Tag Archives: lived cities

Tucson’s Everyday Architecture

Tucson’s everyday architecture sprawls across the desert in dusty houses and apartments, it feels utterly different from anything on East Coast or Midwest U.S.A. As much as it feels utterly different from anything in Europe.

When I go home now, I am ever more struck by just how sprawling it is, how much space lies between homes, how many empty lots there are, how much unused land. How small and boxy the houses are, yet how I like those better than newer developments — they are not pictured here because we only drove past them, tracts and tracts and tracts of them where houses never where before. Huge boxy houses that fill as much of the lot as they can manage.

I am struck by how in older neighbourhoods, so many of the newer houses look more like bunkers than anything. How much colour improves things, but can’t improve everything. How much I hate the fake look of expensive corrugated iron and false painted gaps in the plaster showing false adobe bricks. People trying desperately hard to make their boxes interesting, but doing it in a way that shares a terribly kitsch vision of the Southwest and a terrible sameness. Like the vigas that emerge from both sides of the house so you know half at least are false beams and carry no weight.

Everything false in its conformity to some southwestern idiom, a moving target from howling coyotes with neckerchiefs to kokopellis to the next culturally appropriated fashion that lies in wait. I don’t know what that means for us.

Strange too, just how many mobile homes will never again be mobile, despite the themes of wolves running wild, freedom. How lots with 5 to 20 of them have become housing integrated with all the other kinds of housing, a regular patchwork. I never much questioned mobile home parks further out in the desert where I used to live, or those lonely settlers perched in areas without services. But here in mid-city, how exactly did it happen here?

It struck me how streets look so much the same, one after the other. They are charmless really, and this is how we have chosen to build them. Charmless as a whole, but at the same time in my mother’s neighbourhood between Pima and Speedway, Swan and Columbus, there are some wonderful old houses you know people constructed themselves when this land was first subdivided, their uniqueness invisible unless you look hard. There are even a few lots here and there filled with almost natural desert where the old house is hidden somewhere back there behind it all. If you want the real, it is old faded wood with paint peeling, tiny houses with their big porches often screened in, dusty collections of assorted junk in the yard. Probably they were here before anyone else, definitely here before air conditioning. Back when porches were essential things. These lots stand as they were, refusing to believe the city has grown around them.

I love that kind of stubbornness.

I didn’t take pictures of all or even most of it, I didn’t quite know how. And some of these are from up along the Rillito where Columbus dead ends into it…the rich people’s homes conquering the hills, but an awesome old round stone house sits up there too. It’s not as fun taking pictures of what is resolutely non-picturesque, but I am going to try it more often, try harder. How else to capture the meaning of a place, this everyday dust and space that sits alongside all those beautiful things that people are proud of here, the gracious and historic buildings, the places we go to wonder or to relax. The desert. Yet none of this compares to the desert, and I am sad to think that this sprawl of wood and brick and purple-painted bunkers is what destroyed so much of it.

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Lanark

2426144I loved this more than I can say, it is massive and labyrinthine and fantastic and grimly inventive, it is pure Glasgow plus so much more. It is cities and class politics and energy and the connections between physical and mental illness and art and obsession and stubbornness. And a dragon.

I confess that while reading I hate to find myself suddenly muttering to myself ‘you stupid cow,‘ and if the book is written by a man I hold it against him,  but that couldn’t stop me here. I generally hate it when books escape into authorial ramblings and discussions of fate and power, yet that didn’t phase me either.  Perhaps he had me when Sludden says ‘Tell me why you use the balcony,’ and Lanark answers:

‘I’m looking for sunlight.’

Perhaps that is all this book really is about.

I felt that way in my time in Glasgow, I loved it so much but always with that corner of yearning for the sun.

I don’t even know how I decided the following things were worth writing down as opposed to other things, but regardless I have shared what those pages contained with their dog-eared corners. in a way it felt all or nothing. I could have shared every footnote and snippet of history in the footnote section, I loved that conceit, as I did the references to so many authors, many of whom I caught and a number I was so happy to see, like James Kellman and Tom Leonard.

I could outline to you how much I loved the ways that cities and worlds and power intertwined. But maybe just the quotes, like this on what working class kids wish and how impossible it all seems, which is just magic.

I had a wish to be an artist. Was that not mad of me? I had this work of art I wanted to make, don’t ask me what it was, I don’t know; something epic, mibby, with the variety of facts and the clarity of fancies and all of it seen in pictures with a queer morbid intense colour of their own, mibby a gigantic mural or illustrated book or even a film. I didn’t know what it would have been, but I knew how to get ready to make it. I had to read poetry and hear music and study philosophy and write and draw and paint. I had to learn how things and people felt and were made and behaved and how the human body worked and its appearance and proportions in different situations. In fact, I had to eat the bloody moon!” (210)

A moment when the girl isn’t being a total cow. Because this is true too:

She pulled a face and went out, saying, “It’s hard to shine without encouragement.” (359)

And ah, Dennistoun public library. I bet that part is real:

The conjuror scratched his hair furiously with both hands and said querulously, “I understand you resentment. When I was sixteen or seventeen I wanted an ending like that. You see, I found Tillyard’s study of the epic in Dennistoun public library, and he said an epic was only written when a new society was giving men a greater chance of liberty. I decided that what the Aeneid had been to the Roman Empire my epic would be to the Scottish Cooperative Wholesale Republic… (492)

There is nothing I don’t love about this:

Perhaps my model world is too compressed and lacks the quiet moments of unconsidered ease which are the sustaining part of the most troubled world. (494)

And a return to my idea to always write down the last sentences of things — perhaps despite the last few disastrous last sentences of the last few books it was a good idea after all — because this made my little geographer’s heart go pitter pat:

He was a slightly worried, ordinary old man but glad to see the light in the sky.

