udtræk (2014) – a 10m x 1ocm frieze of Nørrebrogade, with places moved around to fit and no people (which is his thing); commissioned by Nørrebro Teater
  • Niels Strøbek’s Gårdparti i seks dele (1970) – representation of a typical apartment building in the brokvartere
  • Peter Land’s Copenhagen 11. December 1999, Hurricane II (2000) – portraying Copenhagen’s great storm, when everything was up in the air
  • Jesper Christiansen’s Ved et torv om morgenen (2013) – Gammeltorv, one of a series of paintings produced for Københavns Byret; Kierkegaard lived nearby, taking his daily menneskebad down Routen, as Strøget was called at the time

This last is complemented by Morten Søndergaard’s M for Marmor (2011), taken from Bakkehusalfabet (in lib) which he wrote while in residence at Bakkehuset, and more than short enough to reproduce here:

M for Marmor

Carrara-marmor med indskrift

Husene taler med deres mærkelige marmorpladstemmer: “Her skrev Grundtvig”, “her boede Søren Kierkegaard”, “her blev Hans Christian Andersen født”. Men hvem er det, der taler? Det er, som om husene er udstyret med stenstemmer, so hakkes ud på gavle og facader. Hvem siger noget? Er det tiden selv? Her! Der! Den! Dengang! Vi går forbi og tænker hvert sit. Aha, det var altså mindeværdigt, aha, den person var altså værdig til marmorens evighed. Stenord og stensætninger finder plads i arkitekturen, det bløde kød skal mindes i hård sten. Men hvem er det, som siger noget med husets mund?

Søndergaard is musing on the voices behind the marble plaques found in Copenhagen, emanating from houses and cut out of facades. Who is speaking – is it time itself? Is one person more worthy of an eternal memory in marble than others? Flesh memorialised in stone…who is speaking through the mouth of the house?

BTM sees the setting of plaques on buildings as the Protestant equivalent of the pilgrimage to relics and shrines. Dating from the 19th century, when public interest in the lives of artists exploded and the enlightened bourgeoisie began to make pilgrimages to cultural places, today it is a form of tourism, encouraged by turistbranchen.

This tickled me, not least because there are so few plaques in Copenhagen, and those there are, are so understated as to be practically invisible. Signage is also limited. Evidence of history is hard to find on the streets.

To finish…the more Danish books I look at the more I wonder at the differences between the UK and Danish markets, a reflection perhaps of general cultural differences. For many Danes the UK is bad taste corner, while Brits gape at Danish lampshades. Style, design, call what you will, is downplayed in the UK in favour of verbal dexterity and understatement. While in Denmark another new place-based title, Her er DK, is hailed for its lovely design.

And Strandberg do lovely things, if shading into something to look at rather than to read. For the record, here’s a pick of their other publications from urbanist corner:


Her er DK (2017; FB): “en bog om ukendte steder og oversete seværdigheder”; 217 writers contribute overlooked places throughout Denmark; examples include Cykelslangen (hardly overset, Martin Zerlang!); for the record, it’s DK 349 for 270 pages, some weird sub-A4 size; reviews: Jyllands Posten (paywall), Søren Ryge in Politiken (seemingly not asked); all very lovely and unlikely to scare the horses.

Purloined from the library, I note that the book is described as “et geografisk opslagsværk”, ie it’s not intended to be read from cover to cover; and it certainly feels like something to leaf through rather than read, although that may be because it’s brand new and from the library. It’s so pristine you feel like you should be wearing white gloves to handle it.

A Peter Plys (aka Winnie the Pooh) epithet at the start sets the tone: “Hvad slags historie holder han mest af? Han vil helst høre en historie om sig selv.”

There’s a geographical arrangement, starting with Nordvest, by coordinates rather than region, now that’s novel. The contributor is noted with initials not by name at the end of each piece. The contributions are often v short, too short to make much of a lasting impression. We have registre by place and name, which cross-refer to page number rather than place, that’s just annoying; I couldn’t be bothered to juggle the book to refer back to some, and I have a hunch that the list is on the website anyway (yes! See Hvem og hvor). As ever, I’m left wondering who the target market is (and how much quasi-public support it got) – for me, disappointing, although alternative forms of presentation might have helped.

While the choice of place tends mainly to the lovely, Vestegnen has three entries:

  • Rødovre: Damhustorvet, or “porten til Vestegnen”, by MSQ (Maria Skov Quistgaard, journalist, Information)
  • Albertslund: photo of Bytorvet, by VCB (Vesle Cosman Brøndum, kunstner)
  • Hvidovre: Friheden by NEO (Najat El Ouargui, strategisk analytiker ved Rigspolitiet)

Defining the urban: boundaries and jurisdictions

Notes on a conference on boundaries and edges, due not least to my living within a stone’s throw of Wonderful Copenhagen.

Boundaries and jurisdictions: defining the urban (#UHG2017) was the 2017 conference of the University of Leicester’s Centre for Urban History (@CUHLeicester), taking place on 30-31 March.

