Tag Archives: urbanism

From the Archives #4: What (Where) Is An Unmediated Space? (November 2007)

The Cruise

The Cruise

In the spirit of reflection that often accompanies the turn to the new year, I’ve decided to cannibalize my blog and repost several writings—one from each year beginning in 2004. I created my first website with a blog just as I was finishing my graduate thesis in the fall of 2002. The fourth writing I’ve selected, titled “What (Where) Is An Unmediated Space?”, was posted on November 12, 2007, and was written during my first semester teaching at The University of the Arts. At the time, I was teaching a web design studio and assignment the students to explore the urban environment and translate that experience into a web-based project. The film referenced in the post has been a key prompt for getting students to think about their relationship to urban space.

We know this to be the case: “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation” (Debord, The Society of the Spectacle).

I recently watched The Cruise again, the near perfect showing of a nearly unmediated (yet crafted, I think) experience of New York City as performed by Timothy “Speed” Levitch. Then, I watched it again (twice, for good measure). In one particular scene, Speed embraces — unfolds himself upon — one of the great stone piers of the Brooklyn Bridge, gently patting it, touching his forehead to it, communing with it. (Years ago we talked about licking buildings in architecture school. I think Hillary actually did it.) There’s something about the way he settles into the city, the restless comfort, the awkward sensuality, that confounds a mediated relationship to his world. Watching it now, I feel that that moment must have passed and he can no longer relate to the place in that way.

Aaron (aka Director of the Dept. for the Investigation of ReHumanization) has described his experience as a soldier in the Iraq war as being unmediated — or at least as close to unmediated as he has ever witnessed. It follows, then, that the shock and stress (often diagnosed as PTSD) which soldiers feel upon their return home has everything to do with the transition back into the mediated existence of our “civilization.”

Is mediation a buffer from trauma? Is mediation a barrier to being fully human? I’m curious about the relationship between mediation and dehumanization. Here’s Paulo Freire in the opening chapter of The Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

Concern for humanization leads at once to the recognition of dehumanization, not only as an ontological possibility but as a historical reality. And as an individual perceives the extent of dehumanization, he or she may ask if humanization is a viable possibility. Within history, in concrete, objective contexts, both humanization and dehumanization are possibilities for a person as an uncompleted being conscious of their incompletion.

Mediation implies a distance, the “separation” that Debord finds perfected in modern industrialized societies. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.There must be gradations embedded in this notion of mediation. Can a distinction between mediation (ontological) and media (technological) be discerned? Does the latter necessarily determine the former? Is there any essential difference between a jug and a handheld computer, both technologies of utility which mediate our experience of the world? Gradations and scale (hello McCluhan) present complications…

Is there a post-spectacle society? Within this paradigm, are we unable to imagine something beyond Debord’s critique? And to what degree is Debord’s critique dependent on teleological, historically and technologically determined trajectories of human evolution? Is there a post-mediated existence? (Is there a proto-mediated existence, for that matter?) Not an existence without mediation, but an existence absorbed fully by mediation? Such a prediction feels apocalyptic, dystopian. It suggests a time of post-feeling, post-human, a world populated by cyborgs whose dreams are filled with memories of archived material pulled from the master database of text, images, sounds, and videos that we are now building on the Net.

The image of Speed Levitch persists: he hurriedly crosses a street and enters an urban plaza space. He spins around several times, arms outstretched until dizzy. He lies down on his back, equidistant between the two World Trade Center towers, and carefully extends his right leg up and out, as if maintaining equilbirium between himself and the buildings. “The buildings look like they’re falling down,” he muses. (A few years later, they would say that watching the towers implode and collapse was like watching a movie.) The Cruise reminds me of the angst of mediation, of being less than fully—. Of being behind the lens, behind the glass, separate. It reminds me to go outside and be there.

From the Archives #3: Not Utopia… (April 2006)

Planning the Delaware Riverfront in Philadelphia

In the spirit of reflection that often accompanies the turn to the new year, I’ve decided to cannibalize my blog and repost several writings—one from each year beginning in 2004. I created my first website with a blog just as I was finishing my graduate thesis in the fall of 2002. The third writing I’ve selected, titled “Not Utopia, or a Statement Regarding the Proposed Development of Slots Parlors on Several Post-Industrial Sites in Philadelphia”, was posted on April 13, 2006, and was written less than a year after my partner and I had returned to Philadelphia to live in the Fishtown neighborhood. At the time, we were just learning details of several proposed casinos in the neighborhood and were ramping up our work as community organizers in the effort to oppose them.

