Stream : In this third issue of Stream, we are exploring the major changes in our human condition. Although the idea that we are living in a period of rupture is disputed, what is certain is that our human condition is now an urban condition. This is why we wanted to interview you, given that the city is at the heart of much of your work.
Alain Bublex : I always find it difficult to admit that we are living in a “pivotal period.” I have been hearing over the past thirty years and am left to wonder what period of time hasn’t been disruptive in one sense or another. The 1980s started with the emergence of postmodernism and finished with the fall of the Soviet bloc; the 1990s experienced the development of digital technologies and the Internet. It seems to me that the same happened in the 1970s, with the end of the postwar boom, and in the 1970s, with its generational upheaval (Berkeley, the Cultural Revolution in China, the May 1968 events in Paris, etc.). A bit further back, in the 1950s, it was the beginning of the atomic era and decolonization; before that, World War II, which occurred after the rise of fascism, World War I, the turn of the century and its great inventions, the end of the nineteenth century with the emergence of Marxism. I think we could continue reaching back in time for at least two or three hundred years and we would see an endless series of pivotal moments and disruptions. So what makes our time different from any other? Why would this rupture, ours, be a major one and not the others? When can we actually find a long period of stability?
Extension of the urban realm
Regarding global urbanization, we could argue that the movement towards total urbanization started during the eighteenth century and that it is simply more obvious nowadays. Look at the reign of Louis XV and the creation of the technical Grand Corps of Bridges and Roads and the laying out of the royal highways. The landscape was then fully organized starting from the towns, and then from one town to another. The creation of the highways was an opportunity to redraw the surrounding countryside to match the taste of the urban dwellers who were going to use the roads. They had not been drawn to make it easier to discover a region, the rural world, or untamed nature, but on the contrary, to extend the urban area, if only in a limited fashion, circumscribed to the field of view on either side of the road. The ideal countryside was a park, a landscape created by means of guidelines and recommendations—an idealized landscape that was imagined to be the extension of the towns and cities, from one center to another.
Then came the removal of the fortifications which defined a visible boundary isolating the towns from the rest of the territory, and of course, the rural exodus notably in France and England. What we are now seeing throughout the world happened in only a few decades in Europe: we quite brutally shifted from a mainly rural and agricultural world to a mainly urban and industrial one. The size of urban settlements increased dramatically. Nevertheless, in our collective memory, we haven’t registered any particular disruption and the cities where we live today seem to us to have gradually evolved in a continuous and gradual manner from the Middle Ages to the present time.
So maybe what is surprising to us today is that all this is happening somewhere else and that we are now mere spectators and not agents of this change. In Asia and in Africa urbanization is undergoing a similar boom but it troubles us because it is foreign to us. My impression is that total urbanization appears to us as a rupture because our gaze is stuck in the past and we still see urban settlements in a similar fashion as we did during the Middle-Ages—like objects isolated in nature, in a form of opposition between the urban and the rural and between the center and its periphery.
Bastien Gallet : There is indeed a major quantitative change—the number of urban dwellers is increasing and cities are becoming bigger—but what impact does this have on the nature of the city? Must we follow Rem Koolhaas and say that a new city is drawn before our very eyes—what he calls the Generic City—or can we conceive these new megalopolises with existing concepts? Do these quantitative transformations bring about a shift in the concept of the city itself? Do we live differently in a Generic City and a traditional European town? According to Rem Koolhaas, the Generic City is a global phenomenon: it refers to the homogenization that affects all contemporary cities to different degrees and which entails both the end of difference—everything looks the same—and the end of identity—i.e., of history, context, what Koolhaas calls “reality.” In brief, the Generic City is what comes after the city: the world as a City—acentric, superficial, without a history, vertical, multiracial, hyperconnected, but also completely anesthetized. This city has no counterpart—it has conclusively absorbed that which the city has always defined itself with respect to: the desert, the forest, the sea, the mountains, etc., or simply nature. Koolhaas’s question would be: what does a city devoid of an outside look like?
