Thursday, 26 April 2007

The City of Last Things

At 8am, downtown Pittsburgh is vacated, a dead-zone inhabited by slowly-plodding drunks. In the middle of a broad city street, devoid of passing cars, I swerve to avoid their lurching gestures. They come again, not saying anything, but only to fall into the background of deserted parking lots, tall alleyways, and derelict blocks. Later in the evening: the same desertion, only cast in a different light. This is a great joy to encounter unmapped destitution, unregulated by the ordering of the city. To feel a city in its quietness press down in this way is a rare pleasure too often effaced by over-vigilance and heavy-surveillance.

In contrast to New York’s claustrophobically gentrified streets (at least those found in Manhattan), the streets of Pittsburgh feel as though they’re being lived-in, rather than presented-to. True, there are pockets of post-industrial “revival,” such as Station Square, that have been manufactured as tourist sites (the relation between tourism and “site” is surely not coincidental, given the emphasis on interchangeability), but such sites are often countered by the untouched remains of old industry. The remains of the past are not dependent on them being “experienced.” They exist in a state of hibernated immanence. Tourist cities, on the other hand, such as the space of Manhattan, depend upon them being experienced as pre-fabricated sites. In a word, Manhattan is an expectation: Pittsburgh is an emergence.

Many ruins, then. Many factories left undeveloped. Many warehouses in a state of “disrepair.” Many blocks of houses boarded up. All of which, obviously, generates a city dynamic in its temporal vibrancy. But the ruins of Pittsburgh are not circumscribed on the margins, nor are they bordered by the construction of a grid system. Instead, they (de)-form the integrity of the city layout itself. A city of mild curves and irregularities, rather than a city of right-angles, markers, and straight-lines. Perhaps it is still possible to become—rather than “get”—lost in an American city. If it is possible to become lost, then it is thanks to a certain amorphous and organic uninhabitability which pushes the city to an end-point. Concerning the relation between dwelling and process, the Viennese painter Hundertwasser has the following to say: “When mould forms on a wall, when moss grows in the corner of the room and rounds off the geometric angle, we ought to be pleased that with the microbes and fungi life is moving into the house, and more consciously than ever before we become witnesses of architectonic changes from which we have a great deal to learn.” (Cited in Harries, 2000).

Later on: Holiday Inn Express. A concrete terrace, held-in by a steel fence. To my left, the 10th Street Bridge, ahead the Allegheny Millwork Lumber Co., and to my right a vacated factory. Frank Sinatra’s assortment of muzak blares onto the Millwork. This hotel on the side of a bridge marks a crossing from Pittsburgh’s downtown to the South Side. The crossing also marks Pittsburgh duality. Not only are the two areas divided spatially, they also occupy different timescales. Whereas the northern downtown is uninhabited, except when it’s populated as a business district, the South Side, bustling and heady, has the feel of a place which exists prior to any cautious revival. Only, the return is incomplete, producing a stalled place seized in its primacy, yet continuing to endure through time. The result is somewhat like a dreamscape, whereby fragments of an unassimilated cultural memory—excessive neon, gangs of bikers, Aerosmith— collide with the present.

I am not staying in ruins nor in the Holiday Inn, however, but in the “penthouse” of Duquesne University, which my host has kindly provided. Here, too, another liminal place, somewhere between apartment and hotel. A panoramic, spacious, and unnervingly clean retreat, with its own exit signs (as though it is possible to forget where the entrance was), I am the only inhabitant. There are more rooms than I need, less even occupy. But I am not complaining: far from it. There is a depth to be had in knowing that an occupied room is enclosed by empty space. The emptiness is fortifying: it enables the traffic from down below—cars on the highway, cargo trains passing slowly beneath the 10th Street Bridge, and boats crossing the Monongahela River—to feed up into the apartment, breaking the insulation of space and establishing a place receptive to the city in its totality.

