Tag Archives: Cities

Misgivings of Invisible Cities

236219And Polo said: “Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.”

“When I ask you about other cities, I want to hear about them. And about Venice when I ask you about Venice.”

“To distinguish other cities’ qualities, I must speak of a first city that remains implicit. For me it is Venice.” (78)

This is all about Venice, so says the back and so says the passage above. So why is it European traveler Marco Polo expounding upon, explaining cities to emperor Kublai Khan? Why are these cities all set in the East, reimagined with camels and goats and that fantastical but fairly boring and predictable menagerie of dwarves and bearded women and other familiar sideshow freaks, or naked women of astounding beauty? Why do all the fabled cities seem to have the names of women, are referred to as female and lie there fairly inert for male gazes, male discoveries, male nudges and winks? Perhaps Khan captures it all when he says to Polo:

…So then, yours is truly a journey through memory!…It was to slough off a burden of nostalgia that you went so far away!” (88)

But how boring that this is once more a novel of ennui, however unusual. How predictable, how everything-Said-wrote about orientalism and it being nothing more than European fears and desires on display, picked and mixed in the furtherance of domination. It may be meant as an immensely clever and witty exploration of just such a phenomenon, but I don’t think it escapes it.

The short vignettes of Invisible Cities, labeled things such as ‘Thin Cities’, ‘Trading Cities’, ‘Cities & Desire’, ‘Cities & Signs’, one could almost believe them intellectual exercises if they did not also seem to be named after former lovers. Perhaps those are not mutually exclusive. Each describes a city and ends in a paragraph of lofty metaphor that perhaps has something to do with its category. Perhaps not.

Some of these are lovely. Yet for me they could not escape my distaste with this form, they seemed forced somehow, like the intellectual boys in university trying to one-up one another over dinner. This has been on my list to read for ages, pushed forward by a quote I loved in Nabeel Hamdi’s book on development, Small Change, he quoted this:

However, it is pointless to try to decide whether Zenobia is to be classified among happy cities or among the unhappy. It makes no sense to divide cities into these two species, but rather into a different two: those that through the years and the changes continue to give form to their desires and those in which desires either erase the city or are erased by it.

It is so true we are both shaped by and shape our cities, and this reminded me of the rallying call around building the city of our heart’s desire (I knew it from Harvey, but I just read it somewhere else and quite remember where but was surprised…).

So alone I rather like some of these thoughts, they deserve more attention perhaps. but I wonder if they are not just empty cleverness. I have copied a few last sentences that I think could be either…

Desires are already memories (7)

…you believe you are enjoying Anastasia wholly when you are only its slave. (10)

The earth has forgotten her. (13)

Each city receives its form from the desert it opposes; and so the camel driver and the sailor see Despina, a border city between two deserts. (15)

Memory is redundant: it repeats signs so that the city can begin to exist. (19)

The one contains what is accepted as necessary when it is not yet so; the others, what is imagined as possible and, a moment later, is possible no longer. (28)

There are more, but I tire. I think for a few aphorisms to illustrate an intellectual point this is a good place to go, but I was sad I did not love it as others seem to.

I did, however, love the city (the city of Cecilia? Really?) that grew to encompass the goatherder. He recognized countryside and landmarks of vegetation but became lost in cities, still his goats remembered the grass after the suburbs spread. They recognised the grass on the traffic island. I never imagine Venice having extensive suburbs that blend seamlessly into the neighboring city eating up the country, so perhaps it is not entirely about Venice after all.


William Whyte: The Social Life of Small Urban Places

552476Truly one of the greats of urban planning, I loved this pivotal look at how you study public space and what you learn from the practice.

Not that it’s scintillating reading.

Instead it is steady and deep, and based on actual observation. For instance, their study of the spaces that are most used and where most people sit, after sifting all the evidence they find the one common variable is:

People tend to sit where there are most places to sit.

This may not strike you as an intellectual bombshell, and, now that I look back on our study, I wonder why it was not more apparent to us from the beginning…the most attractive fountains, the most striking designs, cannot induce people to come and sit if there is no place to sit.

The sad reality is that almost no one planning and building public spaces actually fills them with places to sit. The sad fact of common sense, is that design often draws on different understandings of the world that clash with how spaces are actually used and loved. Books like this allow you to bring this up in an educated manner with a weight of evidence behind you.

Or carry out your own study. The importance of this cannot be underestimated, public space is key to our wellbeing and getting it right changes how we live and how we move through the city:

…an elemental point about good urban spaces: supply creates demand. A good new space builds a new constituency. It stimulates people into new habits — al fresco lunches — and provides new paths to and from work, new places to pause. It does all this very quickly. (16)

How to judge the success of a space?  Look for people in groups —  people meet places that are known, that are liked and that are safe. They have decided to go there on purpose. You also look for a higher than average number of women:

Women are more discriminating than men as to where they will sit, more sensitive to annoyances, and women spend more time casting the various possibilities. (18)

This is true I think, as women are more subject to harassment and annoyance. Off-peak use often gives best clues to people’s preferences, people sit wherever they can when a place is jammed but they sit where they like best when it is not.

An interesting note on behaviour, and one that rings true even though I have greater hopes for squares and things:

Plazas are not ideal places for striking up acquaintances, and even on the most sociable of them, there is not much mingling. When strangers are in proximity, the nearest thing to an exchange is what Erving Goffman has called civil inattention.  (19)

But William Whyte notes that activities happening in the space — performances, food vendors, sculpture but particularly performance — make it more likely people will talk to strangers, share thoughts as they share an experience.

I love the insight that people say one thing when asked what they want, but actually they want a particular version of it:

What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people. If I belabor the point, it is because many urban spaces are being designed as though the opposite were true, and that what people liked best were the places they stay away from. People often do talk along such lines; this is why their responses to questionnaires can be so misleading. How many people would say they like to sit in the middle of a crowd? Instead they speak of getting away from it all, and use terms like “escape,” “oasis,” “retreat.” What people do, however, reveals a different priority. (19)

People feel safer in a crowd, less conspicuous, it becomes more of an oasis I think if there are five people in a courtyard establishing its publicness and safety, than if you are alone. Though sometimes I like being alone. There are plenty of insights about sitting here…like it is good to be comfortable. but

It’s more important, however, that it be socially comfortable. This means choice: sitting up front, in back, to the side, in the sun, in the shade, in groups, off alone. (28)

Whyte describes how people always adjust moveable chairs before sitting down, even if it’s just a couple of inches. Hell, I do it too. He writes:

Circulation and sitting, in sum, are not antithetical but complementary.

You walk, you sit, the two go together. And where do you sit? For all the sitters in the world this rings true:

Benches are artifacts the purpose of which is to punctuate architectural photographs. They’re not so good for sitting. (33)

He writes about when people stop to talk to someone chance met, they don’t step aside but usually do it ‘smack in the center of the flow’ (21). And damn, that is also so true. And hell of annoying.

What is not to love about this little piece of urban spatial poetry?

Foot movements are consistent, too. They seem to be a sort of silent language. Often, in a shmoozing group no one will be saying anything. Men stand bound in amiable silence, surveying the passing scene. Then, slowly, rhythmically, one of the men rocks up and down: first on the ball of the foot, then back on the heel. He stops. Another man starts the same movement. Sometimes there are reciprocal gestures. One man makes a half turn to the right. Then, after a rhythmic interval, another responds with a half turn t the left. Some kind of communication seems to be taking place here, but I’ve never broken the code. (22)

I don’t know the code either, but I like it.