Yet isn’t that what the city has always done without being aware of it? Producing nature—the forest, the mountains, the desert, etc.—as its “other.” This is completely different from the countryside, which is nature insofar as it is civilized and subordinated to the city. Beyond the countryside, the city has always needed an outside relative to which it could found its difference and its identity—but this outside is as elaborate and fantastical. We can therefore argue that the Generic City has erased its “other,” but also that city dwellers now recognize that there has never been an “other,” that the “outside” had always been a projection—there is no more Outside than there is a Nature. From that point of view, the major disruption was the invention of cities. The notion of a city was what made it possible for something to exist as nature.
The great American national parks, such as Yellowstone, are a striking example of this retrospective construction. The aim was to reproduce the America of the beginnings, before the conquest. It was therefore produced like an image, like an immense epic materialized in the landscape. Of course these parks are dysfunctional because they lack the populations that inhabited them and kept their landscapes alive. The Native Americans are missing.
Places and flows
Alain Bublex : The problem with the word “city” is that it induces a specific physical form which we expect to have clear enough spatial and administrative boundaries to be perceptible—I wonder whether this spatial approach is still operational. I remember a talk by Laurent Jeanpierre during the Airs de Paris exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in which he attempted to define the phenomenon of metropolization as distinct from urbanization. The metropolis was to be considered not only as a large city, but to also have other characteristics. He laid out several of these such as the increasing autonomy of communication and transportation channels with a phase shift between circulation and residence, which provokes a juxtaposition of enclaves that either communicate between one another by stepping over certain areas, or that are totally isolated. In such a city, places would no longer be organized according to their proximity to the center but according to their access to different networks and thoroughfares. A metropolis is thus viewed as a partly solid and partly liquid city, and Laurent Jeanpierre suggested using the concept of viscosity to account for the phenomenon. Perhaps improperly, it also makes me think of stretching, and to the surface of bodies of water—which after all is very similar from the oceans to the springs. Basically, wherever we find ourselves, the city would no longer have to do with place but with access.
With the shifts in communication and Internet-mediated commerce, the place where we live or work seems to be less and less important. It is now possible to work in a highly specialized field in a medium-sized town and to be in constant contact with other specialists in the same field, regardless of distance. It is less and less necessary to migrate to capitals and that fact could create centrality effects in the periphery, and perhaps even in isolated locations.
We could envision a deconcentration of cities in Europe, as suggested by a map of urban systems in France which would represent by means of lines of different widths the relationships between provincial towns. Fairly vast conurbations would emerge, each functioning like a city. For example, by living between Aix-en-Provence and Marseille, one doesn’t live in the countryside but in the city, although that city is not materialized by the continuity of the built environment. It is also the case and perhaps even stranger in the case of the Lyon region, with its distant centers in Grenoble, Saint-Étienne, and Annecy—a city materialized by movements and relationships that aren’t easily observed in the landscape. I think that the same phenomenon is better known in the Netherlands, where most of the country can be divided in only two cities—Amsterdam in the North and Rotterdam in the South.
Bastien Gallet : To the extent that we are living in a time that continuously produces disruptions and where the state of crisis is perpetual, it would be more insightful to talk about threshold effects. There would be a constant process, nearly uniform but relatively imperceptible, or too differentiated and plural to be perceived. And you would have thresholds—moments where small accumulated differences would suddenly become visible. We get the impression that a rupture has occurred, when we are simply in the presence of a difference which has become perceivable. This process could very well be what the American philosopher Fredric Jameson calls “totalization.” For him, it is linked to the modernization of the Western world, which reached some sort of end point in the 1970s/1980s. At that point, a “totality” effect emerged—in this view the world is not globalized but totalized. It is a very radical concept and much more complex than it seems. Indeed the totalization process is inseparable from a parallel process of differentiation and pluralization. The more things are totalized, more they are differentiated. We are at opposite ends of the homogenization described by Koolhaas. It is indeed completely impossible to produce a global image of this totality or even to draw a map of it. It is unmappable as such, but it is possible—even necessary—to draw local maps. Jameson calls that the “semi-autonomization” of reality: within the totality, in each totality—multinational firm, megalopolis, state administration, etc.—spaces, levels, and realities are incommensurable to each other. To represent them, it is therefore necessary to multiply the number of maps, that is, to map from proximate to proximate, a bit like if it was a Riemannian space.
