The MA Architecture + Urbanism course is the Manchester School of Architecture's taught postgraduate course which conducts research into how global cultural and economic forces influence contemporary cities. The design, functioning and future of urban situations is explored in written, drawn and modelled work which builds on the legacy of twentieth century urban theory and is directed towards the development of sustainable cities.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Simon Sadler: The Situationist City (1999)

Discussed by Christina Gregoriou

The author of the Situationist City, Simon Sadler was born in 1969 West Midlands. He is a Proffessor in Architecture and Urban History at the Universtiy of California, Davis and formerly a lecturer in Architectural History at the University of Nottingham. This book was intended to extract the Situationist architectural theory from a revolutionary program that attempted to confront the ideological totality of the Western world. The aim of the book was to search for the situationist city among the manifestoes, and works of art that the Situationists have left behind. Sadler focused on the early situationist program to try and save it as he says ’from the obscurity to which it was later on banished by the Situationist International.’

The Situationists were a group of revolutionaries influenced by the artistic avant-garde groups of the time. Early situationism was formed in 1957. The principle group and journals that formed Situationist International originated from two main lines: The expressionist groups of COBRA, and the International Movement of an Imaginist Bauhaus (IMIB) and the conceptual groups of the Lettrist and Lettrist International.

The Naked City

At the first part of the book, The Naked City, Sadler take us through the Situationisms’ critique of the environment as it currently existed. The Situationists were affected by the writings of thinkers like Henri Lefebre and Michael De Certeau who explored the principle of everydayness. They developed an awareness of the social structuring of the city into self-contained distinct quarters, of the city based on class occupation and function, but yet reliant on other components of the urban machine. Sociology implied this traditional planning that had grown under a rationalist umbrella, had reduced city structuring into a misleading, simplistic level.

Their experiments and case studies, analyzing the psychogeographical factors, influencing their mood, behavior and their choice of route as they were having their “drift” around the city. Each case study of the redevelopment of the naked city illustrated the situationist claims that urbanism represented a drive to rationalize, homogenize and commercialize Paris

An example of that is Debord’s and Jorn’s psychogeographical map where they cut up city street maps of Paris in a process of studying indigenous working class-zones. The map mourns the loss of old Paris, represents the city of the future, and explores the cities structures and use.
It serves as guides to areas of central Paris threatened for redevelopment, retaining those parts worth visiting, disposing of all those parts that they thought had been spoiled by capitalism.

Formulary for a New Urbanism

In the second part, Formulary for a New Urbanism, Sadler examines situationist principles for the city and city living The situationist city was a constant play of contrasts, between confined and open spaces, darkness and illumination, circulation and isolation. They described their drifts as radical rereadings of the city. They uncovered the social body of the naked city by ‘becoming streetwise’. They would explore discreet public gardens. The passages of the drifts were lined with cheap-shops and cafes; the guettos offered not only a different ambience, but also a non-bourgeois cost of living. Situationists would use their experience of language as a way of revolutionizing our consciousness of the city. Graffiti became regarded as a sign of the primitive energy of the everyday life of the masses. They even suggested the abolition of museums and the distribution of masterpieces to bars; believing that this would completely undermine cultural imperialism and elitism

New Babylon

In the third part, A New Babylon, Sadler described the closed situationists reached in making their ideas into reality; and that was through their proposal of the New Babylon. They ultimate goal was to reconstruct the city through a series of constructed situations. They assumed there was a ‘formulary’ that existed that would permit situations to be produced on demand. They claimed that each constructed situation would provide décor and ambience of such power that it would stimulate new sorts of behaviour, a glimpse into an improved future social life based upon human encounter and play. Sadler describes the Situationists' ideas of the Unitary Urbanism where it would no longer be driven by capital and bureaucracy, but by participation. It would be a unitary organism with different organs, dependent and inter-dependent on each other. In each experimental city, unitary urbanism was to act by way of a certain number of force fields, quarters. Each quarter would tend towards a specific harmony, divided off from neighbouring harmonies.

The Situationist International began to feel that unitary urbanism should not abandon the existing city in flavor of a virgin ground. That is why Constant’s New Babylon is shown suspended over entire cities and countries making literal Situationist International members', Debord and Jorn's, invocation in the pages of their Memoires of a ‘floating city’. In the structures that he proposed he would house some of the multiple functions that the traditional city accommodates individually. A typical sector in New Babylon could handle leisure, transport and shelter, addressing some of the situationist worries about the separation of activities by rational urbanism.

For the New Babylonians fun would not be a break from work and social normality. The principal activity of the inhabitants would be continuous drifts. They wanted to create that sort of disorientation, with changing landscapes from one hour to the next. The taste of the drift tends to promote all sorts of new forms of labyrinths made possible by modern techniques of production. Situationism tried to explore the concept that the accelerated movement and change of the city in the 20th century were incapable of relation to the pattern of a preexisting fabric. New Babylonians could physically rearrange the street they stood in. Every space is temporary, nothing is recognizable, everything changes, and nothing can serve as a landmark; the sense of labyrinth and disorientation that Constant wanted to emphasize that it could work supremely well as social space

At a later stage card holding members of the Situationist International comforted themselves that it was they, not ‘the technichian’ Constant who held the key to the effective use of those situationist ideas merely represented in New Babylon. After Constant left, he was denounced as a 'public relations man…integrating the massed into capitalist technological civilization’ with his ‘models of factories’.

After a few editions of the Situationist Interantional, they took an intensive critical turn that soon terminated their direct interest in Art & Urbanism, which also put Constant’s view of the Situationist City as the New Babylon out in the cold.

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