Making City

What if the people of London and Paris swapped places? How would each city change? This is a thought experiment suggested by artist Claire Yspol in the following guest post. I am really pleased to be able to present this post which looks at the city as a text, examining not only how it is authored by planners and architects and read by its citizens, but also how each of us writes in its margins. She uses the work of Kate Newby to help show how we turn spaces into places and build cities through narrative, meaning and use.

Making City

How ‘ordinary’ citizens make the urban environment

Claire Yspol

1. From Luanda to Rotterdam

Architecture is the expression of every society’s very being… [But] only the ideal being of society, the one that issues orders and interdictions with authority is expressed in architectural compositions in the strictest sense of the word… Thus great monuments rise up like levees, opposing the logic of majesty and authority to any confusion: Church and State[…] speak to the multitudes or silence them.’ It is obvious that monuments inspire social good behavior in societies and often even real fear.

Georges Bataille (in Hollier, 1989:ix)

Angola is doing well. After a debilitating civil war that ended in 2002, Angola, because of its oil reserves, is rising and so are the sleek office buildings in its capital Luanda. The city is one of the most expensive places for expats in the world, but high-rises can’t mask the many shanty-towns at the outskirts and even in the city centre: “slowly but surely the inhabitants of these places have to make way for yet another developer trying his luck with the building of luxury apartments or prestigious office buildings.”  (Bossema, 2012:6). The problem lies with the government and its top-down agenda, explains agronomist Fernando Pacheo in the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant. The ruling classes believe their own propaganda of there being a substantial and growing middle class in the capital when it is actually minute, (Bossema, 2012:7).

Rotterdam flyer

Fig.  1 Promotional material from the Architecture Biennale Rotterdam (Personal Collection)

Last year the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam took place. I was in Rotterdam at the time and noticed how well-marketed the event was.  Yellow, black and white posters invited passers-by to think of themselves as ‘makers of the urban environment’ (fig.1). And the central question of the Biennale was how do we make city?. So, very different from Luanda because here an effort was made to get inhabitants to participate in the creation of a liveable city for all.

I liked the inclusivity of the statements (fig.1), but at the same time I thought it important to analyse the Biennale question further. First of all, if by ‘city’, the organisers meant the aggregate of physical buildings, roads and the like, then I don’t really ‘make Rotterdam’ or any other city. Most citizens don’t have the power or the means to construct a durable, physical building in the urban environment. Who are the ‘we’ in reality? In other words, a question that needs to precede the Biennale one is: who makes the city? If the city is a text then who are its authors? The answer that springs to mind would be: the urban designer, the developer or the government. In terms of ‘making city’ the citizen and the planner, for example, occupy opposite ends of the spectrum. This means that quite a select group of ‘authors’ decide how our environment functions. Furthermore, space isn’t neutral, neither is design. They are both political: design can be implicated in the dominant discourse as I will show and space can come with its own built-in power mechanisms.

I started with a quote from Bataille because I saw a relationship between the situation in both Luanda and Rotterdam and the writer’s critique of architecture.  As much as I love architecture I also realise it is implicated in the exercise of power. Bataille goes even further and marks architecture as being a prison. Foucault sees buildings in the same way: “in Surveiller et Punir  he describes the invention of criminality through techniques of spatial planning.”(Hollier 1989:x).  Interestingly: “Bataille’s prison derives from an ostentatious, spectacular architecture, an architecture to be seen; whereas Foucault’s prison is the embodiment of an architecture that sees, observes and spies, a vigilant architecture.”(Hollier 1989:x).

So although there is a difference between the ‘architecture as prison’ idea of each of the thinkers, these ideas can be neatly transposed onto the two cities described above. The physical environment of Rotterdam is the ‘vigilant party’: apart from having installed numerous CCTV cameras, authorities in the Dutch city are now experimenting with ‘sound intelligence’. These are systems that can pick up on sounds of aggression and distress, after which a warning signal is given. In the African capital the sleek high rises, luxury apartments and even ‘social’ housing keep the majority out, imprisoned in their poverty (Bossema, 2012:6).

