#bordertown: The Canonical City

Paul Raven @ 26-09-2011

“We all like to congregate at boundary conditions. Where land meets water. Where earth meets air. Where bodies meet mind. Where space meets time. We like to be on one side, and look at the other” – Douglas Adams

***

Perhaps the concept of the border goes right back to the most basic bits of biology. Imagine yourself in the primordial soup of a young Earth, and look around: barring the physical limits of the sea itself as it thrashes against rocks (which in this instance counts as the edge of the perceivable universe, beyond which is beyond imagining), the only walls you can see are the cell membranes of the crudest lifeforms, each tiny critter an independent fiefdom of security and gathered resources, a little living city-state. And even here, even this early, we see the necessity of border permeability; food must be brought into the city for it to survive, so the walls must allow for that passage, as well as for the expulsion of the toxic and unwanted.

Some evolutionary biologists hypothesise that the earliest stages of single-celled life consisted of symbiotic mergers. It might well be that mitochondria and chloroplasts were originally independent bacterial lifeforms that finagled themselves through the walls and into the security of one of those little city-states, wherein they discovered that their own unique abilities would improve the lot of their adopted home; there we have the hopeful narrative of the economic migrant, born before even the first multicellular lifeforms.

Chloroplast 12000x

And what a border the surface of the sea must have been to the first creatures to contemplate it – as challenging, unassailable and inhospitable as the border between the atmospheric envelope of Earth and outer space seems to us now, if not more so. We’re drawn to borders, challenged by them, inspired or intimidated by them. They are a function of our sense of identity, a mapping of ourselves onto the world around us. We understand their necessity, and yet we dream of transgression, of the meadow on the far side; the grass is always greener in the other guy’s stash.

The work of British science fiction author Chris Beckett is full of explorations of that contradictory tension between manning the city walls and sneaking through the postern gate, in either direction (because to leave the city is only to enter another territory). As climate change, post-growth economics and the inevitable evisceration of the nation-state make a mockery of map and territory alike, the questions he asks will only become more relevant.*

***

Given its harrowing history, it seems almost inconceivable that you could meet a Berliner who resented the loss of the Wall. And while no one but a last lingering few folk with a hard-on for the authoritarianism of the past (so much less subtle and velvet-gloved than that of today) would ever wish for a return to the oppression and hypocrisy that the Wall symbolised and enforced, it doesn’t take a long stay in that fine city for you to encounter the symptoms of a nostalgia for division. It’s probably clearest (and most commercially viable) at the level of aesthetics; there was a successful campaign to resist the replacement of East Berlin’s distinctive Ampelmännchen walk/don’t-walk signage characters, for instance, and – much as in any major city – the tourism industry makes money from tying ribbons around things dug up from the boneyard of the not-so-distant past. Sepia photography, the patina of age… these things have an authenticity that we find to be rare in the altermodern swirl of our mediated lives, an authenticity we seek to overlay on our experiences here at the cutting edge of time.

Conrad Schumann

(I can get an infinitely reproducible copy [reproduced from Wikipedia under Fair Use terms; please contact for takedown if required] of the iconic shot of Conrad Schumann leaping the checkpoint barricade within seconds of googling for it, but the symbolic buttons it presses get pressed much harder when one buys it as a postcard from a shop on Unter den Linden before sitting down among the glistening new constructions of Potsdamer Platz 2.0 to scribble a suitable message on it and send it to a friend back home. Geography has a residual emotional power, even when we think it doesn’t, or shouldn’t… and time is just another dimension of the map.)

But I encountered a different, deeper sense of loss among the Berliners I met – a contradictory thing that baffled (and sometimes angered) people as they tried to explain it to me across the pocked no-man’s-land between our native languages. We shouldn’t discount the possibility that I have misinterpreted what I was being told, of course, but the sense I got was that while no one misses the cruel and arbitrary physical schism of the city, they miss the sense of unity that the schism gave them. Berlin was once united in its hatred of the Wall; as such the Wall became a huge part of Berlin’s sense of identity. The euphoria that accompanied its dismantling is long gone, leaving behind the unscratchable itch of a once-hated phantom limb. Formerly united by their division, Berliners are now divided in their responses to their unity; their discussions of contemporary civic politics now include the same gripes about zoning, gentrification, class and race as any other big European city, but there’s always an underlying sense that, even if the Wall was a horror, it at least made things simple: you always knew where you stood, even if you didn’t necessarily want to be stood there.