Boundaries define towns and cities; jurisdictions legitimate those authorised to manage areas within them. While cities frequently annexed adjacent areas as a means of extending their authority, peripheral townships, regional jurisdictions and individual landowners have often resisted that process of absorption and the consequential loss of identity and autonomy. Do cities transmit ideas and ideologies to areas beyond their boundaries, urging compliance with administrative procedures and participating in infrastructural projects governing health, education, and transport? Were economies of scale in service provision a force for urban amalgamation? How have inhabitants navigated and perceived these boundaries, and what effects have they had on movement or identities? The conference will explore this theme of the urban ‘edge’.

Understanding where and what the edge is, though, is complex. Municipal authority is, of course, not bounded just by the city limits, but also by innumerable internal boundaries; boundaries that are not neutral in their management or their construction. We all live in multiple authorities – parishes, districts (school, medical, electoral), neighbourhoods, conservation areas, economic and regeneration zones. Myriad internal boundaries exist whose spatial extents rarely overlap and authority over them is vested in a mixture of legal bodies and informal authority. Informal authority reigns where the boundaries of mental maps are shaped by custom and practice – ‘safe’ areas, ‘red light’ districts, pedestrian precincts, ethnic and religious concentrations. The mosaic of overlapping boundaries and jurisdictions questions the use of the term city, since urban environments constitute so many different cities.

Sessions on the permeability of borders included Anna Feintuck (Embra) on Leith, amalgamated into Edinburgh in 1920 against the will of a plebiscite. The session on boundaries, space and traversing the city included the boundaries of social space and improvement, ie public parks.

Crossing and defining the urban and rural included Tracey Logan (IHR) on Chiswick, sounding a little like Hvidovre’s experience:

Chiswick’s mid-19th century experience of life near the urban edge, eight miles west of St Paul’s, reveals how new and shifting metropolitan boundaries dramatically shaped its development and identity. Those boundaries were topographical and sanitary, ideological and political and shunned by Chiswick for their cost, not ideology. Its response was ancient and modern, the defensive beating of parish bounds and litigation.

Chiswick, mainly agricultural in 1849 but by 1867 on the cusp of industrialization and urbanization, had much in common with other contemporary parishes near big cities. Their priorities and even basic amenities were subsumed by costly, metropolitan utilitarianism and its voracious land-and-rates-grabbing. Chiswick’s case illustrates what it meant to be first granted, then denied a metropolitan identity by Acts of Parliament in quick succession. One consequence was its disappearance from newspaper columns, whose focus became the big city, to the detriment of historiography.

Places like Chiswick became part of an ill-defined ‘suburban’ entity, assumed dominated by housebuilding, railways and Villa Toryism, seen in relation to the big city but banal by comparison with its cut and thrust of power politics and commerce. When Disraeli’s Reform Act sought to extend London’s boundary westwards again, Chiswick pushed back on financial, not ideological, grounds, but with ideological consequences for its working classes, thus denied the vote. Owen showed no uniformity in the parochial response to metropolitan inclusion. Now a new study, including new tools, shows no uniform response to metropolitan exclusion. In this presentation, about a case study of Chiswick, the forging of an extra-metropolitan urban identity will be discussed and illustrated in ways conventional sources cannot.

The Space Syntax Lab Session (@SpaceSyntaxNet) looked at the role of spatial infrastructure in definitions of urban community:

Urban community is a place-bound idea typically represented by physical boundaries such as walls, courtyards and gates but the spatial configuration of urban street networks also serves to bring people together and keep them apart. Research in urban history using space syntax methods can help reveal how socially significant boundaries have emerged where particular topographical conditions, infrastructural interventions and patterns of urban development have distinguished regions of the street network as threshold or transitional areas in configurational terms. The spatial-morphological description of these liminal spaces is important in accessing, as it were, the ‘deep structure’ of urban neighbourhoods and jurisdictions. It also suggests why the power to disregard, as much as to assert, the authority of customary boundaries is a reliable analogue for the exercise of social power.

Investigating these themes involves undertaking historical research of sufficient temporal scope for the interplay of socio-spatial, socio-economic and cultural processes to become evident in the configuration of urban space. This extended time-scale begs the question of the urban streetscape as a source of communal memory that can serve both to perpetuate and undermine the legitimacy of historical boundaries. This panel presents three papers that address these themes over a time-scale from c.1800 to the present day. They draw on the theories and methods of space syntax to explore the configurational dimension of urban boundaries as these have represented, contested, fragmented, consolidated and enlarged the definition of urban and suburban communities over time.

Papers:

  • Chipping Barnet: urban edge or suburban centre? (Laura Vaughan; @urban_formation & Ashley Dhanani, UCL) – The traditional narrative of London’s suburban history claims that the coming of the railways transformed previously “knowable communities” (Williams, 1969) into something like ‘edge cities’ dominated by anonymous commuters, ultimately ‘engulfing’ these with less affluent populations, disconnected from their locale. The problem with such narratives is that they present urbanization as proceeding in linear stages: from local village, to connected suburb, to urban sprawl. Yet the peripheries of growing cities are messy and dynamic environments, comprising diverse spatial morphologies, topographies and socio-economic structures; hybrid socio-spatial forms that are not easily classified typologically. This paper will take the example of Chipping Barnet, the site of a twelfth-century market situated on the old North Road out of London as an example of an edge-city settlement characterized by a hybrid spatial morphology and the persistence of multiple social affiliations maintained across space…Barnet’s history as a place, therefore, has been forged historically both spatially, in relation to its immediate community, and across space, in relation to the surrounding counties and London.
  • London railway terminals: segregation and the inner ‘edge’ city (Tom Bolton, UCL)
  • Place-situated historic photographs in European cities: negotiating the temporal boundaries of urban community (Sam Griffiths & Garyfalia Palaiologou, UCL) – this paper interrogates the recent phenomenon of European municipal authorities situating physical and digital historic photographs of public spaces in their equivalent contemporary locations. It develops the concept of the ‘virtual community’ from space syntax theory to discuss the important questions place-situated photographs raise for the historical understanding of urban communities in relation to changes and continuities in the built environment of cities.

