New Blog




Hi everyone,

If you are following the city module blog or enjoy its urban content I’ve now moved to a new blog entitled the IUD research blog. Please check it out.

I work with a group entitled the Institute for Urban Dreaming. The new blog reflects our research interests. We will be launching a new website also in November 2014 for IUD. Have a look at the new site and follow it.

Thanks for all you support to date.







Observation & the Everyday – Rhythms, Fragments & the Infra-ordinary

What can one learn about the world just by stopping and looking at the city? Do we really observe what is actually taking place before us or do we simply concentrate on what interests or intrigues us? Are we more concerned with the unusual, the exotic or the peculiar rather than the legion of ordinary details that occur before us? The French writer George Perec turned his gaze onto the ordinary and the everyday details, movements and rhythms around him terming it the ‘infra-ordinary’. Perec, like other writers like Henri Lefebvre, has inspired many researchers to explore this realm as an valuable  area of exploration.

What speaks to us, seemingly, is always the big event, the untoward, the extra-ordinary: the front-page splash, the banner headlines. Railway trains only begin to exist when they are derailed, and the more passengers that are killed, the more the trains exist. Aeroplanes achieve existence only when they are hijacked. The one and only destiny of motor-cars is to drive into plane trees. Fifty-two weekends a year, fifty-two casualty lists: so many dead and all the better for the news media if the figures keep going up! Behind the event there is a scandal, a fissure, a danger, as if life reveals itself only by way of the spectacular, as if what speaks, what is significant, is always abnormal: natural cataclysms or social upheavals, social unrest, political scandals…

What’s needed perhaps is finally to found our own anthropology, one that will speak about us, will look in ourselves for what for so long we’ve been pillaging from others. Not the exotic anymore, but the endotic.”

Perec offers us an approach for looking at the everyday world around us. It asks us to slow ourselves down, look, be reflexive and question our own frameworks of perception.

“You must set about it more slowly, almost stupidly. Force yourself to write down what is of no interest, what is most obvious, most common, most colourless…. Make an inventory of your pockets, of your bag…Question your teaspoons…”

Perec argues that in this process we need:

“To question what seems so much a matter of course that we’ve forgotten its origins. To rediscover something of the astonishment that Jules Verne or his readers may have felt faced with an apparatus capable of reproducing and transporting sounds. For the astonishment existed, along with thousands of others, and it’s they which have moulded us.”

This week will focus on a project Perec undertook in 1974 where he spent three successive days (a Friday, Saturday and Sunday) observing everyday life in the Place Saint-Sulpice in Paris. Each day he chose a different cafe to sit in to observe the space.

“My intention… was to describe…that which is not taken note of, that which has no importance: what happens when nothing happens other than the weather, people, cars, and clouds.”

Perec examines the world as it appears to him. He is not interested in abstractions but in the things, the movements, the micro-events and the behaviours of people. He does reflect on his attention and how a cup of espresso may produce a different result to a bottle of water (Vittel).

See Michael Sheringham Everyday Life: Theories and Practices from Surrealism to the Present, Chapter 7.

Initially, William H. Whyte studied issues of urban planning and design, until 1969, when he assisted the New York City Planning Commission in drafting a comprehensive plan. While working with the Commission, he came to wonder how these newly planned spaces were actually working out.

No one had researched this before.

He applied for and received a grant to study the street life in New York and other cities in what became known as the Street Life Project. With a group of young research assistants, and camera and notebook in hand, he conducted pioneering studies on pedestrian behavior and research on city dynamics.

The Street of Crocodiles – Surrealism & the Street

‘“Transform the world,”  proclaimed Marx; “change life,” argued Rimbaud.  Andre Breton, Surrealism’s self appointed leader, noted that both these sentiments ‘are one for us’. Capitalism, the Surrealists argued, had created an everyday that was alienated and impoverished. They felt we needed a personal as well as a social revolution. For them the everyday was not the realm of the banal that it appeared to be. It was our habits of mind or the habitual ways in which we engaged with the world that caused us perceive and experience it that way. For them the everyday, if truly revealed, was in fact the realm of the marvellous.

In order to break free from these habitual ways of being they explored a number of strategies. The use of ‘psychic automatism,’ thought without control, was one such attempt to negate the limiting control of reason. Here they engaged in such practices as automatic writing, hypnotic trances, the game of creating ‘exquisite corpses’ or any method that made the subject responsive to chance encounters. What they looked for was the ‘spark’ produced by such juxtapositions to open up the mind to the true nature of the world. In this instant ones suppressed psychological landscape merged with the outer world in a true experience of the world they termed ‘surreality’.

