The city as medium – Wakabayashi

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Mikio Wakabayashi writes:

“The cultural role of a city results from the fact that the city is a medium. It is a place governed by norms, rules and cultures, enabling heterogeneous people to live together.” (p.8)

“The spatial order of an urban settlement is not only a geographical order, but also an order of communication and representation. The city exists as a complex of the social medium, which is spatial, communicative and representative. To dwell in such a milieu is, on the one hand, to live in the corporeality of the spatial world, and, on the other hand, to live in the world of meanings that are transmitted by the social media, which construct the urban environment. In this sense, the city matches perfectly the term “media”, as the plural of “medium”.” (p.9)

“…as Choay (1969) argued, in most pre-modern (pre-industrial) cities, elements of the urban environment were interrelated in the context of normative codes and rules, which in turn were acknowledged by inhabitants and planners, and were also connected with all other social systems, such as political power, knowledge, economy, and religion. It seems, then, that cities may be regarded as systems of communication and information, in other words as “semiotic systems”.” (p.10)

“Cyberspace and the cybercity are a “mirror” that projects the negatives of the physical or real city, because they are created as a result of needs and desires that have grown from a lack or dissatisfaction regarding physical or real cities and society.” (p.14)

Ref: Mikio Wakabayashi (2002) Urban space and cyberspace: Urban environment in the age of media and information technology. International Journal of Japanese Sociology 11, pp.6-18

cities: ‘the intersections of multiple narratives’

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“Doreen Massey describes cities as ‘the intersections of multiple narratives’, a nexus of distinctive and coexisting stories.” (p.1)

“But when does a city become a global city and is this the same as a ‘metropolis’? And what of the ‘modern’ city? In one of its main uses, emphasizing the economic, technological and social character of urban development, the ‘modern’ city was the ‘industrial city’, with nineteenth century Manchester as its pre-eminent example. In the related sense deriving the modern from the Enlightenment tradition of rational scientific and human progress, the example would be late nineteenth century Paris. Other European cities (and this is a Eurocentric tradition), such as Vienna or Berlin, though of lesser stature and with their own distinctive characters, followed this second modern type. But both types were then decisively outdistanced by London at the end of the nineteenth century. The term ‘metropolis’ had been used earlier in the century to help comprehend London’s growing size and its national and international function, and by the 1840s it had emerged ahead of manchester as ‘the Empire’s commercial stronghold and as the world’s financial capital’. By 1890, London was the largest city the world [-p.5] had known with a population of 5.5 million, and easily qualified for the description, ‘A modern big city of international importance’ as Andrew Lees glosses the related term ‘Weltstadt’. London was, however, a distinctively imperial capital, at ‘the heart of the empire’ in C.F.G. Masterman’s pointed title of 1901, whose every advantage, especially its ports, maintained its commercial, administrative and political hegemony in the world. Schneer prefers on these grounds to describe the London of 1900 as an ‘imperial metropolis’. And this helps emphasise the type of global city London was – one whose pre-eminence was founded on a commanding economic and political position and depended on the mechanisms of military, ideological and administrative power. Globalization in this case, therefore, or this kind of globalization, implied conquest and exploitation, and the ideological processes of conversion, assimilation and subordination. The term ‘metropolis’ (from Greek ‘mother city’), further implied that London performed a co-ordinating role in the nexus of power and control that defined Empire. Arguably, the shape and style of the city as well as its major forms of employment supported it in this role. Thus, in the 1900s, London employed 20,000 colonial administrators, while colonial investments enabled the wealthy to settle in the West End and to enjoy its developing communications systems, theatre and new department stores (Selfridges opened in 1909, Heals in 1917). The very physical appearance of turn of the century London – the use of ‘Edwardian’ or ‘classical baroque’ for buildings in Whitehall and elsewhere and the construction of Kingsway as an imperial avenue from the Strand to Holborn – played its part too in asserting the merits and magnificence of Empire.
Other European cities developed as variations on this model of world or imperial global cities. New York, however, introduced a new type. For it was not a political but a commercial capital, and was above all a cultural city in which the famous symbolic verticality of its skyscrapers, the ambitious iron work of its bridges and its elevated transport system conveyed a sense of the modern as ‘newness’ in the here and now. By the 1920s, new York was ‘the type of the modern metropolis’, a model which spoke of the present and of an imagined future society in a way London, Berlin or Paris did not. This symbolic role was part, we have to recognize too, of New York’s own global identity: the shape of things to come, calling other older nations and their citizens to a new future.
Saskia Sassen suggests this future has come to pass, after a fashion at [-p.6] least. For ‘the agglomeration of high rise corporate offices we see in New York, London, Frankfurt and Tokyo… has emerged as a kind of representation of advanced city form, the image of the post-industrial city’. But this homogeneity of urban forms in the economic sectors of cities worldwide, is intersected, Sassen adds, by other tendencies in outlying districts associated with the traditional working class and new immigrant communities ‘beyond the central urban core’. Thus finance capital and old labour, white middle class and immigrant poor, coexist in uneasy juxtaposition and Sassen goes on to detail the disparities as well as the connections between these groups and neighbourhoods.
“How is this different from an earlier New York? In terms of its general structural morphology it is not different. Like other global cities, New York continues to exhibit tensions throughout the period between homogenization and decentralization, between the transnational and the local, or between rationality and pluralism There are differences in scope and scale, however, bordering on a difference in kind. For in the later period globalization has produced a different ‘World Order’ in which the technologies of power are controlled by an ‘electronic herd’ (Friedman, 1999), rather than Tammany Hall, and the instrumental rationality which served mid-century capitalism has shifted from the boardroom to the faceless, indeed placeless, information and finance networks or ‘flows’ which circuit the globe. The last two decades have seen the undermining if not erosion of the manufacturing base of the first generation global cities, the widely noted expansion of the service sector, the growth of uniform consumer outlets, the recruitment of workers in all sectors to short term contracts and the extremely rapid development and inescapable penetration of information and media technologies.
These are the features of ‘post-Fordism‘, so named because of the passing of a way of work and of life embodied in the production techniques, work practices and controlling influence of the magnate Henry T. Ford over his workforce and their families. Fordism presents a model of monopoly capitalism, or of early to mid-century modernity: the emblem of a productivist economy before the swing into predominantly consumer societies. In post-Fordism the rock-like associations instilled by the Fordist factory regimen between class, masculinity, workplace and hours of work, and of women and the home, have proved porous, while our social, ethnic, sexual and psychic lives have been further moulded by media technologies. The world is in the home: by way of the PC monitor or TV screen, or, what might be the [-p.7] same thing, is nowhere particularly. The effect, as many writers and commentators have noted, is dramatic, especially in the city, where these developments have produced a sense of new possibility and self-invention alongside a sense of unbelonging and an urban mentality of fear, paranoia or nostalgia..” (pp.4-7)

