Page 1

History and critical Thinking Aesthetics Ă lvaro Velasco 2013

the city and the ordinary


gainst the pseudo-moral attitude with which Le Corbusier promoted modernity in Vers une Architecture—“We throw the out-of-date tool on the scrap-heap,(...) this action is a manifestation of health, of moral health, of morale also”1(original emphasis)—Alison and Peter Smithson proposed an approach to architecture based on the consideration of the existing landscape. Terms like ordinariness, ‘as found’, the everyday, the popular... are very linked with these two polemicists. On September 11, 1953, the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London opened its doors to the exhibition Parallel of Life and Art(Fig. 1), designed by this couple along with Eduardo Paolozzi, Niegel Henderson and Ronald Jerkins. The title of the exhibition brings with it an important debate: is it possible to break the boundaries between art and ordinariness? Is it conceivable to take art out of the museums—considering ‘museum’ as the attitude with which we approach the work of art with its aura? Titling the exhibition this way suggests the desire to break a dichotomy present in almost the entire history of Aesthetics. The separation of Art from the everyday life constituting two different ‘realities’ has been a controversial issue in the debates since the inception of the discipline. The introduction of ordinariness—things so common that we take for granted, that which we do not pay attention to for being so present—in the museum illustrates a desire to destroy the walls of the institution, and with it, the opening of Art to the whole world. The question is not if that which is displayed in the museum is art or not; but more: “the things that are surrounding us, outside the museum, are they not art?” The issue seems important, but in this polemic they did not take into account a fundamental question.

Fig. 1. Cover of the catalogue of Parallel of Life and Art. 1953

Why don´t we have... Escalators Golf carts Bycicles Traffic lights for people Persuasive salesmen Highway billboards Picnics Mobile urban furniture Fireplaces Exhibitions of art Bridges between buildings Classical music recitals Sash cord windows Open-air libraries Gardens Houses Parking lots Helicopters Vending machines Camping with tents Offices No-smoker areas Graveyards Orchards Farms armchairs Telephone kiosks letterboxes All the rooms of the house

in in in in in in in in in in in in in in in in in in in in in in in in in in in in all around

public housing shopping malls walkways stadiums supermakets suburban houses Trafalgar Square the streets the underground hospitals dense streets discotheques cars the streets stations the underground tunnels roof tops the public transport´s nets houses parks boats pubs for smokers courtyards apartments parks churches residential areas the subway the city


The Smithson did not consider that we separate rural from city, public from private, traffic from pedestrian, individual from social...Placed in the museum—the temple consecrated to Art—an element of everyday life generates in the beholder an unacceptable confusion. Every element and space of the city is well categorized in our mind with clear boundaries between what something is and what something is not. We know that a lamppost is an element for lighting the street and it is not a gadget for lighting the house; it belongs to the public milieu and it does not make any sense in the private sphere. What we call ordinary establishes a sort of conservatism that promotes taking things for granted. We do not reflect on the categories that are linked with each element of the everyday life. For example, the sliding doors of trains are ‘doors for trains’. What if we use these sliding doors for a street entrance of a building? That would be use a ‘subterranean’ element as a ‘over-terrenean’ object. This kind of changes do not take place because we do not reflect on the nature of the categories of ordinary elements. THE ORDINARY AS OBJECT OF RESEARCH The problem of ordinariness lays precisely in its nature. Everyday life objects are so omnipresent that its scrutiny turns to be elusive. “The city exists around us and also lives within us”2, the city constitutes an object of research difficult to delimit, hard to grasp. Along the XXth century there were attempts to deepen in the nature of the category of ordinary but this studies easily became out of focus, making the ordinary into something extraordinary by means of its objectivization. In Architecture, the reference to the existing landscape as source for designing or research was very present during the second half of the last century. This consideration guided

