Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Urban CT-Scan: The City as Body(ies) in Movement

Philosopher Michel de Certeau in Walking the City argues that the plan-like image of a city as seen from above is nothing else but a “viewpoint… a picture, whose condition of possibility is an oblivion and a misunderstanding of practices”. He argues for the experience of wandering through the city as a “process of appropriation of the topographical system” (1). Urban historian Lucia Nuti in Mapping Places: Chorography and Vision in the Renaissance, states that before the renaissance, maps were pictorial, vividly describing the qualities of a place and that then maps became views from above, and, eventually, a chorography which is planometric (which in Latin means Flat) and in scale. She describes the ongoing attempt during that period to balance the qualities of the “intellectual and mathematical” with the “pictorial and sensual knowledge” (2). Steven Johnson in Street Level states that; “The city is complex because it overwhelms, yes, but also because it has a coherent personality, a personality that self organizes out of millions of individual decisions, a global order built out of local interactions” (3). In Street Level he compares this to the research that biologist Deborah Gordon is doing on ants stating that a queen does not organize ants, as one might think, but that rather ants communicate and organize via their individual interactions at the ground level, at the street level. Johnson continues, “There are no bird’s-eye view of the colony, no ways to perceive the overall system—and indeed, no cognitive apparatus that could make sense of such a view…” (4).

To look at the city from below, to look at the city from within, means to consider the rituals of its many inhabitants. I, like de Certeau and Nuti, believe that an immersed reading and representation of place would reveal relationships otherwise imperceptible in these more conventional mappings. Can we create mappings where the current condition of the below being orchestrated from the above is reversed? Can we read and “write” “manifold stories” from within to define the above? Through the thoughtful rethinking of the technologies available today we can evolve our existing analytical methods to more accurately engage the complexities of our cities and have the potential of making documents that are both realistic and abstract, picturesque and analytical, immersed as well as removed? What is the potential of this merging?

1 de Certeau, Michel. Walking in the City. In The Practice of Everyday Life, Trans. by Steven Rendall. California: University of California Press, 1988, p. 93
2 Nuti, Lucia. Mapping Places: Chorography and Vision in the Renaissance. In Mappings, edited by Denis Cosgrove, 90- 108. London: Reaktion Books, 1999, p. 91
3 Johnson, Steven. Emergence, The connected lives of ants, brains, cities and software Scribner, New York 2001 p. 33
4 Johnson, Steven. Emergence, The connected lives of ants, brains, cities and software Scribner, New York 2001 p. 75

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