New Blog

 

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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.

 

John

 

 

 

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 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.

The Completist Strategy

W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh Project

This week’s afternoon lecture featured Eugene Smith’s legendary Pittsburgh project as an example of a more extreme ‘completist’ strategy to uncovering the urban. Smith famously undertook the freelance job in 1955 after quitting Life magazine and joining Magnum. Tired of the constraints imposed by Life’s editorial board, Smith saw that Pittsburgh offered him the chance to create a new type of work that spoke of the complexity of the world itself. He wanted to take the photo-essay to new ends, to create a photo story that would depict the city as if it were ‘a single collective person’. For Smith, a photojournalist had to get ‘to the heart of something.’ Simply showing the surface was not enough. As he noted he was not content with simply being a ‘seeing’ photographer.

“The greatest responsibility of the photo historian or journalist is the search through the maze of conflictions to the island of intimate understanding, of the mind, of the soul, amid circumstances that both create and are created by – and then to render with intelligence, with artistic eloquence, a correct and breathing account of what is found, and popular fancy, myth can be damned. Meaning: to get to the guts of the matter and show the bastards as they are.

Despite the limitations of the photo-essay Smith believed that it still offered him a means of ‘coherent interpretation’ as it links the artist-journalist to the world and to their audience. In his attempt weave together the complex themes that made up Pittsburgh he drew on sources such as Joyce’s Ulysses, on Faulkner’s writing and Jazz.

Engaging The Sensorium

This weeks lecture discusses the idea of “the project’ as a means to engage with the urban environment. It asks students to consider how the use of different media and technology could be utilised to uncover the complex layering of the processes and sociality that orchestrate and produce urban space. It asks photographers to consider how audio could open up the hidden layers through oral histories and the use of soundscapes. It poses the question what other elements of the sensorium could be engaged as a different type of lens to engage the urban.

Key Project: The Hackney Podcasts