Escalator or Stairs

Escalator or Stairs

One of the most important changes to public spaces is arguably to do with health. The health of people living in cities is crucial as the functionality of the city has lead to inactivity. Health problems associated with living within the city are numerous but mainly derive from the efficiency of things like public transport, the ease of roads and cars, the need for efficiency of work during work hours (which take up the majority of our day) and the consequent lack of mobility. This also includes the small amount of time given for meal times and the need for quick and cheap meals. The lack of activity in our day to day lives is a consequence of many factors, though, a few studies show the lack of our ability to choose activity over efficiency.

Primarily Jan Gehl talks about the need for publicity and encouragement by the city to make an active option of mobility more appealing, and more accessible for people living within the city. The idea of visiting the gym seems counter-intuitive as fitness is based on activity and is not reliant on machinery. The fact that more people cycle in Copenhagen, rather than using any other form of transport is determined on the space and layout of the city, but is still an example for every city and for the benefit of the people within it.

An example I recently read revealed the inability of people to see their own active engagement in decisions for a healthier lifestyle. The study showed how by, in Denmark, slowing down an escalator by 10% lead 30% of people using it to use the stairs. In New York, only after slowing the speed of the escalator down by 30% did 30% of users choose to walk up the stairs. I think that this is a demonstration of the inability we have to determine our choices. The high levels of visual stimulus, subliminal messaging, effective advertising and owners of spaces who design them and movement within them for financial benefit that are particularly prevalent in such a dense city, all lead to the inability for us to make decisions intuitively. Our own decisions over what to eat, how much to eat, where to shop, how to get to work, what to do after work are all overrun by the strength of well designed commerce and encouragement of the consumer. Every decision we make or thing we choose to buy seems is a choice that has large consequences that we are often unaware or ignorant of.

Another study that I thought was interesting showed that in Denmark, more and more women are choosing to work less days and earn less in favor of an active lifestyle that encourages interests outside of the work space. It largely began from the discussion over paid maternity leave, but has become an example for the need for people to spend time for themselves to allow them to follow more active lifestyles and choose how they want to spend their time, rather than persuaded by the need to work full time, have more money and need more things. I think there are downsides to this way of living and I think that some cities, like New York, are hard to live in without a high income, but I think, like cycling in Copenhagen, it presents another perspective on living that is a useful example to us.

This is an interesting study done at Columbia about Human Mobility.

Malick Sidibe and the Spirit of Place

Malick Sidibe and the Spirit of Place

One of my favorite photographers, Malick Sidibe, best represents the depiction and essence of ‘Spirit of Place’. I think the spirit of place is something that is really evident through experience but hard to define. In a way, it is made up of a multitude of conscious and subconscious moments that seem particularly characteristic of a place. Often by defining these small, often inconsequential moments, we create a kind of stereotype for the city. This also creates a kind of connection to those around who can relate to these moments as they are only particular to the one place.

Malick Sidibe is a good example of someone able to capture that particular characteristic of the town Bamako, in Mali. Sidibe originally began photography as an assistant to a French photographer who approached him in art school. At this time, Mali was still a French colony and under French rule. Once Mali gained independence in 1960, Sidibe had grown enough popularity in Bamako that he could open his own studio. The images he takes are typically of one or more subjects, posing for the image in clothes or props inspired by western and what was then considered ‘modern’ culture. The youth of Mali had been struggling with the colonial, traditional, socialist control of the French government. Now they were inspired and influenced by European popular culture and wanted to recreate their own image and standing. The photographs show young people in Mali regaining self-independence and their own authority. This is displayed in their extravagant clothing. By posing for the camera, they are, in a way, displaying their own wishes and values and the studio acts as a kind of stage. To have their photo taken was described to make these youths ‘exist’ on a larger scale (Jack Shaiman Gallery which represents Sidibe). Often Sidibe would get his subjects to pose in a similar way to the band album covers. This creates an interesting layering of representation.

