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Unmappable / Unknowable

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From: http://darc.imv.au.dk/publicinterfaces/?p=303

Mapping the Unmappable, Knowing the Unknowable

Posted on January 9, 2011 by gcox

Robert Brown
University of Plymouth

‘We need to construct multi-dimensional analyses which, rather than imposing monological coherence and closure, allow parallel and conflicting representations to coexist in analysis.’
(Shields 1996, 245)

Recent discourse recognises the city as a multi-layered construct, from Marcuse’s “layered city” to Kahn’s “many cities in one city”. (Kahn 2002; Marcuse 2002) Further deliberations range on the nature of social space through an understanding of perception as occurring through a series of filters. (Borden 2002; Lefebvre 1991) Evolving thoughts on urban histories echo these pluralistic readings, as do emerging discussions in ecology and
landscape urbanism. (Czerniak 2006; Girardet 1999; Huyssen 2002) Extant in the above is the proposition that the city is comprised of a plurality of layers formed by cultural, ecological, economic, political and social actions, agents, forces and structures1. Within this context traditional notions of the city as a collection of people inhabiting some contiguous space and thus having common concerns are suspect. What was once spatially constituted locally has been subject to significant shifts in connectivity brought on by the accessibility of physical and virtual networks of exchange; concurrently, both mobility and diverse and dispersed opportunities have fostered disparate groups overlapping across multiple spaces. Moreover, this multi-layered condition is not a predetermined absolute, static, homogenous or singular, but rather is constructed, changing, heterogeneous, and operates at multiple scales simultaneously. Furthermore, it does not exist as distinct stratum; rather the layers interrelate, with overlaps, gaps, adjacencies, conflicts, connections and fusions that exist or lie potent between them.

This conceptualisation affords a joined-up approach to the making of the city. This approach grows out of an experience of community development and urban regeneration, recognising that people and/or organisations behind projects can, through working together, achieve enhanced results. (Brown 2011) Such practice echoes other emergent shifts towards “‘pluralistic’ and ‘organic’ strategies for…urban development as a ‘collage’ of
highly differentiated spaces and mixtures, rather than pursuing grandiose plans based on functional zoning of different activities.” (Harvey 1990, 40)

Working within this condition presents however two notable and interrelated challenges. Firstly, the city’s spatial and temporal complexity render it unmappable and hence unknowable. The danger is of course that the subject falls back into totatlizing conceptualisations. Yet while recognising that we can’t ever totally map or know the city, in order to operate in this context we need some mechanism that allows us to frame the city as a space of simultaneous multiplicity, and from which one both construct knowledge and carry out subsequent action. Secondly, the conventions that we have inherited are based on a Cartesian geometry – one that is fixed and singular. What are needed are new tools that will enable us to operate with the dynamic nature of the city. Within this paper I will consider these questions, and draw upon recent work within the Master of Architecture design studio at the University of Plymouth to explore a praxis of multiplicity which I have called “palimpsest”.

inherited practice
Urban representations have historically operated within a dialectic of the strategic and the experiential. The strategic is characterised by both pictorial representations and diagrammatic drawings, each aimed at giving a panoptic perspective and a sense of metacognition. The experiential in contrast is marked by graphic mechanisms aimed at conveying intimate and immediate spatial experience, notably as encountered through vision or touch. While also using the pictorial and diagrammatic, the primary intention is to simulate something of the richness of the actual experience of place.

This dialectic, while offering useful frameworks within which to operate, poses significant limitations. They are of course inherently exclusive of the other. More significantly, they each fail to engage with the full range of multiplicity that the city represents. The panoptic overview tends toward the reductive, prioritising selected viewpoints and marginalising others, while homogenising all into totalizing visions. The immediately experiential is by
contrast fragmentary, limiting connectivity between individualising narratives. Each equally fails to engage fully with the temporal; their depictions are static, frozen in place that delimit their validity. Such a representation “automatically freezes the flow of experience and in so doing distorts what it strives to represent.” (Harvey 1990, 206)

In juxtaposition to such representations, we recognize that place is subject to multiple interpretations from multiple perspectives. Further, these are malleable and permeable, shifting and evolving dependent upon the prospect taken and its underlying attitudes and values. No totalizing nor fragmentary representation therefore can truly capture and express the manifold interactions occurring between people and place which accumulate over time. Like comparable observations on the fluidity of culture, actions and events within the city are not part of singular condition, but rather exist as multiple strands which are in a constant state of flux in relation to one another.

