The City as a Theater

Many years ago I read the book Metaphors we live by, written by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. I remember it had an impact on me on that time, even though I don’t remember all details today.

We use metaphors all the time; sometimes just to make a statement more lively or powerful, sometimes to make foggy thoughts more clear. Lakoff and Johnson combines philosophy and linguistics, when they distinguish the most basic metaphors; pictures that structures our world view, our understanding, our perception.

Argumentation is warHe attacked every weak point in my argument. His criticisms were right on target.

Time is money. You’re wasting my time. How do you spend your time these days? I’ve invested a lot of time in her.

Ideas are objects; linguistic expressions are containers. When you have a good idea, try to capture it immediately in words. The idea is buried in terribly dense paragraphs.

Orientational metaphors. Happy is up, sad is down. Conscious is up, unconscious is down. Health and life are up, sickness and death are down. More is up, less is down. High status is up, low status is down.

*          *          *

How do we understand cities? Perhaps by using metaphors, and one of them is definitely the city as an art work, often connected to the theatre.

The most well-known book of Jane Jacobs, an American-Canadian writer and reviewer of architecture and city planning, is probably The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which has affected the debate on contemporary city planning for decades.

She was critical to the huge urban projects which were planned and partly realized in New York, and preferred a city based on humans, not on engineering or rigid structures. This is a short passage on the importance of the sidewalks:

This order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance – not to a simpleminded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole. The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any one is always replete with new interpretations.

Jacobs could definitely be connected to the thinking of Lewis Mumford, especially his idea of the urban drama.

The city in its complete sense, then, is a geographic plexus, an economic organization, an institutional process, a theater of social interaction, and an aesthetic symbol of collective unity. The city fosters art and is art; the city creates the theater and is the theater.

Mumford, American sociologist and philosopher, has been called the last public intellectual, a scholar writing for a wider audience than the academy. Mumford wrote several – at least twenty – critical studies on city planning, technology, history, sociology etc.

In the book The culture of cities he gives a picture of the development of the Western city from the medieval city to the modern industrial city, the latter characterized by the lack of spirit and by social break downs. Mumford tried to find new paths for humankind by creating a humanistic society.

William Whyte, American urbanist, paid a lot of attention to human behavior in urban settings; Whyte says that the plaza should function like a stage, and the street corners are obviously extremely important.

His huge “Street life project” has affected many scholars and practical city planners world-wide.

There is a beauty that is beguiling to watch, and one senses that the players are quite aware of this themselves. You can see this in the way they arrange themselves on the ledges and steps. They often do so with a grace that they must appreciate themselves. With its brown-gray setting, Seagram is the best of stages – in the rain, too, when an umbrella or two puts spots of color in the right places, like Corot’s red dots.

Allan Jacobs and Donald Appleyard urge planners to fulfill human needs for fantasy and exoticism.

The city has always been a place of excitement; it is a theater, a stage upon which citizens can display themselves and be seen by others.

The target of their critic is on how bureaucracy and too rigid standards can conflict with good urban design and the creativity of people. Street life is noise, smells, social interaction, confusing uses of spaces.

*          *          *

The metaphor of the city as a theater should not be considered as a metaphor we live by, but it is at least a common image – easy to use and almost impossible to disregard.

Gardens by the Bay

Last week I visited a one-day conference – the annual Publika parker och trädgårdar (Public parks and gardens) in Helsingborg in company with two landscape architects and colleagues from Växjö, Ida and Marielle. The theme of this year’s conference is Interactive parks and spaces, and the focus on interaction reflects a strong movement of today – participation and dialogue – which permeates public gardening, city planning, public art etc. in many projects in Sweden and abroad.

Olof Wiese works with interactive design and is part of the creative company Utskottet in Malmö. Their passion is to get people to enjoy parks and public spaces, and their tool is playful, user-friendly installations. Olof gives a summary of some of the projects, most of them temporary, and I must say they are talented – my favorites are combinations of technology and everyday activities – such as the strange symphony produced by people swinging (Ljudgungan/Soundswing).

The Copehagen-based artist Thomas Dambo creates huge installations, sculptures and workshops which highlight recycling and the value of our trash. Thomas holds a Master in Interaction Design and is also a musician (hip hop actually) with eight albums and over 500 concerts on his record (which definitely distinguishes him at this conference). He has made some great birdhouse installations, for example at Arken.

One of his big hits is Happy wall, an interactive, verbal sculpture. Another one is Remake Christmas in Copenhagen, a house and temporary workshop.

But the most audience pleasing works of Thomas is probably his Trolls.