This explains the horribleness of Wilshire Boulevard’s wind tunnel in Los Angeles, or how damn cold Canary Wharf and other downtown areas get:

…very tall, free-standing towers can generate tremendous drafts down their sides. This has in no way inhibited the construction of such towers, with the result, predictably, that some spaces are frequently uninhabitable. (44)

I agree that you need food, street cafes and I love his love of street vendors, I agree the more the better. I never understood the passion of planners to shut them down. You know them, you talk to people in line, they are vital parts of the community, full of gossip and helping make places safe. I love them. My heart breaks when the police come and destroy everything and take them away.

Anyway, one last comment on the chapter, titled: ‘The Undesirables.’ It could use a better title. The ‘undesirables’ are our people too and that is unkind, yet you know that is how too many people thing of them and this chapter is written for them. To counteract their bum-proof benches and surveillance cameras and gates and spikes and all those horrible things that make you despair of our society.

Whyte writes:

Places designed with distrust get what they were looking for and it is in them, ironically, that you will most likely find a wino…it is the empty places they prefer; it is in the empty places that they are conspicuous–almost as if, unconsciously, the design was contrived to make them so.

Fear proves itself. (61)

The best way to handle this issue is to make the space attractive to everyone. To have people in them who take care of the space, mediate issues. To understand we are a community and there are other ways to deal with problems than to lock people away or force them elsewhere.

But that is the big fight, no? And this book one tool to fight for public space that promotes sociality, conviviality, community.

[Whyte, William H. (1980) The Social Life of Small Urban Places. Washington D.C.: The Conservation Foundation.]


Paris, Baudelaire and Spleen (mostly my own)

Baudelaire - Paris SpleenWho has not, in bouts of ambition, dreamt this miracle, a poetic prose, musical without rhythm or rhyme, supple and choppy enough to accommodate the lyrical movement of the soul, the undulations of reverie, the bump and lurch of consciousness?

It is above all in the habit of huge cities, the endless meeting of their ways, that this obsessive ideal originates. you have yourself wished to put into song the glazier’s grating cry, and render in lyrical prose its heartbreaking resonances, carried up to attic rooms higher than the mist in the street. (3)
— 26 August, 1862

I first read that quote reading Walter Benjamin, and I loved it. There is something about the city that I long to capture, to express, to give voice.

Today in Westminster Abbey with sunshine and thunder outside and about to hear some wonderful baroque choir music and feeling maybe after all I love more in London than I was feeling I did
Today in Westminster Abbey with sunshine and thunder outside and about to hear some wonderful baroque choir music and feeling maybe after all I love more in London than I was feeling I did

Last night I sat in Westminster Abbey listening to Monteverdi’s ‘Vespers of 1610’  and almost cried knowing my words could never do what that music does, nor even capture what that soaring stone vaulting speaks (and god forbid my writing stay trapped in the side aisles growing full of ponderous stone monuments to vanity festooned with putti too fat to fly). Baudelaire, I wondered, what else do we share since we share this ambition? I had read Les Fleurs de Mal a long time ago, I think I struggled through it in French which is why I remember nothing.

Though there was indeed an absence of love in that absence of memory.

There are even so a few things in here I love. Baudelaire wasn’t talking about pulp perhaps, but I adore this quote:

And I quit my room raging with thirst, because wild addiction to bad literature had instilled in me a proportionate want of clear air and refreshment. (96)

And this? Though Baudelaire and I in fact share little to nothing, I do know this well:

10. One a.m.

Alone at last!…At last, the tyranny of the human face has gone, and my only source of suffering will be myself.

Horrible life! Horrible city!  (18)

Still, it goes deeper, this tyranny of the human face. Something in this early book prepared me for Nadja, for so many of the great men who write cities, write women, write themselves over and over again onto the page.

12. Crowds

It is not given to all to crowd-bathe: the enjoyment of crowds is an art; and only he can go, at the expense of mankind, on a reinvigorating spree whom in his cot a fairy wand has left the taste for masks and travesty, a loathing of home and a passion for travel.

Multitude, solitude: equivalent terms for the active and prolific poet. (22)

Why should this be ‘at the expense of mankind’? Yet it is, it is set up this way — artist v mankind. Artist alone and above and born to it, looking out but always looking down. The essence of this:

27. The Old Acrobat

There was no point in asking the poor fellow what marvels or curiosities he would conjure in the stinking gloom behind his ragged curtain. In truth I did not dare; and even though you might find the reason for my caution risible, I confess it came from a reluctance to humiliate him. (28)

The reluctance to humiliate being risible. To whom is he talking that compassion for an old man should be something of which he is ashamed? This is the nutshell I think, the point at which ‘art’ goes where I no longer wish to follow, yet it seems to be a masculine ideal belonging to many a writer and observer who care nothing for others.

Even when it has to do with cake. As in:

15. Cake

Oh glorious title! But so sad:

Before me stood a little human creature, ragged and blackened, with wild, deep-set, supplicant eyes that were devouring my bread. And I heard him moan in a hoarse, low voice the single word: cake! I could not hold back my laughter at the title he wanted to give my off-white bread… (29)

He doesn’t worry about humiliating a foreign child (it could even be little Dicky Perrot, and my heart breaks), only throws him a piece of bread and wonders at a country where two children will fight to the death for it and call it cake.

There are poems of equal callousness musing on mistresses, misogyny regarding wives, tropical fantasies of opium  and women that still contain glorious lines like:

beyond the veranda the noise of birds drunk on light… (48)

ph_0111201517-BaudelaireThe piece I have seen most quoted, describing Baudelaire and his mistress sitting in a new cafe on one of Haussman’s new boulevards and watching a family of people too poor to partake stare at them, drinking in the lights and the warmth and the food.

26. The Eyes of the Poor

As I turned my gaze to yours, my love, to read my own thoughts; as I immersed myself in your eyes…you said to me: “I cannot bear those people with their eyes out on stalks! Tell the waiter to get rid of them.”  (53)

Baudelaire has such eyes, does he not? An intensity to them. Yet I am angered that he seeks only to read his own thoughts in the eyes of a woman. Conflicted when I hate her response as much as he does.

Still, serves him right perhaps, what better woman would care to be with someone so self-centered? Reflect this, mother fucker, is one phrase that might come to mind, here and in another musing that mingles the profound with the sad with the profoundly self-obsessed:

35. Windows

An open window never reveals as much as one closed. There is nothing more profound, mysterious, fertile, shadowy, than a window lit by a candle. What is seen in sunlight is always less interesting than whatever occurs on the far side of a glass sheet. Within that cave, dark or illuminated, life lives, life dreams, life hurts.

Across undulating roofs, I perceive a mature woman, already wrinkled, poor, permanently stooping over something; a life spent indoors. With her face, her clothes, her movements, with almost nothing, I have recreated that woman’s story, her myth rather, and sometimes I weep as I tell it to myself.

Had it been a poor old man, I would have reconstructed his story as easily.

And I retreat to my bed, pleased I have lived and suffered not in myself but in someone else.

Perhaps you will ask me: “Are you sure you have the right myth?” But why should I care what the reality is outside myself, so long as it helped me to live, to feel that I am, to feel what I am? (76)

‘…pleased I have lived and suffered not in myself but in someone else.’ Profanity seems by far the best response since he cannot be slapped. But I will end with one of my favourite ones, as I favour asking things of wind, waves, stars and birds (but not clocks)…

33. Be Drunk

be drunk always. Nothing else matters; there are no other subjects. Not to feel the grim weight of Time breaking your backs and bending you double, you must get drunk and stay drunk.

But drunk on what? Wine, poetry, virtue — the choice is yours. Just be drunk.

And if sometimes, on a palace staircase, on the green grass of a ditch, in the gloomy isolation of your chamber, you wake sober or just a little tipsy, ask the wind, waves, stars, birds, clocks, ask anything that flies, moans, moves, sings, speaks, ask it the time. And the wind, wave, star, bird, clock will reply: “Time to get drunk! To avoid the enslaved martyrdom of Time, get drunk and stay drunk! On wine, poetry, virtue, the choice is yours!” (73)


A Pattern Language (or building anarchist utopia)

A Pattern LanguageThis is an extraordinary book, not least because I’d seen it referenced as an architectural handbook and a good source for thinking about public space. It is all that.