Graffiti on the Berlin "death strip"

***

China Miéville’s novel The City & The City reminded readers of Berlin, the Gaza Strip, and many other brutally divided territories, past and present; indeed, the ease with which the book could map onto the politics of postmodernity is a testament to Mieville’s powerful command of metaphor. But there is a crucial difference: Miéville’s twin cities share the same physical space, and for the most part there is no physical or material obstacle between one city and the other. Indeed, the mapping of the two cities – and the necessity of unseeing the city that you do not belong to, and all the people in it, despite them sharing the street or building or park with you – is entirely the work of the citizens themselves. Besźel and Ul Qoma are one city, at least in the crudest architectural sense, but their mutual invisibility is rigorously policed and enforced.

Miéville strongly yet politely resists attempts to canonise any single reading or interpretation of his books, but given the inescapable facts of his staunchly Marxist politics and life-long love for England’s ancient capital city, we can make an interesting case for TC&TC as a model of a schismatic London – the same class-riven metropolis that erupted in riots earlier this year. (I can’t take credit for that interpretation, though it was astonishingly obvious in hindsight after I saw it made by Owen Hatherley, who himself saw it made by a commenter elsewhere.)

Anti-cuts Riot in London

As Hatherley and others have noted, Paris has long had “no-go” underclass neighbourhoods prone to violent car-burning unrest, but they are geographical outliers, their inmates unable to easily attack anything other than the squalor that surrounds them. For more reasons than one could ever list – historical, political, economic – London is marbled with strata of class, the privileged living cheek-by-jowl with the poor. Physical borders would be impractical, expensive… and so Londoners soon learn to unsee those places and citizens who do not belong to their own city. (The same doubtless applies to many British cities, including my own hometown of Portsmouth, which has been so often described as a Northern industrial city that somehow ended up in the South that no one knows who said it first; I dare say it applies in many other countries, too. We’ll notice which ones, soon enough; keep an eye on the headlines.)

There are streets you don’t walk, shops you don’t use, pubs you don’t drink in, people you don’t acknowledge; the borders are powerful, and they cascade down to the scale of individual citizens in fractal complexity, but they only exist only in the collective, by an unspoken consensus. When enough decide to abandon or defy that consensus, a liberating permeability offers itself, and the underlying fragility of the city-as-system is laid bare, its viscera exposed, twitching in the dirt of the street like the victim of a Ballardian mugging. Within the city are many cities, interwoven or entangled, sometimes at detente, sometimes at war; an organism so complex and poorly understood that, as medicines for the body civic, contemporary politics and economics look little more rational than leeching and the balancing of bodily humours. If we have a long-term future as a species, the city will be an ever-larger part thereof; its diseases must be studied, lest we treat only the symptoms while we watch the patient die.

***

STONER KITTAH

Cats are territorial animals, but their conception of territory is four-dimensional. Where a dog works on the theory that its back yard is always its back yard, accessible only to pack-mates (of whatever species, honorary or otherwise), cats make allowances for their greater ability to get past physical obstacles by timesharing their favourite locations. That spot on the corner of the garage roof might be a young tom’s turf until the midday sun makes it more desirable, at which point it becomes the fiefdom of the local bruiser; as the sun moves on, so does the boss, and the residual warmth gets soaked up by someone else; then, at 3am, the whole breadth of the roof might become a hybrid of nightclub, knocking shop and backyard fight venue.

It’s a lot like the way we share cities, isn’t it?

***

Donning our speculative techno-urbanist hats for a moment, we can assume that once augmented reality navigates its way rightwards across the Gartner hype cycle and gains widespread adoption, the post-geographic schisming of physical space will become even more normal, with Miéville’s metaphorical act of unseeing becoming one component of a multitude of possible layered maps of the city. Offended by rotting Brutalism, or the glistening thrust of postmodern monstrosities in the heart of the city? Then choose a layer where they do not exist, and never see them again. Do the same with the homeless, or the rich; choose to swap the iconic London buses for steam-driven robot elephants, or to swap brown skins for a lighter (or a darker) shade; see the city of the Reformation as Sam Pepys would have seen it, bumbling down a side-street to some secret assignation; see the Londons of Warren Ellis and Paul Duffield’s Freakangels, or Ballard’s Drowned World, or Moore’s From Hell; see a city, see any city, see every city. Geography is just the screen, the Canonical City, the hardware on which we run the software of urban life: we project the city on to it, drawing our borders in the gaps as instinctively as we draw the line between me and you, between Us and Other.