I STARTED MAKING MAPS WHEN I WAS SMALL SHOWING PLACE, RESOURCES, WHERE THE ENEMY AND WHERE LOVE LAY. I DID NOT KNOW TIME ADDS TO LAND. EVENTS DRIFT CONTINUALLY
DOWN,
EFFACING LANDMARKS, RAISING THE LEVEL, LIKE
SNOW.

I HAVE GROWN UP. MY MAPS ARE OUT OF DATE.
THE LAND LIES OVER ME NOW.
I CANNOT MOVE. IT IS TIME TO GO.

GOODBYE

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Georges Perec en Place San-Sulpice

7902560Over a weekend in 1974, Georges Perec sat in the place Saint-Sulpice and observed the world.

It’s a fascinating contrast with the very purposeful studies of space carried out by William Whyte in New York or Jan Gehl in Copenhagen, meant to assist planners and architects and city officials to design public spaces.

This is airier. Listier yet more subjective. It makes you breathe the atmosphere of every day. Perec writes:

There are many things in place Saint-Sulpice; for instance: a district council building, a financial building, a police station, three cafés, one of which sells tobacco and stamps, a movie theater, a church on which Le Vau, Gittard, Oppenord, Servandoni, and Chalgrin have all worked, and which is dedicated to a chaplain of Clotaire II, who was bishop of Bourges from 624 to 644 and whom we celebrate on 17 January, a publisher, a funeral parlor, a travel agency, a bus stop, a tailor, a hotel, a fountain decorated with the statues of four great Christian orators (Bossuet, Fénelon, Fléchier, and Masillon), a newsstand, a seller of pious objects, a parking lot, a beauty parlour, and many other things as well.

My intention in the pages that follow is to describe the rest instead: that which is generally not taken note of, that which is not noticed, that which has no importance: what happens when nothing happens other than the weather, people, cars and clouds. (3)

And he does.

He lists:

things;

trajectories;

colours;

differences;

dogs playing;

pigeons;

men in raincoats;

women with cakes;

friends who stop and chat;

friends who don’t see him;

buses;

a typology of umbrellas;

etc.

etc.

We meant to spend time there, but never quite made it there until the end, stopping by between Cafe Tournon (Chester Himes sent us there) and our hotel to pick up luggage and head off home.

It was full of a particularly impenetrable market however, the backs of white tents filling the square, hiding the fountain. Boutiques filled the roads leading to and away. It did not feel like it was supposed to. It’s atmosphere lay buried. Gone. Changed. These things happen in cities. We skirted its sides:

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The red awning belongs to the Café de la Mairie, where Perec spent part of the 18th and 20th (it was closed the 19th) of October, 1974.

He writes:

I’m eating a camembert sandwich.

It is twenty to one.

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He writes:

(Obvious limits to such an undertaking: even when my only goal is just to observe, I don’t see what takes place a few metres from me: I don’t notice, for example, that cars are parking.) (15)

later on

(fatigue)

I have now sat for hours at a time counting and recording people as they pass, and it is entirely fatiguing. Even when you have no camembert.

This little book was oddly evocative of the place and perhaps more of Perec himself.

I like him.

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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.)

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Everyday Bristol, Totterdown Way

I was thinking of how I often save my camera for what I feel are special or spectacular things, and don’t take it along on wanders along back streets or through the neighborhoods. Especially on Sundays, when we just need to get out of the house and have nowhere special to go and don’t care to face the same old hill to get central. But these residential streets, of course, are as important to how we live in and think about the city as anything else, and it’s funny here how much the feel of them changes from street to street.

Here is today’s walk. It made me realise I still couldn’t face pictures of many of the houses and streets, if they were too grim, boring, sad. Perhaps a challenge for future Sundays. To find their hidden beauty or uncover just exactly what is wrong with them.

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Journey Through a Small Planet

3339202Emanuel Litvinoff (1972)

Another exploration of the East End, and so much a better one. This is beautifully written, candid, and by one of the young men who for Harkness probably ‘looked as most young men of his class look, until one has time to recognise their individuality’ (39). Written about a period a just a little later than Harkness to be sure, this opens a window onto the thoughts and dreams and intense individuality seething behind what to middle class eyes apparently looks all the same. How could we all look the same?