See also:

The architectural imagination (1): form and history

EdX MOOC from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (based in The Trays), started 28 February, runs for 10 weeks. All quotes edited.

The study of architecture allows us to see culture representing its own values to itself and affords us access to a kind of knowledge about culture and history that would not otherwise be available.

Architecture is not just about the need for shelter or the need for a functional building. In some ways, it’s just what exceeds necessity that is architecture. And it’s the opening onto that excess that makes architecture fundamentally a human endeavour.

Architecture is a technical answer to a question that’s not technical at all, but rather is historical and social. The study of architecture is the study of human thought and human history. This is about the architectural imagination. It’s how to think about architecture, but it’s also about architecture as a mode of thought.

Architecture is one of the most complexly negotiated and globally recognised cultural practices, both as an academic subject and a professional career. Its production involves all of the technical, aesthetic, political, and economic issues at play within a given society. And indeed, in some ways, architecture, as we’ll see, helps articulate history itself.

These are all big claims. And we’ll need big ideas to address these claims. And we’ll also need very specific, concrete examples of architectural projects and events from history.

Goals of the course

Architecture engages a culture’s deepest social values and expresses them in material, aesthetic form. In this course you will learn how to ‘read’ architecture as a cultural expression as well as a technical achievement. Over the course of ten modules we’ll examine some of history’s most important examples that show how architecture engages, mediates, and expresses a culture’s complex aspirations.

In this course you will learn:

  • how to read, analyse and understand different forms of architectural representation
  • social and historical contexts behind major works of architecture
  • basic principles to produce your own architectural drawings and models

The first part of the course introduces the idea of the architectural imagination as a faculty that mediates sensuous experience and conceptual understanding.

Two examples of the architectural imagination – perspective drawing and architectural typology – are explored through video presentations and hands-on exercises.

You will be introduced to some of the challenges involved in writing architectural history, revealing that architecture does not always have a straightforward relationship to its own history.

Module 1: The architectural imagination: an introduction

In our first module we borrow the framework of the imagination from the 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, whose work has been very influential on the study of architecture. For Kant imagination is the necessary mediation between the senses with which we experience the world and the cognitive processes through which we understand it.

A preliminary model of the architectural imagination: the mental process of constructing a schema that organizes our perceptions of an architectural project or set of projects.

Very theoretical…luckily we have sketchnotes:

More practical was the optional vid on perspective:

The basic distinguishing feature of perspective – a way of seeing the world – is as a drawing in which parallel lines converge at infinity, way off in the distance. The place where these lines converge, which we can think of as being infinity, or far, far, far away, is called a vanishing point, placed on what we call the horizon.

This means that things that are closer to you will seem larger and things that are farther away will seem much smaller, even if these two objects are actually the same size.

There are three major kinds of perspective drawings –  one point, two point, and three point, differentiated by the number of vanishing points used. In a three point drawing there are two points on the horizon, where the parallel lines converge to the left and right, and one on a vertical line, where parallel vertical lines converge to a vanishing point far above us. This is especially useful for tall buildings.

And on orthographic (perpendicular) drawings:

  • the plan – a horizontal cut (usually 1.2m above the floor) through the building that lets us see how the different rooms and spaces are arranged
  • the section – cutting vertically through the building, generally on the most important axis of the building
  • the elevation – cut well in front of the building; in particular for showing the composition of the facade

Draw a floor plan

Choose a space that you are intimately familiar with – your home, your workplace or a favorite public space – that has at least three discrete and adjacent rooms.

By hand, draw a floor plan of your space. Carefully chose the height of your cut line so that the plan includes all the information you find important. Make sure to indicate locations of doors, windows, and walls.

You may choose to include secondary information you find important, such as furniture or decorative elements. Do not use a ruler to measure; however, make sure to pay close attention to relative dimensions. Choose a method of measurement that is appropriate for the space — for example, you could measure a length of a wall by counting your paces alongside it. Be sure to include an indication of your units of measurement on your drawing.

Write one to two paragraphs reflecting on the experience. How did the method of measurement you chose influence the way you drew the space? How did you decide on where you would cut the plan? In observing your space and drawing it, did you see anything new or surprising you had not noticed before?

