Draughtsmen Drafting: Will Self & Richard Sennett

Part of the Writing the City series of events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, this was a conversation between academic and urbanist Richard Sennett and novelist and psychogeographer Will Self.

The pair started out with the jumping off point of Italo Calvino’s invisible cities, the early 70’s tome by Italo Calvino cleverly explores the fictionalised accounts of Marco Polo’s conversations with the great Khan. Many cities are described, through which Polo supposedly traveled, however as the book goes on you realise that they are all merely hyperbolic, warped reflections of one city: Venice.

Insight into the work was especially poignant as Sennett, who knew Calvino, recounted their trips around Manhattan.  Calvino apparently navigated and experienced the city in a unique, meticulous, and above all observational fashion… Self pointed out clearly, that Calvino had not been raised in a city himself. With talk of different ways of navigating urban form, Self increasingly raised the points of urban experience today being merely an expression of the profit / time metric; tapping into the history of the situationists and  the commodification of urban space and life.

The pitfalls of legibility and over-simplification of our experience of the built environment (i.e. navigating solely by google maps etc) and the detraction this has from the urban experience are tied into this. The conversation raised the notion of “location vs orientation” and our increasing acknowledgement of knowing where we are but being disconnected from its inherent qualities.

With regards to my own research, the character and identity of a place is intrinsically tied to the specific, human experience of being there and interacting with the inhabitants and urban spaces. However, it did make me think that, in trying to distil or project the imagined notion of an entire nation into a piece of architecture, it is almost impossible to avoid the location vs orientation argument above. A nation itself is a huge, broad, and almost imagined construct. It is an ideal, some kind of platonic pure form… and by this dint lends itself more to an abstraction of place rather than specific experience. It has to, it is the cliche “all things to all people.”

And this is where I really begin to ramble.

Historically it brought to mind where this split of location vs orientation actually occurred, From Self’s descriptions and wider reading, it is obviously bound up with the commodification of space and the systems of capitalism and commercialisation which we all inhabit. This, obviously is tied up with commercial society itself, in part born out of the rationality and experiential philosophy of the Scottish enlightenment… Hume, Smith etc. Around this time the New Town was developed along these lines, and the Hume Walk was established on the public space of Edinburgh’s Calton Hill.

The Hume Walk views the town and the wider country as a series of vistas, each composed and laid up at a distance by the merit of Calton Hill as a vantage point from which to view the city. The hill was in this way removed, much like the way in which we view google maps today, or our experience of urban space through the time/money/efficiency metric. The space, the city, was commodified into views, set pieces devoid of actual contact. Was the Hume walk a forerunner of the time and money metric which so governs our urban experience?

The development of the New Town was also key to this, and when the conversation eventually meandered to discussion of Edinburgh itself, provoked the comments from Will Self that the new town was now a place of “shadow streets… antiseptic and denuded.” The “sepulchral vibe” Self described the locale was having I though was perhaps a little strong (I myself lived in the New Town for a period and never found it that devoid of real life at all). But if commodification is a result of our commercial society, then surely the rational urban geometries of the new town are a result of this development? “Form follows finance” uttered Self, and this holds true with the new town. We know that Adam’s labours over the size and shape of the drawing room, this new space of social interaction so key to enlightenment ideology, was also driven in part by profit. The very fact this space of social interaction and cross pollination of ideas was now private property not a public close or wynd as in the old town, and not those fermenters of the enlightenment themselves, the public house.

On an urban scale, the sequencing of the open spaces in the new town exists to break up the monotony and placelessness of the grid form. Most tellingly however, is the fact that these spaces are not, in-fact public at all. They are private, gated parks and green gardens with the key-holders the owners and feuars of the grand townhouses which line the streets. The streets themselves becoming separated sterile, a far cry from a space of interaction. To the private citizen, the streetscape is just as gated and closed off as any warren.

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