I would like to go back to the opposition between flows and places, which I believe is false. I think that, far from dissolving places, flows tend to give them texture, even substance. What we call a flow is nothing more than a thing which goes from one place to another, linking, connecting the places. They are even more clearly apparent when they are more interlinked, as we see in maps of air traffic where the largest number of lines emerge. While flows and places are not in opposition, there is something that comes into opposition with both flows and places: the use we make of them, their daily practice. In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau introduced a distinction between place and space. Place represents the stable and steady order of what coexists, having each thing and person in its proper place and in a defined relationship with the others. Space on the contrary has to do with vectors, velocities, and speeds, motion shifts, accelerations and decelerations—the effect of the way we interact with places and flows in a “differential” way in the mathematical sense. Of course, this includes much of what artists do and have done in the urban space. We spatialize cities. We produce spaces. Not everyone nor all the time—but simply strolling dissolves some of the order in the places—this is what the situationists called the derive, which for them was a political act. Guy Debord never ceased to oppose himself to those who thought the derive was an artistic performance—it meant changing society.
This means that space is not a given. On the contrary it is something which must be acted and built. And the city itself becomes something very different. Architects and urban planners think and produce according to the order of places, which, even if it changes constantly, is always defined by the principle of having each thing in its proper place. Inhabitants however create and produce the space without which there would be no places. The city is a daily performance because residing consists in producing speeds and motion shifts which contradict places and the flows which link them.
Stream : The sociologist Henri Lefebvre believed that modern urbanism had created a form of habitat but not the act of dwelling. The issue at stake is that of the complexity of the uses of a place. Today we can see how difficult it is to enrich these uses. We now work more on spatiality than spaces.
Bastien Gallet :That is the case because uses are neither predictable nor programmable. A good example, which goes back to the question of the outside, are these spaces we call derelict places for lack of a better term—this “other” which is produced by the city within itself: brownfield sites, abandoned buildings, buffer areas, plots of land left behind after the destruction of a building. The city cannot avoid creating these places. It continuously plugs those holes, or tries to do so, because these spaces often have an ambiguous legal status that makes them difficult to develop. Yet they reappear elsewhere, as if the space in de Certeau’s definition was constantly coming back—here under the form of other spaces, interruptions, or stasis within the urban fabric. Things happen there which can no longer happen elsewhere—people meet there, talk together, play together, and do so all the better as these places are unfit for any use. We could say that what happens there is a sociality which is inventing itself, a new form of public space, undiminished by the rules governing its common practice.
In The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin develops a very interesting theory of architecture. He presents it as an art which, in the same way as the cinema and photography, can only be received in distraction—a traditional work of art is distant, however close it may be, whereas an architectural work on the contrary collects its visitors and its inhabitants from within; it penetrates them, all the more as they do not consider it. The inadvertent character of this reception is the reason why it is so profound. We live within architecture whereas we simply contemplate painting—our relationship to it is more tactile than visual. It incidentally influences and transforms our existence, our perceptions, our sensibility, our body, our relation to space. One of the main features of modernity is probably this growing awareness of the effects of architecture and urban planning on urban populations. Le Corbusier was an important thinker on this issue. Of course, he couldn’t have planned what the inhabitants of the Cité Radieuse made of it, but it isn’t for lack of thought on the subject or for trying to inscribe its proper use within the interior and exterior architecture of the building. The challenge was to build not only the house, the neighborhood, or the city, but also the use which would be made of these places, their spatiality. I think this is a necessary, if not always desirable dream.
Alain Bublex : I quite agree with that: viscosity is not so much opposed to places as it is to centrality. What would disappear wouldn’t be places but the way they are organized. I also like the idea of inadvertent perceptions, which goes hand-in-hand with that of performing and the absence of programming.