Must break my drawing phobia…meanwhile, some examples from the class:

Module 2: Reading architecture: column and wall

We examine another historical example of the use of the architectural imagination to interpret an architectural project. Rudolph Wittkower analyzes Leon Battista Alberti’s designs for four different church facades as a single pursuit of an ideal façade type, beginning with Alberti’s assertion that the principal element of architectural ornament is the column. He then moves on to associate the column with proportion and measure – the “classical idea of maintaining a uniform system of proportion throughout all parts of a building”.

This abstract approach is an important first step in demonstrating that architecture is a mode of knowledge. When we normally consider architecture, we include its function, materials, techniques of construction and its physical and social context, as well as its formal property or aesthetics…to really focus on architecture as exceeding mere building we have to detach a portion of that common-sense world and establish some aesthetic distance from ordinary concerns…for just a time we free architecture from its function, but we also free ourselves from our own interests, and prejudices and expectations.

This part of our model borrows from Kant’s theory of aesthetics. It’s highly intellectual. It’s self-reflexive and recursive. And it’s very abstract – a philosophical exercise, not an historical analysis.

Note that Wittkower’s Architectural principles in the age of humanism (1949) strongly influenced modernism, due to its revolutionary approach to the understanding of geometry, modular pattern and the ways in which diagrams can be used.

Module 3: Hegel and architectural history

The first two modules of this course sought to open up a vision of architecture as a project of imaginative formal speculation. Wittkower’s interpretation of the work of Alberti gave us an example of a Kant-inspired historian attributing to architecture the status of an ongoing formal project – a project of speculation and conjecture that takes place in the architectural imagination.

We now want to put the idea of a formal project into dialectical play with the movement of architecture through history. In Module 3, we will complement Wittkower’s interpretive project by insisting on the historical dimension of architecture, indeed the historical determination of architecture’s formal project. Architecture changes through time because society and culture change through time, and architecture is inextricably tied to the social.

To return to history is to return this internal world constructed by architecture, this world of aesthetic perfection, to the more robust world in which we all reside.

How do cultures represent themselves to themselves through their art? In this module you will explore a model for a philosophy of art history as expressed by the German idealist philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. The very idea of art as having a history, a progression, comes from Hegel, and you will learn more about his attempt to “gather up all the cultures and all the epochs of art into a single, coherent, unified system…a system wherein art discloses truths about the world by giving those truths appearance”.

Beauty is, for Hegel, the perfect harmony of form and function. His division of symbolic, classical, and romantic is then partially generated by the fact that beauty can be either achieved (classical architecture) or not achieved (symbolic and romantic art), and that this failure to achieve beauty can be either the result of the inability to conceive of beauty’s form/function harmony (symbolic architecture), or the result of the conscious acknowledgement that beauty is impossible given architecture’s opaque and insistent materiality (romantic architecture).

John Sallis makes the point that Kant’s system of the imagination allows him to distinguish between beauty or art, on the one hand, and knowledge or truth, on the other. Hegel, by contrast, develops a concept of art in which art is not only a matter of sense and feeling but also of truth.

Sketchnotes please…

Module 4: Aldo Rossi and typology

In the first three modules, we’ve built up our idea of the architectural imagination with two fundamental components: the understanding of form and the experience of history. In this final module for Part I, we give one more example of the architectural imagination at work.

The modern Italian architect Aldo Rossi, perhaps, shares Hegel’s understanding that architecture is one of the fundamental human postulates of our existence in the world. For Rossi, too, architecture is a central medium of human thought and human memory. But in Rossi’s work, we find the suggestion that architecture’s origin is not simply behind us, as Hegel insisted, but that architecture is constantly finding its origin again and again, and that this beginning must constantly be reimagined. The imagination uses historical precedents to create new architectural projects.

Adolf Loos: “If we find a mound six feet long and three feet wide in the forests, formed into a pyramid, shaped by a shovel, we become serious and something says, ‘someone lies buried here.’ That is architecture.”

From the quiz…the idea of architecture as something with a history comes to us from Hegel, and Rossi explores this in his own unique way. For Rossi, an understanding of type is not merely visual or perceptual, rather his architecture engages the full sensorium of its experience. It is a structural and formal urban fact and complex experience.

Rossi understood architectural tradition as an extrapolation of the formal world of antiquity. FALSE:  Rossi’s concept of type allows him to sample from a far greater range of objects and periods of history. For example, in the Monument to the Italian Partisans at Cuneo, Rossi uses the concept of type to construct a monument that links to earlier commemorative monuments, perhaps to ancient examples as well as to modern ones, but not to any specific one monument from a particular historical style.

The architectural type is a primary means of communicating meaning through architecture. Architectural types, specifically those in the urban context, persisted despite changes in the functions and uses of the buildings. Rossi’s classic example of the persistence of type is the coliseum in Lucca, where the formal element remains legible despite functional change from coliseum to marketplace to housing.

Typology is intended to link new architectural projects to collective memories. Rossi’s work used the concept of typology to link architectural projects to collective memories. In Giovanni Antonio Canal’s (Canaletto) Capriccio con Edifici Palladiani, Rossi provokes us to examine the fantasy view of Venice as a means to describe the power of architecture to access an idea of the total city, albeit virtually. For Rossi, architecture is producing knowledge of the world beyond itself. To finish, here’s an article about Rossi’s San Cataldo Cemetery in Modena.

Otherwise, sketchnotes, please!