What is needed is a wider conceptual framework in which to formulate discussion. Yet in so doing we are confronted by a vast plurality. This is a challenge echoed by Frederic Jameson in questioning whether a comprehensive knowledge is elusive, even unobtainable. (Jameson 1999) How then to make sense of this condition and articulate some accessible account? How can we build upon this to generate a field in which we can act and which will inform the design process? What are needed are not only new tools, but equally new conceptualisations that underpin them. Practitioners and theorists have called for a reconsideration of traditional praxis, and new “techniques that engage time and change, shifting scales, mobile points of view, and multiple programs.” (Allen 2002, 40)

constructed practice
As Denis Cosgrove suggests, ultimately it is impossible to represent all spatial-temporal conditions fully, but mapping as a tool allows us this illusion. He further contends that it provides a fertile way of both knowing and representing the world. (Cosgrove 2003) The goal of the mapping as proposed here, i.e., palimpsest, is not however a singular representation. Rather, it embraces plurality and aims to give presence to this. This intention thus engages intrinsically not only with spatial form, but more ephemeral considerations of meaning perspectives. Thus, it is not so much a matter of getting any supposed reality “right”, but in drawing on Andrea Kahn’s discussion of site representations, is more of a process of knowledge formation; that is, it is a way of “constructing forms of knowledge that can cope with multiple realities.” (Kahn 2005, 289)

There are several aspects key to the process of mapping in palimpsest. First is the identification and analysis within differing thematic and/or attitudinal viewpoints (i.e., various layers within the city, for example cultural). Such a focus can of course have limitations if uncritically considered; it does however enable a more incisive view and can also reveal hidden conditions, whether dormant, marginalized or neglected. A second key move is the use of juxtaposition, in which individual mappings are brought together. This operation has its intellectual roots in Edward de Bono’s arguments on lateral thinking. It offers a way of engaging with seemingly known information and phenomena with a fresh perspective, and is particularly useful “as a way to restructure existing patterns of thinking and provoke new ways.” (de Bono 1970, 11) As de Bono further suggests, this approach helps to raise awareness of alternatives, including those that may not be so obvious. (de Bono 1970) Juxtaposition equally owes a debt to discourse on “unlearning” and “transformative learning.” Though this action we can expose the constraints and limitations of our existing attitudes and ways of working. Moreover, it enables us, as Saskia Sassen might suggest, to reveal the connections of the seemingly unconnected. (Sassen 1996a; Sassen 1996b) The third key aspect is the use of narrative. Stories help us to remember and make sense of our experiences in time and place, the wider forces at play and those places themselves. They make accessible patterns, linkages and contingencies that inform the relationship between personal thought, action, experience and memory, and broader, shared narrations. Most significantly to the discussion here, these stories can be mapped, revealing boundaries, trajectories, intersections and fields occurring in time and place. (Potteiger and Purinton, 1998) The use of multiple media plays a distinct role in this mapping process. The documentation of narratives in particular draws upon a mixing of film, photography and writing to record the diversity and flux that marks inhabitation of place. The use of various digital and graphic techniques equally supports the act of juxtaposition; a creative play with the information recorded through the thematic mapping affords a simultaneous manipulation at both strategic and tactical levels, allowing various permutations and possibilities to be revealed.

