By guest blogger, on 12 December 2011
Regner Ramos writes on the UCL Urban Laboratory’s Urban Constellations book launch and panel discussion, held on 20 November in the Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment.
It was a ‘short and sweet’ event, in tune with the structure of the book being launched by Matthew Gandy, its editor, and the UCL Urban Laboratory. When Gandy, the former director of the Urban Laboratory, commissioned Urban Constellations nine months ago – I’m not sure if the gestation period was intentionally this length and was too shy to ask – he had a very particular idea in mind for what he wanted to publish.
Rather than a conventional collection of academic papers, Gandy approached various city scholars and Urban Laboratory staff, graduate students and collaborators, and asked them to submit essays that did not exceed twelve-hundred words. Admittedly, I was relieved to find out that experienced academics found this as challenging as I would myself.
In keeping with the book’s short essay format, the chair of the event and new Urban Laboratory director, Ben Campkin, asked the four panellists to present their chapters as brief “vignettes”. Instead of engaging in a lengthy discussion of each panellist’s essay, it was pleasant to have the vignette format, which resulted in a freshness and level of direct engagement sometimes lacking in longer academic presentation and writing styles. As panellist Iain Borden pointed out, “What’s nice about the format is that it enables you to have a thought,” Borden continues, “You don’t have to say that much, you can have one thought and say a bit about it.“
Without a doubt the motif of the ‘vignette’ is what made the panel digestible for an audience who hadn’t yet read the book. On opening the pages of Urban Constellations, the potential of using vignettes to get across complex issues in a concise way becomes even more apparent. Each essay’s small observations of everyday life constitute a mini constellation of ideas – a few stars within the vaster skies of the thematic sections and the book as a whole. Campkin noted the effective way Gandy had deployed Walter Benjamin’s metaphor of a “constellation” – a word and concept that can both refer to cities themselves, and to ways of writing and thinking about configurations of time, space, context from multiple perspectives.
Evidenced by the 42 short essays on the subjects of ‘Urban Lexicons’, ‘Crises and Perturbations’, ‘Excursions’, ‘Places and Spaces’, and ‘Projections’, the appeal of Urban Constellations lies not only in the stimulating, thought-provoking topics, the visual appeal of its layout and the colour photographs that abound, but also in that the reader can pick up the book in a spare moment, open it up at random, and dedicate a few minutes to reading one or two essays – a nice contrast to having to read chapter after chapter of a longer book, though the content is no less informative.
Including planners, economists, artists, anthropologists, geographers, sociologists, architects, photographers, and engineers, the writers in Urban Constellations contribute to the project of re-thinking the city through multiple disciplinary perspectives.
The four panellists at the launch presented vignettes with different objects of study, but which had overlapping themes that Campkin identified, including public memory, trauma, the role of filmic and other visual representations and their relationship to urban experience, and the notion and lived reality of ‘displacement’.
Bringing forth discussions about the unmappability and unknowability of the city by analysing a few seconds of the final scene in the 1974 film Chinatown, founder member of the Urban Laboratory Iain Borden exposed relationships between complex narratives and discontinuous spatial experiences.
Johan Andersson, who helped establish the Urban Laboratory, gave his thoughts on the city through an exposition of queer space, briefly addressing the topics of demarginalisation, gay rights, and the nostalgia for a different kind of city before gentrification, by looking at the Marriage Equality Act celebrations in New York City.
True to her ethnographic formation, Karen Till elegantly narrated the expropriation and demolition of a suburb neighbourhood in Bogotá, over a film depicting the performance of the Columbian group Mapa Teatro. Through their performance, Till interprets Mapa Teatro’s efforts as an attempt to establish a “poetic reconstruction of inhabited spaces” by the dislocation of people, memories, the neighbourhood, and an exploration of the possibilities for myth-making towards new future.
Basing her talk on Anette K. Olesen’s 2006 film 1:1, Claire Thomson attempted to show Olesen’s playfulness with the architect’s ‘finger’ plan of a small suburb in Copenhagen as a “metaphorical expression of the welfare state”. In doing so she raised concerns about the rarity of planned spaces corresponding to actual lived spaces.
The book brings together various disciplines to address questions about how, as Campkin expressed, we re-think urban debates and build comparisons across very different cities without flattening their distinctions. In the ensuing discussion, Urban Constellations was praised for its ingenuity, Gandy’s editorial skills, and the high quality of its content. The book launch event served as celebration of this, as well as a thank you to Gandy for his years as director of the Urban Laboratory, which Campkin pointed out is itself a constellation of people, ideas, knowledge, practices, methods and cities.
As Rendell, who also contributed her own “constellation” to the book, remarked in the closing discussion, “[U]rban practices are shedding light on different kinds of writing methods and performative practices. The night sky is interesting because it’s not a moment of an image, just a different time all at once… The essays contain different times within them, not just individual places”. This statement seemed a concise summary of the spatio-temporal conditions brought out in Urban Constellations, and I must say, I applaud Rendell for having said it all in significantly less than twelve hundred words.
Regner Ramos is a First year History and Theory of Architecture PhD student.