Six participants present their findings from Detour/Dérive, an urban experiment presented by Project Cityscope, the non-profit organization of Works Partnership Architecture. The participants have engaged in separate walks by choosing a bus line to ride and getting off at a stop or stops they find intriguing. The task was to walk, document/record, and reflect within a 24-hour period. The aim of this project is to explore, project, and/or (mis)interpret narratives of the city that do not occur to us as critical to the urban landscape.
News for the ‘Detour/Dérive’ Category
Incoherent Geography, Phanto-Cartography, and the Open Commons
In Divisible Cities by Dominic Pettman. Click to read the review by Eileen Joy.
To pull cities together, and then push them apart. To feel their bricks crumble in our fingers like honeycomb, before fusing them once more between our palms. To hang the great capitals of the world from the crescent moon, like a nightwatchman’s lamp. To fold them into origami birds that nest in our hats and pockets. To unpack them into radiant flotillas that span the placid oceans.
-Dominic Pettman, In Divisible Cities
Michal Ajvaz: The City and Heaven
Eudossia is a city-labyrinth which features an intricate and complicated maze of streets; it also possesses a carpet into which were woven patterns both synoptical and symmetrical. Tradition has it that the layout of the city and the pattern of the carpet correspond to each other. When the city’s residents asked their oracle about this, they were told that “one of these objects (…) has a form which the gods gave to the starry sky and the orbits along which the worlds travel, while the other is its near-reflection.” The oracle’s answer didn’t exactly clear the matter up. Perhaps, it was reasoned, the carpet showed the archetype of the divine order and the labyrinthine layout of the city was a projection of this order onto the imperfect material of reality. Another possibility was that the archetype was the unpredictable labyrinth of streets and it was only later, in an attempt to simplify and schematize this labyrinth, that the geometric forms of the carpet came into existence. Does the form crystallize from the original chaos, or does the chaos result from the disintegration of the original form? Or do they give rise to each other? Or is there yet another possibility, one in which the embryos of order and chaos are hiding, as was indicated in the earlier story about Argie? And hasn’t this uncertainty about the basic essence of the place given rise to a city which is little more than a never-ending attempt to find an impossible answer?
Because of their struggle to define the relationship between reality and the ideal, the residents of Eudossia discovered that they had to live with a melancholy-inducing ambiguity that resulted from the undeniable possibility that all of the ideal truths are but a vain attempt to make sense of the original chaos of creation; indeed, that they themselves might well be trying to find a non-existing plan of the labyrinth in the futile hope that it would help us escape from the maze which holds us captive. The residents of the city Bersabea do not have such concerns and so do not suffer from that melancholy; instead they contentedly live enshrouded in a mistake that threatens each and every idealization, hierarchy of values, and targeted goal. To the residents of Bersabea the birthplace of order and the model for living is the heavenly city, a place which doesn’t have flaws or yield to change, doesn’t suffer from excess, and which will remain an archetype in perpetuity. And so they honor “everything which reminds them of the heavenly city, with the result that they hoard refined metals and rare stones, stifle passing fancies and cultivate level-headed and moderate ways.” Their relationship to the ideal image reveals itself in the way that they revere and hoard things, suppress what is transient, and curb what is excessive.
But aren’t these activities simply an expression of avarice, in the form of a craving after property; of cowardice, as seen by their inability to take risks; and finally of a yearning for the enthrallment of themselves and others? And doesn’t each ideal image, which should be venerated, which should express truth and unity, in fact spring from this craving after and hoarding of property? Isn’t, in reality, the picture that the citizens of Bersebea have of heaven an image of hell, a concentration of all evil? And isn’t the true heavenly archetype therefore the one that wrenches itself free from this image? That, which the residents of Bersabea — and not only them — imagine to be the gloomiest place in the world? Isn’t it a place of no account, a scrap heap, a cesspool, where everything is to be found that was left out of all the hoarding, possessing, and self-controlling — everything, that is to say, that rots and putrefies.Such a space would be an archetype of purity and freedom and would deserve a place in heaven. “And at the zenith above Bersabea circles a heavenly body which deflects back all the affluence of the city and instead contains the hoard of things that have been cast out: it is a planet of quivering potato skins, broken umbrellas, discarded socks, sparkling shards of glass, lost buttons, candy wrappers, used tram tickets, fingernail clippings, kernels of corn, and egg shells.”