I think these photos display the spirit of place because the photographer shares the space with the subjects. He grew up and lives in the city in which he takes photos. Furthermore, it was not expensive for people to get their photo taken so the images were for the people. The photos display not only the character of the people but the kind of haphazard studio reflects the place and the lifestyle and mindset of the people. The photos not only display the cultural vibrancy of the place, but also the political changes and how they directly affect the youth, the people Sidibe photographs, as well as himself. These images although posed and dramatic, present a kind of reality and authenticity not often found in photography. I think this really displays a kind of honest portrayal of a spirit of a place, particularly as the character of the people is so strong. Sidibe is described as incredible outgoing and personable and his subjects have always been comfortable in his studio. I think this is a key factor in the ability for an artist to display the real character of a place.

Surreal city

Surreal city

When I last came into New York from JFK airport I noticed the woman behind me in the line for a cab had been on my flight, so I said she could share my cab into the city. It wasn’t long before she had frantically explained that she was in New York to visit a guy who she used to date 20 years ago, that she was nervous, didn’t have the right clothes with her, had taken too much Xanax on the flight and had to text her husband so he didn’t get suspicious. Having spent the Christmas break in London with my family and old friends, I felt slightly apprehensive about coming to New York. I wasn’t ready for the constant level of anxiety, the unforgiving buzz of my phone, people shouting their new ideas at you over dinner or telling you about their new therapist or meditation group. Although London is rainy and cold, the weather also greatly affected how I feel about returning to New York. In ‘Here is New York‘, E.B. White describes how the weather is either too cold or too hot. This definitely feels true when the majority of times I travel in or out of New York back to Europe are in the summer or winter. This extremity of weather adds to the feeling of excitement and exhaustion. In the taxi, I realized how surreal and abnormal so much of New York is. Every day something happens that is particularly shocking, funny or interesting. Because there is so much going on in a small space, our experiences all seem so much more extreme and abnormal. This lady was telling me about how nervous she was to see her old boyfriend and how guilty she felt. She said I was just like her daughter and gave me her number as well as her friend’s number. In a flurry of snow and noise she jumped out the can to the hotel her old boyfriend had booked for her.

This sense of irresponsibility that we read about in the last post was so clear here and arriving in New York felt like entering into a place where people are able to become careless. Furthermore, because of the high density of people, we can often do something and no one will know or notice. The sense of privacy discussed in White’s text is also clear here. After a night out with some of my friends last year, we found a hole in the fence on the west side highway that lead to a helicopter pad. We sat and watched the sun rise over the city and jumped in the water. This was one of the most surreal moments in New York. Partly due to my detachment to what was going on around me, the lack of responsibility or care for the things I was doing and because now it seems like it never happened. Just like the woman in the cab, no one else was there and it just left me feeling weird and ultimately lonely. Events like this come and go and because of the intensity of the city we do not let ourselves become attached to them. This means that people we meet or events that we are a part of mean much less to us than they might do in another place.



No places make us feel uncomfortable. In a way, traveling through American towns that I have never before visited, and that I know I am only stopping off in for gas or a coffee make me feel anxious. Knowing that we are not spending any time in a place also create a sense of irresponsibility and hedonism – eating a big cheeseburger and a coke, drinking coffee and having a cigarette don’t feel like they count in places like these. This sense of meaninglessness to actions definitely comes from the feeling that the place we are in has no relevance or meaning and no impact upon us, apart from a strange sense of emptiness. Films like Wild at Heart, Gummo and Somwhere seem to share this kind of carelessness that comes from a lack of attachment or sense of belonging or connection to a place, particularly to our home (and in most films to our family).

In ‘Place and Placelessness‘, E. Ralf says that, “variety is disappearing” (pg. 79). This is an important quote as it references our ability to move so easily and highlights the lessening power of borders between countries. These films all have similar locations in common. They are all based around driving or spaces that have been built for the car (the films mentioned are in LA, the suburbs or the majority of the film spent in the car). The low-cost and speed that we can travel is somewhat unnatural in that our sense of progression through space is disrupted and altered by the time we spend on an airplane in a transitory ‘no-space’. This ability desensitizes us as historical value and differences in another culture become unimportant to us. The spread of information and knowledge is so accessible and vastly influential that traveling, for the purpose of new knowledge and experience is lost. Instead, our idea of traveling has become based on the need to ‘get away’ from the routine of every day life.