works of architects such as the Smithsons with the ‘as found’, Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi learning in their trip to Las Vegas, the urbanism without plan of Reyner Banham in Los Angeles, Koolhaas and his junkspace...But after years, the approach to ‘ordinariness’ has become a cliché, as Enrique Walker states in the last chapter of his book Lo Ordinario3. Analysing the main works of authors that have approached “the banal, the everyday objects, that which is found, which is popular, the existing landscape”4, Walker finds in them the potential of the everyday to generate new statements. However, as Walker concludes, nowadays some architects manifest the same interest for the everyday, but their consideration of the ordinary is a mere fascination that leads to a thorough analysis, without any real statement for the debate. Parallel to the focus on the existing, along the period of 60s´ to 80s´, in different disciplines from Architecture to Sociology, there was a discourse on the disintegration of the city through the new means of communication. Paul Virilio prophesied that cities would dissolve its place-based relations, as they were ‘overexposed’ to new communication technologies, turning into a universal ‘technological spacetime’ in which ‘elsewhere begins here and vice versa’.5The city would dissolve its physic entity and the relations that used to be produced there would be substituted by a net of physically dispersed nodes. The role that the metropolis used to play was envisioned in the wave-connections of the means of communication. The idea of ‘global village’ was threatening the integrity of the city as a physical phenomenon. However, this condemning vision, again, faced the problem of realistic conservatism, and it happened that socioeconomic and cultural centrality of the city came to increase instead of vanish. The elements of the streets are still recognized

and categorized in our minds, every device belonging to a determined sphere: “This is urban”, “this is private”, “this is Art”, “this is rural”... The ordinary maintains its conservative nature. And it provides the citizen with a set of categories that would not be reflected upon, but are simply swallowed. When an architect introduces changes that do not follow this categories, they are usually not well received. The architect seems restricted by the ‘programme’, but, in fact, he is even more restrained by this kind of platitudes. And so, it happens that, sometimes, things that provide the best solution are ‘to be excluded’ for working out of its ‘label’. This way, the role of the architect is determined by people understanding of the realm of each space in the city, an understanding that is, most of the times, composed by ready-made ideas. CONSERVATISM IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE CITY The issue of conservatism could present a serious problem in the configuration of our cities. While it is true that some values of the urban should be preserved and reinforced, this attitude should not prevent us from reflecting on our mental categories in relation with the city. The desire for protecting real values cannot be used for masking our laziness in not reflecting on our urban space. It has always been easier to stay in the comfortable position of assume clichés. The conservatism brings with it the risk of doing things as ‘they have been done along the times’. Or even worse, it could generate a cultire of no facing the problems for fear of change—procrastination is usually the worst solution for the problems of the city. Through this path, we will find ourselves rising cities without identity. With solutions based on received ideas, the cities of the World are becoming more and more identical. The simple act of waking up in a hotel in Buenos Aires is not

that different to do it in one in Bangkok. Same sheets and pillow, same carpet laid in the floor that lead us to our weary reflection in the mirror, same water sink...the only difference could be in the softness of the towel which would vary on the money we have spent in a two, three or four stars hotel. Hotel room constitutes one of the most generic experiences nowadays. Or, looking at the underground spaces, we realize that the one in London is pretty much the same to the one in New York; so it would not be strange for us if, taking the train in Holbon, we rise from the ground in Union Square. The house is one of the most interesting ‘pigeonholes’ of our mind structures. Being one of the oldest, it is also one of the hardest to change. In the categorization of the house, even being spaces pretty similar in size, we classify every room following the activity to be developed in each one of them—or in the circunstances of a low-budget student, as it is my case, the classification does not follow ‘rooms’, because of being a ‘fluid single space’(a tiny studio), but it follows a subdivision by areas of the studio—. This way, a dining-room is a room in which we have meals; a living-room is a room in which we have informal meetings and there are sofas, armchairs and a television; a bathroom is a room in which we groom ourselves and contains a toilet, a bathtub or a shower, and a washbasin; a bedroom is a room in which we sleep; a pantry is a room in which we keep our food; a kitchen is a room in which we prepare our meals6...and also the car, which we consider a ‘mean of transport’. What would happen if the category of an object is changed? What if we decide to classify the car as a ‘detachable mobile room of the house’? That would change its view on the public realm. Or consider an international airport as ‘a city’ in our categories? George Perec once proposed the experiment of expend