The residents of Bersabea wanted to possess, hoard, and control; their cravings created an immutable — and therefore lifeless — heavenly configuration. However, that which is solid disintegrates, and its pieces, getting scattered about and lost, no longer belong to anyone. Similarly, anything that has been given a precisely defined purpose inevitably develops problems and stops working. In Bersabea, it can be said, this disintegration, dispossession, and failure to function were the only indications that there was any life in the city. Tecla is a city of scaffolding, a city where they are always building. Here they have scaffolding on which they build more scaffolding, and cranes which raise more cranes. Tecla doesn’t need to protect itself against disintegration, because it isn’t and never will be completed, will never be whole and functioning, will never be anybody’s property. Its life is an ascending that will never achieve a final, fixed, and proprietary order.
The residents of this city, living on scaffolding that holds up other scaffolding, which in its turn holds up yet more scaffolding, are evidently satisfied with this way of life. It doesn’t seem as though they are bothered by the problems of order and chaos like the residents of Eudossia are. They presume that order produces itself in the course of the birth and destruction of forms, that it arises as a succession of transient strategies, “working plans” which are applied to the present moment and then expire; that beyond a succession of such transient strategies there exists no other order. Is the carpet of Eudossia truly eternal and unchanging? Won’t its colors run, revealing that there are holes in it? Weren’t there other carpets before it, and isn’t the carpet a reminder of the carpets that it replaced and an auger of the carpets that will, one day, replace it?
The city of Tecla looks at first glance to be an uninhabitable place, but perhaps it is precisely this sense of the uninhabitable that best expresses the essence of all dwellings — perhaps it is only possible to live on scaffolding, and it is always on scaffolding that one is living. Perhaps in this way the city resembles the universe, and so it isn’t necessary to ask what it is that the city mimics and what in turn is mimicked by it, what came before and what after. The city is part of the universe and so the residents might well be building their city according to the cosmic model — but isn’t this regard for the cosmic model something they only noticed incidentally, in the course of a construction that began without any particular aim or purpose, from a cosmic rhythm that works through their hands, eyes, and brain? “Night is descending onto the construction site. A night full of stars. — That is our project, they will tell you.”
The life and times of the cities of Eudossia, Bersabea, and Tecla have been linked with the question about the relationship between the earthly city and the heavenly archetype. In the first of these cities we could see an ambiguity in the relationship, in the second city a mistake which has permeated into all of the established archetypes, while the residents of the third city found an archetype which isn’t an archetype, because it is in a constant state of demolition, never finishing itself and only prescribing for itself yet more change.
In all three cities, then, there are uncertainties to be found regarding the relation between the city and the heavenly archetype. Perinzia is a city in which, it would appear, the relationship to any kind of archetype and any kind of order is denied. While in Eudossia the order was disturbed by disorder, “the braying of a mule, the begriming from soot, the stench of fish, (…) buildings, which collapse one after the other into clouds of dust, (…) fires and cries in the dark,” in Perinzia everything is much worse, here we meet bearded woman and three-headed children with six legs. Two explanations are offered for this state of affairs, and it isn’t clear which of them is more appalling: either the dis-order governing the city is a reflection of the dis-order which governs the universe, or the order that governs in the universe is quite inaccessible and reveals itself only as a delusion. Is it worse to live in a cosmos which doesn’t have any order but, in holding out the possibility of conflating the human and divine dis-orders, at least offers up some kind of meaning (even if a paradoxical one), or to live in a cosmos whose order is always unapproachable and hidden, where we can never touch upon its meaning but at least we know that it exists, and so can dream about it?
In Andrie the relationship between the city and heaven acquires yet another form. The routes of the streets follow the course of the planets and the order of the city reflects the order of the constellations and the stars. This analogy is, however, so perfect, the city so resembles the universe, that the differences between the two quite disappear, including the difference between that which is the model and that which is the copy. And so not only do changes in the heavens cause changes in the city but, alternatively, each change in Andrie brings about some new manifestation in the universe. “After each change that happens in the city astronomers peering out at the heavens discover the explosion of a new nova or the change from orange to gold of some remote point of light on the celestial vault, or the expansion of some nebula, or the twisting of some thread of the Milky Way.” It isn’t possible to determine what is original and what is reflected; both are interweaved into the network of similarities and influences. That which is illustrated by a metaphor is itself the metaphor of its metaphor — in Andrie, the metaphorical network has a cosmic dimension.
This reciprocity of cause and effect is extraordinary, because it was just said — unequivocally — that Andrie was created according to the plan of the cosmic order; the order of the cosmos must, then, have preceded the design of the city. So where did the model, the city, get the capacity to actually change its template, the cosmic order? Is a magical analogy operating here, a secret signature of numbers? Or is it instead about circular motion, which is facilitated by the tension present in each and every order. The being of an order doesn’t rest in immutability; the same power which builds the order also causes it to change, there is present in any order an eternal unrest, an eternal longing after change — from where else should an order instigate change than from its own contents? These contents are never perfect: mistakes are found in them, aberrations, calamities, and even outright revolts against the order; the order, however, utilizes these unanticipated conflicts and differences towards the goal of creating new forms from them, and then metamorphoses itself into these new forms.