This desensitization of other cultures is concurrent with the lack of investment we have in the places we inhabit. Due to this idea of easy travel, moving has become much easier and the amount of time we spend in one place has shortened. I asked 5 people how long they have lived and are planning to live in New York for and most were expecting to move away in the next five years. This lack of commitment and care for our surroundings gives rise to ‘no places’. The text describes, “placelessness is an attitude and an expression of that attitude”(pg. 80). It is hard to mark whether the idea of no place came first before and was exacerbated by the built environment after, or the other way around. On the other hand, travel and speed as ‘modern’ ideas have aided in this disassociation with our surroundings and social norms seem to have adapted and changed for the worse. I once gave a man on the street $40 because I believed a story he told me about needing gas before his car was towed. Rather than being upset about loosing the money when he didn’t return to pay me back, I felt more numbed against strangers in general in New York and a sense of distrust and lack of respect for the city itself. Interactions between people are often superficial and responsibility and attention to other people that we often feel in smaller communities or ones in which we have spent a lot of time, seems to have been worn away by the lack of care or attention to the city itself.

Psychology of Art

Psychology of Art

The “sense of place” in the museum is particularly interesting. This is a public space yet is highly sensitive towards the role of the viewer as well as the role of the art. The aesthetic is highly relevant and the psychology of the space is also a big factor in the reception of the art as well as the popularity of the museum, disregarding which art the museum holds.

Firstly the purpose of the museum has changed drastically. Initially, the museum becoming a public space was an effort on the part of the king to ‘improve’ society. To create a building that was located most commonly among government buildings, that was built in the style of the surrounding royal buildings and often reflected the façade of the royal palace (the first exhibits were selections from royal collections of artifacts and what was brought back from colonial exploration), meant that the lower classes were able to access this kind of grandeur and extravagance. This, in a way, reflects what the majority of the population of a city would associate with the church. The museum was a method of social self-monitoring. Upon entering the museum, people would alter their behavior, walk slower and talk quieter. It was a place to watch others and this authority and reverence for art created a very specific attitude in the people within the space that still exists today.

The way art has changed has also altered the way that museum design has developed. Art was at first considered a kind of attempt at perfection or the divine. When artists began to be commissioned to paint, the monetary value of artworks became a factor in the production of artwork and it wasn’t until much later that the artist as an individual became prominent and a powerful figure in society. Art changed again with the printing press and the idea of mass production changes again this idea that a painting and its surroundings are linked to each other.

Our idea of art has changed drastically and the museum has changed with it. Whereas the role of the artist has changed from a commissioned to a leading role in the production of art, the museum (as collector and protector of art) has moved from an authoritative to an institute for a public service. The role of monetary value and the economy of art has also altered our value of the works we look at.

Whether the museum has a columned façade, red patterned wallpaper, velvet sofas and a café with expensive coffee may make us consider the history, context, value and power of the paintings we see. Just as white walls, free entrance, tall ceilings and limited visible joins between rooms to give a sense of free flowing movement may make us feel the liberal quality to our own subjective judgment and acceptability of the viewer and accessibility of the artwork.

John Berger ( in Ways of Seeing) says that images have become information. When we consider the image of the religious icon, the meaning of this item is so strong that the viewer closes their eyes. The time of travelling to be able to see certain works of art is over and the availability of the image has changed. The museum has changed in this context and the people we see, the way we behave and how we think about the art we see is altered so drastically by the space we are in.

A Private Place

A Private Place

When thinking about what everyday place everybody visits I first thought of the bathroom. To take a shower or bath, to use the toilet or brush our teeth, the bathroom is such a private space that, usually we are in it alone, and therefore, it is a good space to explore how it displays our attitudes a
nd values.

At first I thought about the text ‘In Praise of Shadows’, by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki. This text discusses Japanese architecture and home interiors and I thought it was relevant as he compares the priorities and social norms of the Japanese in comparison to Western attitudes. He discusses the way that Japanese bathrooms are traditionally wooden with a floor made of either varnished dark wood or Tatami. He also describes how wood is used on the toilet and sinks and there is a close connection between this space and the outside. Not only by using natural and often very raw materials in construction, but also in that the toilet is often found far from the center of the house. It is often located at the end of the hallway, furthest from the main public or family space. Tanizaki describes how in the Kanto region, bathrooms have low strip windows in order that the outside is visible. The author desicribes the necessity for Japanese bathrooms to be quiet in order that the outside can be heard from within; he describes hearing the fall of rain on trees and stone stepping stones and says, “indeed one could with some justice claim that of all the elements of Japanese architecture, the toilet is the most aesthetic” (Pg. 4).

