History and Theory

Cities & Citizens

People and place

"The dissolution of mankind into monads of which each one has a separate principle and a separate purpose, the world of atoms, is here carried out to its utmost extreme"

This world of atoms still has a strong presence in the city, but to me there is an even stronger feeling that these atoms-as the atoms in nature-interact and form clusters. These complicated clusters go about their business seemingly doing nothing important.

As the clusters interact in ways often impossible to trace (since thoughts cannot as molecules be tagged with radioactivity) something that can only be seen by the most sensitive observer emerges. This is picked up and processed by numerous other clusters until the product is to complex to comprehend at the scale of clusters.

Looking at it more closely only makes it worse. The tools for looking closely are highly refined and incorporated into society but there is no known way of getting further away from the subject studied, no known way of getting an overview. If it was possible what would you look for.

WG Sebald in 'The Rings Of Saturn" gets a literal overview when flying over the Netherlands He sees houses, cars, roads and fields but no people. This is actually something I have noticed, every-time I fly from LuleƄ to Stockholm I desperately try to spot a person as the aircraft approaches or leaves the airport. Depending on the winds you sometimes fly over villages and small town and other times only over fields and farmhouses, I have never ever seen a human being from an aircraft.

Sebalds descriptions of the city are from the viewpoint of a traveller. But since living in the city means travelling through more or less unknown territory every day the traveller and the city dweller have the same gaze for at least periods of the day.

A gaze that turns people and objects into one experience of city. This experience is at the same time very intense and very remote. Since you are isolated the experience of separation between inside-your head-and outside-the city-becomes very strong. Sebalds stories about fantastical, horrific or strange lives seem to suggest that he has a strong sense of the lives being led by the people who cross his path and the lives that has been led on the streets and in the houses.

Not speculation about individual lives but a general feeling being mediated through the city fabric. A vague mood that can only be described through stories and metaphors. Perhaps a small fragment of the bigger picture whose essence is the feeling itself not the stories.

Certain parts of the city make you feel uncomfortable. The places vary with your identity, knowledge and wallet. The mechanisms are-I believe-very simply a question of security. Perhaps not always physical but emotional. You don't want to risk asking for the price of an item you cant afford, or when the next bus comes with the wrong accent. Being part of a minority must create more of these possibly dangerous situations. I must say that most places in London have a cultural mix making the risk of being the odd one out minimal, but perhaps I choose not to go to the other places.

Does living in the city always mean opening your front door and becoming a stranger as to step onto the street? Adrian Forty claims that 'anonymity and alienation are intrinsic parts of urban life'. He also seems to support Hilberseimers idea that urban life has no place for communities, that people have no interest in knowing each other.

This is probably true, but as I argued above are those feelings not closely connected to travelling. Most people do come home to a home don't they. Are not the periods of alienation temporary, locked in physical space? Only existing in any strong sense between your destinations.

I have only lived in a city a small portion of my life (19 months) but I have already seen plenty of evidence of communities. There are obvious examples of community activities based on religion, cultural identity, drinking and sports. Since most of these manifest themselves in built form and more often than not have large signs proclaiming exactly what they do and when, they are hard to miss. Occasional loud singing or cheering from many voices gives proof that people are actually using the buildings.

I worked for two weeks in a shop opposite where I used to live on Edgware road (Euronics cooker centre). One of my colleagues-who were from the neighbourhood-could hardly step outside the shop without someone coming up to talk to him. The shop next door was a hardware shop and whenever we needed something small we got it for free. When I walk to university the keeper of my regular Off-licence always greet me as I pass.

These are signs of place aren't they? If they are London is either incapable of 'creating modern culture' or Adrian Forty and Hilberseimer are wrong.

Is it not true that city streets have their communities, but they work in the opposite way of the village street? In a village street a stranger stands out, in a city street a known face stands out.

For the city person the home is an accessory, a crucial statement of social status, aspirations and personality, in short identity. The anonymous buildings designed by Hilberseimer follow a very strange logic where the needs of the individual are mixed up with the form of society as a whole.

You can be anonymous in the city street but most people still have friends and friends want to know where you live. People you meet in bars, on the tube and in Museums want to know where you live. If the address is wrong they might well loose interest.

I don't think this means that architecture has to become short term and fashion guided. Because short term, does not seem to affect the sense of place in a positive way.

My conclusion must be that most academic methods and writing seem to strive in the wrong direction. If the subject matter is a gigantic sphere the academics try to thread a way from a point on the surface into the core of sphere where they believe the 'truth' is. I believe that what is interesting is the surface of the sphere, but to understand it you need extreme sensibilities or a proper overview.