07 07 2006
Disembedding from Psycho-Urban Containment
by Ewen Chardronnet (FR)
To create a common element above the three dimensions of urban life (work, housing, public and gathering spaces), the terms "traffic" and "communication" imposed themselves in the urbanistic generalities about movement. With the explosion of electronics, realising the science-fiction of yesterday, we are now in scenarios of the virtual city, the online city, the city of bits, the cybertown and other metaphors of disembodiment. But the real function of cities is still to organise the proper cohabitation of centres, non-centres and outlying areas, like an accumulation of topographic powers (factories and offices, flats and houses, stadiums, theatres, squares, streets and public buildings).
In the second half of the 20th century, a significant number of utopian architects wanted to find fundamentally new models for the organisation of urban space. Many of them experimented in search of an alternative to the failures of centralised rationalism in old Europe, and to the disgusting fascist holism of control. This broad movement was partly a reaction to post-World War reconstruction models that appeared unsatisfactory. The Situationist International avant-garde movement, created in 1957 by artists including Guy Debord, Asger Jorn, Constant and others, proposed to study cities with new techniques: Psychogeography and Unitary Urbanism. Psychogeography is the "the study of the precise effects of geographical setting, consciously managed or not, acting directly on the mood and behaviour of the individual”. Unitary Urbanism is "the theory of the combined use of arts and techniques as means contributing to the construction of a unified milieu in dynamic relation with experiments in behaviour". "The sudden change of ambiance in a street within the space of a few meters; the evident division of a city into zones of distinct psychic atmospheres; the path of least resistance which is automatically followed in aimless strolls (and which has no relation to the physical contour of the ground); the appealing or repelling character of certain places - these phenomena all seem to be neglected. People are quite aware that some neighbourhoods are gloomy and others pleasant. But they generally simply assume that elegant streets cause a feeling of satisfaction and that poor streets are depressing, and let it go at that.”
In the decade of the 60s that followed, the utopian and political dimensions of urbanism were also extensively analysed, not only by the Situationists, but also by Marxist researchers such as Henri Lefebvre or later by Manuel Castells . As the development of the "new towns" continued in America and Europe, with historical events such as the Watts riots in the USA, urbanism was interpreted by them as an ideology that "organises silence" in the emerging Information City. This analysis drove the Situationist International to abandon utopian architecture in order to concentrate on semiotics and the distribution of information in what they called the Society of the Spectacle.
Nevertheless, psychogeography has been co-opted along with advocacy planning and participation by think-tanks on space management. Today’s companies can easily quote Guy Debord if it justifies their business orientations. Spatial management is inserted in temporality and in a permanent process of semantisation. What was described as "intense life" by the leftist romanticism of the 50s and 60s is now integrated in lifestyle management. The dream for the cyber-citizens is to escape their physical location and its embedded situations. Mobile phone companies already finance "locative" artists to develop prototypes that will invade the Flexible Personality market very soon . "Disembedding", decentralising, are the romantic escapology dreams of today’s individualist urban life. An illusion of freedom that goes hand in hand with social containment in the physical city.
Zoning, Software, Utopia, And Industrial Property
The way towns and cities are set up now - wide streets, strip malls, cul-de-sacs, segregated functions (industry over here, offices there, housing at a safe distance) - is dictated by rules and regulations. The sprawling suburb is an expression of the free market combined with the consequences of arrangements arrived at by local politicians and real-estate agents scheming together. Zoning laws and regulations are often deeply flawed, having been created haphazardly, largely to suit developers and politicians, and they too often lead to dull, dead living conditions. A set of laws and regulations for the commons would surely result in neighbourhoods that suit people better.
Governments and local administrations have always been among the major "consumers" of architectural commissions. In this area the modern state, either as charitable patron or direct overseer of the job, does no more than continue a centuries-old tradition of public works. Since the 60s and 70s, organisations operating under public law have become avid clients of intellectual services commissioned from outside suppliers, whether these services involve studies, contractualised research or computer program development. Thus we have seen a growing complexity in the production-lines of authoring and service provision, with a generalisation of outsourcing, an increasingly large percentage of "imported" elements in every given product (most commonly through the "cut-and-paste" function of computer software tools), and the spread of multiauthor and multiprofessional production modes which formerly were limited to the audiovisual field . The question of software patents thus becomes equally crucial in the realm of public construction. While in certain countries computer programs are treated as "art works" under the definition of Artistic and Literary Intellectual Property (ALIP), there is a strong pressure to simply consider them as Industrial Property. That would entail demonstrating a possible industrial application or an actual use. Thus a de facto relation emerges between utopian artist-architects (whose creations can remain under ALIP, whereas constructed architecture often falls under Industrial Property) and utopian artist-programmers - and if the latter lose the artistic and literary possibility, they will also lose the chance to develop open systems.