A metaphor too far? I disagree; I’ve seen and participated in layerings of exactly that sort in my own home town over the years, and I expect the same happens wherever people may be found – but the complexity of manifestation is a function of population. The layers are cultural, and they’re spooled out in realtime on the wetware between our ears. My city is not the same as your city.

Albert Road

When I walk down Albert Road, nominal main drag of Portsmouth’s unevenly distributed bohemian quarter (as in London, geographical constraints to expansion have led to a patchwork demography), my cultural affiliations and long period of residence determine the things I notice most: the second-hand bookstores; that flat-above-a-shop where I once DJ’d to a full room at 5am on a summer morning in 1996 before the police turned up and impounded the sound system; that guy sat eating lunch by the window of Little Johnny Russell’s, who was in a band that a friend once played bass for; the plastic nick-nacks and Spongebob lunchboxes in the window of Passionfish, one of the few indie stores that’s been a going concern since before I moved here, and which has employed at least a dozen of my friends; and of course the Wedgewood Rooms, the music venue that has employed and entertained a hefty tranche of P-town bohemians over two and a half decades.

Each journey I take has different highlights of attention, of course, but to a tourist passing through on their way to the historic dockyards or the Gunwharf “shopping experience”, it’s just a narrow and somewhat grubby strip of pubs and takeaways, devoid of places to park. Perception is reality. My Albert Road – our Albert Road! – is not your Albert Road, but all the Albert Roads – actual, virtual, fictional, possible – are anchored to that same physical space. You can’t touch the borders, can’t spray your name on them, but you can see them if you sidle up to them just right: try dressing a tad too metrosexual on beer’n’curry Wednesdays at The King’s Arms, maybe, or elbowing your way to the bar of the One Eyed Dog at 10pm on a Friday night while wearing a Square Mile suit.

Oi!

That sharp hard glint of who-the-fuck-are-you in the eyes of the other customers?

That’s your border, right there.

***

For every wall we build in the world, we build one that matches in our hearts.

***

* In the interests of full disclosure, Chris Beckett is a client of mine, but I was a fan of his writing before that was the case.

With the exception of the Conrad Schumann image (which I ganked unashamedly from Wikipedia) the above images are linked to their originals as found on Flickr. The London riot cops were found using the indispensable Compfight search engine; some are my own, and the rest are by my good friend and erstwhile bandmate Rusty Sheriff.


BERG’s Robot-Readable World

Paul Raven @ 04-08-2011

I was on a focus group panel last week, and had a real fanboy moment when I discovered that one of my fellow panellists was employed by the notorious polymathic design consultancy BERG. When I expressed a fascination with their output, I was assured that their studio – far from being the Wonka-esque factory of chaotic genius I liked to imagine – largely consisted of people sat staring at computer monitors. (I still think I was lied to, and they just do the magical stuff out back somewhere.)

Name-dropping anecdotes aside, there’s a more pertinent reason I mention BERG, and it’s this post by Matt Jones, titled “The Robot-Readable World”. It is long, and it is full of stuff; Jones collects a whole disparate bunch of thinkers and thoughts and synthesises it all into something coherent, compelling and challenging. It also pretty much sums up why I count myself as a BERG fanboy – even if all they do really is just stare at monitors a lot, if that results in this sort of output, then I can feel a lot better about my own working practices.

TL;DR: I’m a bit busy today, so go read something awesome someone else wrote. It’s about robots ‘n’ shit, yeah?


Hell no, we won’t bro: the Vancouver hockey riots

Paul Raven @ 17-06-2011

Sincere apologies to Canuck readers and the easily offended, but I found the pictures from the Vancouver riots to be… well, pretty hilarious, actually. For possibly the first time in my life, I find myself pretty closely aligned with the vibe at Hipster Runoff, which – to spare you the effort of beating your head against deliberate and doubtless ironic subliterate txtspk – can be summed up with the phrase “sportsbros rioting LOL WHUT”.

Vancouver sportsbros REPRAZENT, YO

Obviously I’m not tapped into the local news sources, but from the more internationally-visible side of things there seems to be a tone of Official Condemnation tempered with a subtext of Boys Will Be Boys, very similar to the one trotted out in the UK media when football fans decide to commiserate a major loss (or sometimes even celebrate a win) for their home team by, er, smashing the hell out of their own town. (No, I don’t understand it at all, especially as I’ve been repeatedly told that supporting your local team is all about civic pride. Um, OK.)

