As I delivered my nominations for the 2012 European Prize for Public Space, and as the classic thinker of the corresponding sphere was suddenly raging, I felt the urge to go back to a book that reassesses, if not indeed upturns, the fashion in which architects and planners regard urban space and its public dimensions.
It’s only in appearance that the recently published Urban Maps is about establishing a cartography of the city. Unless, of course, one considers that the practice of mapping the city is nowadays becoming itself highly performative.
The investigation’s subtitle is eventually more enlightening: Instruments of Narrative and Interpretation in the City. Even so, the academic overtones hide the fact that this exciting read is all about grafitti and street art, film and underground flâneurs, pixadores and new modes of psychogeography – as practices that should now be taken as referentials to occupying architecture.
As my own endorsment prints in the back cover:
Fifty years ago, Kevin Lynch offered us a classical reading of ‘the image of the city’ based on a waning ideal of clear built landmarks and distinct urban signs. Now, through inspired insights and an in-depth inquiry into a vast array of contemporary urban practices, the authors of Urban Maps reveal us how the complex narratives currently converging in the appropriation and redefinition of an eroded urban space require a totally revamped cognitive mapping… From the readings of cinema to the interventions of street art, from the markings of graffiti to the identities of brandscapes, and from the wanderings of contemporary art to the fictional drives of theory, architecture is confronted with the need to review the cartography of its references when facing the ascendancy of the urban condition – and the prominence of new networked, information-augmented realities – as substituting for previous conceptions of the city.
Like the most interesting charts of new territories, Richard Brook and Nick Dunn’s publication presents us with insights into the least seen spots of the current urban condition, into the borders and hidden spaces of varied forms of intervention within the city landscape.
As an appropriate side dish, we are ultimately offered a thorough reflection on how architecture now competes for an expressive space in this sign-invaded, market-dominated, narrative-filled urbanscape.
Image by RE_MAP, Manchester School of Architecture’s design research lab
After we turn these pages and practice stories we’re left with the pertinent and resilient concern on how “a critical understanding of the evolution of art in the environment can be translated to a discourse concerning the production of architecture.” And the more we take to the streets,* the more such concerns are to overcome any remaining delusion of architecture’s conventional autonomy.
Autonomy should still be there, yes. But, if you want, in a kind of Hal Foster version in which culture practice is still able to relate to social and political reality, while it manages to sustain its ability to be critical and somewhat exempt from the demeaning effects of external (and peer) pressure.