This description by Tanizaki is hugely contrasting to the treatment of this space by Westerners. Primarily, the need for our bathrooms to be covered in tile and white surfaces show our need for cleanliness. It seems as though the materials we choose are both useful for cleaning but also display to the user how little dirt can be seen on the pure, sanitized surfaces. It is sometimes interesting to think about the difference between family and guest bathrooms in considering J. B. Jackson’s analysis of the role of the home. Privacy is another purpose of the bathroom. Culturally, discussing this space is unusual and sometimes uncomfortable. The bathroom has no physical or visual connections to anything outside of this space. There are often small or no windows in the bathroom and the door more often than not has a lock on. I asked a two friends about how they used the bathroom and found varying results. One said, “I showered and cried, it was a cathartic moment”, the other said, “It takes me ages to get ready in the morning because I read on the toilet”. Some of us listen to music and light candles or talk on the phone in the bath, some of us have makeup and creams spread over all surfaces and others have a cabinet full of medicines. Some of us have children and a cup full of toothbrushes, some of us have a ‘his’ and ‘hers’ sink and towels only to be used by specific family members. Some of our bathrooms have pink wallpaper, others have Japanese waterfall sculptures, some have shower curtains with pictures of naked women and some of us put reminders on the mirror. What is interesting is to see how this space is a kind of microcosm of ourselves and our daily habits. It shows, when we are alone, how we are, or want to be.

In a city like New York, where disconnecting from other people, the outside chaos and noise, the visual pressure of advertisements in the street and the vibrating of our phones, the bathroom seems like such a valuable space. The idea that we are usually alone, and that there is always a mirror in a bathroom, seems to present a kind of space for reflection and one in which we are most ourselves.


A toilet controlled by smart phones.


Underground public toilet

Building and Time

Building and Time

I found Robert Shultz’ text on Levittown particularly interesting, as well as the text “The Geography of Nowhere”, by James Howard Kunstler. These two texts seemed particularly relevant as they discuss the idea of the home and how this has changed with the growth and development of Suburbia. I have always found this to be a really intriguing topic as I have never lived in the suburbs of a city and have found people to be either very interested, or very scolding of anyone who lives there.

I really liked the way that Shultz discusses the way that the ideal home was ‘codified’ and ‘self conscious’ (page 182) and how Kunstler’s talks about how, “we have hardly paused to think about what we are so busy building”(page 10). These two ideas highlight many main ideas about Suburbia and the difficulty of controlled and uncontrolled development on a large and individual scale.

Perhaps Robert Moses and his huge transformations of the city is one example of this. The need to build may be a result of single minded, yet productive mindset. It displays a quick and efficient system though, as opposed to Jacobs’ ideals, they are ethically, socially, spatially and most usually economically ignorant. This can also be applied to examples such as monumental structures (Zaha Hadid/ Herzog and De Mueron/ Gehry and most of Dubai).

This idea of building without consideration is key to most of Lewis Mumford’s projects and the idea that in the post-war housing shortage the problem was not that there was a shortage but that there was no care or time to control what was being built.

Time seems to be a key factor here as is evident in many cases of building. For example, in Berlin, I had a tour of a Montessori school where great care was taken for the materials used to be organic and local, the community to be involved, the school children to take part in the construction, the design of the space to be particularly facilitative of learning. The problem with this school was the lack of funding and the amount of time needed to complete this project.

Furthermore, time seems to play a large part in the definition of the suburbs. For one, the description by Shultz reminded me of a documentary by British artist, Grayson Perry (link to documentary) who does an ethnographic study into the different kinds of social groups in England. He looks at these kinds of houses where essence and style are pre-made and able to be bought. He describes these kinds of people as self-consciously middle class. This is because they are ‘upwardly mobile’ and, as they are ‘new’ to this lifestyle, they are aware of their status and need to live in a house that matches this desired lifestyle. Without time, they are not able to create the sense of ‘home’ that can only be built over time and must pay for what is described as this kind of ‘false’ structure – another of which is found in Shultz’ description of the Church building that is used as an office (page 137) .