But really, it is quite a mad reimagining of our world as it could and should be, but at the same time serves as a blueprint of how to build it. After that final scene in V for Vendetta when the world is reduced to rubble and everyone is like oh shit, what next? You want to think through what happens after the revolution if you’d prefer not to find all the bondage leather you can carry and go off into the desert to kill other people other for fuel and for fun and for vaseline and always drive really fast?

Get this book. But why did no one say?

Maybe because the authors use the introduction to emphasize the ways that this new society can be built piecemeal, can grow organically within the old (but really, can it?). Still, I struggled to hold that in mind as I continued to read given they seem wildly prescriptive at times, pulling out studies and equations and optimal numbers as guides. Ultimately, I grant them, their larger ethos consists of building for the ways that people actually use space with a view to making them (and the earth) happiest. They write:

We believe that the patterns presented in this section can be implemented best by piecemeal processes, where each project built or each planning decision made is sanctioned by the community according as it does or does not help to form certain large scale patterns. We do not believe that these large patterns, which give so much structure to a town or of a neighborhood, can be created by centralized authority, or by laws, or by master plans. We believe instead that they can emerge gradually and organically, almost of their own accord, if every act of building, large or small, takes on the responsibility for gradually shaping its small corner of the world to make these larger patterns appear there (3).

As I say, this doesn’t stop them from thinking really big:

Wherever possible work toward the evolution of independent regions in the world; each with a population between 2 and 10 million; each with its own natural and geographic boundaries; each with its own economy; each one autonomous and self-governing; each with a seat in a world government, without the intervening power of larger states or countries. (14)

I didn’t realise that this is actually a part 2 (and there is a part 3, The Oregon Experiment). The earlier book, A Timeless Way of Building goes more into this fascinating idea of patterns and language and how we write them across the city. So I’ll wait to delve into that, this is way too long as it is. But essentially this book breaks up the components of cities, towns, neighbourhoods and homes into numbered pieces for assembly, ranging from 1. Independent regions to 37. House cluster to 135. Tapestry of Light and Dark to 204. Secret place (YES! Every home needs a secret place) to 253. Things from your life. It’s an impressive number and thoughtfulness of patterns. So what follows are a few that struck me in particular, but there is so much richness here in thinking about different kinds of spaces, and it pulls on a variety of literature, you’ll always be finding different things.

I don’t usually like quotes from native people’s taken out of context, but this one is beautiful, and a way of thinking we have moved far too much away from:

I conceive that land belongs for us to a vast family of which many are dead, few are living, and countless members are still unborn.
–a Nigerian tribesman (37)

The one place they completely lost me in the book — the whole 1166 pages of it — was their ‘mosaic of subcultures’. The principle here:

The homogenous and undifferentiated character of modern cities kills all variety of life styles and arrests the growth of individual character. (43)

I might agree with that, but how strange to go from that to neighborhoods divided up into subcultures and separated one from the other by belts of industry or other land uses? They write that this is so no one more powerful or wealthier subculture might be tempted to interfere with their neighbors, but this seems a deathknell to diversity and fortuitous mixings and glorious circumstance.

Funny that this emerges with their understanding of how people view property values and how they value homogeneity — things that I think this separation plays into even though such ideologies have been constructed for all of the wrong reasons and have immense negative effects. I am back to wondering why people just can’t seem to even attempt to grapple with class and race in the city. Probably something to do with class and race. Still. They grapple with a lot in this book, primarily physical space and how we live in it, and so I will allow it some exemptions given its already massive nature as utopian blueprint. But i would prefer an equality of class, race, gender, sexuality and etc to be explicit in that.

Hell, if they’re going to call for an evolution of independent regions a la Kropotkin, they can throw a little intersectionality in there.

But I do like acknowledging that ‘People need an identifiable spatial unit to belong to’ (81). That neighborhoods need to be small in number, small in area, and guess what, large streets driven through their middle destroys them.

I like the section on ‘The Magic of the City’, the ways that they are ‘rich, various, fascinating.’ (59) I like that they don’t really try to define it, just let it stand as it is. Because obviously, they just have some magic.

So do railways, and I love that the Swiss have a massive network that ties in the smallest villages to the largest towns after the ‘democratic railway movement’ of the 19th Century demanded and won that they do so. This has avoided some of the centralisation seen in France and England, maintaining the viability of smaller areas. Go Switzerland.

There is a whole section on how terrible high-rises are, and how they negatively impact the mental and social well-being of the people living within them. Children start playing outside later and less-often unattended and free, people feel isolated, it’s a larger barrier to get out into the world. There can be few casual interactions, you are removed from everything and no longer can feel part of the street and the life on it. A lot of this makes sense, though it also reminded me of the Doomwatch episode where the female scientist tests the new council highrises and has a nervous breakdown. You get the feeling it’s more because she’s female.

But I loved this poem from Glasgow

The Jelly Piece Song
By Adam McNaughton

I’m a skyscraper wean, I live on the nineteenth flair,
on’ I’m no’ gaun oot tae play ony mair
For since we moved tae oor new hoose I’m wastin’ away,
‘Cos I’m gettin’ was less meal ev’ry day

Oh, ye canny fling pieces oot a twenty-story flat
Seven hundred hungry weans will testify tae that
If it’s butter, cheese or jeely, if the breid is plain or pan,
The odds against it reachin’ us is ninty-nine tae wan.


We’re wrote away tae Oxfam tae try an’ get some aid,
We’ve a’ joined thegither an’ formed a “piece” brigade,
We’re gonny march tae London tae demand oor Civil Rights,
Like “Nae mair hooses ower piece flingin’ heights.” (117-118)

Moving on to 45.  ‘Necklace of community projects’, how cool is that? They write:

The local town hall will not be an honest part of the community which lives around it, unless it is itself surrounded by all kinds of small community activities and projects, generated by the people for themselves. (243)

These are political projects of opposition in part, but free and low-cost space for any number of things to begin, projects to come together, things to be created. Exactly the kind of spaces that real estate capital tends to destroy.

Pattern 47 is Health center — and they look at Peckham Health Center as a model. I’ve been meaning to look into that place for ages, and its early focus on staying healthy and thinking about it holistically rather than simply seeing health as the absence of disease.

Green streets? Yes please, many small residential roads do not need asphalt and would be perfectly lovely with paving stones or concrete treads for tires, allowing natural drainage, reducing heat trapped and use of non-renewable resources and making it feel good to be and play in. I’m in.

Lots of small public squares — wonderful. Here they make the point that the operative word is small, that it is small plazas that are most used unless there is a very large flow of people past a place. The authors have put so much time and thoughtfulness into this book, they suggest 60 feet in diameter (at least in width, long and skinny seems to work as well), bigger than that and places don’t feel used, vibrant.

The idea of outdoor rooms, both public and private — we should have them. It is true as they say that

There are very few spots along the streets of modern towns and neighborhoods where people can hang out comfortably, for hours at a time. (349)

I’d go further than that and say that such a thing would be frowned up and disapproved of in the US and UK these days, that kind of social fabric is something belonging to the past. There is to be no more enjoyment of time. Unless  maybe you’re on the Mediterranean, or Aegean.

We need to end speculation and profit on housing of course. Of course. ‘Rental areas are always the first to turn to slums.’ But as importantly,

People will only be able to feel comfortable in their houses, if they can change their houses to suit themselves, add on whatever they need, rearrange the garden as they like it… (394).