2. Invisible cities

Take a book, any book, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities for example. Read and written about many times, it has its enthusiasts and a place on many a bookshelf. Now imagine three devotees who own a copy of the book: an architect, a journalist and an art student, but it doesn’t really matter what they do or who they are. If they have read this rich text they will have built up a relationship with it and crucially, each of these relationships will be different. There are as many versions of Invisible Cities as there are readers. One passage might have significance for the art student and get carefully underlined or circled, while the architect skims the same section en route to a more ‘important’ chapter. This is true for every book or text we choose to engage with. We have no hand in writing the original text, but by virtue of reading, we change it and turn it into a highly personal thing.

Michel de Certeau attests to this when he says that the reader “…invents in texts something different from what they ‘intended.’…..He combines their fragments and creates something un-known in the space organized by their capacity for allowing an indefinite plurality of meanings.” (De Certeau 1984:169). A writer of a book loses her ‘grip’ on the narrative as soon as we, the readers, set eyes on the first page. It, the narrative, becomes ours as we infuse it with past texts and experiences; our imagination conjures up a mental theatre with ‘actors’ and ‘props’ unique to us. Reading is a way of ‘disrupting’ text. When we are unfamiliar with a text it is what it is: a self-contained, independent thing, but once we set to reading it gets pulled apart and remade in a sense, again we give the text meaning.

Our involvement with the urban environment is strikingly similar.

Making buildings, making cities is an ambiguous and often less than democratic affair. Yet, as an artist who uses the physicality of the urban environment as ‘raw material’, the Biennale question remains compelling for me: yes, how do we make city, but how do we make city in a way that goes beyond the ‘mere’ construction of physical buildings?  The question is useful in that it functions as a site for a more democratic discourse.  There is an acknowledgement of creative agency accessible to all. Creativity and the ability to make our collective environment should not be reserved for a small elite, whether architects, planners or artists for that matter. Urban space cannot be reduced to its physicality, in the same way a book does not just consist of text. The city is an entity made of physical constructions, the spaces between these and equally important, human activity. Any text, whether book or city, comes into being only when we as readers/ inhabitants engage with it.

Part II Oppressive Spaces

1. Cairo or oppression in the urban environment

It is two years since the Arab Spring. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down after weeks of turmoil. Mohamed Elshahed explains in his essay on oppression and urban space in Egypt how Mubarak’s government took hold of urban space and turned it against its users. Political oppression got embedded into the physical fabric of the capital city, Cairo.

There are things no dictator wants: citizens who have agency, who talk freely, exchange ideas with strangers in public, and the ability of large crowds to come together unexpectedly for demonstrations against draconian political measures. To keep these things from happening in Cairo, the Egyptian government gave certain areas over to cars to discourage pedestrians – a testament to the power of (people) walking (together). Elshahed also describes how those in power rid the city of as many large open spaces as possible (such as squares), by dividing them up and fencing them off. Tahrir Square is one such example. It played an important part in the revolution when the Egyptian people were able to take possession of their square (and poignantly ‘Tahrir’  in Arabic means ‘liberation’).  In the years before, however, it was a criminal offence to ‘congregate’ with even a few people. ‘Tahrir’ was made toothless by dividing it up into little patches of grass and manageable pieces of pavement. “[The government] understood that a true midan — Arabic for public square — is a physical manifestation of democracy.

A truly public Midan al-Tahrir would have been feared as a threat to regime security, and so over the years the state deployed the physical design of urban space as one of its chief means of discouraging democracy.( ).

A week after Mubarak was ousted, the unthinkable happened: “the military helped activists organize an official celebration in Tahrir Square; an estimated 1.5 million citizens turned out.” (Elshahed)

2. The Panopticon, building as disciplinary tool

A whole history remains to be written of spaces-which would at the same time be the history of powers…

Michel Foucault (in Gordon, 1980:149).

“Power is a relationship between people.” (Short, 1996:408), and as the quote above by Foucault suggests, power and space are intimately linked.  Foucault laid bare how space is not a neutral object or thing, but is actively used as an instrument in the “exercise of power” (ibid. 407). A concrete example of this appears in one of his most well-known books Discipline and Punish (1977) where he takes Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon as an illustration of how power can be embedded into architecture.