Until I was sixteen I lived in the East London borough of Bethnal Green, in a small street that is now just a name on a map. Almost every house in it has gone and it exists, if at all, only in the pages of this book. It was a part of a district populated by persecuted Jews from the Russian empire and transformed into a crowded East European ghetto full of synagogues, backroom factories and little grocery stores reeking of pickled herring, garlic sausage and onion bread. The vitality compressed into that one square mile of overcrowded slums generated explosive tensions. We were all dreamers, each convinced it was his destiny to grow rich, or famous, or change the world into a marvellous place of freedom and justice. No wonder so many of us were haunted by bitterness, failure, despair (9).

He returns to it as a much older man, finds it completely changed, can no longer see himself in the tenement room he grew up in. Who cannot identify with his sense of loss?

I felt indescribably bereaved, a ghost haunting the irrecoverable past (10).

and so he began writing this…

So much resonated, it is a wonderful coming of age story of a smart kid facing a very hard life — and facing the blossoming panic in his stomach that he is trapped in a working poverty for the rest of it. There is love and friendship and violence, along with a couple of evocative sections on what it means to live in a packed tenement block full of Jewish immigrant families, the closeness of the world:

In as close a community as ours, each newcomer added a new complexity, changing us all a little and sometimes even influencing the whole pattern of our fate. For Mendel Shaffer, the arrival of Kramer’s sister, Freda, was momentous (52).

And I loved this passage so evocative of the streets — and one of the things that changes over time as customs and culture and people change, one of the things that is lost forever once it is lost, and that we can only find again through the pages of books:

A further disagreeable surprise awaited. The Welfare Officer chose to deliver me to my new lodgings in person. Even blindfolded, I’d have known where we were by the smell of the different streets — reek of rotten fruit: Spitalfields; scent of tobacco warehouses: Commercial Street; the suffocating airless stench of the Cambridge Picture Palace; Hanbury Street and the pungency of beer from Charrington’s brewery. Then Brick Lane with half the women from our street jostling among the market stalls (115).

I’m looking forward to his fiction.

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Pamuk’s Istanbul

824338An unexpected window into a world and a point of view I could never have imagined — I like it when books do that. This is about a decaying city, a falling-apart and burning-down city, and yet a vibrant one. A life spent almost in one place, written from the same building where he grew up. It is about surviving and continuing on after the end of empire, this Turkish word of huzun (apologies that I don’t have the special characters to write this correctly) and I couldn’t help but compare it to Gilroy’s work on melancholy, while he has much more literary comparisons. But it is a fascinating wander through a city, a world, a language, a childhood. Some things I liked:

In Turkish we have a special tense that allows us to distinguish hearsay from what we’ve seen with our own eyes; when we are relating dreams, fairy tales, or past events we could not have witnessed…(8)

This made me think of Trouillot, how our language forms our ways of thinking of the past, and this is particularly interesting in thinking of history as both its events and its narration…

These are nothing like the remains of great empires to be seen in Western cities, preserved like museums of history and proudly displayed. The people of Istanbul simply carry on with their lives amongst the ruins. Many Western writers and travellers find this charming. But for the city’s more sensitive and attuned residents, these ruins are reminders that the present city is so poor and confused that it can never again dream of rising to the same heights of wealth, power and culture. It is no more possible to take pride in these neglected dwellings, in which dirt, dust and mud have blended into their surroundings, than it is to rejoice in the beautiful old wooden houses that as a child I watched burn down one by one (91).

There is much here about the gaze, about being caught between East and West yet uncaught…

Why this fixation with the thoughts of Western travellers, what they did on visits to the city, what they wrote to their mothers? It’s partly that many times I’ve identified with a number of them (Nerval, Flaubert, de Amicis) and…it was by falling under their influence and arguing with them by turns that I forged my own identity. It’s also because so few of Istanbul’s own writers have paid their city any attention whatsoever.

Whatever we call it — false consciousness, fantasy, or old-style ideology — there is, in each of our heads, a half legible, half secret text that makes sense of what we’ve done in life. And for each of us in Istanbul, a large section of this text is given over to what Western observers have said about us. For people like me, Istanbullus with one foot in this culture and one in the other, the ‘Western traveller’ is often not a real person — he can be my own creation, my fantasy, even my own reflection. But being unable to depend on tradition alone as my text, I am grateful to the outsider who can offer me a complementary vision…So whenever I sense the absence of Western eyes, I become my own Westerner.

Istanbul has never been the colony of the Westerners who wrote about it, drew it, filmed it, and that is why I am not perturbed by (260) the use Western travellers have made of my past and my history and their construction of the exotic. Indeed, I find their fears ad dreams beguiling — as exotic to me as ours are to them — and I don’t look to them of entertainment or to see the city through their eyes, but also to enter into the full-formed world they’ve conjured up (261).

From one empire to another perhaps, lacking this colonial relationship, though surely more power dynamics are at work here? But I’ve been thinking a lot about this. One last quote:

Was this the secret of Istanbul — that beneath its grand history, its living poverty, its outward-looking monuments ad its sublime landscapes, its poor hid the city’s soul inside a fragile web? But here we have come full circle, for anything we say about the city’s essence, says more about our own lives and our own states of mind. The city has no centre other than ourselves (316).

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