“…from the beginning of the century… The metropolis was thought to be without balance and harmony, a landscape of physical and psychic extremes in which the modern citizen was subjected to the mayhem of the city’s ungoverned, shapeless sprawl, or to the tedium of its unrelieved sameness. Either way, the metropolis appeared to spell the end of community. Both the imagined national and collective class communities were in a sense defined by these conditions but constituted themselves outside and against them.
At least one further kind of community of a different type did emerge from within these conditions, however: the artistic community comprised of a temporary and fragile alliance of emigres who, as Williams puts it elsewhere, shared the medium of their art and the divergent project we have come to know as modernism. The artistic medium, which centrally held their interest, was reworked to express an altered mentality and simultaneously register the time of a new modernity. For if realism was the representational mode of the earlier type of community and experience of synchronous time, new modes were required to capture the experience of the anonymous crowd and multiple times of the metropolitan scene.” (p.18)

“But if community depends on sameness, what, in a world of mobile peoples and circulating commodities, where local, national and global intersect, remains the same?” (p.22)

“Certain key and recurrent terms […] – estrangement, collage, hybridity, syncretism – begin to offer a common vocabulary for reflexive modern and postcolonial communities and for the mixed discourses of a reflexive aesthetic.” (p.23)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine) Peter Brooker (2002) Modernity and Metropolis: Writing, Film, and Urban Formations. New York: Palgrave Macmillan

John Berger on the city that teaches a way to be

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John Berger (God, I loved this book):