Another such strategy for liberation was to explore the city, seek out its edges and forgotten corners in an attempt to find the raw, the primitive, the natural and the out moded. All of these had the potential to disrupt the bourgeois coherence that was paraded as ‘reality’.  The transformative spark, they believed, could also be found through chance encounters in the street.

The pre-war paintings by the metaphysical painter Giorgio de Chirico offered them a glimpse of topography where the personal inner world and the outer physical realm merged into a haunting dream surreality.

“How often have we found ourselves in that  square where everything seems so close to  existence and yet bears so little resemblance to what really exists. It was here, more than  anywhere else, that we held our invisible meetings.” Andre Breton, Le Surrealisme et La Peinture.

Dialogues With History – Rephotography & Photo Elicitation

This weeks lecture examines how photographic practitioners can use historical archives, both institutional and personal, as a springboard for engaging with the people, places and stories of the city. It does this through examining the techniques of repeat photography or rephotography as it is also known by and the technique of photo elicitation.

Berenice Abbott’s work Changing New York for instance, captured for many the city as it was in the 1930’s. Between 1997 and 2003 Douglas Levere photographed the same sites as Abbott did using an 8×10 Century Universal camera like Abbott had. attaching a transparency of Abbott’s image onto his cameras ground glass he achieved the same angle of view. He also photographed at the same time of year and time of day as Abbott had. If the weather was bad he often waited a year before trying again. The resulting work was a classic repeat photography project he entitled New York Changing.The visual dialogue the new body of work creates next to Abbott’s originals reveals how much New York has changed over the sixty years since the initial record was made.

Rephotography comes from the original concept of repeat photography. Repeat photography is a technique that has been used in the natural sciences as far back as the 1880s to monitor changes in the landscape.

Douglas Levere was influenced by Mark Klett’s work Second View: The Rephotography Survey Project. This project from the late 1970’s rephotographed sites initially recorded by William Henry Jackson and Timothy O’Sullivan in the 1860’s & 1870’s. The  Rephotography Survey Project (RSP) did images on over eighty five sites in several states.

In 1997 Klett began the next phase by returning to the same historic sites and undertaking another rephotographic survey entitled Third ViewIn a later work entitled Yosemite in Time: Ice Ages, Tree Clocks, Ghost Rivers he teamed up with Bryon Wolfe to produce a new take on the rephotography approach.

Recently there have been other new takes on the rephotography theme. The Russian photographer Sergey Larenkov takes elements from different historical eras and combines them effect in the same scene to dramatic.

The Arcades Project

The lecture examines the work of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project who saw the Second Empire
as the prototype for the emerging capitalist world. The arcades were not only temples of consumption
filled with an emerging’phantasmagoria’ that seduced the new consumers, Benjamin also believed
that they embodied ‘wish images’ of a world transformed still beyond our reach. Benjamin coined
the phrase ‘the ambiguity of the arcades’ to reflect their dual role as both the birthplace of commodity
fetishism and a radical vision of the world as one of plenty which inspired the likes of Charles Fourier.

The Emergence of Public Space in the Modern City

The 1789 Revolution 

Politically France went from:

A absolute monarchy under Louis XVI to

a constitutional monarchy to

a republic to

a period of ‘The Terror’ to

the rule of Napoleon.

Napoleon’s rule had the appearance of a republic but was really a type of ‘military monarchy’.  Although it betrayed the republics ideals economically the new order brought a liberal system of rights & economic prosperity.

“It created the basis of the capitalist economy in France, free from governmental directives, and was regulated strictly according to the system of open competition.”

Johann Friedrich Geist – Arcades- The History of a Building Type

Property owned by the church and the nobility was expropriated. These large areas of land in central Paris taken from the church and nobility were sold to private speculators.
This lecture looks at the development of public space with the opening up of the Palais Royal. With its covered walkways lined with shops it was the first urban public space that removed the pedestrian from the threat of traffic or the weather.
After dark it drew people to its nightlife and frivolity. It developed a legendary status that attracted
the attention of the rest of Europe. Private speculators who bought land tried to emulate its success
by building a network of arcades across parts of Paris (1799-1820)  (they were also referred to as a
‘Galerie’,or ‘Passage’). Like the Palais Royal they permitted the newly developing citizenry to
experience their freedoms by allowing them to roam the city protected from traffic and the elements.