The residents of Andrie are cautious when it comes to planning changes in the city, but their caution is different from that of the residents of Bersabea. For it isn’t a caution born from the fear of taking chances but rather from the fact that they know that change must be undertaken with due care and diligence so that it will take root, so that it will find its way into the order and truly change it. Cheap gestures and showy rebellions against the order will mean nothing if they don’t change the order and, especially, if they don’t from the beginning prove to the power of the order that they are truly uncontrollable.
Published in The Cafe Irreal, Issue 31.
‘towards a poetic morphology’ installation by the cloud collective
‘towards a poetic morphology’, a temporary installation by the europe-based artist network the cloud collective, fills a small room with a landscape of letters, together forming robert walser’s poem ‘oppressive light’.
the piece was installed at la fabrique, a former textile printing factory, for the 22nd international poster and graphic design festival of chaumont in france. in the work, a small opening pathway invites visitors to explore the letters and forms, in a windowed room whose ambiance constantly changes with the sunlight and weather outdoors:
‘this arrangement in space– strongly affected by sunlight, time and weather– allows the text to slowly detach itself from its intrinsic meaning and to let form, typography and composition take over. the snowy landscape becomes malleable, thus creating a multitude of meanings for the observer.’
Georges Perec: An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris
One overcast weekend in October 1974, Georges Perec set out in quest of the “infraordinary”: the humdrum, the nonevent, the everyday—“what happens,” as he put it, “when nothing happens.” His choice of locale was Place Saint-Sulpice where, ensconced behind first one café window, then another, he spent three days recording everything to pass through his field of vision: the people walking by; the buses and driving-school cars caught in their routes; the pigeons moving suddenly en masse, as if in accordance to some mysterious command; the wedding (and then funeral) at the church in the center of the square; the signs, symbols, and slogans littering everything; and the darkness that eventually absorbs it all. In An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, Perec compiled a melancholic, slightly eerie, and oddly touching document in which existence boils down to rhythm, writing turns into time, and the line between the empirical and the surreal grows surprisingly thin.
The index of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project (1927-1940)
On Rona: an essay by Kathleen Jamie
While Stuart spoke to the birds, Jill communed with stones. First she concentrated on Saint Ronan’s chapel. It’s just a shell now, the stones of its western gable much collapsed. It stands at the southern wall of an enclosure, and within the enclosure is a little graveyard, very old. The turf has risen over the centuries, so the humble gravestones, hewn of the sparkly island feldspar, tilt this way and that like little sinking ships.
Nothing is known of Saint Ronan but his name, which, oddly, means “little seal”—as if he’d been a Rona selkie who’d swapped his sealskin for the habit of a monk. Doubtless he was one of the early Scots-Irish monks who sailed from his monastery to seek “a desert place in the sea” where he could live a life of austerity and prayer. Hundreds of years later, the people built the chapel in his name and buried their dead beside it. Now those people are gone, too, and their graveyard is a poignant place.
But suddenly it was en fête. This was Jill’s doing. One day she went around the graveyard and festooned it with little orange flags on wires, one beside every stone, and the flags snapped in the breeze, so the cemetery seemed to be celebrating a day of the dead. She was plotting the grave markers on a chart; the orange flags helped her see them as she measured their distance from a baseline: a measuring tape strung across the enclosure wall to wall. She was doing this because the stones were going missing. By studying black-and-white photographs from the 1930s or ’50s, she could tell that the stone crosses were being quietly stolen away—and by dint of wind and weather, the medieval chapel was ever more collapsed. It troubled her. The chapel, village, and all the surrounding fields are a scheduled ancient monument, in the care of the state, but the state is far away and has more pressing concerns. So Jill said, “We can at least plot them, so there’s a record of what there was.” Really, she’d like to get people out here, experts from official agencies, an architect, or a drystone diker, who could do some discreet shoring up and save the chapel from complete ruination.
One bright afternoon I held measuring poles and called out the numbers she needed, while Jill, a black baseball cap pulled over her thick hair, bent over a board and mapped the people’s graves.
Of course it made us think of them. The long-dead people whose graves we knelt on. We called them “them” and spoke about them every day. How did they live, what were their lives like, these people who’d managed for generations out here alone in the sea?
The Rona people weren’t unique, they were Gaels, part of the wider culture of the Western Isles; and as Jill kept reminding us, the sea then was a conduit, not a barrier. Nonetheless they lived a long way from any neighbors, had to fend for themselves with their fields and few cattle and sea birds’ eggs. But by the time Martin Martin wrote his travel journal of the Western Isles in 1695, the people were already gone. “That ancient race,” he called them, “perfectly ignorant of most of those vices that abound in the world”—and when you wander round their village and look out at the uninterrupted sea, you know why.