Only somebody who has lived in the streets of a city, suffering some kind of misery, can be aware of what the paving stones, the doorways, the bricks, the windows signify. At street level – outside a vehicle – all modern cities are violent and tragic. The violence of which the media and police reports speak so much, is partly a reflection of this more continuous but unregarded and older violence. The violence of the daily necessity of the streets – of which the traffic is a symbolic expression – to obliterate (run over) even the recent history of those who have lived and live in them.” (p.96)

“Initially [Ralph] Fasanella’s paintings of Manhattan do not appear in the least tragic. And this is the first way in which they are accurate. Because tragedy, too be felt aas such, requires a temporary exemption from daily life – a compassionate leave – which the modern city does not grant.Fasanella-New-York-City
His paintings are accurate in many ways. There’s the typical sky of New York, very high and distant and yet its light indistinguishable from that reflected off the waters from the Bay, [….] Or the specific way in which the density of the working population makes itself felt there. The island of Manhattan is a gigantic metaphoric model of the compression of an immigrant ship that has moored and [-p.97] never left.” (pp.96-97)

A modern city, however, is not only a place, it is also in itself, long before it is painted, a series of images, a circuit of messages. A city teaches and conditions by its appearances, its facades and its plan. No city more dramatically than New York which served for at least fifty years (1870-1924) as a unique landing-stage and breaking-in ground for millions of immigrants who had come from distant villages or ghettoes or small towns.
The city demonstrated to the newly arrived what they had [-p.98] to forget and what they had to learn. Nobody planned what New York taught. Its lessons were by example. In being what it was, it laid down its laws. At a profound level, Fasanella’s paintings are about some of the lessons which the look of the city taught as law.Old_Neighborhood” (pp.97-98)

“Objectively space exists in Manhattan. It is a scarce and enormously valuable commodity. Sometimes Fasanella puts up a hoarding which ironically announces: SPACE TO LET. Yet this commodity, this space, is not inhabitable, except in purely physical terms. What has evacuated it? What makes the family kitchen no more than a cupboard off the street?
The answers are not only those which first spring to mind: overcrowding, poverty, insecurity. These phenomena existed in the countryside, yet a peasant house could still remain an enclosure, a refuge. What destroyed, invaded, the interior of the tenement home were even more basic economic processes. The home was not a store: on the contrary, the store was where you had to purchase each day the wherewithal to live. The wherewithal was paid for by so many hours of wage-labour. The time of the city – the time of wage hours – dominated every home. There was no refuge from this time. The home never contained the fruits of labour, a surplus, of either goods or time. Home is no more than a lodging house.” (p.100)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold mine) John Berger ‘Ralph Fasanella and the Experience of the City’ pp.96-102 of About Looking, but I didn’t record which edition!

More urban change questions

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More interesting questions about humans and cities and nature…

“What is the relationship between humans and nature? How does this question play out in the specific micro-environments of cities?” (p.71)

Ref: Nicholas Low, Brendan Gleeson, Ray Green and Darko Radovic (2005) The Green city: Sustainable homes, sustainable suburbs. Routledge, Abingdon and New York; and UNSW Press, Sydney

urban change questions

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These questions are posed in the context of sustainable urban development, but I think them both interesting and relevant to fictional concerns (perhaps especially those of urban fantasy and fiction more generally?):

“Ultimately,” write, “the green city will reflect a rather different future for work. On this topic there are some very large questions: can a future of cities competing against one another in world markets be reconciled with a benign future for the environment? What are the limits of competition and how can they be enforced? Does economic growth itself have limits? How can growth be steered into environmentally benign forms of production? What forms of governance are required to regulate world markets in order to guarantee social security and environmental conservation? How do culture, place and climate influence work patterns, and consequently the physical accommodation of work?” (p.132)

Ref: Nicholas Low, Brendan Gleeson, Ray Green and Darko Radovic (2005) The Green city: Sustainable homes, sustainable suburbs. Routledge, Abingdon and New York; and UNSW Press, Sydney

Measuring human space

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Suggested titles from Claude-Henri Rocquet

“…given the task of making budding architects understand that human space cannot be truly measured unless it is oriented in accordance with the cardinal points of the human heart, I had no better allies than Bachelard of La Poétique de l’espace and the Eliade of The Sacred and the Profane.” (p.vii)

Ref:  Mircea Eliade and Claude-Henri Rocquet (c1982) Mircea Eliade Ordeal by Labyrinth: Conversations with Claude-Henri Rocquet. translated by Derek Coltman. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, London.