ing a month living in a terminal without ever leaving it.7 The terminal of an airport could be conceived as a ‘condensedcity’ as it can easily satisfy all the essential needs that a modern conurbation provides: there are pleasant sofas where you can sleep—in fact, the waiting rooms become ephemeral bedrooms during long delays in air traffic—; there are shops, cafeterias and restaurants; you have dry cleaners, hairdressers, chapels, play areas, shoeshiners...for the personal care you have toilets, showers, saunas and jacuzzis.The experiment would not be that hard to fulfil. Or, why not to consider the entire city as ‘a house’? That would be against the basic principle that governs us today. The whole city is subdivided in zones by Planning Controls. Any new intervention has to apply for a planning permission that would be accepted only if it is in accordance with the current Planning Control. So, there is not way of laying out of the zonification that preestablished the categorization of an area. But the Planning Control is regularized by Development Plans prepared and published by the Local Planning Authorities(LPAs), and so, the Planning Control is lead by political strategies in which we can intervene. The development of the cities is regularized by means of zonification8, a categorization previous to the intervention in new areas, and so, the solutions designed by architects are stablished a priori by local authorities. The solution comes even previous to the problem. So, actually there are not answers to current real problems, but only directives given by the authority ‘foreseeing’ future problems. However, the issue of zonification does not only affect to new designs but, especially to our conception of the city. Zonification generates in our understanding of the city a codification in which it is not possible to introduce new solutions to new and old problems. The areas and uses that trace the zonification

are also schemes in our conception of the urban. For example, we conceive what ‘residential’ is in relation to what the zonification considers it is. In a suburban residential area it is not possible to open a small shop in our garage because ‘shop’ falls out of the categorization of ‘residential’. The first principle in which the city is based is a polarity between private and public, a foundation based on property. Many philosophers, especially in the XIXth Century, have dug into the root of the problem finding on it the assumption of this principle. If we accept the right of property, the distinction responds to a simple reality: private is what belongs to the individual while public is what belongs to the whole collective. We have very clear idea of the former, but the problem is that we do not reflect on the fact that public belongs to the group. With the motto of “An Englishman´s House is his castle”, we have forgotten that the public realm is also duty of all of us. This maxim, as if it were talking about ‘castles in the air’, has made us dream and evade from very real problems that are in the streets of our cities. On an individualistic impulse, we have carefully addressed the problems of our property— “I have paid for it!”— and left the solution of the troubles of the city in the hands of the government— “I have paid my taxes!”. Narrowing our mind in this common understanding, we have focused our efforts in domestic housing and we have mistreated what is communal by means of our by disregarding. We do not reflect on the fact that public space is there; we are not conscious that it is ours. George Perec— other author amazed by the everyday—, on defining the city, he points that “contrary to the buildings, which almost always belong to someone, the streets in principle belong to no one.”9 While it is true that Perec´s purpose was not to provide an accurate definition of the city—but more a naive frame in which

establish his statements—, it reminds me a famous sentence pronounced by a Spanish minister: “The public money does not belong to anyone.”10 But of course it belongs to someone; it belongs to all of us. This kind of position manifests the lost, nowadays, of sense of community. The society is getting more and more individualistic while the social rights and responsibilities are diluted. The city is not supposed to belong to the community anymore but it is owned by the state, the city hall, or the council, as if these institutions were something different than our grouping as social beings. The system of democracy is growing feeble as we do not participate in the communal issues. Maybe Virilio was not right in his dooming statement on the city; but, even conserving its physical entity, the relationships face-to-face tend to disappear with the rising of face-to-screen relations. In the high-dense city it is produced the paradox of individuals more anomic, with increasing visual contact but lessing social dealing, “glaringly contrasting squalor and splendour, riches and poverty; and juxtaposing individuals with no sentimental or emotional ties with associations of community and alliances of ‘fate’.”11As Amin and Graham consider, even the projects of the city that could be more ‘inclusive spectacle-based’— like “glamorous public works, festivals, exhibitions, ‘themed’ commercial spaces and large reclamation projects”—hide selfish intentions covered by “temporary illusion of urban unity and a populist sense of place”.12 This way, we take the city for granted, we leave the decision in the hands of someone else. Without realizing that the streets are ours, we will continue with the problem: we have the city but we do not know how to use it.