Regarding Le Corbusier—a figure who keeps coming up when we discuss architecture’s modern period, when we should be speaking more of Team 10 and more dogmatic and techno-realistic architects—I am always struck by the poetry of his constructions. There are clearly essential differences between the Cité Radieuse of Marseille and the Mirail district in Toulouse, or, to take the example of a city, in Chandigarh we can find a destiny of modern thought which is very different from what has been produced in Europe, despite the fact that large housing estates exist in India too. The city continues to build itself, Le Corbusier’s master plan is still followed, and the interpretations of the modern codes are quite promising. Even the Capitol complex, despite being a very closed and monumental structure, is surprising with the numerous interventions and improvements which have adapted the original architecture to the building’s use without transforming it radically. I think there is something important happening at the level of vernacular architecture, things which are outside of any program. There is a form of need to rehabilitate or to make possible again a vernacular appropriation of spaces and constructions.
Bastien Gallet : This is shown by some of the images of your photographic exhaustion project of RER stations in the Greater Paris area. There is a sense of contemporary vernacular there: these suburban houses transformed by their owners with traditional materials, to which extensions or details from older styles have been added. In this case, the vernacular is a way of customizing an overly generic dwelling, to appropriate it.
Alain Bublex : My intention with this work wasn’t to give a full account of what the suburbs are today or to offer a personal testimony but rather to perform the city—to browse the suburbs by and large in one go, without going to see anything specific. That is the reason why I thought of using the RER suburban train system as my only means of transport and to take photos of the neighborhoods next to the stations. It was for the assurance of not finding myself in model or scenic districts but rather, from the point of view of photography, anywhere, whether in the center or on the periphery. The 237 photos that form the first set—one for each RER station—do not give an account of what the Paris conurbation is. The viewer immediately understands that the representation is incomplete and that although the RER can bring you anywhere, it also crosses over pieces of territory that can only be seen from the carriage windows. Nevertheless, by riding through the suburbs in a single movement and allowing the same time and the same importance to each and every station, and by rendering them in the same way, the city appears like a unitary whole in a sort of equivalence which also highlights its variations.
I tried to bring a total detachment to what I was photographing as, once again, I wasn’t trying to bear witness. During the course of my work, I never tried to produce views which could synthesize or embrace the place or the situation in a single capture. On the contrary, I often took photos of could be seen while walking, without trying to see anything at all.
To come back to the vernacular, what I always appreciate with these transformations it that they are often a bit transgressive and casual—a mix of personal interpretations and the bypassing of rules. I like it when use takes form, when it can transform things. I think it is a freedom which prompts goodwill and tolerance. Sort of a right to improvement.
Bastien Gallet : I am thinking of the house that Frank Gehry refitted for his personal use in Santa Monica. Jameson takes it as an example in his book, Postmodernism. It is a typical house of that city within Los Angeles County, with pink shingles and situated on a corner. Gehry’s intervention is quite astonishing. He built a tall stockade out of corrugated iron sheets between his house and the street, making it a sort of protruding facade on one side. But this facade is in fact a bit more than that as it envelops and literally intersects one of the rooms of the house—the kitchen. This architectural gesture opens a new ambiguous space given that on one side you have the traditional house and on the other a casing of corrugated metal, glass, and chain-link fence. He also added an upside-down glass cube in front of the main facade, interrupting the stockade and creating a new room in the intermediate space between the house and its external fence. I think this is a nice example of vernacular construction designed as architecture. Without really changing the bungalow, Gehry created new spaces between the house and these unconventional materials—spaces which are neither modern nor traditional. This is a way of arranging the old and the new which has since been used in many urban projects, with more or less success.
There is a project by Alain which closely matches these concerns. It was shown in the gallery of the Ecole Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de Montpellier at the beginning of 2010: a wing separated from the street which runs alongside the school by a large bay window which serves as its fourth wall. The project involved a series of interventions outside the gallery, on the sidewalk alongside the bay window. These interventions reproduced typical, everyday urban situations: bulky refuse, car wrecks abandoned on cinder blocks, plants, toppled scooters, homeless shacks, etc. As a result, the gallery itself became a storage space for building blocks of these ever-renewed urban installations. The visitors had to enter into the gallery to realize that the exhibition was the bulky waste lying on the sidewalk and not what was inside. This complete reversal of the spatial organization of the gallery made it an ambiguous urban layout: part of the city was locally peeling away from itself, creating a real, yet transitory confusion.
(This article was published in Stream 03 in 2014.)