The Beach Beneath the Streets
It’s the start of the working week. Droves of commuters pour into the city en masse. Squeezing onto a crowded train, queuing in traffic or weaving around the streets on a bike, there is a familiar sense of dread that accompanies Monday morning’s alarm clock. In many instances our connection with the city is based on efficiency; as we follow the same routine paths to work, the gym or the supermarket.
In this way architecture can become a form of wallpaper, or a backdrop, where our everyday repetitive actions unfold. Order and structure is imposed onto city dwelling as a measure of control. By adding a cult of consumerism and the seduction of media saturation into the equation the everyday environment of the urban inhabitant is geared, seemingly, to promote uniformity whilst stifling individuality and creative expression.
"The document known as The Athens Charter, which became a profound influence on urban planning after World War II… compartmentalizes human activity into three main spheres of action: dwelling, work and leisure. Circulation is assigned a crucial role in making the urban machinery run smoothly and efficiently."
M.Zardini, 'Actions: What You Can Do With the City'
Decrying the ‘Spectacle’ of modern society, the Situationists’ alluded to a crisis of urbanism that relates to our movement through the city and the desired lifestyle that it promotes through advertising and the media.
“The result” according to Debord, “is a dismal and sterile ambience in our surroundings".
Ken Knabb, Situationist International Anthology
As far back as 1903, German sociologist George Simmel, in his essay The Metropolis and Mental Life, identified that the over-stimulation of the senses that the city provides might induce its inhabitants to adopt a blasé outlook as a form of defence mechanism. Architectural theorist Neil Leach talks of the city as a site of intoxication through which we manoeuvre in a trance-like state. It is this sense of the ‘blasé’ that, perhaps, reduces our ability to engage with the city in a more creative way, thus making us more vulnerable to the underlying authoritarian tone that belies much corporate architecture and urban design
"Just as an immoderately sensuous life makes one blasé because it stimulates the nerves to their utmost reactivity until they finally can no longer produce any reaction at all, so less harmful stimuli, through the rapidity and the contradictoriness of their shifts, force the nerves to make such violent responses, tear them about so brutally that they exhaust their last reserves of strength and, remaining in the same milieu, do not have the time for new reserves to form."
Neil Leach, The Anaesthetics of Architecture
However, within these established yet invisible authoritarian rules, a wealth of subculture and ‘incidental’ activity is also identifiable. It would seem that an imposed framework either acts as an oppressive force or as a springboard for inspiration. As Henri Lefebvre suggested in 'The Production of Space':
‘…space… also serves as a tool of thought and of action; that in addition to being a means of production it is also a means of control, and hence domination, of power… The social and political (state) forces which engendered this space now seek, but fail, to master it completely…’
Urban explorers and climbers, skateboarders and practitioners of le parkour: these are the pioneering faces of a growing revolutionary force that unlock the potential to experience the fabric of the city in playful new ways. For the less athletic amongst us, walking (or drifting), offers an equally imaginative form of engagement.