This is a book that describes thick living walls that can be carved out, shaped by incoming families. Niches made and filled. Gardens created. Rooms added on. Their rule of thumb for this pattern?

Do everything possible to make the traditional form of rental impossible, indeed, illegal. Give every household its own home, with space enough for a garden. Keep the emphasis in the definition of ownership on control, not on financial ownership (395).

They want to reinstitute the inn, a warm centre where strangers can stay, congregate, meet, entertain each other. Yes, I say.

Open space and gardens are used if they are sunny (with deserts being somewhat of an exception). So put them on the south side. How hard is that?

Connect your buildings, create some density, don’t create dead space between buildings! They write ‘Isolated buildings are symptoms of a disconnected sick society’ (532), and I think they may be right. make sure they’re insulated for sound of course, but that saves on energy and space and all kinds of things. I also like the idea of lines of long thin houses facing the world on the long sides, rather than the narrow ends as they do now. That makes sense to me in terms of sunlight and view, but apparently mathematically it creates the greatest feeling of spaciousness and allows the maximum flexibility in arrangement of space. Who knew?

They go all the way down into seemingly minor details of what makes us happy and comfortable, but still so important. A wall at our backs when outside, arcades that bridge the spaces inside and outside. Building edges should be crenellated to create interest and space for people passing by, and as much care should be given to the space surrounding the buildings as to the buildings themselves– they form a whole. They notice that people tend to hug the edges of squares — if those don’t work, the square will never work. That homes should have an entrance room to make it feel as though you have truly arrived somewhere. They write:

The most impressionistic and intuitive way to describe the need for the entrance room is to say that the time of arriving, or leaving, seems to swell with respect to the minutes which precede and follow it, and that in order to be congruent with the importance of the moment, the space too must follow suit and swell with respect to the immediate inside and the immediate outside of the building. (623)


They think of what children most need from space as they grow, ending with possible private entrances and private roofs. They junk the Victorian ideals of tiny bedrooms rooms in favour of children having bed niches surrounding shared space for living rather than sleeping, small dressing rooms for that which we want to keep most private. Distance and space alone for parents. Rooms that are never perfectly square or uniform. Building materials that are easily used by people without much experience, cheap, and ecologically greener. They even have some plans and rules of thumb for building.

I read through this — skimmed often, as this is more meant to be a working book, one you flip through as you plan your own space and its building — and was immensely impressed. So much of this lies outside commonly accepted wisdom on ‘good’ development, yet intuitively so much of this feels right. I want to sit and just imagine what society might transform into if more were built this way.

It makes me want to build.

(Alexander, Christopher, Sara Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein. (1977) A Pattern Language: Towns. Buildings. Construction. NY: Oxford University Press.)

More on building social spaces…

and even more…





Emergence - Steven JohnsonNabeel Hamdi in his book on development constantly refers to the idea of emergence, which he draws from this book by Steven Johnson. Another bit of pop science applied to the world and I wasn’t too sure I wanted to read it. Somehow I was convinced by its shortness, and the blurb from J.G. Ballard – ‘Exhilarating’.

This is a bit Ballardian. Though it has no car crashes, sharp angles or sex symbol references.

In August 2000, Toshiyuki Nakagaki announced he had trained slime mould to travel the fastest route through a maze. Pretty amazing.

More amazing was that it turns out slime mould does not have a few cells that order all the rest around as had previously been assumed, but that given the right conditions, its components–often happily trawling about on their own doing what they do–each put out a call to join together and take advantage of opportunity and thus collectively do what they could not on their own. If you can use such human words to describe a very different process.

Which you probably shouldn’t. Just as you probably shouldn’t use that process as more than a broad metaphor to think about how things other than slime mould work, especially things as complicated as human beings.

So when this books was very broad I found it thought-provoking, and the narrower it got the higher my frustration.

I did  like the breadth of what it drew on, going from slime mould to ants to Engels writing about Manchester – and I liked that it provoked me to think something slightly new about this classic with a quote I hadn’t noted in my own reading:

I have never elsewhere seen a concealment of such fine sensibility of everything that might offend the eyes and nerves of the middle classes. And yet it is precisely Manchester that has been built less according to a plan and less within the limitations of official regulations–and indeed more through accident–than any other town. Still…I cannot help feeling that the liberal industrialists, the Manchester “bigwigs,” are not altogether innocent of this bashful style of building. (37)

But Engels went on with Marx to look at some of the things structuring this apparent accident, principally capitalism and the exploitative hierarchies it creates. How some of this emergent behaviour interlocks with these structures is what is actually what I find most interesting, and discussing ’emergence’ as though this emerging takes place on a blank canvas rather than into a world of structural inequality and oppression which act to shape it is deeply problematic. I would like a dialectical understanding of such things, how horizontal emergence articulates with structure. Maybe changes it for the better.

This book doesn’t do that.

The fact that it doesn’t do that makes it possible for Johnson to note hopefully that Al Gore is a fan of complexity theory! And in the same paragraph to describe corporate mantras of bottom-up intelligence and also the organising of the radical antiglobalization movement protest movement. Isn’t it all fascinating.

The science stuff is fun though, like the fact that ant colonies follow a lifecycle over 15 years (well, Arizona carpenter ants do — and I know those large bastards well with their amazing foraging lines that change every night, stripping a new plant of everything and leaving others alone). This, despite the fact no ant lives more than a year, thus the puzzle of:

The persistence of the whole over time–the global behaviour that outlasts any of its component parts–is one of the defining characteristics of complex systems. Generations of ants come and go, and yet the colony itself matures, grows more stable, more organized. (82)

This reminded me of the corruption and violence of the Yorkshire police in the Red Riding trilogy. But we are not ants. I like the fact that the Sim city game failed when the people were made too smart, instead they had to be dumbed down, fixated on one thing. Like ants.

Sim city may play with a form of emergence, but it is still limited by programming and the extent of its programmers imaginations of what cities are.

For most people, the sight of their first digital town sprouting upscale neighborhoods and chronically depressed slums is downright eerie, as though the hard math of the digital computer had somehow generated a life-form (88).

That was slightly infuriating, but I was raging as he continued in that vein:

Neighborhoods are themselves polycentric structures, born of thousands of local intersections, shapes forming within the city’s larger shape. Like Gordon’s ant colonies, or the cells of a developing embryo, neighborhoods are patterns in time. No one wills them into existence single-handedly; they emerge by a kind of tacit consensus : the artists go here, the investment bankers here, Mexican-Americans here, gays and lesbians here. The great preponderance of city dwellers live by these laws, without any legal authority mandating that compliance (91).

I did my PhD on this shit, and the multitude of books that tear this thinking into pieces are easily found in the case of the U.S. How dare he ignore years of racial covenants, and discrimination of all kinds, the immense amount of hate and violence that has gone into disciplining people of colour and people of different sexualities into their own neighbourhoods where at least they can feel safe.

Laws mandated compliance with racial segregation until 1953 in the US, the planning profession’s obsession with homogeneity and separation of land-use has been policy for a hundred years, and unofficial policies and blatant discrimination still exist. We cannot forget the legacy of violence and issues with race and definitions of ‘American’ as white and etc. resulting from the conquest of the US and slavery that are even now being fought out in Ferguson and Baltimore and cities all over the country.

There is a lot more wrong with this idea, but in a nutshell: patterns do naturally emerge, but American cities at least do not reflect any such ‘natural’ patterns arrived at through tacit consensus. The idea would be laughable if it did not write off and deeply insult centuries of struggle by people of colour, poor people, lbgtqi communities to live where they choose with some level of dignity. That still hasn’t been won.

This is why I hate using an idea emerging from slime mould, and other such biological marvels, to say ‘this is how cities work.’ To explain what is created by human beings. It simplifies and ignores what doesn’t fit. Sadly our cities, our slums, our uprisings are all things we have actively created and fought over.