The concept of the Panopticon (fig. 2) was invented by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century. He wanted to create a building that would make keeping inmates on the ‘straight and narrow’ a relatively easy process. The structure consists of a building in the shape of a ring, creating a ‘courtyard’ in the middle that houses a tower, also circular. The ingenuity of the Panopticon lies in the fact that ‘the ring’ consists of individual cells with large windows on two sides. When in the cell you see the tower in the courtyard (the other window looks out onto the exterior environment of the ring-like building). The tower gives visual access to all the goings-on in the cells but, and this is crucial, the overseer in the tower cannot be seen by anyone in the cells, because although the tower itself is visible, its interior isn’t. Forever on view, an inmate can never be certain whether they’re being watched or not and as a result, those in the cells start to internalise the gaze from those in the tower that they may or may not be subjected to. The uncertainty creates a mechanism of self-correction in the prisoner (Gordon, 1980:155).  Bentham envisaged the Panopticon not just as a place to house prisoners. He thought it a good system for all areas in society that thrive on order and discipline, such as schools and places of work (Foucault, 1977: 200).


Fig. 2  Jeremy Bentham’s Panoption design c. 1787

Urban space can also be built with power embedded in its structures and subtly mimic  the Panopticon’s eerie efficiency. Urban space whispers orders, coaching us gently but surely along the ‘right’ path and what is ‘right’ is decided elsewhere, on an architect’s drawing table or in a government meeting room.  One of the most apt examples is the ubiquity of CCTV cameras in cities; Great Britain alone has 1.85 million of them, effectively turning the urban environment into a large Panopticon to encourage order and discourage deviant activity. Then there is the sad occurrence of “sadistic street furniture… such as benches where fully stretched out sleep is impossible…” (Short, 1996:405), in a bid to free certain places of ‘undisciplined’ individuals.

As a power mechanism, Bentham’s Panopticon seems fail-safe, but it isn’t. Foucault discusses the ‘shortcomings’ of the structure in a conversation with Jean-Pierre Barou and Michelle Perrot (Gordon, 1980:162). Where there is pressure on human beings there will be some form of resistance. Perrot, a historian explains: “In the domain of prisons, the convicts weren’t passive beings. It’s Bentham who gives us to suppose that they were. … In reality [the discourse of the penitentiary] had to work with a material -the prisoners- which put up formidable resistance.” (ibid 162). And Foucault agrees with this.

3. Resistance proper vs. subversive resistance

I sympathise with those who resist. Resistance is a form of agency. Current western top-down power definitely exercises its influence, but it can hardly be accused of blatant oppression and my aim isn’t to vilify the urban designer or the government. Designing a city isn’t inherently wrong of course, but it is important to be critically aware of the sorts of decisions others are making on our behalf, especially when these decisions relate to our collective living environment.  I want to feel ownership of the city, to have a hand in its coming into being. Where does my agency lie when having to deal with more subtle forms of influence instead of oppression?

For Judith Butler it is through repetition that any type of action or behaviour becomes normative (Butler, 2006:198). If we do something often enough in a certain way, it becomes difficult to deviate from the norm. We have internalised many of the (unwritten) rules on how to use the urban environment. Some of these rules aren’t as necessary as others, still we often ‘perform’ them. A mundane example is the path that meanders from one end of a park to the other. Even if walking over the grass proves to be a shortcut that is twice as fast – most people would still take the path “because that’s for walking”. We could subvert the norm by continuing to repeat it, but in that process also insert something ‘other’, something that subtly goes against the norm and for Butler, “agency” … is to be located within the possibility of a variation on that repetition.” (ibid. 198). In my example this means still using the path but literally sidestepping it, if or when more convenient.

