Friday 12 November 2010

The Architecture of Urban Reality by Rob Smith

Below is an essay written by Dr. Robin Smith of the Wales Institute of Social & Economic Research, Data & Methods (WISERD) at Cardiff University and relates to our sciSCREENing of Inception last August. 'My research is, in a broad sense, concerned with the city and the ways in which people navigate, interpret, and make sense of the urban environment. This formal programme of research stems from a long standing fascination with the experience of being in a particular place – the ‘feeling’ of it, the memories it might stir up, how one assesses the other people there, how one attempts to figure out how it is that you’re supposed to act in a certain setting from cues around you, and, particularly, how it is that all this complexity and subjective experience is condensed in making a place a social reality. This final issue, perhaps the most complex, may also seem straight forward, axiomatic even. The world and, indeed, the city is out there, right? Well, in some sense yes, of course it is, but tonight I want to suggest, as in Inception, that in some senses that world, and the city in which we live, is actually up for grabs. So, in the short space that I’ve got today I’d like to consider a few ideas which were planted in my head, and which took hold and grew, and consequently cause me to look at the world in a particular way. To go back to the film, I want to look at the idea that was planted in Mal’s mind; that the world in which you live isn’t real. To kick us off, consider one of the most striking scenes in the film, also used in the majority of the trailers. Cobb is in cityscape, unmistakably Parisian, with his new architect. Testing out her powers of creation in this fabricated reality, she proceeds to do the impossible and fold the city back on itself, thus ignoring the laws of physics and altering the previously concrete urban fabric. But why is this scene so striking? Well, beyond the visual impressiveness of it all, it’s striking because the city, in its built form, is so abundantly there, is so literally concrete and solid that the prospect of bending its form to our will is, perhaps, an inception beyond conception. Unless we happen to be vandals or graffiti artists we do very little to change the urban environment as we go about our day to day lives; one of the features of the human experience in the modern city as opposed to more ancient or pastoral environments is that its surfaces are hard to mark. No footprints in the sand here. But despite the fact that the city is a real environment, full of buildings, people, and a whole range of other urban stuff, this does not in anyway limit or detract from the human capacity to construct and reconstruct it with the mind and in our practical actions. Here’s a quote which captures a good deal of what I am trying to say about the ‘urban reality’: 'The city has a million faces and no man ever knows just what another means when he tells about the city he sees. For the city that he sees is just the city that he brings with him, that he has within his heart… made out of sense but shaped and coloured and unalterable from all that he has felt and thought and dreamed about before.' Now this might sound like a ‘postmodern’ interpretation: a fragmentation of the solidity and stability of modernity in to multiple narratives each as ‘real’ as the other and grounded in subjective readings. It may read like that, but in fact it was published in 1939 and captures that human capacity to construct meaning for the world around us and then, perhaps more significantly, the way in which we act in that world according to those meanings. As W.I. Thomas famously wrote – if things are considered real than they are real in their consequences. It should also be noted that whilst the language of Wolfe, in the quote above, seems to put forward a male-centric understanding of the world it should be realised that what I talking about tonight is concerned with human practice and should not be considered the preserve of either sex. We are more used to the reverse scenario and seemingly readily accept the fact that the built environment shapes our behaviour. As Winston Churchill, famously, said that “We shape our buildings and afterwards, our buildings shape us”. Indeed, the relationship between architectural form and social organisation is a fascinating one and there is arguably a fine balance to be weighed up in terms of influence. Buildings do influence the way we behave, at least in observable appearances, and they can make us feel a certain way – the significance of material forms in religious worship (the totem, the statue of the God, the cathedral) and so on produce an affect. I would suggest, however, that such affects are also part of the ‘reality producing capacity’ of human interaction. One of the underpinning assumptions of the tradition within which I am speaking from is that there is no reality existing ‘out there’ awaiting our discovery but, rather, that the reality of ‘out there’ is constructed by us, in practice and interaction with and within it. The reality which we take comfort in is, in fact, a human accomplishment which must be consistently re-accomplished. Here’s an example. Consider events in a courtroom following a traffic incident. Different versions of events will be given by witnesses, by the police, by the defendant, by the lawyers and so on and so on; multiple accounts of the event which all give different takes on a single event. The different accounts, then, pose a ‘reality puzzle’ which must be solved by the participants; namely, what was the ‘reality’ of the event that took place? The judge, over and above his legal duties, is called to provide a summation both of the evidence but also of the ‘reality’ of the event being debated. This seems like common sense, indeed this is the point; we approach reality as a matter of common sense, of ‘what everyone knows’ about the world, which is, in turn, culturally specific. A defence that an accident is caused by witchcraft is not likely to go down well in the UK, yet amongst the Azande tribe, for example, it would be perfectly rational and would see the playing out of an according process of action involving chicken’s wings, poison, and blessed water. This accomplishment of an external reality is also to be found in the way in which people account for places which pose reality puzzles; Cardiff Bay being a particularly good example with its strange mix of history, bars and restaurants, expensive flats and urban deprivation, and a political institution in the shape of the Senedd. Cardiff Bay is, again, in one sense massively there, and concrete, and all the rest of it, but it is also many places, times, and experiences at once. On top of this, an idea of what ‘Cardiff Bay’ is and how it is to be interpreted, is planted in visitors minds in the process of regeneration that has taken place and on glossy tourist websites. With all this going on in the contemporary city, for the process is repeated in many other cities, it is worth returning to the quote above and noting that the complexity of the city is reduced and rendered down when we talk about it, drawing from our experiences, memories, and knowledge and available means of expression. Yet when we talk of the city, aspects of that experience however will remain elusive, just out of reach and “no one ever knows just what another means when they tell about the city they see” – just like when you try to tell someone about that dream you had last night.'

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