When do I like playing with an idea such as emergence? When it does not seek to explain, but rather shifts our frame, maybe makes us see things in a different way. Notice what we hadn’t before. When metaphor opens up insight.

There are manifest purposes to a city…But cities have a latent purpose as well: to function as information storage and retrieval devices. Cities were creating user-friendly interfaces thousands of years before anyone even dreamed of digital computers. Cities bring minds together and put them into coherent slots. Cobblers gather near other cobblers…Ideas and goods flow readily within these clusters, leading to productive cross-pollination…The power unleashed by this data storage is evident in the earliest large-scale human settlements (108)

Again, still a bit problematic in its simplifications, but the idea of the city as a giant centre of information storage and retrieval is quite cool, fun to play with and think about.

I also liked the recognition that in studying communications and discourse these days, ‘We need a third term beyond medium and message’ (161). We need something that gets at how we are filtering things, accessing them. The web really has opened things wide up, but how are people being channeled, how do they figure out where to look and what is worth looking at?

Near the end Johnson gets to the question of what this can do for politics. Same issues as raised by what this can do for cities — things aren’t just emerging onto a level playing field so how emergence deals with existing structures of domination is the real question. That what makes its embrace by the right-wing who are anti-big-government in everything but the monopoly of force, and by the radical left so different.

In fact, the needs of most progressive movements are uniquely suited to adaptive, self-organizing systems: both have a keen ear for collective wisdom; both are naturally hostile to excessive concentrations of power; and both are friendly to change. For any movement that aims to be truly global in scope, making it almost impossible to rely on centralized power, adaptive self-organization may well be the only road available. (224)

Possibly true, but the capacity of capitalism to co-opt so much demands of us much more of a stretch in our thinking about how this actually can create a positive change in the world that goes to scale.

Nabeel Hamdi’s Small Change

8739095A wonderful book on creating place — it resonated so much with all I have learned in years of working and planning with community, and it is so good to see so much of it thoughtfully consolidated and codified. Especially in such different contexts.  It calls to some extent on popular education figures I know like Freire and Illich, but to a much greater extent on figures from the development and planning world who I do not yet know and am looking forward to meet.

My principle critique is how this deals with neoliberalism — and I do not join the voices who critique this kind of approach as in itself neoliberal. I think this is how change has to happen, with people owning it, transforming themselves as they transform their lives and take power over their communities. That said, it is up to us I think to help people see how this connects to more fundamental overturnings of unjust power relations. He has this lovely quote from Calvino (I don’t much like the rest of the book):

However, it is pointless to try to decide whether Zenobia is to be classified among happy cities or among the unhappy. It makes no sense to divide cities into these two species, but rather into a different two: those that through the years and the changes continue to give form to their desires and those in which desires either erase the city or are erased by it.
–Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

We hope to create places that allow us to achieve our dreams. Instead, looking at the barren but massive new developments occurring in London (and elsewhere), it seems clear that the desires of capital are to erase the city of all that does not maximise profit — and thus erase the city itself. And us. We live our lives within these larger forces, and our lives are destroyed by them — so we cannot allow this small scale work to be coopted, rather ensure it is feeding the resistance against destruction. I won’t get started on his example of selling water.

Still, for early steps, for nuts and bolts, this is good (if this work is accompanied by a constant critical questioning of why this is our reality, how did it get this way, what is preventing us from changing it, how ultimately do we create lasting change):

development, like all human processes, needs designed structure with rules and routines that provide continuity and stability and that offer a shared context of meaning and a shared sense of purpose and justice. To these structures we ‘give up some of our liberty in order to protect the rest.’ The question facing practice is: how much structure will be needed before the structure itself prohibits personal freedom, gets in the way of progress… xvii – xviii

This is always the tension I think. I like the idea of ’emergence’ that runs through everything. Inspired by studies of slime molds which aren’t perhaps the most inspiring of creatures, I do love this idea of horizontality and networking and allowing things to emerge from the collectivity as they are needed (and have written about Emergence by Steven Johnson where much of this thinking comes from here — it contains many of the same issues I have with Hamdi and more…). At some point, of course, these horizontal emergings will run smack into the wall of hierarchical power which is rarely on the side of true ‘progress’. And they will have to fight. I believe they can, they are not necessarily subsumed into another level of support, bribed and coopted by such power that often made their organising necessary in the first place. But they can be. We are right to be cautious.

Still, back to what I liked and the thoughts driving the book:

intelligent practice builds on the collective wisdom of people and organizations on the ground — those who think locally and act locally — which is then rationalized in ways that make a difference globally. In the language of ’emergence’, ‘it’s better to build a densely interconnected system with simple elements and let the more sophisticated behaviour trickle up.’ In this respect, good development practice facilitates emergence, it builds on what we’ve got and with it goes to scale. xviii

And I love thinking, have been obsessing over, the importance of dense networks in all aspects of life and health.

Practice, then, is about making the ordinary special and the special more widely accessible — expanding the boundaries of understanding and possibility with vision and common sense. It is about building densely interconnected networks, crafting linkages between unlikely partners and organizations, and making plans without the usual preponderance of planning. It is about getting it right for now and at the same time being tactical and strategic about later. (xix)

I also find quite useful these precepts he gives us to remember and to guide practice (and to support those of us who work this way naturally in defending such practice in the face of those who much prefer structure, plans, controlled process and etc):

Ignorance is liberating

Start where you can: never say can’t
– ‘can’t because’ has to become ‘can if’, if we are to avoid paralysis given all the obstacles in the way (133)

Imagine first: reason later
we are too often confined by our own experience — ‘Practice, and in particular practitioners who are outsiders, can reveal these other worlds and, in so doing, can disturb people into reconstructing their situation, bringing them to a new awareness of and, therefore, power that increases their freed — which is what development is all about.(134)

Be reflective: waste time

Embrace serendipity: get muddled

Play games: serious games

Challenge consensus
Consensus gains the passivity of people not their active participation. It is in this sense exclusionary and encourages independence rather than interdependence. In encourages non-participation. (137)
— He quotes Kaplan — ‘creativity and life are the result of tension between opposites…[where] harmony is attained not through resolution bet through an attunement of opposite tensions… (138)

Look for multipliers
— Consensus planning looks for common denomibators. Instead, look for multipliers…ways of connecting people, organizations and events, of seeing strategic opportunity in pickle jars, bus stops and rubbish cans and then going to scale. It means acting practically…and thinking strategically… (139-140)

Work backwards: move forwards

Feel good

I particularly love that he challenges the consensus model. We are different, we do not always have to agree to work together or let important issues be subsumed or relegated to the future because we are a minority.

I also like this idea of outsider as catalyst for change, and how this change connects to wellbeing.

We have learnt that development is ongoing, a process in which occasionally and from outside, some form of intervention is useful to open up opportunities, to facilitate access to resources, to act as a catalyst for change. there is no beginning and no end, no single measure of progress, no primacy given to any one set of values, at least not on paper. Human wellbeing is as important to economic growth as growth is to wellbeing. We find that trust and mutual respect now feature as criteria with which to judge the appropriateness of projects. Interdependence, not dependence, is what we seek, between people, organizations and between nations. (15)

It is clear that process is more important here, a very interesting critique of planning and its modernist heroes, a support for those of us who oppose these kind of schemes:

The problem with these thinkers was not that they had a totalizing vision or subscribed to master narratives or indulged in master plannning. Their problem was not that they had conceptions of the city of the social process as a whole. Their problem was that they took the notion of thing and gave it power over the process. Their second flaw was that they did much the same thing with community. Much of ideology that came out of Geddes and Howard was precisely about the construction of community, in particular about the construction of communities that were fixed and had certain qualities with respect to class and gender relations. Once again the domination of things seemed to be the general flaw… (46, quoting David Harvey, Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference)

I also like a snippet of Sennet, who I have never really struggled with (and my short-lived embarcation on one of his books was a bit of a struggle), but he discusses three forces that challenge mutual respect: unequal ability, adult dependency and degrading forms of compassion. ‘Respect,’ says Sennet, ‘is fundamental to our experience of social relations and self.’ (50)

I feel like that is one of the things poor people always fight for and never get and so this is the most obvious thing in the world, but few others understand it, much less respect people who are not of their class (or skin colour or gender or sexuality or…).