Much like Butler’s idea of destabilising repetition, Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of major/ minor  gives an insight into how subversive resistance works.  Urban space is a text often written in major, a term used by Deleuze and Guattari to indicate what is dominant or deemed conventional in a particular context, in society for example (Sutton & Martin-Jones, 2008:53). Paradoxically, the visible, ‘major’ fabric of the city (its buildings, neighbourhoods and streets) are designed by a minority such as urban planners. This minority decides what the city looks like and how the city dweller behaves through design. ‘Major’ is, however, only one side of the coin, ‘minor’ is the other. With the latter term Deleuze and Guattari indicate that which takes the ‘major’ language and destabilises it (ibid. 53), and so “forces it to become something else” (ibid. 52). While a minority creates the major or dominant fabric of the city, it is the majority (the urban dwellers) which has the potential to account for the ‘minor’ element in the urban environment.

To illustrate further:  I have been exploring the ‘minor’ use of urban space in my own artistic practice. An example is Past Events, 2012, a performative work which consisted of me reciting several literary texts in slightly generic locations in Hereford such as bus shelters. After these ‘events’ I put up a small poster in the bus shelters stating the nature of the project, what was read and when the event had taken place. Reading the poem Meditations in an Emergency by Frank O’Hara aloud in a bus shelter, meant that the major or normative aspect of the structure (its function as a ‘waiting area’) got destabilised and re-articulated in a slightly subversive way; it became a site for art.

Space is not neutral, but often made to influence and steer (or force) us in a particular direction, and the city is seemingly created by only a small group of people who make decisions about what is ‘best’ for everyone. Top-down power can be openly coercive or more indirect and staking our creative claim when faced with subtle forms of top-down influence means using equally subtle tactics ourselves.

The following section explores the (subversive) ways in which we as ordinary citizens make city. I will show how everyday living and acting in the urban environment has a hand in constructing it.

Part III Meaning and Place

1. Knowing ourselves through everyday existence

The fact that power can be embedded in urban spaces makes any attempt towards a more democratic (design) discourse a necessary one. The Biennale question how do we make city? is commendable in that it can function as a site for this discourse. The analogy of the book or a text is useful here. We might not write the core text, (the physical urban environment) but we do read it; our agency lies in using and giving meaning to our environment. It is the unfolding of our daily lives within the boundary of urban space that makes it (the city) what it is.  And within this ‘unfolding’ there is scope for subversion, which immediately gives the citizen a more important place on the ‘creative spectrum’, inching closer to planner and architect. However ordinary our daily activities might seem, they actually help us make sense of our existence; in living and acting in the world we could be considered builders.

Many philosophers have tried to answer the question of what does it mean to be human by locating human essence not in the physical,  but in something  ‘other’ or ‘higher’ such as our ability to think. This duality (the body/ world vs. something ‘higher’ ) was inspired by Plato for whom “every being had an ideal existence, as a perfect unchanging “form”…What we experience as visible, audible, tactile beings are merely imperfect reflections or “copies” of the ideal beings.” (Collins & Selina, 1999:27). So in the past two millennia there has been a foregrounding of the cognitive over experience. Descartes for example famously said: “I think therefore I am.”(ibid. 32)

Heidegger, however, was dissatisfied with this divide between being and something ‘higher’ such as thought or ideal beings. For Heidegger “to think [b]eing one must ‘live it’.” (Steiner, 1992:53). In other words, to know the world is to experience it and not just think about it in an abstract or ‘removed’ way. We exist in the world, not in our heads necessarily but learn about ourselves and about what the world is through experience first and through thinking second. For Heidegger the answer to the question of what does it mean to be human is being-there or Dasein in German (ibid. 82). George Steiner explains the term in the following passage:

Dasein is “to be there” (da-sein), and “there” is the world: concrete, literal, actual daily world. To be human is to be immersed, implanted, rooted in the earth, in the quotidian matter-of-factness of the world. To express this radical […] embeddedness, Heidegger uses the composite In-der-welt-sein (a being-in the-world […]). In-sein, this “being in,” is not the accidental location of water in a glass, of a table in a room. Applied to man’s Dasein, it is the total determinant of his ‘being-at-all’.

(ibid. 83).