Finally, I think the way Shultz describes the speed and lack of consideration is similar to the way that the philosopher Martin Heidegger discusses the way that man builds to feel a sense of power and control but, in considering only the function and act of building, he looses the “essence” of the building (link to essay “Place Dwelling Thinking“) . This is definitely relevant as we are aware of both the self-importance of Moses, and the lack of consideration explored by Mumford. It also highlights the ‘codifying’ of William Levitt and value of functionality and speed over the value of “essence” or character built over time.


An interesting article that discusses the move to the city rather than the suburbs and the changing desire of families for family houses.

The End of the Suburbs

Jacobs and Prevailing Modernism in Lusaka

Jacobs and Prevailing Modernism in Lusaka

The theme of the street is one that reoccurs when studying cities and their successes. It seems there is often the tension between top-down and grass roots development within the city. After sitting through one of the Greenwich Village Community Board Meetings I left feeling exhausted and irritated. The inefficiency of the processes in the meeting was so slow and time consuming that I thought that there must be a better way. The clear disjunction between the motivations and aims of single-minded forward thinkers like Robert Moses, and the community need based ideals of people like Jane Jacobs have created an inefficiency and dissatisfaction between both groups.
When I was travelling around Africa this summer, I noticed how different the city and how it was organized was from anywhere else I had been. The government in Zambia lacks funds for great urban development schemes, let alone community based urban awareness movements, and therefore relies heavily on external input, such as the Japanese road manufacturers, or the Chinese electricity mains suppliers. This investment in Zambian urban structures reflects foreign economic interest in the country and its reliance on these external sources for support.

It was interesting to see, though, how the centre of Lusaka did not work for the people. The roads leading in and out of the city were congested at all times of the day, apart from after dark. Because of the local habit to avoid driving at night, the street lamps that enable safe roads are useless. This also meant that the already quiet center of town was deserted at night and felt unsafe. Little infrastructure surrounding the roads also mean that the majority of the population of Lusaka, who do not own a car, walk beside the road. The fumes of the congested cars are thick in the air and barriers between pedestrians and cars are non-existent, apart from a gutter that is clogged with waste and rubbish. We noticed that at one point we passed a man made open sewage system that ran on the other side of the waste ditch. This was so striking as dangerous and poisonous space, affected by the high speed of development.

It was really interesting to see how development methods were advanced, yet, having missed out on the slow increment of technology or economic investment (because of the short period of time that the president is in power, rather than saving, each president spends on quick solution, immediate and evident development), the city lacks control or structure. It is run on a strange friction between arbitrary, top down infrastructural development, and the traditions and cultural habits of the people. An example of this is the way that most families have a TV, but not hot water. Or how the school in which we taught had no books (neither work nor exercise books) but one ipad with a program for teaching.

The developments on the outskirts of the capital seemed to be randomly placed, the divisions between houses unclear. The poverty in these areas was hard to comprehend but the sense of community was clearly very different than in the center of town. The electricity poles had to be individually and privately paid for (often electric pylons were found in the middle of natural walking and cattle pathways, but when there was a power cut in the evening, everyone in the community would gather together to eat. Water pumps, also individually paid for, were shared. This was one of the most amazing cities I have ever visited. Most noticeably different to the city discussed in Jacobs’ writings, was a strange dynamic between the local community in and on the outskirts of the city, the foreign developers, the poverty outside of the city and how this was compared side by side with the prevailing new ‘modernism’ that we associate with a developed city.

African Modernism: An interesting article about a new exhibition that explores Sub-Saharan Africa’s post-colonial architecture. 

Are we there yet

Are we there yet

John O’Keefe and May-Britt and Edvard Moser’s experiments were reminiscent of a book, ‘Flowers for Algernon’ by Daniel Keys in that they both show the development of movement in the space by animals and compare this with people. The scientific tests are particularly interesting as they show the competence of our individual human ability to recognize and adapt to our surroundings. It is interesting to consider how our surroundings have in turn affected this ability. Evolution has shown how our dependence on certain things has changed the internal make up of our bodies. An example of this is our use of our thumbs from mobile phones increases the strength and dominance in our thumbs and has implications in the use and skills of our hands. If you count from one to ten you probably start on the left hand with your thumb. This is a strange connection between our internal mathematical skills with physical stimuli – very similar to the use of visual aids in orientating ourselves within a space, and the biological make up of our ability to self-orientate.