There are some interesting developments of different forms of community:

community of interest — issues of common concern or common advantage

Community of culture — more homogenous, shared values and beliefs, often need to be disturbed ‘in the interest of reshaping power relations…in our search for equity in gender relations, in democratizing government, in our emphasis on participatory planning and our notion of what makes good governance’  (68)

Community of practice, work — sharing a joint purpose over time becomes a bond — Capra notes the more developed and sophisticated networks are, the more resilient and creative. Hamdi writes ‘The sense of a city being alive resides in its communities of practice, as does its intelligence. (69)

Communities of resistance (term from West) created in face of external threat, times of social unease, or dominance

Communities of place

1. all communities spatial, but in cities this is more through networks, porous and not confined

2. place assumes more importance than space, particularly for vulnerable like elderly or disabled — security and accessibility precedence over use value or identity

3. there exists a relationship between place and identity, where place is often appropriated to empower community, coded

4. spatial sense of community can change over times of day and over time more generally

And I like these problematisations of the constant use of the word community, often masking its complexity:

Whatever the type, community is mostly an ideal in development that we evangelize, something good and worthy…but community can be as much a part of the problem as a panacea. (70)

The treatment of local areas as communities of homogenous interests, said Lisa Peattie, way back in 1968 ‘can result in severe damage to the interests of the weakest inhabitants’. There is an emerging consensus that we bypass the notion of community altogether in favour of a more direct link between household and civil society. (72)

Which means our work is to create an architecture of possibilities — I quite love that idea, especially in thinking how public life and public space come together:

As we set about planning we are, by now, cautious of pre-emptive community-building. Instead, we seek to build an architecture of possibilities in the broadest sense of the term and give this shape, spatially and organizationally. Later, we may attach to it rules or codes of conduct which we will develop with others… (73)

It is again working through how we balance structure and freedom, such a difficult thing but so rewarding when done right. Nabeel Hamdi quotes Capra again here:

The designed structures are the formal structure of the organization (city)… the emergent structures are created by the organizations’ (city) informal networks and communities of practice… designed structures provide the rules and routines that are necessary for the effective functioning of the organization…Designed structures provide stability. Emergent structures, on the other hand, provide novelty, creativity and flexibility. They are adaptive, capable of changing and evolving…The issue is not one of discarding designed structures in favour of emergent ones. We need both. (97 quoting Capra  The Hidden Connections)

More lessons about taking time, building slowly and surely …

Instead, in practice, we need often to act spontaneously, to improvise and to build in small increments. First, spontaneity, as a quality of practice, is vital because most problems and opportunities appear and disappear in fairly random fashion and need to be dealt with or taken advantage of accordingly. (98)

…and creating a community of learning that transforms those involved:

The community-based action planning workshops and events we had adopted served to offer an early insight into the organizational capabilities of community, the responsiveness of planners and government authorities to ideas, the appropriateness of standards, the potential for partnership and the resistance those in charge to adapt. They explored the willingness of people and their local organizations to disturb their habits and routines. They are vehicles for learning and for identifying institutional capabilities and training needs, as much as for getting organized, getting going and solving problems. (100)

So we return to practice, and these final thoughts capture for me what practice should be for committed intellectuals and ‘experts’:

the art of making things possible, of expanding the boundaries of understanding and possibility in ways which make a tangible difference for now and for later, making expert knowledge more widely accessible, turning it all into common sense and common sense into experts’ sense, coupling knowledge with power (Shovkry), creating opportunities for discovery (Chambers), finding creative ways of making one plus one add up to three or even more. (116)

Practicing is about opening doors, removing barriers to knowledge and learning, finding partners and new forms of partnership, building networks, negotiating priorities, opening lines of communication and searching for patterns. it means designing structures — both spatial and organizational — and facilitating the emergence of others, balancing dualities that at first seem to cancel each other out — between freedom and order, stability and creativity, practical and strategic work, the needs of large organization and those of small ones, top and bottom, public and private. (116)

The goal of becoming wise…I wish we taught more students this way, they are instead content to be clever. But then, so are most of their teachers.

This cycle of doing and learning, learning and doing, acting and reflecting involves a kind of ‘activist pedagogy’ which is systemic to becoming skilful and wise. The purpose them of teaching, given this setting, ‘is fundamentally about creating the pedagogical, social, and ethical conditions under which students agree to take charge of their own learning, individually and collectively, to create their own knowledge, much in the same way as later, in practice, we would expect people to take charge of their own development (127)

(Hamdi, Nabeel (2004) Small Change: About the Art of Practice and the Limits of Planning in Cities. London: Earthscan.)


Topophilia in the City (pt 2)

TopophiliaThe city is where I live now, what I struggle with, what I think about…and I love the Lefebvrian dialectic of how we shape space and space in turn shapes us. I didn’t find much more clarity here on how this happens, again more of a list of pickings that I found interesting. But I confess I liked returning to our most basic grounding:

The city liberates its citizens from the need for incessant toil to maintain their bodies and from the feeling of impotence before nature’s vagueries. It is an achievement that we now tend to denigrate or forget. As ideal, the city seems largely lost to us while its defects as a physical environment…become increasingly obtrusive (150).

This basic level of dependence on weather, rain patterns, boll weevils is something I don’t think must of us are really capable of understanding whose fate is untied in a direct fashion to such things. But still, the city means more to us than that, is more than just an economic conglomeration of trade and accumulation, has a life and and a feeling all its own that is made up of all the people in it, and like any collective grouping can be much more than the sum of its parts.

It does not just raise us above the level of survival, it sparks things. But I get ahead of myself.

I was quite fascinated by early looks at medieval city planning, both the ideal and the reality.

Numerous graphic descriptions of Jerusalem in the medieval period showed the temple located at the center of a circular walled city. In fact the idea had little impact on urban form (157).

Not necessarily because they didn’t try, but because the way city’s grow organically, with unruly leaps and bounds depending on the needs of the inhabitants. But I am still curious to look up these early planners, and their cities of squares imposed upon circles to create a complexity of points and stars:

Later in Baroque and Renaissance ‘periods of idealistic town planning.’ The movement began in Italy with the works of people like Alberti (1452-60), Filarete (1460-64), Cataneo (1554-67), and continued later in France and Germany. The circle and the square stood for perfection: combinations of these figures were prominent in idealized planning (158).

Also a great section on early planning in China, which I knew vaguely of but mostly through fiction I have read. Its patterns on myth and cosmic hierarchy, the reasons it could not acheive and maintain an ideal material reflection of these spiritual beliefs:

Cosmic symbolization in the design of cities found more explicit expression in China than perhaps in any other civilization (166)

Such a terrestrial model of the cosmos embraced the aristocracy and the farmers. It had meaning to an agricultural people persuaded to depend on some central authority for the regulation of calendar and waterworks. But it had little to say to the craftsmen…and even less to the merchants. These professions ranked low in the social hierarchy. Ideal cities patterned after some heavenly model tended to be unsympathetic to the idea of trade. They stood for stability while commerce made for growth and change. Time and gain the frame of the ideal city yielded to the pressure of economic and population expansion…(167)

It is no small stretch from here to Lucio Costa, architect of Brasilia, proponent of cities that reflect one solitary vision of intellectual ideal rather than life as it is lived…

For him the artificial capital is not an organism that slowly grows up from the ground but a fully conceived world to be laid down on the soil. City founding, he writes, “is a deliberate act of possession, a gesture in the colonial tradition of the pioneers, of taming the wilderness (171).”