 In other words our humanity is necessarily bound up in our environment, so Plato’s idea of seeking our essence in an “ideal form”  or Descartes’ thinking subject in its little container (the body) that peeks out into the world trying to understand it, all this goes out the window as far as Heidegger is concerned. We are t/here among all the other things in the world.  We become what we are (i.e. human beings) only through interacting with our environment. Before any of the reflecting starts, we are already existing, involved with what is around us.

2. Narrative Buildings

It is fascinating how Heidegger sets store on everydayness. Again he is critical of western philosophical thought that “has sought to transpose the essence of man out of daily life…[positing] a pure perceiver, a fictive agent of cognition detached from common experience.” (ibid. 82,  italics mine). Now for a thought experiment showing how our daily actions are a part of ‘making city’: let’s assume that the art student mentioned in the introduction is an urban dweller who doesn’t just spend her time reading about cities, but also furnishes them with buildings  by virtue of  her daily actions. These are however, narrative buildings not physical ones.  How does this work? In Heideggerian terms ‘building’ should be understood as our involvement with the things and the environment around us. This remarkable way of seeing our dealings with the world is explored in Heidegger’s essay Building Dwelling Thinking (1993). Building isn’t just about constructing something physical,

…[it] refers to all ‘works made by man’s hands and through his arrangements’…” (Heidegger in Moya Arriagada, 2009:19). “This means that serving a cup of coffee, writing a note … having an idea and/or constructing a five-story building are all forms of building. Thus, if we understand building in this way then any activity we do is always a building…

(Moya Arriagada, 2009:19).

 Our actions are buildings, and these actions make up a large part of the stories of our lives, hence the term narrative buildings I introduced above.  When we go about living daily life in the city, narrative constructions get woven into its physical fabric. So, not only the urban designer has the ability to construct the cityscape; in the Heideggerian view we are all builders of a sort by virtue of our everyday (and caring) involvement in the world. This is a form of creative agency. We aren’t just passively being coached along or ‘performed’ by urban space, but have a hand in constructing it, through narrative.   Between the lines of a city’s text lives are unfolding, and it (the city) becomes imperceptibly bound up with these other (human) stories. Because it has to contend with the interweaving of other narratives, urban space becomes a place dense with multiple meanings.

3. Apropos Walking

Our practical dealings with what is around us is so important in Heidegger’s view that he gives considerable thought to “…our prereflective activities such as walking...” (Arisaks). I can understand why Heidegger focusses on walking, it is a basic and at the same time crucial activity for our species, a way to become fully involved with a space, whether that space is Edinburgh or the Yorkshire Dales.

Walking is a way of taking in our environment; we map it by this ‘simple’  action. Michel de Certeau compares walking to the speech-act (De Certeau,1984: 97),  he sees similarities between walking and talking. De Certeau expands on how the walker can ‘speak’ the text of a space as it is written, but can also reinterpret it: the way a particular space is set up makes certain movements possible and restricts others. A space is therefore full of possibilities. By moving through an environment some of these possibilities come into existence, but they also get moved about and new ones are formed “since the crossing, drifting away or improvisation of walking privilege, transform or abandon spatial elements” (ibid. 98). Walking is thus a creative act and a subversive one: “[t]he long poem of walking…” writes De Certeau, “…manipulates spatial organizations, no matter how panoptic they may be…” (ibid. 101).

4. Making bespoke places

Until we engage with it, the urban environment remains ‘space’ in the slightly generic sense of the word, but as we make our way through this vast, sprawling arena and encounter a myriad of locations, some of the latter become significant for us (Sharr, 2007: 56). This is because we have the ability to give meaning, and meaning in turn gives slightly undefined areas definition, making places out of them. Creating meaningful locations is another form of agency.