Sunday, 22 April 2007

American Remains

1. New York: The return to a place-memory, now multiplied. Before long, memory mutates, places become entangled in their memorial counterpart, while the memory becomes far removed from its origins. What remains of the past if we continue to revisit the places in which the past was formed? In a word, a process of unbinding. Seizing the moment of return, place is not rediscovered in a state of stasis, but rather overruled by the presence of others.

2. Altered Place: I use this term for the disproving of an imagined place-memory. This disproving emerges through the insertion of real place into the enclosed borders of the imagination. Temporal continuity, as I have it, shatters during this phase. But there is another dimension to this dialectic: instead of allowing place to do the work of dismantling the imagination, the other—flesh and blood—steps in where place stood. For instance, it is sometimes the case we revisit non-human things and in the process discover a human modulation lurking. The human thing, in this sense, comes to embody a violation of the formation of place-memory.

3. The Hybrid: But the human does not remain there, as another person. Instead, memory cascades into the present, taking place and human with it. In the process, the time-lapse between place and the other who inhabits that place disjoin. Certain things have survived, others have broken away. We come to experience the breaking-away of things when the other co-inhabits the lived enclosure of memory. A strange experience, indeed, to bring together two altered worlds: each involved in a dialectic of remembering, yet not yet wholly united, but rather floating in the same temporal and spatial sphere. Onward, then, to Pittsburgh.

Monday, 9 April 2007

The Architecture of Shadows (1)

If, as architect Sverre Fehn has suggested, the creation of a shadow constitutes the origin of place, then how does this interplay between the place of shadows and the openness of light form a dialectics of memory? Beginning from the earth, the darkness of the built environment constitutes both a break and an opening in the landscape. With this double opening-break, the landscape becomes bordered through the production of difference, articulated through the role the shadow plays in demarcating territory.

Instead of viewing this relation between shadows and light as a transitional phase, in which shadowed place eventually gives rise to the clarity of light, let us think of the relation as the formation of a dialectic between presence/absence, inside/out, and process/stasis. Here, negativity and positivity appear as shifting perspectives, spatial patterns which reach a limit and then disperse. The movement of shadows carries with it the movement of place. As a result, places are created which have been marked by the movement of shadows in time. “By so reasoning,” so writes Amos Chang in his pleasing The Tao of Architecture, “we see that of two classrooms of the same capacity, the one which is continuously used on a one-hour basis probably needs more centralized location the one which is used, also continuously, one a two-hour basis” (p. 8).

For Chang, the void around which light and shadows revolve—“the negative in architectonic forms”—constitutes the dynamism of place. Given this emphasis on the void, predominately designated a source of topophobia in Western culture, a question emerges: to what extent does the formation of a shadow appear through the unformed void, thus conferring a presence on space? Note that the experience of a shadow modifies the distance of perception by bringing the shadowed-object into the unshadowed-space. A shadow occurs through the gesture of disjunction. The spectrality of the shadow is thus precisely the appearance of distance. Talk of the “shadowy other,” personified through the figure of the doppelganger, is not coincidental: otherness makes an appearance by diverging from the sense-perception of the un-shadowed present.

If a shadow is also its double, so invoking an inherently temporal dimension, then it deserves to be held apart from the perception of light. We are in the midst of the texture of surface, a texture comprised from the jagged, uneven unfolding of shadows, shades, and modulating terrains. Concerning the experience of this surface, Chang writes thus of rust: “Besides its contribution of settling dusty elements in its minute voids, rusticity has the power to pierce the sharp shining of light and reflects it in its partial area, making it fused with the shadows concurrently created and giving the surface a vibrating quality” (p. 15). Out of this wonderful passage, we gain sight of the temporality of shadows as resisting the classical notion of the void as a prism of inertia, but rather reaching above and below the erosion of material. If not the preservation of the thing-as-form, then the continuity of its evolving surface emerges as the fulfilment of an incomplete process.