Compare and contrast, then, to the weeks of media handwringing over Anarchist(TM) actions at things like the G20 summit or the London marches earlier this year. Clear subtext for the hard of thinking: dumb violence is just one of those things, especially when propelled by a vague sense of regionalistic fervour; however, dumb violence as part of an anti- or counter-state agenda is a shameful waste of taxpayer’s money, a threat to the security of decent people everywhere, a sign of the end times and a justification for swinging changes in the public order statutes, blah blah blah. Bread and circuses, business as usual. Plus ça change, non?

Leaving aside media coverage, though, the Hipster Runoff person raises a valid point: why are these people rioting? He suggests that the pictures explain it all: because, dude, it would be totes sweet to have a Facebook picture of you throwing fake gang signs in front of a burning car! Thanks to ubiquitous cameras, every event is instantly mediated; even riots are now performative displays, a chance to grasp at an authenticity and prove that you were right there man, SRSLY, no fakin’. Personally I’ve never been a big fan of the riot as political tool (though I understand the arguments in favour of it), and I think that this sort of thing is going to make violent protest look increasingly facile to the passive masses in Western nations; it’s gonna take more clever things to catch anything more than their kneejerk disgust.

That said, I think it’s reasonable to suggest that if you can get a mob scene like this over sports results in Canada, we’ve got a good metric for how generally tense and willing to leap across the line folk are feeling right now. As I said last night on Twitter (in my best Eeyore voice, naturally), if you think that’s bad, just wait until the Arab Spring starts turning into the Arab Autumn, or for the next raft of bad harvests in Africa. Food and water riots are going to happen, and they’re going to make Vancouver look like a fucking picnic in the park.

Interesting sidebars, though: some local citizens attempted to face down the mob and organise a clean-up the next day, [via MeFi], while Vancouver PD are crowdsourcing the tricky task of identifying the rioters [via SlashDot]. Funny how people act on “civic pride” in such different ways, isn’t it?


Plan Of The City: NYC architecture relocates itself to Mars, throws party

Paul Raven @ 03-06-2011

I get a fair few emails in the Futurismic mailbox saying “hey, I did this thing, maybe you’d check it out and blog about it?” Roughly 80% of them are either poorly disguised corporate pitches or stuff that’s just not very good, but every now and again I get something like this: Plan Of The City is an animation by regular reader Joshua Frankel, and it’s really rather wonderful. So consider this your Friday afternoon brain-break; take thirteen minutes to watch the architecture of New York fly itself to Mars, accompanied by some rather moving music. Go.

You can find out more about Plan Of The City and Joshua’s other works; give the guy a bit of attention, why not? Thanks for getting in touch, Mister Frankel. 🙂


The militarization of urban construction sites

Paul Raven @ 25-03-2011

OK, so I’m going to do my poor-man’s-BLDGBLOG schtuck here. Thinking back over the period of my life in which I’ve been a city-dweller (1994 to the present), construction sites have become increasingly fortified and walled off from the city itself. This is not exactly surprising: construction sites are full of stealable stuff with high resale value, and urban buildings are far more tempting to squatters, guerrilla artists and other fringe-culture oddballs (like the late-nineties club-kids who used to climb scaffold-clad buildings for kicks in the early hours of a Sunday morning while the disco-biscuits wore off*).

What is surprising, however, is how solid and permanent they’re starting to look. Scaffold and tarpaulin is for amateurs; check out this emplacement that’s currently blocking Lena Street in Central Manchester.

Construction site fortifications, Lena Street, Manchester UK (click for embiggenation)

It looks more like a fortified guardpost you might find in Baghdad or Fallujah or somewhere like that; an armoured beachhead in hostile territory. Which is, I expect, exactly how its creators/owners think of it… but that mode of thinking, that desire to slice out and secure little sections of the city, kind of concretizes a corporate attitude to the increasingly interstitial flux of a large urban environment. It’s a bulwark against chaos and entropy… and the increasing hardness and permanence of these structures suggests that urban entropy is getting harder and harder to defend against. (I mean, there’s gotta be a clear cost-benefit to building something like this; otherwise why raise your overheads?)

I can’t get the image of this thing out of my head, ever since I first saw it a few weeks back; it has so many things to say about the state of this nation – and the world at large – in these troubled times, but the deeper meanings are still unformed and unclear to me. So I might just sit down with a collection of Situationist essays for an hour or two and see what they manage to stir up… or wait for some clever architectural philosopher to give me starting nudge.

[ * As a sensible and law-abiding citizen, I naturally know only of this dangerous and thoroughly illegal pastime from rumour and legend. SRSLY. ]


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