Monday, April 02, 2007


At the heart of Situationism is the notion that, under the surface of everyday life, is a numbed human energy which, however dormant, is ready to be awoken. It is dormant because the forces at the heart of capitalist society - the relentless circulation and fetishism of the commodity, the violent catatonia of the spectacle, the need for alienating labour (alienating because one works solely for the profit of another) - have smothered it. All that is required is a stimulus, an alarm-clock, to rouse people from their slumber : in other words, a revolutionary act. The Situationists describe various techniques which might be employed to create such a situation (detournement and dérive being the best known), but this is slightly aside from the point. The point is to provoke a revolutionary consciousness ; the rest will inevitably follow. Hence the Situationists´ reluctance to define Situationism (at an `exhibition´ in London once, Guy Debord was asked for such a definition and replied "We are not here to answer cuntish questions", before making tracks to the bar. Nevertheless, Attila Kotanyi and Raoul Vaneigem conclude in their ninth thesis on "Unitary Urbanism" that "the situationist destruction of contemporary conditioning is simultaneously the constructions of situations."

The point of this post is to examine the work of the Situationist artist and architect Constant Nieuwenhuis. To better appreciate Constant`s vision, it will be useful to look at the theory of unitary urbanism in a little more detail, but for the purposes of a lead-in, here is a picture of Constant (with fellow artists Pinot-Gallizio and Asger Jorn) ...

... and here is one of his sketches for his dream city ...

Unitary urbanism

Other Situationists had theorised about how to construct an environment fit for human habitation and discovery, where the relentless circulation of commodities would be abandoned in favour of the pursuit of life. "We will not work to prolong the mechanical civilisations that ultimately lead to boring leisure," wrote Ivan Chtcheglov in the Internationale Situationniste. "We prepare to invent new changeable decors." The graffiti artists of Paris in 1968 summed it up better and more memorably : "Down with a world in which the guarantee that we will not die of starvation has been purchased with the guarantee that we will die of boredom."

Seven years earlier, in the pages of the I.S., Kotanyi and Vaneigem had set out their manifesto for Unitary Urbanism, a compendium of ten theses on town planning. They began by exposing contemporary town planning as a vacuous conditioning process, designed to persuade us that we are participating in the design of our own living space.

Modern capitalism, organising the reduction of all social life to a spectacle, cannot offer any other spectacle than that of our own alienation. Its vision of the city is its masterpiece.

Capitalist town planning depends on us accepting that there is no alternative to the functional and the banal. Our architecture meets our own functional needs, only our functional needs are really the needs of capital. Because of this, our towns and cities are in reality designed to facilitate traffic flow. Both symbolically and practically, movement is the indicator of status in a capitalist society. To disrupt the consolidation of the spectacle, people must be able to break away from their daily routines. Areas must be created where people can discover themselves. "Only when the masses awake can the question of consciously recreating entire cities be raised."

The vision of unitary urbanism, therefore, is to wrest control of our environment back from the enemy, to socialise the ground, to detourn the accepted norms : "Unitary urbanism will transcribe the whole theoretical lie of town planning, subvert it as a means of disalienation."

The New Babylon

Constant had begun his work on the New Babylon (the name he gave to his own, COBRA-SI-inspired vision of the city) a decade or so earlier with very much the same thing in mind. He had resigned from the SI in 1960 due to ideological disagreements with Guy Debord, but his work continued to echo their project, rather more eloquently and less torridly than the SI themselves during the 60s. When realised, Constant said, the New Babylon would be the place where man becomes a homo ludens. Production will have been automated, the streets will have been reclaimed, and man will have the opportunity to enter a voyage of auto-invention, in a self-perpetuating, carnivalesque cavalcade.

