Reflexive Urbanism : A City Alive

For some early twentieth century commentators, the twenty-first century was going to be about electronic mediation of space. For others it was about speed and vectors of movement. But fundamentally people often believed that the same urban paradigms would be in play, particularly leaden, inert buildings that life flows around – in effect built obstacles to everyday life.

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In this post I want to invoke poetry, alchemy and surrealism to explore how we can capture what makes a city through the senses, rather than empirical measurement. I’ll argue that bio(techno)logy is the new cyberspace, a cultural and ecological connector within and between cities. And I’ll suggest that our future cities need to embrace peculiarities as well as generalities of practice, because just as people are not homogenous so our cities should not be homogenous.

I use narrative in my work because it is important to allow the space of myth and mythmaking in architecture. To strip myth and, vicariously, the ability of architecture to relate to deeper human fears, joys and stories often retards architecture. Myth, story and symbol begat an architecture that is above formal gymnastics and therefore has a longevity that can be measured in centuries.

Much of humanity’s recent architecture is devoid of this longevity precisely because it denies architecture’s greatest ability to awe, and to present deep cosmic epistemologies. It is perhaps obvious to many that to dwell is much more than to live – to survive. To dwell is to populate the world – to build our world by operating within it and those constructions, whether actions, events, situations, poems, pictures or buildings leave mnemonic traces within minds and spaces.

The Surrealists perceived Paris as a feminised vitrine of everyday desires and emotional ambiences, of a world on top of the world “sur-real”. They studied the arcane, hermetic arts and were familiar with the memory theatres and their advanced use of syntax, semiotics and symbolism – foremost among those Surrealists that used mnemonic devices to animate their work were Max Ernst, Salvador Dali and Leonora Charington. Their memory theatres are implicitly tied up with the alchemy and the secret languages (both graphic and spatial) of the alchemic adepts. Mnemonic forms are symbiotic with their context and the viewer simultaneously.

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What do many modern architects do in the face of the great cultural and mnemonic symphony of the twenty-first century city – they deify parametricism and create designs for often silly cities that deny light and seek to incarcerate their inhabitants in nebulous formal patterns.

But let’s go back to another beginning. During 1998 I started to create an architectural theoretical project that set itself the following brief: with a combination of virtual, cyberspace and real-world architectural notions, is it possible to embroider space so that activities elsewhere, at whatever scale, can condition the formation and growth of an architecture?

Such an idea is capable of producing a sublime space that grows and decays, changes and rearranges, that speaks of human beings as actors in a series of linear, non-linear and quantum events. Small expansions, minute stresses and strains, both virtual and actual, all can be utilised. This project I have called “Communicating Vessels” and after essentially 12 years, it is ongoing and currently consists of approximately 250 drawings and thousands of words of text, poetry and prose.

It has many interlinked parts all somehow related reflexively and all flirting with the choreography of chance and all rejoicing in Surrealist protocols of space-making and symbolism. Like Duchamp’s large glass activated by desire, this creates the illusive ‘holy gasoline’ that is the ‘fuel’ of the ever shifting system – a cybernetic system.

Many Dada and Surrealist personalities appear fleetingly in the “vessels” and these include Dali, Duchamp, Hugo Ball and the Baroness Elsa Von Freytag-Loringhoven. But the project is most in debt to Alfred Jarry and his poetic conceit of ‘Pataphysics with its three declensions of anomaly, hybridity and clinamen – the swerve.’ Put another way, Pataphysics is about the choreography of chance.

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The Communicating Vessels project consists of Surrealist tactics – genetic gazebos, harvesting DNA code as planting plans, mixing augmented and actual geographies and is powered by a biotechnical fluid called ‘The Grease’ produced by desiring machines, egged on by human interactions. The imperatives of the landscape can seldom be fully described at any one point.

The city has become an architecture of fields, of interactions, of smears, traces of precipitate and stain. We now have the potential to create reflexive urbanism; an urbanism that is not just anthropocentric but biologically agile, bottom-up, ecologically safe and virtuous.

Contemporary situations are often microscopic. We need to learn the lessons of the alchemists and the Surrealists, so often excluded from architectural discourse, if we are to respond and create an ecological and sustainable future for our cities. Biotechnology is the new cyberspace – it is all about connections.


This feature originally appeared in Arup and Demetrio Scopelliti.

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