ENGAGE WITH THE CITY IF YOU LACK OF SPACE Misunderstanding the issue of the public we generate a dichotomy between private and public. In this dichotomy, the individual only has rights over the private. This way, our system promotes in the individual a desire to acquire. The system makes you pay in order to appropriate a space, to rule over it(privatization). Only through bureaucratization one is able to ‘have’ space. But, what if we can not pay for this appropriation, do not we own any space? As Christine Boyer13 argues, we have generated a system in which the ‘figured city’—the grid of isolated, imageable, carefully designed and controlled consumption nodes for affluent groups—draws our attention, covering in its interstices the presence of a ‘disfigured city’—the neglected and unimageable space of the poor. In the end, we have generated an economic system where two thirds of the population sustain the other third. And that affects in the configuration of the urban. The unemployed people, most of the time, are not able to afford a house. The economic crisis that has sprung in the Western world in the last years has evidenced the un-sustainability of the bases. In the field of Architecture, the real estate market has collapsed for converting house construction into an opportunity to enrich economically. More and more houses were built, overpassing the needs of the population and increasing the price of the residence. This way, even having enough room for hosting the citizens, less people was able to pay for them, producing the paradox of having empty houses available but more people living in the streets. In December 2013, the unemployed rate in London was 8.5%.14 Within this system, they do not enjoy the possibility of using a space as they wish. Some of them stay in temporary shelters, living with relatives and friends or in short-term accommodations. But there is even a worse face of the problem. Between 2012 and 2013, London

had more than 6,430 rough sleepers living in its streets.15 Without possibility of acquiring a house, the homeless lack of a space in which to develop their lives, only in the streets. However, the problem is not of lack of space. We have the city, but we do not know how to use it. Not being able to obtain a private space, why not make use of the public one? With a proper employing of the city, the redundant people could not depend on employment. The categorization—more mental than governmental—of the street as ‘public space’ prevents the individual to undertake sporadic actions. Why not simply unfold a table in a crowded street constituting a new shop? Why a homeless is not allowed to go to Green Park, bring a stand, unfurl a tablecloth and start selling sandwiches? Every initiative has to follow a path of never-ending bureaucracy. Nevertheless, justice implies different treatment with different situations, why not provide people in difficult circumstances with privileges? Our system could adapt exceptions, why not take advantage of them? Could we generate a system in which the compassionate tone of “Oh, he lives in the streets” would lost its pity connotation? A system in which “I reside in Knightsbridge with Duke of Wellington” would not mean that he lives in a fancy regency-style hotel facing Hyde Park, but that, in fact, he lives in the corner between both roads, living in the street, but living in a placid way. Scrutinizing the street we can find potential solutions. With a reflection on what the urban could be—more than on how to categorize it—we could discover solutions to the problem we have generated. The urban realm hides plenty opportunities to make from the streets a good place to live. We only need to be more flexible in our understanding of the city. Easy solutions that nowadays are not able to be realized for being out of the boundaries of the law. Fig. 2. ‘Tea hut’, by Tony Ray-Jones, c. 1967 © National Media Museum.