Cities Of Fear
Electronics wields increasing influence over today’s urbanism. Everything is liable to create more profit in the cities of world commerce, as soon as the exchange speed has been increased. What is called Electronic Urbanism is only the surge of acceleration, the spreading foam of nodes and pipes in the telematic networks between connected people. But for State planners, the most important thing remains the ability to monitor circulation and stop it in the physical space. Zoning the physical landscape has become a tool for governance to keep control of counter-powers and their potential disobedience. In modern cities, increasingly fragmented into "export zones", special "safety zones", "no-go areas", it becomes almost impossible to structure an oppositional assault. Zoning can be contested but is usually approved by the citizens, in the name of their sovereign individual security.
Control over the physical landscape strives to be very strong, but can still be quite weak in its effects on the circulation patterns of everyday life. Only a totalitarian governance could imagine full control over the movements of individuals. On the global level, weakness also appears at the tensegrity nodes, under the strain of geo-economic conflicts. To illustrate this, we just need to think of today’s drama of global terrorism.
If the Situationist utopia somehow failed, the psycho-history of locations is still a toolkit for social movements. Some places have a strong history. In Paris, demonstrations can easily shift to confrontation with the police when they pass by the Latin Quarter, Bastille and Charonne, as opposed to Invalides or Montparnasse. Past events psychologically influence a crowd, which can become uncontrollable. This is integrated in the tactics of unions when they organise demonstrations. Go here when you want to heat up the conflict, or there when you want to cool down and negotiate.
Another strong and long familiar model for bringing people together is the re-appropriation of architecture; not developing utopian models, but reclaiming old buildings or constructions, because of democratic necessity. This has been well known since the improvised gathering of the republicans in the royal building of the "Jeu de Paume" handball court, just a few days before the French Revolution. In our times, squats and temporary occupations are still an effective tactic for people to gather when they have no other possibilities: airports runways for teknivals, medieval fortresses in strategic areas, occupation of universities or train stations during social movements, obsolete spying stations or military infrastructures of former empires, etc. Anything that permits a group to gather and talk.
But somehow, this was much stronger in the mid-90’s. Before the rise of the world wide web and mobile phones. In ten years, the entire city has been invaded by information technologies: surveillance cameras, biometrics, wireless networks, mobile phones, automatic doors, identification cards or numbers for transports and buildings, etc. If it was still possible for social movements to occupy train stations ten years ago, it would be difficult now, because of mass terrorism. It was also the period of the illegal raves, sound systems were invading buildings all over European cities, it is now forbidden or controlled. The paradox is that people have more tools to communicate but live in a more controlled physical space. Is it possible that the Information decade simultaneously generated a Mass Terrorism decade? 9/11's unprecedented scale gives size to the enemy, but United Nations statistics show - although there is no valid definition of terror - that terrorist acts worldwide have been on the decline and not on the rise for a decade, despite all the media and political shuffling (the Irish Republican Army launched rockets at number 10 Downing Street in the 80's). The point is probably that the economy of fear is on the rise: mediated angst, media terrorism.
 With creators like Buckminster Fuller, Archigram, Yona Friedman, Paolo Soleri or Constant.
 To learn more about this, read "Sphären III” by Peter Sloterdijk.
 "Définitions", Internationale Situationniste 1, 1958.
 Guy Debord, "Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography", "Les Lèvres Nues", 1956.
 From Henri Lefebvre in that period, read for instance "The Production of Space" and from Manuel Castells, "The Urban Question."
 "The Society of Spectacle", Guy-Ernest Debord, 1967
 "The Flexible Personality", Brian Holmes, in "Hieroglyphs of the Future", 2002.
 "Marchés Publics et droits de la Propriété Intellectuelle", Groupement Français de l’Industrie de l’Information, 2003.
 On today’s convergence between utopian architects and utopian programmers, see the Makrolab project : http://makrolab.ljudmila.org
 A good example is Fadaiat event in the Castle of Guzman El Bueno in Tarifa, the southern town of Spain, with an affirmed objective to develop a counter-surveillance observatory of the Gibraltar Straits between Africa and Fortress Europa (http://www.fadaiat.net).
 As in Paris in December 1995.
 Good examples are in Latvia with the ex-tsarist and ex-Soviet facilities of Karosta, or the former Cold War spy dish "Little Star".
Ewen Chardronnet is a French media artist and writer, organiser and researcher in information systems. He published in 2001 an anthology "Quitter la Gravité" (Editions de l'Eclat) about the Association of Autonomous Astronauts.