Monday, 15 February 2010

Reading the city

When thinking of a book to suggest the notion of the city, many people might propose the A-Z street map.  Open it at the relevant page and it will show you where you are and which direction to take, what notable sights are worth seeing and the means to plan your route.  What it will not show you are all the many details which may lie in wait for you, the observations you will make, the personal narrative which you, and you alone, will assign to the inert lines of the map, thus bringing it alive.  Each person's map is unique.

Author Peter Ackroyd describes the city as a work of art in his introduction to the book Faux Amis, a comparison of the photographic work of Eugene Atget and Richard Wentworth:

"The city itself can also then be viewed as a work of art, of which the inhabitants are the unwitting or unwilling constituents.  It is a form of theatre in which the citizens are all players blessed with perpetual audience.  It is a form of cinema marked by continual mobility and change.  It is a form of literature in which the streets are the lines of a book which can never be completed."

The idea of the city as a book is one that is closely associated with the concept of flânerie, that combination of idle strolling and observation.  According to Michael Opitz, in Reading and Flânerie

"The flâneur reads the city.  In so doing, he is guided by the streets and buildings just as is the reader of the text by the script... That which is written is like a city to which the words are a thousand gateways" 

The streets and buildings are merely a guide and the flâneur is like a detective, searching for clues in the details and traces to be found en route.  In his essay The Flâneur in Social Theory, David Frisby alludes to Walter Benjamin's famous unfinished collection of writings on city life in Paris - The Arcades Project - as a work of excavation, mining the city streets for details as one would scour a text for meaning.

"Benjamin excavates Paris, capital of the nineteenth century, as a text, just as the Berlin of his childhood is a text.  He does so not merely through texts on the city, but also through recognizing the text as a city."

Franz Hessel, a contemporary of Benjamin, uses the same analogy of the city as a book, in his essay Spazieren in Berlin: 

"Flânerie is a kind of reading of the street, in which faces, shop fronts, shop windows, café terraces, street cars, automobiles and trees become a wealth of equally valid letters of the alphabet that together result in words, sentences and pages of an ever-new book."

Philosopher and social historian Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life, likens the act of walking in the urban environment to the speech act - the pedestrian 'appropriates the topographical system' in the same way as the speaker uses language and as such challenges the authority of the map, making it come alive as he walks.  As well as acting as a text to be read or spoken, the city can also be considered as a tabula rasa on which the walker can write his own narrative.  In the novel City of Glass, part of The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster, the protagonist Quinn, a writer of detective novels, is given the task in real life of following a suspect day after day through the streets of New York.  At first the man's wanderings seem to be totally random, he can make no sense of them.  Quinn eventually realises that with each day's walk, his quarry is in fact tracing out the letters of a message onto the map of the city.

"...for Stillman had not left his message anywhere.  True, he had created the letters by the movement of his steps, but they had not been written down.  It was like drawing a picture in the air with your finger.  The image vanishes as you are making it.  There is no result, no trace to mark what you have done"

Surely this is how most of us move through the city, taking note of what we see, but leaving no trace behind, unless it is the fugitive trace of our passage through the streets captured on the CCTV cameras.


Peter Ackroyd's weighty tome London The Biography is lying on my shelf unread - I prefer to wait until I have completed this project before I start it, fearing it may influence my reading of the city.  I am inclined for the moment to look upon the city as a set of blank pages waiting for me to write on it.  Where will tomorrow's journey of discovery lead me? 


  1. You are considering a very interesting aspect of discovering a city- and your essay is really thoughtful!
    I could add a phrase by Goethe in his "Italian journey": "Man sieht nur das, was man weiß" /You see only that what you know - a sentence I may partly agree with and I partly disagree! I would like to encourage you to see "the city as a set of blank pages", and try to write into your diary all impressions you will be filled with! The pic below is fascinating (a sculpture?) - a library full of books which have to be written!

  2. You are right Philine - I think the statement is only partly true. We tend to notice first what we are familiar with, but it only takes a little effort to be aware of the wider context. I'm afraid I don't keep a diary - I think of my photographs as a kind of diary. The picture of the books is one I took of an installation at the Venice Biennale a few years ago by a Cuban artist called Wilfredo Prieto.