Two exercises follow, which the class did fabulous things with.

Build a model 

In previous exercises, you have explored conventions of the predominant drawing types of the architectural profession: the plan, the section, the elevation, and the perspective. In this prompt, you will become familiar with another major form of architectural representation: the physical model.

Just as perspective and orthographic drawings were used historically for the purpose of representation and construction, architects made scale models to represent their ideas. These models were useful not only for the architects and builders themselves, but also as a means to demonstrate architectural ideas to the public.

Aldo Rossi’s project for the Monument to the Resistance in Cuneo is based on a cube of 12 meters. It is represented by simple but precisely drawn plans, sections, and elevations. Spare as they are, the drawings contain all the information needed to construct a three-dimensional model of the project.

Your assignment is to construct a physical model of the Cuneo project at a scale of 1:100 (drawings provided; idiot’s guide).

Transform a type

Prompt B asks you to draw and compare diagrams that display transformations of architectural types. You will apply the concept of architectural type, first, to analyze an architectural project, and then, to transform that project to produce variants of the type deduced from a preceding formal organization, ie begin with simple typological elements and then transform and combine them into new organizations.

Find the constituent elements of the project: column, extruded triangle, extruded rectangle, and stair. After you’ve identified these elements, diagram two new possible variations for the project, changing the relationships among the elements to create your variations. You may use two of any one of the elements. For example, you may use two columns or two stairs but not two columns and stairs. Or you may double the length of the wall, but not of the wall and the extruded triangle. (Example diagrams provided.)

The philosophy of walking

Update: Phil Smith on GrosWhy we walk and Why walking helps us think (The New Yorker, 2014)

Frédéric Gros’ A philosophy of walking (Amazon), published in March 2014 and translated by John Howe, is a primer for the Gallic Romantic strain in walking. Gå!, a Danish translation published by Kristeligt Dagblads Forlag, appeared in July 2015, inspiring a vandringsessay by Kim Skotte in Politiken. 

Gros is a “prodigious walker”. While the book charts the many different ways we get from A to B (the pilgrimage, the promenade, the protest march, the nature ramble…) it is more concerned with exploring the power of walking as a “necessary weapon in the era of speed, efficiency and consumption” – and what it tells us about our experience of time, pleasure and solitude.

Back in 2014 I Storified @VersoBooks’ #philosophyofwalking stream, starting with a playlist in January, livetweeting the book launch and finishing up with Gros in conversation with sculptor Richard Wentworth at Tate Modern on 15 May. See the foot of the post for a trio of bon mots.

I made some inroads via a library copy in autumn 2014, getting about halfway, or as far as  Thoreau. Then I read On going for a walk, which made the unassailable point that the book’s focus is fairly narrow, favouring walking silently and solitarily in pristine rural landscapes with scant attention given to walking in urban settings. At this point I moved into scan mode, never a good sign. to be sure to finish it off before it was due back to the library. (Another factor was Carol Cadwallader on the portraits: “they’re all men; it’s unclear if women don’t walk or don’t think”). Maybe it depends which walking primer you start with – for me, it was Nicholson (who also appreciated Cadwallader’s take).

I have now invested in a copy for the bookshelf via Verso’s Xmas 2016 offer – below is a summary of my key points. (See also Laurence Coupe’s 10 insights). While very French, tending to the abstract with many a rhetorical turn (or just French rendered in English?), the opening salvo already makes the whole thing worthwhile. Other sections to come back to are Schelle’s Promenade als Kunstwerk (19:164-7) and indeed the section on urban walking (21:178-180).

The book consists of 25 shortish chapters each headed by a woodcut. Seven of the chapters are about individual thinkers who saw walking as integral to the creative life: Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Rousseau, Thoreau, Nerval, Kant and Gandhi.