Ronan’s name is known, but the names of those buried under the turf are lost, save for one tantalizing detail, which Martin provides: the Rona people, he says “took their surname from the colour of the sky, rainbow and clouds.”
“Such work,” Jill would say, as we strolled through the overgrown fields. When I asked her who had first come to Rona, if it was Neolithic or Bronze Age people or what, she just smiled and said, “Ooh, we don’t know, do we?” The sea may have been the highway then, but it was still a long way to venture in a skin-covered boat.
The work indeed. All those acres of undulating fields, built up by hand of the scant earth and seaweed. Outwith the enclosing dike lay the rest of the island, which the people must have known down to every blade of grass, every stone. They must have felt acutely the turning of the seasons, the need to lay down stores and supplies, because summer was brief. We arrived in early July, when bog cotton was in bloom, soft white tufts facing into the wind. Two weeks later, its seeds clung to rocks and grasses, or were out to sea and lost.
Daily, our sense of time slowed, days expanded like a wing. The days were long in the best, high-summer sense; at night we put up storm shutters on the bothy window to make it dark enough to sleep. Time was clouds passing, a sudden squall, a shift in the wind. Often we wondered what it would do to your mind if you were born here and lived your whole life within this small compass. To be named for the sky or the rainbow and live in constant sight and sound of the sea. After a mere fortnight I felt lighter inside, as though my bones were turning to flutes.
Saint Ronan rode to Rona on the back of a sea monster, so the legend says. Monster or boat, he’d have jumped ashore giving prayers of thanks sometime in the eighth century.
Whether he was really alone, as romanticists would have it, or whether others came with him—monks, lay penitents, men without women—well, as Jill would say, we don’t know, do we? Surely it would have taken more than one to do the spadework; even saints must eat. And if there were people on Rona already, people who knew exactly how many souls the island would support, watching as the Christians’ boat drew nearer—we don’t know that either.
But we know what the saint sought, because on faraway Rona, there survives something unique. A tiny building. To enter, you must first enter the chapel. Then, low on the eastern gable is another doorway, just a square of darkness with a lintel of white quartz, as though it were Neolithic. You have to crawl, but once inside you can stand freely. At first it seems wholly dark, and it smells of damp earth, but as your eyes adjust, stars of daylight begin to spangle here and there overhead, where, over the many centuries, the stones have slipped a little; so after a while, it’s like being in a wild planetarium.
Darkness, earth—and a sudden quiet; no wind or surf—you find yourself in a place from which all the distracting world is banned. Then you see the stonework. The little oratory is beautifully made, and has stood for twelve hundred years. A low stone altar stands against the east wall. So there is one thing we know of the saint—he had a feel for stone; strong hands. Or someone did. Having sailed here and claimed this island of sea light and sky and seals and crying birds, he built himself a world-denying cell.
Two or three times, when Stuart was inquiring of the birds, and Jill of stones, I crept into the oratory and waited till my eyes adjusted to the low light. I went warily, because a fulmar had made her nest in a corner; too close and she’d spit. A fulmar guarded the saint’s cell, and it was strange to think there were Leach’s petrels secreted in the walls. Seabirds, named for Saint Peter, who walked on water, had colonized a cell built by a saint named for a seal.
I crept in just to wonder what he did in there, Ronan; to imagine him right there, in front of the altar, wrapped in darkness, rapt in prayer, closed off from the sensory world, the better to connect with—what?
Printed in A Public Space, Issue 16.
An excerpt from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1972)
In psychogeography, a dérive is an unplanned journey through a landscape, usually urban, on which the subtle aesthetic contours of the surrounding architecture and geography subconsciously direct the travellers, with the ultimate goal of encountering an entirely new and authentic experience. Situationist theorist Guy Debord defines the dérive as “a mode of experimental behavior linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances.” The dérive grants a rare instance of pure chance, an opportunity for an utterly new and authentic experience of the different atmospheres and feelings generated by the urban landscape.
In his study Paris et l’agglomération parisienne (Bibliothèque de Sociologie Contemporaine, P.U.F., 1952) Chombart de Lauwe notes that “an urban neighborhood is determined not only by geographical and economic factors, but also by the image that its inhabitants and those of other neighborhoods have of it.” The process of defamiliarization disentangles things from cultural conventions and symbolic systems, and restores their perceptual immediacy, a vivid sense of their materiality. Defamiliarizing the urban landscape discloses the possibility that things might be different—bringing light to the hidden agency of objects and boundaries to suggest new ways of practicing enclosure, framing, and spatial attentiveness.