The Cinematic City
Over the 20th century, the power of film media has redefined perception—the restructuring and discontinuities of time and space have become ingrained in the modern psyche, and now constitute a fundamental apparatus in the experience of the contemporary city. Much of the interest in the relationship of film and the city has been based on the use of architectural imagery, the invention of narrative devices, and the reflection of culture as represented in cinema throughout the last half of the 20th century. There has been, however, less investigation into the structural, or formal characteristics of the medium related to understanding the city. The fundamental nature of film’s ability to create discontinuities of time and space, as well as techniques that change the perceptual focus from the centered viewer to de-centered, or dispersed points of view based on the multi-directional gaze of the camera suggests new approaches to design at both architectural and urban scales. The focus of this investigation is on the way film portrays spatial and temporal information that subverts the limitations of wholeness and continuity based in the real (real space and real time) in favor of synthetic constructs, producing a form of re-representation that can define alternative strategies for perceiving and ordering the city.
Robert Smithson’s Extended Site: Thoughts on the Dialectical City
Late in 1968, the artist Robert Smithson formulated his first “Nonsite” art works, initially comprised of rocks removed from various sites stacked in metal bins or placed on mirrors, and displayed in an art gallery. Later in the “Cayuga Salt Mine Project” of 1969, Smithson developed more complex arrangements of mirrors, mounds of salt, and photographs, parts of which were placed in a local salt mine, while salt extracted from the mine was displaced into various arrangements in an art museum some distance from the site.
The City as Index
The continuing crisis of the modern city is essentially based in its weakening capacity to convey meaning, or perform as a referrential text of larger cultural/social ideals. This is due, among numerous causes, to a deepening confusion of messafes, media saturation, and cross-cultural plurality that make clear readings all but impossible. The enduring description of the city as a specific and symbolic text of significaion and belief has become more than suspect given the continually shifting definitions and interpretations of signs, and the loss of specific cultural meanings, now furthere confused by contamination through universal access to global communications and the impact of mass advertising.
Over the last decade there has occurred a transformation in the develoment of urban public space, marking a radical shift from its historical roots. The characteristics of the phenomenon are represented by a series of challenging new parks and plazas, the most important of which have resulted from urban development programs carried out in Barcelona, Paris, and New York. These parks diverge significantly from traditional public spaces, and constitute examples of what can be termed a type of “action space,” which can be defined by its polarization to earlier spatial models…
Exposing the Private City
The transformation of the American city can no longer be evaluated in terms of the qualities of the historic city. The accepted tenets of urban design: the primacy of the collective realm, the definition of streets and open space, and the ordering of public space and institutions have lose their ability to act as the critical conceptual and structural armature of the city. Urbanism, as a public experience, has been challenged, if not surpassed by a pervasive sense of the “private”, which offers another paradigm of vastly different social and physical characteristics, and confronts the raditional qualities of urban life. While the manifestations of this emerging private culture have generally been understood as one of the causes for the crisis, or decline of the modern city, I would suggest that they might also contain the stimulus for a more complex, inclusive urban experience and patterns of development.
It is clear that the suburbanization of our cities over the last half century has resulted in physical patterns that violate essential social, perceptual, organizational and spatial qualities found in traditional urban contexts. Mechanisms of real estate development and zoning have produced regional forms whose characteristics are common throughout almost any American metropolitan area: congested, unsightly commercial strips, undifferentiated, unbounded tracks of single-family housing, highways bisecting sensitive landscapes and established neighborhoods, excessive distances between single-use vocational, recreational, and domestic land uses, fragmentation of social networks, and generally, what might bedescribed as the formless, dispersed, and incoherent patterns of metropolitan and regional growth. These developments have evolved into larger aggregations, codified as “Edge Cities”, concentrations of mixed commercial, retail, and recreational functions serving surrounding suburbs which share similar patterns.
Chance Encounters: Public Attachments in the City of Private Parts
The American grid city, if considered purely as an artifact of design, represents a paradox. On the one hand, the incorporation of the gridiron achieves total order; all of the parts of the city are consumed within a subdivision of identical blocks, suggesting uniformity and control. On the other hand, the development of the city through the speculative nature of individual initiatives over periods of time, only marginally guided by zoning parameters, has produced physical settings which defy fundamental notions of order and control.
The Shifting Ground: Figuration Within the Gridiron City
The American gridiron city has long resisted any radical transformation of its formal structure. For over two hundred years, its original conception, a simplified subdivision of space into repetitive cartesian limits, forming a pattern of filled blocks articulated by a matrix of open circulation, continues as the fundamental paradigm of organizing physical development. One of the reasons for the lack of evolution of the grid city is the lack of a substantial theory of form, or formal strategies that challenge the fundamental nature of the grid, and can promote alternative types of interpretation and redevelopment.
Urban Streetwall Redefined
As reflected in current revisionist theories of urban design, the replacement of the early models of the Modern City now seems to be complete. The visions of Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse, so influential for the development of the city over the 20th century has been replaced by a clear acceptance of the principles based in the historic city. The city of isolated figures constructed in a field of continuous space has been rejected in favor of the primacy of the defined urban street and plaza as the essential construct of spatial order. Perhaps the most basic and accepted tenet of the current paradigm of city design is the necessity of forming a common setback of aligned building edges, i.e., a streetwall, which through its continuity and integrity established the spatial definition of the street as a fundamental concept of urban order.
Architecture as Index: Toward a Theory of Contingency
Many theorists explore the problem of content in architecture in terms of representation, or the utilization of symbolic and often historicist imagery to extend an object’s meaning within a larger spatial/cultural context. This paper suggests that an alternate mode of establishing associative content can be based in abstraction, or nonrepresentational means in terms of architecture’s capacity to perform as “index.”