I long for such a deliberate act to fail, hate the arrogance of power and planning that makes such a sentiment possible. Developers still try this, but usually (if only it were always) on a much smaller scale through the development and attempt to impose saccharine and sanitised visions of the ideal, like this one of the suburbs:

Because they constitute an unscrambling of an overcomplex situation, because they are largely composed of like-minded people to whom cooperation should not be difficult, and because of the environmental advantages of roominess, the suburbs, in spite of their limitations, are the most promising aspect of urban civilization….Formed out of the dust of cities, they wait to have breathed into them the breath of community sentiment, of neighborly fraternity and peace. They reflect the unspoiled and youthful aspect of urban civilization, the adolescent and not yet disillusioned part of the city, where, if at all, happiness and worthy living may be achieved, as well as material well-being. (quoting H.P. Douglass, The Suburban Trend (New York: The Century Co., 1925) pp 36-37

Of course suburbs have for the most part failed utterly in this, again because of the messiness of life as it is lived, the way it cuts round and under imposed ideals even if those ideals are to some extent embraced. But this does not mean that they do not have an effect on people’s lives as much as their income or aspirations.

The lifestyle of a people is the sum of their economic, social, and ultramundane activities. These generate spatial patterns; they require architectural forms and material settings which, upon completion, in turn influence the patterning of activities. the ideal is one aspect of the total lifestyle. We know the ideal because it is often verbalized and occasionally substantiated in works that last. Economic and social forces contribute overwhelmingly to the making of life styles, but unlike idealistic impulses they lack self-awareness (173).

Part of this has, of course, been due to the immense impact of the automobile — author after author hammers it home, as does Yi-Fu:

In the Middle Ages pedestrians rich and poor jostled each other in the crowded lanes. Social hierarchy was rigid but it did not find orderly spatial expression in where the people lived or how they moved. From the seventeenth century onward the increasing use of carriages by the wealthy resulted in spatial as well as social separation among the people (174).

A collection of other interesting facts that mark our changing relationships to city spaces:

The importance of street lighting, the way in which festivities used to take place during the day and where they did last into the night it was dangerous going home. Street lighting has brought a shift from day to night…

Greece and Rome both prioritised the public over the private sphere, thus their cities contained glorious public buildings in contrast to homes of great squalor (but what about these luxurious villas they have uncovered surrounding English settlements and elsewhere? I am not quite sure we still hold this as fact). I found it quite fascinating the fact that for a period carts transporting goods were not allowed into Rome during the day to reduce traffic congestion, so the night was full of their din and no one slept well…

In medieval London medieval shop advertising went a bit mad, and a decree from 1375 limited the length of shop signs to seven feet.

In 1716 every London householder whose house fronted a street or lane was obliged to hang out a candle long enough to burn from six to eleven o’clock in the evening. After eleven the city was plunged into darkness. Candles were lit only between Michaelmas (September 29) and Lady Day (March 25) (187).

Chicago was once known as the garden city, before the great fire. Only then did it earn its other sobriquets.

Again, I feel this in the sum of its parts can give a sense of how people relate to place, how their feelings both shape and are shaped by place in true dialectical fashion, and how this is always dynamic. But it’s a very diffuse sense, to be explored more concretely both through places themselves, but also the dynamics of capital, ideology and ideals that shape our places.

Read Pt 1.

(Tuan, Yi-Fu. Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, And Values. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc.)


Change in City, Change in Self

And old post from the old blog (17 July 2008) that for some reason I wanted to preserve separately from this one, but I just finished Raja Shehadeh’s Palestinian Walks, and it reminded me of all these old things I had been thinking about, especially this. I haven’t had time to blog this wonderful book yet, but thought I might repost this on a lazy Sunday with only a tweak…

I was thinking today how the city changes…and I find it extraordinary how quickly you get used to changes in the physical landscape around you. I knew downtown L.A. full of parking lots and old buildings full of people. And now it has been built over, it is full of huge new shiny buildings and it is full of all new people. The empty buildings that once contained friends of mine mostly still stand, they are monuments to so many conflicting things: greed, pain, hope, love, struggle…and they stand as anachronisms, though once each was one building among many such. But for all that is now gone? Memory goes with them, I cannot remember what used to be underneath the lofts. I go through my photographs and try to reclaim my own memory of downtown before money claimed it as its own and rebuilt its landscape. I hate not only that they profited so easily and well, but also that I cannot remember what was there before. I hate that we could not manage to force them to build on the beauty and strength that was already there, while working to improve and grow and increase the number of people and services. Everyone has lost, though the ones who destroyed will never know how much, and the people they pushed out know it all to well.

I was thinking today too about how I change…and I find it extraordinary how quickly you settle into the new outlines of your mind and forget what its thoughts were before. You hope to be always expanding, growing greater and wiser and stronger as you learn, I fear I might contract if I ever stopped growing…some people do, you see their minds steadily narrowing and fearful of change. And yet suddenly it worried me as loft construction does, how hard it is to remember what you thought before, how you felt before, what it was to be yourself before. It seems to me that to truly grow you must build upon all that you were, and recognize and remember the building. That way you have a hope of bringing people with you, and understanding people who are where you once were — especially in terms of political consciousness. I think too many of us destroy what we discard and do not recognize it as a piece of the foundation and a step to where we have come and a link with those behind. That is too linear a metaphor all together, but the best I can do at the moment…I shall have to create a new metaphor to stand upon the old one and remember how it came to be. As for the dragon boat races…well! The Molinistas were destroyed and there was much jubilation. Here are the boats: I am sure that we won as everyone followed the required ritual to grant us victory This is wishing pain to your enemies (damn Gloria Molina, damn her, he is saying! You came to Belmont highschool and promised things and did jack shit about it! You lie Molina, I can’t believe you are still one of the most powerful women in L.A.! But not in the dragon boat you’re not!), and you impart this wish to your paddle so that it strikes angrily through the water…you then have to commune with your paddle like so Do this and your paddle will know that you love it, and driven by this motivational combination of love and hate, it shall speed you through the water like a…platypus maybe. If you’re lucky an eel. But It shall make you fast, and you shall win. The fried plaintains were delicious, as was the iced coffee…the breakfast (and lunch) of champions. There were Koreans line dancing to Alan Jackson singing about the Chatahoochee on the main stage, it was the zen approach to enlightenment, the equivalent of getting hit alongside the head or your nose tweaked. And the lotus festival hummed and flowed and danced around the lake and I enjoyed myself.


On Writing and Istanbul, Orhan Pamuk’s THE BLACK BOOK

The Black Book“Each life is unique!” cried the magazine writer. “A story is a story only when it has no equal. Every writer is poor and all alone.”
–Galip (104)

I read Pamuk’s The Black Book to then give away, and I am not sure I can. I feel that I should come back to it knowing more of the city’s history, knowing the city itself. Istanbul is so central to it, made so concrete through its pages that it becomes the standard — the cities wandered and written through my own life become the exotic others. It is a heady feeling.

It is a story of intrigue and mystery. It evokes and plays with some of the old psychogeographical cannon like Poe and Baudelaire, but its foundations are anchored in a Turkish literature that has, for the most part, not been translated. It edges around city–and the human face–as sign and signifier, drawing these into plots and conspiracies of occult dimensions playing on words and anagrams and numerology and games —  yet the lines are blended between the hysterically imagined and the real and violent, this is the time of the actual coup.

