From complexity to possibility
It was about two years ago that my good friend Davide Ruzzon asked me to participate in an online forum that he was calling The City We Have in Mind. I try to avoid ever saying no to anything that Davide asks of me because a) he’s a lovely human and b) he has a great knack for bringing together nice collections of people for engaging and passionate discussion. So, I said ‘yes’. I was excited because Davide’s plan included legendary urban planner and public intellectual, Richard Sennett, whose work I have adored since I read the Consilience of the Eye some years ago. That book really struck a chord with me and made me feel as though if I ever had a lucky chance to chat with Sennett, we would have much to talk about. A few days after discussing the plan with Davide, he dropped a small bomb in my life by asking me if I would be willing to interview Sennett on the topic of one of his most recent books, Building and Dwelling. I agreed, and then spent the next few days reading the book, realizing that it was one of the best books I’d ever read on cities, and trying to find a way to stop freaking out at the thought of discussing his book with him in a public setting. Like a lot of people, I feel some awkwardness about the weird electronic panopticon that is the Zoom meeting. Enduring that while at the same time trying to come up with clever things to say to an intellectual hero was enough to leave me on the brink of a prolonged anxiety attack. In the end, after a sleepless night, I survived the interview, though I think in my zeal to do a good job I might have come across as trying to be a little too clever-clever. Thinking back, it reminds me of a time, very early in my career, when somehow, I had the lucky chance to introduce the famous Canadian astronaut Roberta Bondar to an audience at the tiny liberal arts college where I’d managed to score my first academic post. Even though my only job was to introduce her, I was so nervous that I found it difficult to control my breathing. After the fact, a dear friend and colleague of mine told me in a nice, gentle way, that he had noticed that I seemed to have forgotten how to exhale and he was worried that I might “puff up like a bullfrog” before I finished. But back to Sennett.
I’ve already written a little bit about the City We Have In Mind meeting and Sennett’s book in a personal blog post and, re-reading what I wrote then, I feel as though I could just cut and paste some of those words. But I’ll craft new ones to make clear why I’m rabbiting on about this again. To explain what constitutes a good city, Sennett drew a contrast between what he called the cité and the ville. You’ll have to read the book to get the full sense of what he means by those two terms, but to a very rough approximation I think that what he is saying is that a city has a more-or-less physical form—the ville—and it is also populated by people with habits, thoughts, motivations, culture, and so on. That’s the cité. The idea is that a good city is one that provides an infrastructural backbone that somehow enables the activities of its citizenry. But in the relationship between cité and ville, things don’t always go perfectly smoothly. And in fact, that’s just what you want. Cité rubs up against ville in a healthy way. In Sennett’s language, this rubbing together of a city’s form and the activity of its residents constitutes friction. And, delightfully, it is this kind of friction that makes a city feel alive. The two elements must achieve a fragile balance. Too dominant a ville imposes too much control over things and damps down variety. Too much cité results in chaos (1).
One way to ground these ideas is to consider the desire line. I’ve always been interested in these lines and remember a time back in my student days when I worked in a lab that had a high vantage point on the campus below. I looked forward to the first snowy days of the year when you could so easily trace the desire lines of the first few people arriving on campus. I’m sure most people know about these lines. I’ve put one below in a photograph. The idea, simple I think, is that the street may contain a suggestion for where a pedestrian might walk in the form of sidewalks and curbs, but the body may have other ideas. If you think of a desire line as a vote with the body against the proposals of designers it can seem like a sign of failure, but you can also flip that idea on its head by realizing that the existence of desire lines suggests that the landscape, however it was built, allowed or afforded other ideas. There was healthy friction. Imagine a design that somehow completely forbade desire lines. No autonomy. No fun. No friction.
Hopefully, if you’ve been following my arguments for the last few posts (if you’re just joining in, go look at the archives and you can easily find the rest), you’re getting a sense of where all of this is going. Perhaps we are drawn to settings that contain complexity because that feature of the terrain signals possibilities for action. There’s enough structure to it that we’re not completely out on our own, but there’s plenty of decision space left for us to inhabit. There’s a place for us in the setting, and its an authentic place in which we can make some of our own choices, even if they are sometimes unpredictable. It may even be that this unpredictability, which we see both in the choices made by others but also feel as possibilities for our own movements, gets us close to the essence of vitality.
Next week, I’m going to venture into some even more speculative ideas based on nothing much more than some playtime that I’ve had with sensors and cities to bring us a little bit closer to the goal of understanding what it is that we crave in almost all built spaces and why it must be so. We want to look more closely at unpredictability and nudge ourselves forward to what must be the ultimate unpredictability.
Self-indulgent footnote (sorry only one this week — feeling less self-indulgent today. Possibly this is a good thing).
(1) It feels a little bit like there may be a relationship between this balance of form and activity in good cities and the sweet spot for complexity that Daniel Berlyne imagined, and which I discussed in my last post. But I’m not sure.
What I’m reading
William Davies (2019). Nervous states: Democracy and the decline of reason. I’ve had this book on my shelf for a while now and I’ve been a little afraid to read it in case I develop a new intellectual crush on someone whose boldness in crossing disciplinary dividing lines exceeds even mine. I’m not far enough in to give it a review here. Maybe next week. But for now the boilerplate is that Davies is talking about the modern reversal of Enlightenment thinking that has replaced reason and expertise with feeling and emotion. Its a curious inversion of some of the thoughts I’ve had so I’m keen to see how it unfolds. He’s a great writer so far.
Daniel Silva (2005). Prince of Fire. This book is a part of my guilty pleasure reading. It’s part of a long series of books about a fictional art-restorer/international man of mystery. I’ve had some hairy times of late and this is a fast-reading book that I can focus on almost no matter what else is going on in my world. I usually try to have something on the lighter side (if international murder and terrorism is your idea of, er, lighter fare…) to balance off the academic wonkese.
What I’m eating
Korean fried chicken. This stuff has been all the rage for a while now and I’m coming a bit late to the game, but I needed something to test out the limits of my gallbladder and this is definitely the stuff. It’s hard to describe it precisely but it is salty-sweet-sour sauce coating delicious, super-crispy, surprisingly light batter, which encrusts nice dark meat chicken (I presume thighs). It’s a big thing in Korea where people have been eating it for centuries but it has taken off in an astonishing way across the world in the last few years. There’s lots of it even in my little burg. I don’t think I’ll try to make it anytime soon but I may eat it again some day.