URBAN INTERSTICES. END OR STARTING POINT OF A UTOPIA

by Miguel Pinho

 

Invited author: Rui Neto

 

All that can be seen from outside is a big hole; that, however, really leads nowhere (…). I can make no boast of having contrived this ruse

intentionally; it is simply the remains of one of my many abortive building attempts (…). (Franz Kafka, “The Burrow”, The Basic Kafka, New York, Pocket Book/Simon & Schuster)

From the dawn of Western civilization, cities have been structured in order to attend, on the one hand, the need for a rational organization of space and its integration into the territory and, on the other hand, the need to build spaces and buildings capable of sheltering humans and of becoming an architecture of expression and a symbol of the cultural strength of that civilization.

In ancient Greece, the city is built on elevated ground – the acropolis –, favoring buildings and monuments so they can be seen, creating a hierarchy of social significance. The Roman city inherits this theatrical structure, the religious element, the “will for the divine”. In the beginning, the Roman city is hierarchically positioned around the forum. Roman rationalism, the formation of “squared” cities favoring the technical innovation side, allow for an easy urban planning. Monumentality becomes the distinctive feature of Roman cities.

The Medieval city is an example of the distribution of power among various classes, mainly the nobility and the clergy. All urban organization is built around a well-defined frontier limiting the city: the walls. The dominant rural world meets the urban, having the market as the setting for all this theatrical structure. The city turns inwards: commerce, i.e. the market becomes the turning point in the design of the surrounding city.

The Renaissance city restores all the human geometry, now in a more accurate way. The treaties of Alberti and Palladio were fundamental for the new urban designs. However, the classical beauty of the buildings is recovered and submitted to a new organization. Squares and streets become structuring, from an overall planning perspective, assuming themselves as places of public crossing.

The Baroque city brings a new dynamic to the composition of space, although not altering its morphological principle. However, the development that took place until the nineteenth century, i.e. the demographic growth of the cities together with the industrial development, not only made the rethinking of the use of urban territory possible, but also allowed for the emergence of the first observations on the binary opposition man vs. city.

The evolution of European cities was based on two approaches: a more rational one, evincing projects that are more geometrical and seeking a greater rationalism, a greater functionality of soil use; and one that, on the contrary, looks for the merging of the traditional city, adapting it to the needs of industrialization. Habermas’s theory regarding the use of public space, which must be accessible to all in order to be fully lived (a democratic space), implies its use by an enlightened citizen – the universality of knowledge coming from the public participation of all citizens. The willingness to participate and the citizen’s level of cultural literacy is something that always varied according to time in history and, therefore, it was never fully developed, i.e. It was never 100 percent accomplished and, in this sense, we can say that it is a utopian idea. The European cities of the early twentieth century, for example, were characterized by a toughening of its public sphere through the surfacing of new places in the city directed at the new emergent cultural practices. Thus, the sidewalks, the streets, the squares and other traditional public spaces gained a new breath and acquired new values and symbolic connotations. However, we are aware that the access to certain twentieth-century public spaces was “limited” not only to the literary “class”, in salons and cafés, but also to a sturdy bourgeoisie which limited the access to different public debates.

It is important to note that, in the field of political and philosophical theory centered on communication among the different social, economic, political and technical groups which society is made of, the approach that believes in the communication with all the citizens and which understands public participation as an important contribution towards democracy reveals a praxis that tries to balance the different communicative forces – public, technicians, politicians, etc. Thus, this approach is more influenced by the action and ethical discourse of Habermas’s communication theories (Ashenden 1999) than by Foucault’s theses regarding the ubiquity of power discourses (Foucault 1991). Indeed, while Habermas’s project is linked to reconstructive criticism, according to which the idea of civil society works towards a emancipatory social science, Foucault’s work is a series of genealogies in which the concepts must be questioned regarding their use for practical systems (Ashenden 1999). Consequently, the possibility of a communicative consensus in our discussion and political debating system is closer to Habermas’s work, while the critique of the way this political debate is structured and the challenge to rethink about its conceptual and practical limits is closer to Foucault’s work. So, we believe the restriction of the public sphere in the private domain limits the clear debate of ideas. The interest of the private when subjected to the public domain is restricted beforehand. Indeed, the public spacecannot be planned only by a dominant class:

the classical utopian works had all treated society as a whole, and had, in imagination at leasp, done juspice to the interaction of work, people, and place, and to the interrelationship of functions and inspitutions and human purposes” (Mumford, Lewis, The Story of Utopias, Kessinger Publishing, 2003, p. 5)

Rui Neto’s work interprets the aesthetical expression of city details in a contemporary way. When we presented the magazine publication as basis for the two urban interstices of Porto’s city, we were deliberately trying to create a contradiction in the way of communicating an art work of this fashion and, so, to detach ourselves from the usual public exhibition in a joint exhibiting space, such as a gallery or any other similar space.