Since Situationism regarded art as a playful means of social organisation, unitary urbanism would naturally envisage "the urban environment as the terrain of a game in which one participates." The city would become a giant playground, its quarters acting as stations for a perpetual Revolutionary Festival. On this fundamental point situationists were agreed : the creation of the situationist city would pass from its avant-garde city fathers to its citizens. But as in all great revolutions, the nature of that transition was disputed. At what point should the situationist avant-garde disengage? When would situationist agitation give way to anarchic free play? What really would be the relationship between the architecture of the old city and that of the situationist city?

- Simon Sadler, "The Situationist City"

It is not immediately easy from Constant`s designs to see how his ludic city might have worked.

There were to be interconnected sectors, varying in ambience. Some areas of the city would have zones hovering above the ground, with the ground being used for traffic or agriculture. Participants in these zones could admire the traffic, watch it cruise by unhindered by humanity`s age-old infatuation with it. Different sectors would vary in temperature, or space (one in particular was designed to be as difficult as possible to navigate one`s way around ; another was impossible to walk or crawl through without hurting oneself). There was to be a yellow sector ...

... and a hanging sector ...

... and an Orient sector ...

But their ambiguity makes his work all the more immediate, for it forces us to look around, examine one`s own streets and buildings, invent one`s own situations and outline, however dimly, our own worlds of tomorrow. Occasionally, such examinsation bears fruit, and sometimes in the unlikeliest of places (the area which came alive most powerfully for me a couple of years, following several solo dérives, was leafy Alexandra Park, somewhat suburban but bursting with trapped life ... which probably condemns me as a hopeless and deluded bourgeois, but frankly, where would you suggest in increasingly homogenized London? People put forward convincing arguments in favour of Hackney Road, but I´m afraid I´m not buying it). However, courtesy of Owen Hatherley´s blog (the most beautiful I think I have seen), I think I realise that I lived and studied in a New Babylon of my own for three years as a student.

The couple in that last photograph - could they have met anywhere else? I think they are standing just outside the Edward Boyle at Leeds University, or maybe they are standing on a space-station. It certainly doesn`t look like Britain - none of these pictures do, not the Britain that we are supposed to know and love. It is nearer to France, but there are aspects of the Stalinist Eastern bloc too. And parallels to some of the Smithsons´ work too.



I haven`t been back to Leeds for several years now, and its not always the most technicolour of places anyway, but seeing these pictures, I can`t remember the campus being anything other than black and white. It looks like it´s meant to be.

But, oh, we hear the detractors cry - it´s so alienating and cold and barren! AND SO IMPRACTICAL! Why would anybody want to live or work or study in a place like that? All that concrete! So brutal!

Actually, there is something Brutalist about it. Like Constant and the Situationists, the Brutalists saw "streets in the sky" in their architecture - a neat reversal of conventional town planning wisdom which states that people would rather congregate in large, and preferably green open spaces, not in high buildings. I love Central Park, for instance, but I´d just as soon been in the Dakota Building, looking down on the park. Is that antisocial of me? I don´t think so. Central Park is a very antisocial place. It´s pretty, it´s an oasis away from Times Square and Downtown and, the hideous Onassis Reservoir aside, it has plenty of nooks and bifurcations to make a day´s exploration work one´s while. But the things people do there - grunting games of football, jogging, business deals, dog-walking - seem designed to avoid any social sontact. What it needs is a huge concrete and glass superstructure hovering 100 metres over it, with maybe a traffic flyover midway between the two. And a new JFK Terminal, so that all the planes could make a beeline for Trump Towers.

I digress...

These streets in the sky only mirror the environment at Leeds University, of course. When I went there, at the end of the 90s / beginning of the 00s, it still had the air of a University whose purpose was to educate(hopefully it has survived New Labour´s mass-marketisation of further education and retains its air of studiousness and intellect). The end-product of a course there - well, hell, there is no intended end-product except to enhance your knowledge or understanding or imagination, or whatever it is you want to enhance. I remember my Ulysses tutor leaning back in his chair, casting a sympathetic eye over his 3rd year group, and saying "Ah well, I suppose you´re all having to think about careers advice" - he snarled the words like they were a disease - "now aren´t you? Not something I ever had to worry about, of course. And, to be honest, I wouldn´t take any notice of it either." We spent the remainder of the class discussing why Finnegans Wake didn´t have an apostrophe in the title. So yes, the architecture and the society of the University mirror each other. You couldn´t build a situationist city without changing your society first - but then could you change your society in an environment where that human energy necessary for revolt is still trapped?