Why are they not allow to... ..sell food on Canary Wharf during lunch time in exchange for insurance. ...use the underground stations during the night as safe asylums. ...collect fruit from public gardens. ...make use of kitchens of restaurant during closing hours for cooking their own food. ...lead touristic sightseeing in the city without accreditation.(They are the ones that better know the streets of London) ...plant their own orchard in public green areas. ...come to an agreement with the Botanic Garden to sell its flowers at the end of the season. ...inhabit abandoned buildings. ...make use of the showers of the locker rooms of public schools during holidays. off objects whose owners consider useless in public squares. out with tents in the meadows of a park during summer nights. ...protect construction sites during the nights in exchange for sleeping in the security shed. ...collect food that is about to expire in grocery stores. the books that nobody has used for years in the library. ...use the cars that people in long term trips park in the airport, and put them back before their return. ...clean their dirty clothes in public fountains, and hang them on lampposts. abandon sites until its renovation takes place. ...take a flight for free once in a while for going ‘on holidays’ ...prowl the streets taking notes of damages in the urban furniture and sell these lists to the Regeneration office of the City Hall. for the Police as ‘casual security observers’ in the street markets.


We could generate ideas that solve the problems of the people that live in the streets reflecting on the streets. We could describe a utopia in which no revolution would be necessary for the change; a utopia in which it would not be necessary (almost)anything to be changed—only our mental categories—, because we have everything we need, we only need to learn how to use it; a utopia so easy to understand that everybody would visualize it; a utopia so cheap that no money would be necessary to invest;...a kind of ‘paperback utopia’... ...Or, probably this is not an utopian solution at all.It could be more a ‘-topia’, for being so easy to reach. And precisely because of that, it would be a possible solution. Even a solution that, would not put an absolutely end to the entire problem, but at least would make us realize the amount of opportunities that we have in the public space, which nowadays we do not take advantage of. Simply to propose a solution that draw our attention to the things so obvious that we cannot see, but with which we still have responsibilities.

An artist. That is a real figure from which to learn. They usually lack of money but they still survive living like kings; “they live from the air, but they always drink champagne”. Try to re-shape what you have so clear in your mind in order to bring from the existing the best that it could offer to you. That could be the real solution to the problem formulated in the title of the Smithsons. Parallel of Life and Art. Learn to live like an artist, take advantage of what there is.

Notes 1. Le Corbusier. Towards a New Architecture. Dover Publications. New York, 1986. p.13 2. Robins, K. Into the image: culture and politics in the field of vision. Routledge, London,1996. 3. Walker, Enrique. Lo ordinario. Ed. Gustavo Gili, Barcelona, 2010. 4. Ibid. Introduction. 5. Virilio, Paul. The overexposed city. Zone 1 2. pp. 14-31 6. Paraphrasing Perec, Georges. Species of Spaces and Other Pieces . Penguin. London. 2008. p. 27 7. Perec, Georges. Species of Spaces and Other Pieces . Penguin. London. 2008. p. 26 8. Zonification, a notion that finds its first experiences in New York City in 1916(Natoli, Salvatore J.(1971)”Zoning and the Development of Urban Land Use Patterns” Economic Geography. Volume 47, Number 2, pp. 171-184). In the United Kingdom, zoning is one of the fundamental tools in the system of town and country planning. 9. Perec, Georges. Species of Spaces and Other Pieces . Penguin. London. 2008. p. 47 10. Carmen Calvo, interview in ABC. May 29, 2004 11. Amin, Ash and Graham, Stephen. The ordinary city. In Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New Series. Vol. 22. No.4. London, 1997. pp. 411-429 12. Ibid. 13. Boyer, Christine. The great frame up: fantastic appearances in contemporary spatial politics. In Liggett H and Perry D. Eds. Spatial practices. Sage. London, 1995. pp.81-109 14. Regional Labor Market Statistics. December 2013. Office for National Statistics. 2013 15. Chain Annual Report by Broadway, Street to Home. 2013

Fig. 3. ‘The storyteller’ by Jeff Wall. 1986.© The artist.

The City and The Ordinary. AA History and Critical Thinking Programme Essay.  

Essay for Aesthetics course of the History and Critical Thinking MA programme at the AA.

Read more
Read more
Similar to
Popular now
Just for you