Rui Neto takes these places as a starting point for his reflection, as an antithesis of the public space because, according to Klauss Bubmann, the latter can only be considered as such whenever it is designed with that intention, which doesn’t happen in the case of interstices; these spaces weren’t built for that purpose.

According to Marc Augé, the non-place is characterized as a space of immediate and conditioned movements. In the case of the interstices, their declining and solitary form sets the impersonality of these places. The excessive abandonment of the interstices annuls the relationship between the place and the identity of its user.

On the other hand, these places are highly ambiguous regarding their use: either private or public. In fact, the common irregularity of the interstices, as well as the impossibility of a fluid path, conditions the public use although it cannot completely define a private domain. In a way, as Malcolm Miles1 states, these places can be defined as binaries, because they sum up, at the same time, the characteristics of the private and public space.

By taking these places into account to develop his work, Rui Neto offers us a space with peculiar features, that, in today’s context, could perfectly be considered as bearing ground for “site specific” work, thus giving relevance to the location. They can also be seen as ambiguous spots regarding their shape and usage, because they are indeed able to denounce the outcome of inefficient and inadequate urban politics regarding soil use. According to Rosalyn Deutsche2, public art should focus on these issues, and interstices are indeed a starting point for this critical reflection.

Thus, interstices posit a new challenge: they become the starting point, where architecture and art may lead to a new change towards the city3.

Rui Neto’s drawings presented here search for the synthesis of what we perceive in the practical sense of the record and its theoretical formulation, and also of how the theoretical experience informs the practical sense. For architecture, drawing has indeed the ability to mediate what we see and what we project – what is still in imagination only: it is a mental/visual path capable of a unique global synthesis. All in all, the presented works express the arti st’s intention, the path from the photographical taking (the propelling element of detail) to the transcription, the representation/reinterpretation of an internal logic (taking the previous stage into account) and, finally, the mediation, as a way of taming what we see and transfer to the drawing level.

The presented images are an answer to an thorough MA assignment, presented at FBAUP in October 2009, aiming at “(…) making an analysis of the sprategies of recognition and representation of the urban interstitial Thaces through drawing (…) [presenting] as case spudies two interspitial Thaces of Porto’s city: Beco de Passos Manuel and Calçada do Leal “(Neto, Rui, MA Dissertation in Practice and Drawing Theory).

However, the purpose of these images’ presentation was not to follow the original intentions of the artist, but to use them instead in order to speculate a bit on the interstices as obsolete places, left aside, physically inside, mentally outside, generators of.

These “chaotic” spaces are ways of resisting to a new order: the outcome of a defragmented growth where the interstice is the “irrational” remain of a set of divisions. On the other hand, its own natural physical beauty becomes a form of resistance to a new order to come. Accumulation point of debates in several moments in history. A confrontation between the legal and the illegal.

They are the result of adding a set of actions of different backgrounds, which are technical and administrative, and project-based. From the moment they are physically defined, the interstices accumulate the result of adding several erroneous actions of different backgrounds: of the urban design, as a result of a movement of urban subdivision not seen as a whole, but benefiting from private interests; of a lacking coordination between land registration laws and land measurement institutions, i.e. as a result of inadequate projects.

This is reason enough for criticizing power or the critical thinking on power and urbanism, a space of disorder regarding the establishment, the outcome of the indecisionsconcerning urban planning politics. Porto’s city was, from the beginning of the twentieth century, the stage for many unfinished and rapidly inadequate urban plans. By the end of the twentieth century there are attempts to apply urban politics’ tools even more. The city’s master and strategic plans are abundantly launched and overly binding. In fact, the cities themselves are the outcome, according to Rui Neto, of “the confluence of the legally and the illegally built, of the perennial and the opportunist. A bit like Deleuze’s rhizome: ‘[it] doesn’t begin and doesn’t end, but is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo’” (Neto, Rui, MA Dissertation in Practice and Drawing Theory).