In Building Dwelling Thinking, Heidegger (1993) looked at how our actions can be viewed as buildings in the wide sense. He also, as has been extensively pointed out (Sharr, 2007; Ten Hoope, 2010), investigated how ‘place’ is made through experience and use. Heidegger showed an interest in a special kind of construction, namely the bridge, which multiplies spatial and social possibilities. He used it as an illustration of how the arrival of a physical construction can make place possible (Sharr, 2007:53). He explained:

The bridge swings over the stream ‘with ease and power’. It does not just connect banks that are already there. The banks emerge as banks only as the bridge crosses the stream. The bridge expressly causes them to lie across from each other. One side is set off against the other by the bridge. Nor do the banks stretch along the stream as indifferent border strips of the dry land. With the banks, the bridge brings to the stream the one and the other expanse of the landscape … lying beyond them. It brings stream and bank and land into each other’s neighbourhood. The bridge gathers the earth as landscape around the stream.

(Heidegger, 1993: 354)

The act of placing the bridge into the space of the landscape causes meaningful places (i.e. the banks) to emerge. The passage goes on to explain that with the arrival of the bridge the relationship to the surrounding area changes for the people living near it. Different experiences and encounters are now possible. Before there is a bridge the landscape is undefined. It is this built structure that gives it definition; placing the bridge makes the area into a place (Sharr, 2007: 53). When the precise spot for the building of the bridge is chosen there is “[an] identification of place…” (Unwin in Sharr, 2007: 53).

We all are capable of place identifications and making physical constructions is not strictly necessary. Simon Unwin uses the example of a picnic taking place in a park to explain the concept of place identification (ibid. 53): when going on a picnic we don’t just sit anywhere, grabbing the first spot we come across, but will look for the perfect place, not too sunny, or too much in the shade according to our liking. A, the journalist, fancies a bit of peaceful sunbathing and lobbies for the secluded area near a tree, while B, the architect, doesn’t see the point of a picnic unless there is some people-watching involved.  Eventually an area is chosen, an identification of place is made. The laying of the blanket  “-long side to the view or to the road?-”(ibid. 53), choosing a place to sit, (preferably near B as she’s got the best stories), putting the drinks in the middle so everyone can reach. These are all small place identifications, points in space that we ‘imbue’ with significance.  Again, it isn’t necessary to construct a physical thing to make place, it is about our conscious interaction that makes space into place. After a great day of baking in the sun or people-watching “the place of the picnic might live on in [our minds].” (ibid. 54). And

 [in] Heideggerian terms the place wasn’t there before the picnic was. But for those on whose minds the picnic became imprinted, it would always be identified as the place of the picnic. Others, who maybe have cause to identify instead with other places in the park, could pass it every day with no appreciation of the picnic and the place that other people recognise… The world for Heidegger, is parcelled up into intersecting places of many sorts, sizes, shapes and scales; identified by individuals and kept to themselves or shared. Gloriously, according to the philosopher’s outlook, activities involving the identification of place are neither logical nor systematic, remaining subjective, tentative, shifting and contingent. (ibid.  54).

When we move through urban space different places come into being. The city is constantly (re)defined. As we meander through the text that is the city, as we ‘read’ it, an idiosyncratic map of places with meaning occurs and in the same way that Invisible Cities or any other text becomes our own, the city does too. In fact through use or ‘reading’ we each make our own highly personal version of the city.

Reading is also a form of consumption (De Certeau, 1984:167). We consume the city when we engage with it on a daily basis. This might sound quite passive; the consumer and the producer of our environment can normally seem at opposite ends of the spectrum. However, De Certeau sees consumption also as a way of production, one that takes what is given or imposed (the urban environment for example) and reworks it (De Certeau, 1984:31). So the discourse of use or consumption, which can carry a sense of passivity in it, is subverted.

Kate Newby 1

 Fig. 3 Kate Newby, On the benefits of building, 2007

5. Kate Newby’s notes in the margin

In light of making places in the city I would like to discuss the work of Kate Newby (Auckland, 1976), a young New Zealand artist whose work I’ve been following for some time. Newby’s practice encompasses a number of artistic processes including: installation, photography (fig. 3), and interventions in the urban sphere. Her materials are uncomplicated, often referencing those used in architecture such as concrete and bricks, but also crystals, wool carpets, handmade rocks and stones.