  1. Walking is not a sport: no specialised equipment here: “Walking is the best way to go more slowly than any other method that has ever been found…If you want to go faster, then don’t walk…Once on his feet, though, man does not stay where he is.”
  2. Freedoms: a process of self liberation, the suspensive freedom that comes from walking and rediscovering simple joys, throwing off the yoke of routine and illusions about the essential; “disentangled from the web of exchanges, no longer reduced to a junction in the network redistributing information, images and goods”; a liberation from time and space, alienating you from speed; this is usually only a temporary ‘disconnection’, but one can also follow the call of the wild on the ‘vertical axis of life’, escaping from the idea of identity and recovering our animal presence; the third stage is the freedom of renunciation and perfect detachment, leading to an intensity of presence. (Echoes here of Ludvig Feilberg, Denmark’s philosopher of walking.)
  3. Why I am such a good walker (Nietzsche): walking was Nietzsche’s element, the precondition to work; he hated to sit: “think of the book as an expression of physiology. In all too many books the reader can sense the seated body, doubled up, stooped, shrivelled in on itself. The walking body is unfolded and tensed like a bow: opened to wide spaces like a flower to the sun, exposed torso, tensed legs, lean arms”. Books by authors “grafted to their chairs” are like fattened geese, “on the level of recopying”. Writing with our feet means the potential for “reversals of perspective…exclamations where something else is observed”.
  4. Outside: “walking means being out of doors, outside, ‘in the fresh air’. When you go ‘outside’ it is always to pass from one ‘inside’ to another: from house to office, from your place to the nearest shops. You go out to do something, somewhere else. Outside is a transition: the thing that separates; almost an obstacle between here and there…Outside hardly exists: it is like a big separating corridor, a tunnel, an immense airlock..It is some space that takes some time.” Major walks invert this – ‘outside’ is no longer a transition, but the element in which stability exists. The big separation between outside and inside is turned upside down by walking, as  you live in the landscape.
  5. Slowness: a good slowness, not exactly the opposite of speed: an “extreme regularity of paces, a uniformity…a bad walker may sometimes go fast, accelerate, then slow down…large involuntary movements, a new decision every time the body is pushed or pulled…Hurrying means doing several things at once, and quickly…time is filled to bursting, like a badly arranged drawer in which you have stuffed different things without any attempt at order. Slowness means cleaving perfectly to time, so closely that the seconds fall one by one…this stretching of time deepens space…a slow approach to landscapes that gradually renders them familiar.”
  6. The passion for escape (Rimbaud): never having studied French I have a big gap here; like Nietzsche this isn’t exactly a happy tale, but glad to have made his acquaintance; “I’m a pedestrian, nothing more” – a sense of walking as flight, leaving behind, departing.
  7. Solitudes: ought one really to walk alone? Nietzsche, Thoreau, Rousseau, the Dane, all thought so. “Being in company forces one to jostle, hamper, walk at the wrong speed for others…the right basic rhythm is the one which suits you.” So much for group walking, although up to three or four may allow moments of shared solitude, “like bread and daylight”. More than four and people “form groups which soon become clans. Everyone boasts about their equipment…it’s hell.” However, one is never entirely alone, not least because of the constant dialogue between the body and the soul.
  8. Silences: just as there are  several solitudes, so there are several silences; the silence of walking itself, of woodland, of tough summer afternoon walks, or.  early morning, through the snow, of night. Silence in walking is the abolishment of chatter, the dissipation of our language. “One should beware of those expedition guides who recode, detail, inform, punctuate the walk with names and explanations to give the impression that everything visible has a name, that there is a grammar for everything that can be felt.”
  9. The walker’s waking dreams (Rousseau): like Nietzsche, Rousseau claimed to be incapable of thinking properly, of composing, creating or finding inspiration except when walking. Another recurring image is the homo viator, walking or pilgrim man, the natural man not disfigured by culture, education, art – the absolute primitive.
  10. Eternities: “when you walk, news becomes unimportant”…more of the same, if perhaps a nod to the issue of unconnected facts.
  11. Conquest of the wilderness (Thoreau): opens with the factoid that Thoreau was the third child of a pencil manufacturer; otherwise, by now, familiar territory.
  12. Energy: sources of energy: the heart (self), the earth, landscapes.
  13. Pilgrimage: a codified form of walking with its own conduct, termination and purpose, however a pilgrim (from peregrinus, follower or exile) is essentially one who is not at home where he is walking, but is a stranger or foreigner; “every man is a pilgrim in this vale of tears…his true dwelling place can never be reached here below”; rather than peregrinatio perpetua a metaphor, perhaps a contemplative retreat or a visit to a sanctuary, can suffice.
  14. Regeneration and presence: the myth of regeneration, citing Mount Kailash, and the utopia of presence, transfiguring the day when you arrive at your destination.
  15. The cynic’s approach: as in the Greek Cynics.
  16. States of well-being: joy, pleasure, serenity, happiness…
  17. Melancholy wandering (Nerval): of pet lobster fame, one of Richard Holmes’ subjects; walking as part of an active melancholia: “the streets are an excellent environment for maintaining, nourishing and deepening the illness…the drumming of thousands of feet on the pavements”.
  18. A daily outing (Kant): aka the Königsberg clock, who emerged from his house for his brief constitutional every day at 8 as a distraction from work; he never left his native town, found change unbearable and “displayed no caprice or oddity…his life was as exactly ruled as music manuscript paper”; his route became known as the philosopher’s walk; Kant’s walks highlight three important aspects of walking: its monotony, which liberates thought, the role of regularity and repeated effort in creating an output, built up stone by stone, and the inescapable nature of ritual, a mastered inevitability, a destiny of will.
  19. Strolls: or promenades, “less suited to grand mystical poses, metaphysical frauds and pretentious declarations”; of three types: as an absolute ritual, the creation of a childish soul; as free relaxation, mental recreation; as rediscovery. HT to Karl Gottlob Schelle’s Die Promenade als Kunstwerk (1802), which established that walking produces a relaxing effect on the body – it could stand up straight, but “it was really the mind which rejoiced most”. Walking means defying the constraints, choosing your route, place, representations (see pages 164-7).
  20. Public gardens: musing on the Tuileries.
  21. The urban flâneur: via Benjamin, a form of strolling which presupposes three elements: city, crowd and capitalism.. an experience far removed from Nietzsche or Thoreau; the urban stroller subverts the crowd, the merchandise the and town, along with their values; not a matter of opposing but of evading, deflecting, altering with exaggeration, accepting blandly and moving on; the flâneur subverts solitude, speed, dubious business politics and consumerism (pages 178-180).
    • the city: imposes an interrupted, uneven rhythm; urban concentrations where you can walk for hours without seeing a piece of country, passing through districts like different worlds, separate, apart; cities with enough scale to become a landscape
    • the crowd: among and through the nameless masses, representatives of the new civilisation; everyone was in a hurry and everyone else was in their way, a competitor, with contradictory interests – anonymity is the norm
    • capitalism: as in the reign of merchandise, extending beyond industrial products to include art works and people; now: “spaces where strolling is compulsory are being made, but no one has to go there”
  22. Gravity: the experience of walking is always a perception of gravity, an invitation to die standing up.
  23. Elemental: the useful, the necessary, the elemental, revealed as fullness of presence; ” to walk without even the necessary is to abandon yourself to the elements”.
  24. Mystic and politician (Gandhi): and protest marcher
  25. Repetition: the need to distinguish between monotony and boredom