Always the city is there to wander, to describe, to inspire, to shape, to speak. Celâl Bey the columnist attempts over and over again to capture it, Galip Bey his nephew turns to it (and Celâl’s descriptions of it over decades) to help him solve the mystery he faces in the disappearance of Celâl and Galip’s wife.

This is a wondrous imagining of the draining of the Bosphorus, and the records of past glories to be found there and what will come after:

I am speaking now of the new neighborhoods that will take root on this muddy wasteland that we once knew as the Bosphorus…of brothels, mosques and dervish lodges, of nests where Marxist splinter groups go to hatch their young…
— Celâl (17)

As in all cities there are many mysteries and wonders. My favourite perhaps is the underground caves full of mannequins ‘possessed of a life force stronger than anything you might see in the crowds swarming across the Galata Bridge.’

My father always said we should pay close attention to the gestures that make us who we are…In those years his father held that a nation could change its way of life , its history, its technology, its art, literature and culture, but it would never have a real chance to change its gestures.
–Celâl (62)

Galip in his search ends up in these same caves, finds a mannequin of Celâl himself, listens to a new generation creating these mannequins and in effect talking through the way that culture survives modernisation, westernisation:

“My father quickly realized that our history could only survive underground, that these passageways leading to our house, these underground roads strewn with skeletons, provided us with a historical opportunity, a chance to create citizens who carried their histories, their meanings, on their faces.”
–Galip 191

The psychogeography of the city:

He surveyed the ramshackle shops lining the crooked pavements: These garden shears he saw before him, these star-spangled screwdrivers, NO PARKING signs, cans of tomato paste, these calendars you saw on the walls of cheap restaurants, this Byzantine aqueduct festooned with Plexiglas letters, the heavy padlocks hanging from the metal shop shutters — they were all signs crying out to be read. He could, if he wished, read them like faces.
–Galip (215)

Always the city like a face.

So then he spread out the maps of Damascus, Cairo, and Istanbul side by side, just as Celâl had foreseen in a column inspired by Edgar Allen Poe. He cut the maps out of the Istanbul directory with a razor blade he found in the bathroom…When he first put the maps together, he saw that their arrows and line fragments were different sizes, so he was at first unsure how to proceed. Then he pressed them together against the glass pane of the sitting-room door…
–Galip (263)

This takes him nowhere. I liked that. A few more quotes I liked:

…every time it occurred to him that someone might be following him, his legs speeded up, the city ceased to be a quiet place where all signs and objects looked familiar and turned into a realm of horror, shimmering with mystery and danger.
–Galip (340)

The shopkeeper certainly remembered. His sense of place was as good as his sense of smell. Through his close reading of your columns. he had conjured up an Istanbul that was more than a cornucopia of smells: He knew every corner of the city that you had visited, grown to love it–love it secretly, without telling a soul–for its mystery, but just as he was unable to imagine certain odors, he had no idea where these places were in relation to one another. I myself had, thanks to you, visited these places from time to time–when I’ve needed to find you…
–phone call to Galip (350)

‘You bastard writer, you!’

This book is as much about identity, about discovering who you are, the intersections between the individual and the nation (or Empire), how writing facilitates, hides, occludes, makes possible.

This mystery, this truth you’ve been making us run after for all these years…: No one in this country can ever be himself. To live in an oppressed, defeated country is to be someone else. I am someone else, therefore I am! (390)

…when he told the story for the third time, it became clear to him that he could be a different person each time he told it. Like the Prince, I tell stories to become myself. Furiously angry at all those who had prevented him from being himself, and certain that it was only by telling stories that he would come to know the mystery of the city and the mystery of life itself, he brought the story to a close for a third and final time, to be met with a white silence that spoke to him of death. (417)

…he had been waging this war not just on his own behalf but for the many millions who had bound their fates to the crumbling empire…all people who are unable to be themselves, all civilizations that imitate other civilizations, all those nations who find happiness in other people’s stories were doomed to be crushed, destroyed and forgotten.
Galip as Celâl (429)

Because it was only when a man had run out of stories to tell that he came close to being himself. (431)

This was particularly interesting after reading Pamuk’s autobiography Istanbul: Memories of a City, which shows how he has been circling these ideas even as he circles this same family, apartment block, street, city, nation, empire…yes. I think I may come back to it. But in ten years or so, so someone else can read it in the meantime.

It ends with a lovely couple of pages from the translator Maureen Freely that has me contemplating learning to read Turkish — every translation should contain these few pages. Clearly there is so much that simply cannot be translated and I yearn to understand the cascading sentence structure that echoes the cascading of subject, the ways that a Turkish sentence can circle, obscure, make clear that English simply cannot.


Poplar: From East India Dock Road to St Paul’s Way

Another walk through Poplar, away from the more historic High Street, beginning with East India Docks Rd and heading to St Paul’s Way. I love this village, suburb, piece of London though it is new to me. Turning right on Kerbey Street I passed the Salvation Army Hall (and the Salvation Army has been a fixture of East End life since it’s beginnings 150 years ago) and this pretty awesome ‘selfie post’:


The view to the south:


It saddens me, that everywhere Canary Wharf looms over you.

Makes me happy that there is still so much council housing, though how much is ‘genuinely affordable’ social housing I do not know. I still feel we know more now, can design better housing and community now, but I will defend this to the last until that commitment is made, is built.


Still, it is a relief to come to the open piece of green that is Bartlett Park after so much concrete — even though it is railed in — to find boys playing cricket and football fields and one last building left from earlier days covered over with vines (and seriously un-photogenic due to the street works taking place, so in possible violation of the dérive principle, it does not feature here).


But I wondered at the multi-storey towers, they appeared to be that cheap brand of luxury housing mushrooming along the rivers and canals so I couldn’t understand what they were doing there in all of their massive garishness and glass:


I shortly arrived here, and all of my wonderings were answered — I hadn’t realised I was approaching the Limehouse Cut. I get a little fucking angry, though, that these buildings should cut through and haughtily rise above our neighbourhoods, transforming the feel of the canals I love without providing the housing we so desperately need.


It is the shoddy arrogance of today’s wealth staring down in comfort, a sneer at inequality written across the horizon.

Despite this, the canal still has some of its old magic, in the form of old warehouses in brick and personal expression spray-painted across its walls:


Remnants of the past still linger on, making you positively nostalgic and I don’t want to be nostalgic. I want to look forward to our future and a better world, rather than back.


In spite of everything, a vibrant diversity still clings on to life here.


I got nostalgic again leaving this old brick for this shiny new school:


Researching its shininess further I found this from their website:

A major new programme to help children learn enterprise and employability skills will be launched at St Paul’s Way Trust School in January 2015.

A very generous grant from J P Morgan to the school, in association with St Paul’s Way Community Interest Company, will support students to develop their own business ideas, and turn their plans into real community enterprises. The grant will also support the school to develop a more comprehensive work experience programme, meaning that every student will have opportunities to learn about work which is tailored to their hopes for the future.

It chills me that they are offering a life geared towards work to our children, rather than inspiration and creativity to encourage a curiosity about our world and the knowledge of how to explore it in ways unlimited by the need to profit.


Obviously Canary Wharf looms over people’s lives in more ways than one.


Their estates that are being decanted.


Their churches and community centres:


I had begun this walk with the intention of finding Paper & Cup‘s St Paul’s Way Centre cafe, but realised I didn’t have time to stop, so I completed the loop back down to the Westferry DLR. It was nice to see Mile End Park, but it lies on the other side of the massive Burdett Road full of traffic and fumes, scary to cross.

I walked back down it, but didn’t have much heart for pictures. Only this little park full of crocuses and snowdrops and a lost section of row housing that reminds you that you are human:


Soon there will be daffodils.