As a result of a set of utopias of different backgrounds: “It is absurd to diThose of utopia by saying that it exisps only on paper. The answer to this is: precisely the same thing may be said of the architect’s plans for a house, and houses are none the worse for it” (Mumford, Lewis, The Story of Utopias, Kessinger Publishing, 2003, p. 25). The interstice as the withdrawal to the utopist’s self or as a starting point to move forward into the future.

 

“Drawing of Urban Interstices”

By Rui Neto

(...)

What does drawing know about space? This question both triggered and circumscribed the theme of this work in an implicit way. Again and again we were led to question drawing in relation to the qualities and features of space. The space we chose has also limited our research plan, narrowing our options and leading us to make certain choices instead of others, just like in a drawing.

The objects of study were two urban interstices of Porto’s city. We chose them since we understand urban interstices as intervals between constructions, as spaces in which it is impossible to obtain a direct and overall perception because we are immersed in them due to the fact that their typology is generally the outcome of the clash between distinctive urban orders. Going through them, our view is necessarily fragmented; thus, to represent them, the perception of these spaces will imply a synthesis of other faculties of understanding, such as inference, leading us to an extended exercise of inclusion and exclusion of hypotheses.When structuring this process, we felt the need to focus the field; therefore, the first question would be something like: what does the drawing record of interstitial urban spaces retain? Or yet, reversing the meaning of the question: what kind of the knowledge about drawing can interstitial urban space give us?

In fact, the urban interstice has, in its physical structure, certain specifications and qualities that trigger the experimental and, above all, compositional competences of drawing. As we explained before, urban interstice can only be apprehended as a whole if the viewer is in movement. Moving, the viewer will actively perceive space and, together with a process of abducent inference and cultural judgment, he/she will turn previous theories into proved ones, thus understanding space. Now, this is a complex process: there are too many mediators, too many possibilities or strategies of representation. Drawing, as we have tested and demonstrated, has its referent in the urban interstice, which we may call, somewhat ironically, “loyal”, since it doesn’t become operative with other kind of representation media.

Answering both questions directly, since one is the opposite of the other: drawing tries to retain and/or register the memory of our perception, an exercise which we were forced to do by the morphology of urban interstice itself. Therefore, the urban interstice offers us this confrontation between different ways of “using” drawing, or “analyzing” through it. We are thinking above all of the space-movement-time sequence. In other words, to be in a place and to draw in a progressive way, in stages, from different viewpoints, turning to a somewhat immediate memory; or to be outside, turning to a late memory, building space as a whole and not in a fragmented way; basically, to be or not to be immersed in space. In Hockney’s movie Joiner Photographs (1982), he refers, at some point, to the dichotomy between a closer and a more detached view of a certain event. In other words, when we look at two people having a conversation from a distance, although we manage to have an overall view of the action and its relation with the surroundings, we only have the true perception that people are talking and that there is body movement. As we move closer we become aware of a vast array of gestures, grimace, body signs, etc. The same question arises in the study and representation of interstitial spaces through drawing. Being on location gives us a wider knowledge of small things (those which confer identity to space), of the materials, of their use, of textures and stereotomies, of imprecisions, of anomalies, of patine, of the way the light directly interferes with how we see throughout the day. When we are not on location or when we see the space from an external, non-corporeal, aerial point of view, we only perceive the form; we undoubtedly manage to be more objective but we cannot read all space variables. For that to happen, quoting Richard Sennett and creating a clear analogy between the individual who draws and the artifice, there must be “determination”. Determination in the way we see and perceive, determination in making correspondence to what we truly see in space, determination in the search for a goal, even if this is simply procedural.

(...)

It would be of vital importance if drawing could arise as the narrative of a process, not only as an instrument or a character, but also as an all-knowing narrator.

 

1 Malcolm Miles is a Professor at the University of Plymouth and the author of Urban Utopias and Cities & Cultures.

2 Rosalyn Deutsche is known for tracing links between contemporary art and space politics. Deutsche works in the field of modern and contemporary art at Columbia University (New York, USA).

3 See Kevin Lynch on Landmarks in The Image of the City.