Experimental walking (and writing): Surrealists and Situationists

Brief notes kicked off by the chapter on experimental walking in The art of wandering: the writer as walker.

Francesco Careri (Walkscapes) has identified three moments in art history when an experience linked to walking represented a turning point:

  • the period of transition from Dada to Surrrealism (1921-24)
  • the emergence of the Situationist Movement from the Letterist International (1956-57)
  • the movement from Minimal Art to Land Art (1966-67) – Fluxus, non-object-based art as exemplified by Richard Wentworth, Janet Cardiff and Francis Alÿs; with the rise of performance art the act of walking itself has become art

Dadaist and surrealist walks

On 14 April 1921 in Paris, at three in the afternoon, in the rain, eleven Dadaists conducted a ‘lay pilgrimage’ to the church of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre, the first in a proposed series of urban excursions to the ‘banal places’ of the city (p183-4) – it was not a success, and remained the sole example. However they had an influence on getting people to look and look again, to notice and how to notice what you notice, daring to leap into the abyss and explore things in a different way.

In May 1924 the three founders of surrealism set off haphazardly on foot on a ten day stroll from Blois, a town picked at random from a map. Largely they “resolutely followed their lack of itinerary”, composing automatic texts during rest stops.

This and further déambulations, practised on the outskirts of Paris, found expression in three novels:

  • Louis Aragon’s Le Paysan de Paris (1926) – describes two places in Paris in great detail, providing a realistic backdrop for surrealist spectacles such as the transformation of a shop into a seascape
  • André Breton’s Nadja (1928) – “one of the iconic works of the French surrealist movement”
  • Philippe Soupault‘s Les Dernières Nuits de Paris (1928)
  • see also Readux’s A little guide to the 15th Arrondissement, “a playful piece of surrealist flâneurie and psychogeography” by Roger Caillois, translated by Ryan Ruby; see article

For the surrealists walking was about chance encounters and irrational meetings, an inspiration for their experimental writing (source).

The Lettrists and the Situationists

A generation later, after WW2, the act of walking shifted from aimless strolling to revolutionary subversion.

The Lettrist International (1952-7), the product of the earlier Lettrist Group (1948) and a forerunner of The Situationist International, identified the act of walking as a means of challenging the status quo, but like later movements such as CoBrA and the Imaginist Bauhaus was hampered both by a lack of direction (irony alert) and, more crucially, members.

Step forward the Situationist International (1957-72; SI Online | archives | Internationale Situationniste in English) under the firm/tyrannical grip of Guy Debord.

Debord coined the term psychogeography in his Introduction to a critique of urban geography (1955):

the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals

This replaced R/romantic notions of walking as an artistic practice with the concept of a scientific experiment, the results of which would be rigorously analysed and form the basis of a new cartography characterised by a disregard for traditional and habitual practices.

This experiment was, of course, the dérive, as outlined in The theory of the dérive (1956).

The dérive “has the potential to transform the everyday, to illuminate and challenge narratives of privatisation, commodification and securitisation of space, and navigate increasingly blurred boundaries between public/private”. The ideal outcome was that “pedestrians would become more aware of their overlooked urban surroundings and begin to see new possibilities of experiencing everyday life in the city” (source).

The purpose of a dérive is as much to derive or document the psychogeographical contours of an urban space as to uncover alternatives. This can be in the form of artistic maps, drawn not in Cartesian gridlines but according to a subjective navigation scheme, or through subversions of pre‐existing maps. Both kind of map exemplifies the détournement, a ‘diverting’ or ‘rerouting’ of pre‐existing elements, with an ultimate outcome such as the utopian city (source).

Debord’s Psychogeographic guide of Paris (1955)/The naked city (1957; same??) replaced the ‘official’ map of Paris with 19 cut-out sections rearranged and connected by red arrows indicating the flow of energy around certain ‘pivot points’ (source). Map users choose their own route by using a series of arrows that link parts of the city together.

Further tactics:

  • one city to the map of another – wander through one city following directions from a map of another city (I’ve never quite got how this would work in practice)
  • cities as historical landscapes – being aware of how your surroundings can draw you towards the past
  • here’s a reverse dérive – The naked city mapped onto a Google map of Paris

Hence strolling becomes drifting and detached observation becomes a critique of post-war urbanism (Elkin p18) – there was nothing aimless in Situationist drifts; they wanted to transform everyday life.

