Sunday, September 9, 2007

the inverted panopticon

De Certeau begins with asking 'what is the thrill of experiencing the "totalizing eye"?': a privileged view of a cityscape that is itself a representation, a fiction of the real thing. (I think of our view of San Francisco from the 8th floor of Wurster--more clearly a fiction by all the fog that obscures it, a view that is different every time I see it). He declares the panopticon as fallacy, unable to see beneath the layer of the simulacrum, where the real identit(ies) of the city are played out. He then proceeds to unpack the semantics of walking, philosophizing upon what was laid out so poetically by Careri. He digs all the way back to the origin of our separation from the "maternal object", and thus the initiation of ability to observe as a completely detached point occupying no space (since as a child we still identify ourselves with the mother). Let's leave Freud behind and talk about what this means for our ambulatory investigations.

Our challenge, and I think it is a significant one, is to elevate ourselves from the realm of "urban practitioners", loosely defined by de Certeau as people who "write but do not read" the fabric of the city. We wish to elevate because we want not only the view but a glimpse of the governing order, to see the tropisms that make people move. The risk is that if we separate ourselves too far from the thickness of experience, the localizing forces that de Certeau argues are the actual space producing agents of the City will disappear. We risk becoming too much like the planner or cartographer who is concerned with norms and the homogeneous. It's our job to uncover Corner's "latent possibilities", and so how do we find them?

A walker generates possibilities, finds unseen shortcuts and writes space where none existed before (if you define space not as a totality but rather as an amalgam of everyone's perception of it). I agree with de Certeau here, and I think it is our object in this class, that by walking we can explore "unlimited diversity", question certainties, and trespass upon laws. The walker "defies the graphic trail", a trail which only represents the absence of something having passed by. This begs the question, what can the planner really know about the "practitioners" in a traffic diagram? By extension, what does the architect know about the occupant around which she fixes walls to make a space, placing windows here or doors there? That space is itself a myth, and only becomes real by the walker, in the present, who creates the space by moving across it. This is like Careri's 'territory of going', in which the citizen never 'enters' the city but only occupies a transitory space that occupies its voids.

While these ideas are fancy and inspiring, I still feel a little paralyzed about where the designer may begin. If we become ourselves the "walkers", we may see clearly for ourselves what latent possibilities exist for a site, drawing our own subjective relationships to the city, and we end up with a highly unique (and stylized?) concretization of an individual, highly localized truth. And we know too well the other, polar alternative. So what is the in-between plan of action, how shall we take our maps and our observations that we will get on the ground into an idea about building space?

p.s. I loved the metaphor of a worn coin to a place-name, that its value is lost but its ability to signify meanings far beyond its original intention persists. Perhaps there is some meat in there to satisfy my question...

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