M. mentions boundaries—and she’s right. It comes down to boundaries, the objectification of the land, the measurement, the quantification, the reduction of space, the reigning in of the imagination (necessary, at times, in order for our small minds to combat the vastness of space). It’s how man imposes his dominion over the land. Control. And, then, who has control? Who has the right to ownership? A political body? A collective group of land-users? A moneyed individual? And, then, is the ownership of land transferrable? Usurpable? Or, indomitable? (One wonders if a collective group of land-users might propose its own brand of eminent domain?) What right does a group have to the land, in the interest of the common good?

Land ownership was/is the myth of the inalienable right, of existential certitude. To own land is to be—fully. It is the dream. A dream, however, built upon the foundation of sand (not of rock). The American myth (space is ours to divvy up and a small slice is available for all who can obtain it). Quick sand, quickly dispersed like sifted silt. Gold remains. Gold to gamble. Fortunes found. But I digress—what I meant to say was: Land cannot be owned unless it can be measured, described, and sold. The land of many controlled by an elect few. Where is the common good in all of that?

This is somewhat abstract. More precisely: What if we claim the land for ourselves, we the collective land-users? How might we stake such a claim. Before time, the land was not owned. Once, there was a time when the land was still not owned, but the land was used. Not used; tended, cared for, felt and understood. (Oh, this is an ecological issue, too!) Those people who tended the land were coerced and cajoled. One value system came from across the great waters and corrupted, displaced another value system. Then, the land was owned. And it was exploited, and it was abused. But it provided some with a livelihood and it provided even less with great power and wealth. The subjugation of the land and of the land-users became unnaturally natural. And we’re still paying down that debt.

From where do we draw our strength? The American myth of land ownership has coupled wonderfully with the other great American myth—the myth of the (empowered and determined) individual. (It is who we are; I feel it even now, writing this.) Alas, so was born a great schism in the American consciousness: I am an individual, I have a voice, yet that voice is no more (or less) significant than the voice of my compatriots. (This does not sit well with many of us. So we inflate our meager voices with shouting, kicking, bribing, hating, stealing… the list goes on.) One voice, one vote; not quite enough it seems. Many voices, many votes—the collectivization of individual wills. (Are we moving left or right with this?) Maybe democracy, maybe socialism, maybe even anarchism—all depends on the particular form. Not monarchism, not totalitarianism, not even oligarchism (I’m talking to you, Dick). The collectivization of individual wills. For the common good. (Not for the State.) A collective action with common cause.

Back to boundaries, because that’s where I started. Put them aside—hypothetically, of course–and imagine a boundless space free of trespassers (because there is nothing to trespass upon) and open to meaningful use. I’m thinking of a place, a place of openness, of enjoyment, of respect, of debate, of disagreement, of frustration, of comraderie, of trust, of accountability. (Hey, it’s a place where your dog can take a crap—and you want to clean up after it.) It’s a place of cyclical occurrences, where things grow and pass away, and as many things flow in and out. It changes, because we change, because everything changes. It’s a symbolic place, but we use it like we use our front yard. It’s a place we want to be. It’s a public place. You know this place.

In 2004 the State of Pennsylvania passed legislation allowing slots gaming in Pennsylvania, and two gaming licenses have been designated for Philadelphia. Three of the potential sites are located on the Delaware River, approximately 1-2 miles from where I live in the Fishtown section of the city.

From the Archives #1: The Practice of Walking (March 2004)

In the spirit of reflection that often accompanies the turn to the new year, I’ve decided to cannibalize my blog and repost several writings — one from each year beginning in 2004. I created my first website with a blog just as I was finishing my graduate thesis in the fall of 2002. The first writing I’ve selected, titled “The Practice of Walking”

, was posted on March 9, 2004, and was written while I was living in Champaign-Urbana, IL. At the time, my partner was a graduate student in the MFA program at UIUC, and I was absorbing a lot of conversation there regarding critical spatial practice while also still processing the consequences of my graduate school experience.

First, from “Reimagining Walking: Four Practices” by Ben Jacks (in February’s Journal of Architectural Education):

In the face of modern alienation and postmodern absence, walking is a subversive act that enables us to contemplate bodily connections within the built environment. Walking restores a sense of connection; the act of walking penetrates the supremacy of abstraction and theory…

I was thinking vaguely about this notion of walking and connection today as I walked through town, especially when my feet landed on earth, rather than concrete or asphalt. The give of the moist turf accepted my step, acknowledged my body ever so subtly. My weight impressed the earth and then maybe the earth pushed back just a bit, springing my stride forward. Forward towards an old hospital that is just beginning to be demolished; the building is encircled by a makeshift chain-link fence. I walked around the edge in order to get a closer look at the preliminary demo work: underground utility lines marked with tiny color-coded flags and spray paint dashes, a smashed-in brick portico, felled trees, muddy tire-track scars in the surrounding yards. I walk around the building looking for signs of its impending demise, anxious. As I walk, my steps navigated the indeterminate space between the gutter and the curb and fence, but my eyes are drawn away and up, sharply scanning the hospital.