Debord became increasingly dogmatic in his insistence upon a rigorous examination of the Society of the Spectacle (1967; more), a society whose seductive surface belied the repressive realities of capitalist consumption. The essential emptiness of modern life is obscured behind an elaborate and spectacular array of commodities, leading to a world of rampant consumerism and regimented monotony. Shucks.

See The Situationists and the city | Andrew Hussey for more.

Debord and Jorn

Denmark klaxon! In 1954 Debord met Asger Jorn (1914-73), a Danish polymath who had worked with Le Corbusier on the Pavillon des Temps Nouveaux for the 1937 Paris World Exposition. Jorn was a co-founder of CoBrA (1948-51) and involved in one of its offshoots, the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus, which in 1957 fused with the Letterist International and the London Psychogeographical Association to form the Situationist International (SI). Enough already.

It’s not quite clear to what extent Jorn had a hand in The naked city, but their collaboration resulted in the production of two art books critiquing the Society of the Spectacle.

Created in 24 hours at the printing house Permild & Rosengreen after a single visit to a local news stall, Fin de Copenhague (1957) was composed using the technique of détournement. The book consists of fragments snatched from other books and magazines in a collage linked by colourful splashes. Intended as a critical engagement with urbanism along with advertising and consumerism, it “satirises gemütlich Europe in general, the author’s native Copenhagen in particular, and Le Corbusier in passing”:

Copenhagen is satirised not only as a seat of ancestral boredoms, and in other standard terms, but also for being a ‘well-planned city’, in the sense of making a pretty pattern of black and green in the planner’s report – only in this case the pretty pattern is produced by applying place-names to patches of mechanical tint superimposed on (apparently) and action-painting that has run.

a spread from Fin de Copenhague (1957)

More: Wikipedia | Situationist map of Denmark

Debord and Jorn’s second collaboration, Mémoires (1959; in English), also employed the latter’s situlogical technique, but is now perhaps best known for its sandpaper cover.

Mémoires (1959)

A founder member of the SI, Jorn resigned in April 1961 believing it had become ineffective, but remained in friendly contact.

In 1960 Jorn’s brother, Jørgen Nash, set up the Situationist Bauhaus, later the Second Situationist International, on Jorn’s farm in southern Sweden. Most famous among their actions was the decapitation of Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid in 1964.

Other Scandi SI members included Peter Laugesen (article), friend of Dan Turèll; in his time attracted to the dérive, but expelled in 1963 for refusing to give up poetic practice.

For more on Scandinavian Situationists see the Situ-Research & Archive | Scandinavian Situationism | Cosmonauts of the Future.

Experimental walking today

In 2005 Lonely Planet published a Guide to experimental travel, conceived by Joël Henry (of Latourexsome examples):

Experimental tourism is a novel approach to tourism in which visitors do not visit the ordinary tourist attractions (or, at least not with the ordinary approach), but allow whim to guide them. It is an alternative form of tourism in which destinations are chosen not on their standard touristic merit but on the basis of an idea or experiment. It often involves elements of humor, serendipity, and chance. (Wikipedia)

Here the “imposition of arbitrary restrictions serves to heighten the tourist experience”. It can also heighten the local experience – see Counter-Tourism, A mis-guide to anywhere, Pattern walking, the Temporary Travel Office and Ways to wander, “54 intriguing ideas for different ways to take a walk” collected by Claire Hind and Clare Qualmann.

I have the Lonely Planet guide and stake my claim in that we have often travelled to the end of a metro line for the hell of it. A particularly memorable example was in Istanbul, a world away from the Blue Mosque. It took hours to get back. Sadly I can’t find the website of the group who travel to the end of metro lines in Moscow on the last Sunday in the month, otherwise I’d be there.

On the everyday level my walks more often than not make use of suggestion 15 from the LP guide: Dog’s Leg Travel:

If you don’t normally walk a dog, take one for a walk and be led by what interests the dog.

Ludic performances and tours which “subvert space in creative and exciting ways” abound in the experience economy, with the game often the key element. See Play the City Now or Never |

Meanwhile, is walking (or marching) as political dissent about to make a comeback? On 17 February Senate House Library and the Passage project held a one day conference on Radical walking (more), presenting the historical perspective.

Opening keynoter Katrina Navickas (interview) shook things up a bit on ‘the problem of the flâneur’ and critiquing literary studies’ ongoing obsession with walking:

walking – using the eyes of history to examine the traces and parallels in the past – is an activist practice, and one connected directly with politically activist histories

the flâneur seems to privilege the elite perspective of the landscape viewed from a distance

For me it’s the anonymity of the flâneur (of/in the crowd), the observations and perspectives of the outsider, which appeal (exclusive can also mean excluded) – it’s an explorative tool I use. See also under What gives? in my post on #walkingwomen. BTW Wikipedia on the flâneur is worth a look, not least for “how the same language can differ depending on the location” (source). It’s an intriguing combination of immersion and openness.

But I’m with her on the obsession with nature writing at least.

Next stop: more cultural geography, Doreen Massey.

Update, Dec: Let’s get lost. Southampton as the Situationist city