The construct of palimpsest is the subject of an on-going investigation in the Master of Architecture design studio at the University of Plymouth. This inquiry has three primary aims: firstly, to explore the construct of the city as a multi-layered representation. Secondly, to test the means by which we represent this construct. Thirdly, to frame discussion for later project work (this third point is not the focus of discussion here). This exploration reveals, maps and tests how the city’s different layers synthesise, overlap, touch, reflect, displace, erase (i.e., relate to) each other. In one recent project students worked in the context of the city of Riga, exploring specific neighbourhoods which reflect particular attitudes towards city planning in place at the time of their inception. These were examined within a framework of ecological, political, socio-cultural and socio-economic layers. Two
of the neighbourhoods examined are briefly examined here. One group’s study of the Jugendstil neighbourhood, a gridded 19th Century ‘new town’ known for its extensive number of Jugendstil buildings, revealed an overlapping of cultural, economic, political and social forces, less strategically planned but no less present within the current landscape. Though seemingly one continuous part of the city, distinct disparities were found. In some
areas a convergence of high levels of car ownership and high car values, a predominance of Latvian and English signage and even menus, and well-refurbished street facades wasidentified. In other areas where Russian signage and text was found, fewer cars and of lesser value were present, and the building frontages were in a noticeable degree of disrepair. This mapping not only reflected pro-Latvian government strategic policies, but
equally revealed the extent to which the intentions of those policies had permeated through even to non-government related actions and spatial conditions. Another group’s study of the medieval Old Town unearthed a similar convergence of the cultural, economic and political. Notable in this was a coalescing of ‘tourist-friendly’ shops, restaurants and bars, officially sanctioned by the government tourist board, with ‘suggested’ tourist routes. Seemingly omitted from the authorised narrative of the Old Town were any inhabitants of Riga, whose connections with the area were limited to acts of consumption (whether as buyers or sellers). The apparent shift from a once-diversified city fabric to a singular space of tourist, leisure and retail consumption is reflected in the government’s intended longterm strategic agenda for the Old Town.

These two projects, and similar ones by their colleagues, reveal an understanding of the city that embraces the simultaneous multiplicity present there. By bringing together distinct observations, and working with them through juxtaposition and a narrative framework, they prompt us to look again through propositions underpinned by the juxtaposition of spatial and temporal narratives, and both panoptic vision and direct experience. Manoeuvring around any singular, reductive formal representation and attributed meaning, they direct our focus to the linkages between layers of time and place.

some cautionary and concluding notes
In positing palimpsest, it is crucial to recognize that what is being proposed is not the generation of some unitary theory or “new meta-disciplinary category” as Greig Crysler warns us against. (Crysler 2003) Rather, it shares more in common with de Certeau’s notion of tactics, i.e., a calculated action in the context of a terrain that already exists, in which it is but just one of many different players acting on it. (de Certeau 1984) It is critical to highlight however that the working methodology proposed is not a positivist model. Echoing Marc Treib’s critique of Ian McHarg’s ‘Design with Nature’ methods, analytical overlays might help to reveal certain criteria but they do not autonomously generate subsequent design strategies. (Treib 1996) Nor is this approach intended to reveal some sense of an absolute truth. Moreover, it recognises that any approach carries with it a certain bias; as Corner observes, ‘how one “images” the world literally conditions how reality is both conceptualized and shaped.’ (Corner 1999, 153)

The intention of palimpsest as a practice is to expose junctions and voids between spatialtemporal layers that might provide a site in which to act. This conception does not mean to deny that the city is ultimately is unmappable and unknowable as a totality, but rather that the city consists of a multiplicity of narratives, each composed of a range of performances, perspectives, processes and relationships. It acknowledges that these at times coalesce and at other times conflict in place. The intention is to explore how these layers relate, and the potential their convergences and divergences offer as site of design. Ultimately, it is not about defining some singular vision, but rather ‘the primary aim…is to pull out the positive threads which enable a more lively appreciation of the challenge of space.’ (Massey 2005, 15)

1. Actions refers to tactical operations and events in the everyday, carried out by agents (whether as individuals, institutions or organisations acting separately or communally) in the context of wider forces of contextual conditions and as influenced by structures of institutional legislation and policy or socio-cultural norms.

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Written by James Thomas

30/11/2011 at 12:46

Posted in Uncategorized

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