More pictures of Leeds Uni, colour this time.

Thanks to this Flickr contributor for such evocative photos.


Blogger minifig said...

Essex Uni, having been built at the same time, and probably by the same people, is remarkably similar, although even more brutal.

Surprisingly workable, though, and a lovely place to spend time. I've never been to a place where it's easier to bump into people as well.

Great post - brightened my working day. Always good to see that Situationist Graffiti quote - one of my favourite quotes of all time...

9:49 AM  
Blogger Barry Marshall said...

Hi "Paddington" - just came across this blog through a search on Technorati for Raoul Vaniegem. Liked this post especially. One thing that intrigues me about the Situationists especially is the phrase (though it's not necessarily from one of the "gang") "Underneath the Paving Stones, a Beach".

How do you think this bears on architecture?

As a fellow Londoner (by adoption - Northerner by birth and upbringing) I agree about how homogenised it is all becoming. Even more so with the Olympics. However, for all its brutalism, the Barbican is a heavenly oasis in the turbo-capitalist City.

1:29 PM  
Blogger Newfred said...

Good post. I know little about architecture, although I did study a little about theological responses to urban planning etc a few years ago, and found it quite fascinating. It is certainly something about our lives which many of us overlook -- although a loss of aesthetics is only to be expected with a loss of ethical vision. What we end up with is a bizarre anaesthesis to our built environment.

You might be interested to read about Tim Gorringe if you haven't come across him before. In 2002 he wrote a book called "A Theology of the Built Environment: Justice, Empowerment, Redemption" which was a welcome contribution to the rethinking of urban planning in a fragmented age.

8:47 AM  
Blogger paddington said...

Apologies for tardy replies to your comments :

Minifig - the problem people have with Brutalism is the social problems which sprouted up in urban housing estates built in the style (most particularly, Robin Hood Gardens). Is this because of something inherent in the style?

Our experiences at Essex and Leeds would suggest otherwise. But universities and housing estates are, to generalise, made up of people from different economic classes : one whose path through life has been pretty smooth, the other who are consistently (and necessarily) shat upon from a very great height.

This is the conundrum. Sadler´s quote asks when and how the Situationist fathers will exit stage-right. A more important question is : how and when would they enter in the first place?

Barry : The first time I heard that quote was during the first 20 seconds of Ian Brown´s first album (which also contains a song called Corpses in their Mouths). I see it as a reaction against the "machines for living" dictum adopted by Le Corbusier and others, whereby urban life was based around rigid patterns, open spaces, traffic flow etc. Beneath the regularity of the paving slab, there is the higgledy-piggledy vibrancy of human life (donkey rides and candyfloss optional).

And I thoroughly agree with you re. the Barbican, and like your description of it - "a heavenly oasis". It is certainly an incredible, Ballardian complex.

Newfred - I shall investigate Gorringe. I know bugger-all about architecture too - but my wanderings around London, in search of buildings which light up an area and uncover human potential, have not quite had the desired effect. Every time I find an area which I find aesthetically pleasing, I end up inventing the human environment which SHOULD live within it. This is a profoundly introspective (though extremely enjoyable) experience - the opposite to what the Situ´s had in mind.

5:23 PM  
Blogger Barry Marshall said...

Ha! Ian Brown ... I'd never have guessed.

The paving stones/beach analogy could go further: we are covering up the real potential of our lives, concreting over the fantasies of utopia.

re Barbican - it's a pity the homes there are some of the priceiest in London (and hence the UK)

4:19 PM  

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