In this book, the main character is disabled and undergoes a scientific experiment in order to artificially improve his intelligence. Although this is science fiction, as the character’s intelligence improves, he is able to complete mazes and spatial tasks much more efficiently, and he begins to have memories of places and events. I found it interesting to think about how memories are so closely linked to the place in which they occurred and how our perception of a place is based upon our own memory of it, rather than the physical reality of a place. Our perception of space is linear and singular. Although we are able to visualize maps and directions, our main understanding of actual space is through our one visual perspective, as catalysts for our ‘place cells’. Although it seems visual stimulus is the center of our own maps, another kind of perspective of space is associated with sound. Richard Neutra brought his wife along with him to play the cello in prospective houses in order that he might be able to create a sound memory of a space. Although I don’t know how successful this really was.

I often get lost and find that I am in an intense discussion with someone, walking down the street, then, as soon as they turn to go, I realize I haven’t been aware at all of where I am. Without the focus on place, I easily get lost and unless I consciously make an effort, my sense of direction is non-existent. I often thought that it was to do with dyslexia, though, after looking up more about it for this post, I realized that in fact, it is more of a lack of gage that stops me from accurately placing locations on a mental map. Because we form our own mental maps, these can be thrown off by a lack of distance awareness. One location may seem to be closer than another because it ‘seemed’ to only take 10 minutes to get there. So many factors can get involved in our own idea of places, though as Henry’s post discusses, perhaps it is not any less legitimate (although relying on this kind of map will make you late).

The image at the top is another example of map making that is based on smells that is just as weird as Neutra.

City Collage

City Collage

Kevin Lynch states that, the need to familiarize us with our surroundings is, “fundamental to the efficiency and to the very survival of free-moving life” (page 3). It was interesting to see the relevance of the visual in the text, to the ability to familiarize with a space, in either immediate surroundings, or through memories of a place. The idea that the visual is most important is interesting, especially when we spend so much time looking at our phones or not considering our surroundings. Although phones give us efficiency with contact and also with direction, it inhibits our own ability to visually take in our surroundings and therefore makes us reliant. Lynch describes this visual or sensory exposure as key to the familiarly and “organization” of the city in our memory. If physical and atmospheric factors aid the speed in which we become accustomed to the city, a successful city, therefore, allows for quicker and better efficiency for the inhabitant. We can therefore compare speed of their adaptation to the city by the level of efficiency in the individual. A well-organized city allows for more efficiency and productivity for its people.

What proves a city to be ‘better’ at allowing its citizens to familiarize themselves could be to do with a few factors. Initially the grid system seems to allow for the quickest efficiency for people unused to the city. The numbering of streets and avenues gives directions to the city’s ‘newcomers’. This allows for a quicker initial period of familiarity before what Lynch describes as visual organization. This relies of visual images of the city that remind the individual of where they are. This relies heavily on time, though, also can rely on the physical city. Monuments or nodes in the city allow for a breakup of the visual monotony that often creates the sensation of being lost. In New York, examples of these are numerous, such as the Empire State and the Freedom Tower. Also, physical changes like the texture of the buildings and what materials form their facades, or change from cobbled to tarmac roads, the height of the buildings and width of the roads. An example of this is Washington Mews. Character is another factor that Lynch describes, and that aids in this visual memorization of the city. This is based in a few different factors such as, the people in the space and their social, economic and cultural background, the building use, the economic standing of the area (the borough, council, state or mayor) and the placement of the area in relation to transport and to the center/periphery of the city.

On the weekend I went up to Harlem to visit a friend. The difference in atmosphere in the area around Columbia and the area to the East of the park was very apparent. Although Google maps allows us to avoid the anxiety of unfamiliarity, finding yourself in an unfamiliar area still makes us hyper aware of the visual marks that help us. Perhaps this is a natural reaction to unfamiliarity. I was surprised at how strikingly different these two neighborhoods were, but when I got back to the East Village I realized that when I first moved to this area, these same features were so evident and, from time, repetition and memories, I felt relieved and secure to feel familiar with an area in the city.

Sohei Nishino’s photo collages are an interesting example of maps of cities, emphasized by what the artist decides as important monuments, major transport links, and particular nodes of the city that visually stand out in the images.

Also a link to an interesting artist, Doug Rickard who uses Google maps in his art.




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