21 March 2012

Urban Constellations – An Overview of Contemporary Urban Discourse


A Review -The text book edited by Matthew Gandy (see also his blog cosmopolis) brings together five years of work and ideas associated with the 2005 established Urban Laboratory at University College London.  As a recent graduate from the Urban Laboratory I am well familiar with the institute’s ideas and interdisciplinary work. And especially this interdisciplinary approach is well established in the readings of the book. With an emphasis on small essays (each one of the 37 (!) essays is no longer than three pages) borrowed from Siegfried Kracauer’s use of ‘urban vignettes’ the book aims for an audience that is not solely embedded within the academia associated with urban studies. In fact the form of urban vignettes is very much reminiscent of the contemporary blog-post format and – as many of the small essays reveal – bears the potential to get across complex topics in a concise way.
The book is structured into five sections, dealing with key ideas in recent discussions about the future of cities, processes that are shaping contemporary cities and the emergence of new social formations, specific locales to explore concrete examples of urban change, ‘projections’ to link urban discourse to the visual arts, and finally one section is dedicated to examples of work by young artists and photographers.


The title of the collection deploys Walter Benjamin’s use of ‘constellation’, a concept that can both refer to cities themselves, and to ways of writing and thinking about configurations of time, space, and context from multiple perspectives. Gandy explains in the introduction that the ‘implicit lineage to Benjamin’s work underpins a close attention to the details and textures of everyday life in the modern city. It informs an understanding of the term “constellation” as a metaphor for context, historical specifity, and multi-dimensionality; it works against sameness, stasis, and reductionism’.

The appeal of the collection is definitely the combination of the specific format and the wide range of relevant urban topics. I would very much recommend this book for everyone interested in the discourse of contemporary and future urban dynamics; not at least because it makes it so easy to read: In a spare second you can pick it up and read randomly one or two essays.

In this random fashion I would like to present a selection of the contributions within the book to frame the diverse range of highly relevant topics the collection is offering:
Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid mark the beginning of the collection with a text on “Planetary Urbanisation” by pointing out that within the last thirty years the form of urbanisation has been radically reconfigured and question if known modes and occupations within urban theory are therefore still valid. They identify the creation of new scales of urbanisation, the blurring and rearticulation of urban territories, the disintegration of the “hinterland”, and the end of the “wilderness”. They advocate for a creation of new theoretical categories and a new conceptual lexicon to identify the wide variety of urbanisation processes that are currently reshaping the urban world.

AbdouMaliq Simone draws on the specific site of Pademangan Timur in North Jakarta in his essay “Urban Complexity: An Instance”. The described area lay fallow for five years so urban farmers started growing rice and also attracted a new generation of settlers. The informal district is well connected to the rest of the city and therefore of interest for developers. “The pay-off for the risk of settling in a place where theoretically one could be evicted at any time is the area’s locational advantage -  close to work, transportation and markets.” Simone narrates the story of the disctrict who needs to be able to adapt to incessant contingencies, work out lines of convergences within the various claims different members of the community make, or the public image the informal neighbourhood needs to establish in order to be more resilient to developers and authorities pressure. The less provisional an area looks the more difficult it may be for authorities to move against it, especially if any subsequent negotiations around evictions entail forms of compensation. Simone concludes: “What, then, on the surface may look to be a fairly homogeneous, simply ordered area (…) is a surface full of granular textures, varied exposures and folds, intersecting and not always reconcilable calculations that continuously push residents in provisional adjustments in this complex urban world.“

Among the artist’s contributions is Köbberling/Kaltwasser’s work, which has been featured on this blog recently in a post on Anagram Urbanism, Ulrike Mohr’s investigations of the ecological dimensions to urban entropy, or Lara Almarcegui’s Guide to the Wastelands of the Lea Valley.


Ulrike Mohr, Restgrün 2006 (Image source)
In his essay titled “Disruptions”, Stephen Graham,  brings into mind the relevance of infrastructures in the urban discourse as the urban geography is more and more infrastructurally connected and dependent. If properly working infrastructures are usually taking for granted and also therefore rendered invisible. Graham points out that in many cities (like Mumbai for example) the politics of infrastructures dominate urban life and political discourses to a powerful extent. Furthermore sudden interruptions or disruptions of infrastructural systems like blackouts make them highly visible although they are usually invisible and hidden underneath the urban landscape.

Louis Moreno discusses the “Work of Architecture in the Age of Structured Finance”. UCL Urban Laboratory staff Pushpa Arabindoo and Andrew Harris introduce us to the Indian city of “Chennai as ‘cut-out’ city” respectively to flyovers and skywalks in Mumbai. The new director of the Laboratory, Ben Campkin, contributes an amazing essay on the bedbug infestations in London, whereas Matthew Gandy himself excavates interstitial landscapes in Berlin. Bartlett staff  Iain Borden writes on the representation of the city through the experience of driving (in anticipation of his forthcoming book) and Jane Rendell delivers one of her ever great pieces in experimental spatial writing by juxtaposing theories of spatial thinking with personal research initiated through a found book with a selection of buildings mostly from the fifties in London.
I conclude this review with a quote from Jane Rendall’s essay, since this metaphorically describes urban phenomena more generally and simulataneously also the range of theory the book is accumulating:

"A constellation is a spatio-temporal configuration, it provides both a map and calendar for individual stars and planets and their place in the overall pattern of the sky. Each star occupies a discrete position in relation to the others; it also has its own unique life span or time. Each star has a different duration, and what we see of a star today I not simply a function of what physically present right now, but it is also a trace of what has occurred, which even as we look at it now is no longer present."

I would completely agree to think about the urban condition as a spatial AND temporal configuration; and similarly the essays from the book contain different times within them and not solely different locations. A highly recommended read.


For those who are around Berlin by the end of the month, editor Matthew Gandy and two of the book’s contributors will be presenting and talking about the book at DAZ, 29 May, 7 p.m.

Related post from the Archive: Anagram Urbanism- Re-shuffling the City

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