Kate Newby 2

 Fig. 4. Kate Newby, Walks with men, 2011

 One of her artworks titled Walks with men, 2011 (fig. 4) consists of a sunken area in the pavement close to the City Gallery in Wellington, New Zealand. The artist poured in a layer of concrete and ‘decorated’ it with handmade stones and other ‘trinkets’ ( ). The great thing about Walks with men is its unashamed modesty. The work almost shuns attention; as a viewer you have to seek it out. Similar are the urban interventions (fig. 5 & 6) Newby made for her solo show Get off my Garden at Sue Crockford Gallery (Auckland) in 2009. The artist used concrete, stones and crystals to create discreetly peculiar areas in two nearby car parks. What fascinates me about her practice is the use of the urban environment as material; the artist prefers it to a gallery space. She even admits in a radio interview ( that she ‘gets lost’ in the traditional white cube, by which she means that the ‘pristineness’ of it doesn’t give her enough to work with. In the urban environment, however, there are many elements that can form a starting point for her work.

Kate Newby 3

 Fig. 5 Kate Newby, Get off my Garden, 2009

Newby also explains that what is interesting for her, is the ‘conversation’ already going on in a place or space. She joins this ‘conversation’ by reacting to a space through the production of site-specific work.

Kate Newby’s urban interventions function in the same way as Heidegger’s bridge, in that her discrete works create places within urban space. Although modest, the interventions act as small place identifications. In a sense they are ‘notes in the margin’ of the city’s text. Before Walks with men the pavement near City Gallery Wellington was just a relatively undefined stretch of stones, but the installation of the artwork punctuated the area by creating a small place. A place that now gets imagined (much like the picnic) and written about thousands of miles away. The artist isn’t interested in imposing the “ostentatious” (Hollier, 1989:x) and the “spectacular” (ibid. x). Instead Newby arranges her materials in such a way that they are ready to be made into place. Her interventions are sites of latent, multiple meanings.

Kate Newby 4

 Fig. 6 Kate Newby, Get off my Garden, 2009


Cities are contested sites and “…embody and reflect wider social discourses.” (Short, 1996:407). Urban designers make decisions on our behalf, influencing our behaviour to a greater or lesser extent. All this might make the citizen seem quite passive when it comes to making the urban environment, but although we don’t have a hand in creating the core text of the city (its physical appearance), we do build it, albeit in more ephemeral ways.

So, returning to a slightly updated version of the Biennale question: how do we as ‘ordinary’ citizens, who are not designers or property developers, ‘make city’? The short answer is: through use and meaning.  We make city by weaving our lives through its fabric and in the process we give meaning to urban spaces.  Our agency can furthermore lie in resistance, but resistance proper might be a too heavy-handed tool in the pursuit of making city creatively. A subversive approach is more appropriate in societies where influence is common but blatant oppression rare. We can subvert the ‘major’ discourses in the city not by actively opposing them, but by ‘speaking’ them in ways that weren’t “intended” (De Certeau, 1984:169).

 One more thought experiment: what if, for a particularly ambitious project, the art student from the introduction was able to get the entire population of London to swap cities with its Paris counterpart?  Both cities would of course become profoundly different. As discussed above, it is the aggregate of people’s stories in London as well as Paris, with their unique energy and quality that makes them (the cities) to a large extent. Georg Simmel said:  “it is only in transcending [the physical site with which the city is identified] that any given city becomes the seat of cosmopolitanism” (Simmel in Shusterman 2000:101).  So the two great metropolises, but also more modest sized places, get their identity from something other than their ‘mere’ physicality. And this ‘other’ are we, the inhabitants.

NOTE: Claire is a recent graduate of Hereford College of Arts. This is an edited version of her final year dissertation.


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Picture Credits

 Fig. 1 Promotional material from the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam (Personal collection)

 Fig. 2 Jeremy Bentham’s Panoption design c. 1787 ( )

Fig. 3 Kate Newby, On the benefits of building, 2007

Fig. 4 Kate Newby, Walks with men, 2011

Fig. 5 Kate Newby, Get off my Garden, 2009

Fig. 6 Kate Newby, Get off my Garden, 2009 ( )


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