Archis 2009 #4

City Guide

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It is a well known saying that you see your habitat anew through the eyes of a stranger. It’s a cliché so it must be true. Take a guide of your own city. For once try to follow its instructions and become a tourist in your home town. Everything will be different. First of all, the esthetic experience becomes central, instead of functional and emotional ones. The street where your friend lives is no longer the drive towards agreeable hours together but a dull place to go. The former industrial area where your office is located and that you appreciate for its freedom and abundant space transforms into an isolated, dilapidated bunch of crappy buildings. On the other hand, the small church you always ignored on your way to work proves to be a delicate spatial composition with exquisite detailing.

Admitted, seasoned travelers will not be satisfied with these experiences. They’ll go for the ‘authentic’ and look for insider information. Actually, they would love to see your city as you normally do. Given time and means that usually aren’t possible, travel guides cunningly pretend they provide this insider’s perspective. Fortunately they don’t. If authenticity has any meaning at all, it surely is lost the moment it has been identified and described as such. The ‘want’ of tourism transforms the authentic into a commodity and that simply is at odds.

Although tourism isn’t the subject of this issue, the impact it has on everyone’s image and understanding of the city is. This promotional and commercial image of the city, this image for an external world, tends to become a self-image – internalized, one could say. And it is the implied simplification that is most disadvantageous, not so say dangerous. Promotional image becomes ideal, ideal becomes program. A city cannot afford to reduce its complexity to a tagline.

There are more reasons than (this) one to keep on searching for characteristics and qualities that do not conform to the esthetic tourist or commercially successful image. Dynamics and transformation for instance. Previously, Volume experimented with ‘explorations’ to discover (or uncover) a different understanding of a particular city. The so called RSVP-events manifest this ambition. One can define these one day happenings as provoked chance, opening up the possibility of discovery and new insight. These ad hoc collaborations with local parties have been based on shared interests and ideas and have sometimes developed into longer-term relations and projects. Beyroutes, a Guide to Beirut, a supplement to this issue, is an example. It started with an RSVP-event in 2005 that developed into a continued involvement with that city. The RSVP discovered that the public domain of Beirut is crumbling away and partitioned, that Beirut has become a ‘territorial city’ under the pressure of conflicts and wars going on for decades. The engagement with Beirut’s fate shaped into this travel guide centered on public life; a psychological portrait or a series of portraits of this fascinating multicultural city.

A guide like this is not a program or manual for making design decisions. It will show realities that are influenced by design decisions and other interventions. Anything you want to do in Beirut simply has to be informed by this kind of knowledge and understanding. Thus, the Guide to Beirut is not a guide. It presents readings, opens options. It doesn’t show the way.
This issue is centered on the exploration of the city. The RSVP-events have taught us that taking a simple rule or idea as a starting point will lead to discoveries. The ‘strange maps’ within are clear demonstrations of the principle. Or take the bike tour in Amsterdam to all of the locations where an ‘Aldo van Eyck playground’ had been constructed; the present number still in existence and their condition are a clear indication of the reality of outdoor play today. Then, there is Atelier Bow-Wow’s analysis of the 13th arrondissement in Paris. It shows that this district normally shunned by tourists contains a surprising wealth of spatial typologies. The discovery or invention here was to start not from the idea of continuously aligned streets, but to start from the blocks behaving independently, like an archipelago surrounded by a sea of infrastructure. ‘Blockscapes’ instead of ‘streetscapes’ define the qualities of this district.

Or take the ‘feelbelt’ that makes its wearer constantly aware of where north is located; the body as compass. The consequences of this device, once in general use, are difficult to predict, but potentially as far reaching as now popular GPS-navigation.

The different guides in this issue have one property in common: that you cannot tell beforehand where they will take you. Another one is that they are interventionist by nature. ‘The Atlas of Love and Hate’ is an attempt to use geography (among others) as an instrument for transformation. The story of Russian travel guides before and after the fall of communism shows the inverse mechanism: the literary tradition of Soviet travel guides during isolation was dramatically transformed once the borders reopened. Probably the most radical example was published in the previous issue of Volume: The Mass Housing Guide. Where travel guides in general and city guides in particular are geared towards the special, this guide focuses on the ordinary, only to show the uniqueness and wealth to be found there.

There is a last point to make; since genius is rare, we better rely on other methods. Collaboration and mutual inspiration has proven to be a successful one. Volume IS collaboration. Do I need to say more?