A few blocks away, I’m walking past an empty lot. A house was recently demolished here, leaving a gently convexed plot of deep umber earth. At each end of the lot is a “no trespassing” sign posted by the city. The tire tracks of some great bulldozer regulate the bare earth in the lot, a familiar pattern maybe, but remarkable here in its pervasiveness and severity. Actually, I came to this lot before walking towards the hospital. I had stopped to investigate the vacant lot and then caught sight of the hospital in the distance, remembering that it was soon to be destroyed. One void leads to another.

Some other factors, too, in the practice of walking: duration, slowness, perspective, horizon, itinerary, rhythm, start/stop, path, invention/submission, story. Others. In the aforementioned essay, Jacks explicitly discusses “sighting, measuring, reading, merging.”

Why the practice of walking? (Why the practice of everyday life, for that matter?) To deem some action(s) a practice is to draw a frame around it, to call attention to it as a deliberate subset of being/experiencing, to begin an inquiry into the thing and its history, to consider it as a tactic rather than mere happenstance.

Also rereading Hillary’s thesis. “Participatory consciousness” is on my mind and it relates to the practice of walking, that special connection to the world which it occasions. Participatory consciousness is the pre-Scientific Revolution worldview; it is being-in-the-world; it is the lack of distinction between subject and object, between fact and value. Modern scientific thought, then, finds us humans separate from the world so that we may quantify it—how as opposed to why. It seems to me that we’ve passed into a heightened or superior stage of this kind of disenchanted consciousness (dis-consciousness), but I can’t quite name it yet. Maybe it has something to do with material consumption and ubiquitous technology and mediated experience. Distance squared. Disconnection from disconnection. This is just a sense I have. So I go out and I practice walking.

Evolution in the Neighborhood

Green bug on a brown leaf

Green bug on a brown leaf

wrote a few weeks ago about The Neighborhood Project, an interdisciplinary effort to affect positive social change in Binghamton, NY by applying evolutionary science. The underlying philosophy and story of this ongoing work is wonderfully recounted by its lead instigator, David Sloan Wilson, in his book of the same name, which I’ve just finished reading. I confess that reading about his work is the first time I’ve really explored evolutionary science since a very superficial introduction to evolution in a college humanities course. (Strangely, I don’t remember a thing about the actual science of evolution from high school. I have a sneaking suspicion that my biology teacher was a creationist and skipped over that evolution part in the textbook!) Sloan’s writing is exceptionally readable, and the territory he covers in establishing his and others’ research on evolution is expansive, cross-disciplinary, and without jargon. I also found his demeanor in the text to be humble (when faced with the experience and knowledge of others), generous (when debate those who disagree with him), and full of conviction and integrity (when secure in his own knowledge and methodology).

While there is a great deal of interest in Wilson’s projects, two ideas in particular have been most striking for me in this reacquaintance with evolutionary science through his work. First, understanding the degree to which evolutionary science can be applied to the socio-cultural milieu has been fascinating and helped to fill in certain gaps within a larger framework of changing human behavior. I think I was ignorant of this potential application in the social field because of a confusion between cultural evolution and that most reactionary and base (mis)understanding of evolution espoused in social Darwinism. The second insight — and it is this that makes the human cultural application so compelling — is the importance of context and environment in natural selection, which is the process by which certain biological traits become more or less common. (Duh, I know.) Evolution is site-specific. And so, when Wilson and his colleagues systematically study the residents of Binghamton, using both qualitative and quantitative information, they are approaching that analysis through a granular look at how blocks and neighborhoods function according to a wide range of data. The goal is to determine how urban environments shape attitudes and behavior so that targeted interventions can be implemented with community partners to create the environmental conditions (social, cultural, spatial, political, economical) for positive social change. As someone reaching for this same goal in my own city using the tools of socially-engaged art and design, there is quite a lot to learn from in Wilson’s project.

As might be expected in such an urban project, Wilson at times touches on educational issues — and the environmental aspect of evolution clarified, or rather expanded, some of my thinking about the importance of learning environments. Particularly, what if, amid all of the contentious politics and noise of the education “reform” debate, we focused more holistically on the environments in which kids learn? What if we looked at the question of educational environments as specific, particular contexts that needed to respond to very specific groups of people and their communities? With very few exceptions, it is difficult to claim that any school is an optimal environment for learning to flourish. Schools are mostly overcrowded, lacking resources, authoritarian and coercive, socially disfunctional, anxiety producing, homogenous. Yet, society needs places, environments, where kids can be safe, nurtured, challenged, and loved. Might Wilson et al’s evolutionary perspective with its nuanced study of environment help us cut through the politics of education and design learning spaces appropriate to a diverse range of people and communities?