Christina Danick, art historian, is one of the artistic leaders for Urban Arts Ruhr in Germany, an institution established when Essen was the European capital of culture in 2010. Under the motto “Urban spaces as a laboratory” artists cooperate with citizens in the region, where twenty cities create a common identity within the Emscher Landscape Park. I really like the historical background – the coal mining area, highly populated, lost its power in the 60’s and 70’s, people moved to other areas and the economy declined. After a few decades the area started its regeneration – from faded mining industries to cultural and creative industries.

Anne Beate Hovind is in charge of the art projects in the Norwegian Björkvika Utvikling, which focuses on the design of the public spaces in a new urban district in Oslo. The best part of her presentation deals with the work Future libraries by Katie Paterson. One text by 100 authors in 100 years will be kept, unread and finally published. The first one was Margaret Atwood.

Carly Lamb, which I consider as the main speaker of the day, works for the landscape architect company Grant Associates in Bath in south east England. Carly talks about visions of reconnecting people and nature, “glow moments” of surprise, and bringing in places for humans and nature in the cities.

Recently she returned to England after a seven year long session in Singapore, where she worked with the awarded-winning project Gardens by the Bay. The company won a competition about creating a park for the 21 century in the dense, high-tech city. They developed a design concept based on the orchid-flower, and the result is just amazing – huge, artificial, expensive. But is this for real, is this really to bring nature into the city?

Alfred Nerhagen is landscape architect at the Municipality of Helsingborg and project leader for a temporary activity space at Oslopiren south from the city center in the urban development project H+. Within the next ten years the pier will be used for projects co-created by citizens and the City of Helsingborg. The aim is to develop creative and interactive spaces. A grass root-project, unpredictable, spontaneous, unplanned.  It’s definitely a great initiative, all city departments are involved, and I am sure it will turn out well.

The project Pixla Piren opens in May 2016 and will never be finished. The area, about 20 000 square meters, is divided in pixels, each about 100 square meters, which people can annex and fill with life. You can use your pixel for one day or for several years, it’s up to you. And you can even apply for funding up to 10 000 crowns from the municipality. There are some other features at the pier – a maker space, an exhibition area, a street art block and some gardening.

The obvious question is of course – what will happen after the ten years of experiments? Well, Oslopiren will be colonized by high prestigious apartments with a great view over the sound and the kingdom of Denmark, I guess.

*          *          *

It’s a good day. When I sum up my experiences from the gathering, some questions remain. One of the crucial questions connected to the theme has to do with the volunteers. Quite a lot of the projects need unpaid helpers. That’s common in the cultural world – think of music festivals, art projects and so on. This might be good – it reflects enthusiasm, pride and engagement? But, according to me, it does also hide something – unemployed, young or retired people are used as workers, without any payment (except a good lunch)… Is culture something you can get (almost) for free? The volunteer trend (which we sometimes call “participation” and “dialogue”) might unbalance the cultural economy – art becomes cheaper than it actually is?


Borås is the city of Pinocchio, Jims Dine’s huge work, 9 meters high and made of bronze, and several other significant sculptures. It’s a part of quite big efforts within the cultural field in the city. I don’t know if it’s a sign of prosperity, but at least attraction.

I just visited The Nordic Urban Laboratory, a conference in Borås and Gothenburg, in company with my colleague Jonna. City planners, researchers, community organizers and others take a look at alternative strategies in urban development. The main purpose is to develop a toolkit which can support municipalities and regions in their production of their own strategies. It’s overall holistic views, connecting cultural resources to certain knowledge bases.

The gathering is on high level: elaborated program, important speakers and well-produced arrangement – high class projectors, perfect microphones and rooms with delicate ventilation. (But when the slides are too perfect, I don’t really believe the speakers. I suspect they’re hiding something in the content, a lack or a crack. It’s the same feeling as when I recognize a bottle of wine with a too decorated label – is the wine missing something?)

The first two days of the conference is located at the Textile Fashion Center, rooted in the deep tradition of manufacturing and retailing of textile in the area of Borås. It’s crowded, I don’t know how many visitors, I’m sure it’s more than a hundred, and the audience is more international than I expected.

*           *           *

Franco Bianchini, one of the main speakers, is specialist on cultural planning, and he delivers a brief history of the field from 1988 until today. We are dealing with times of continuous change – e.g. powerful globalization, increasing hybridity, heavy conflicts, and breakdowns of social values. It’s a comprehensive presentation, and the history is told with a refreshing distance.

One of the most cherished and effective methods used in cultural planning processes is mapping. Magnus Fredricsonpresents a really detailed mapping work in the Skaraborg region. Spots are loaded with information on a GIS-map, the map is run through an application, and the results are visualized in several diagrams. (It gives me a feeling of positivism, not too far from the architect’s Space Syntax.)

Bettina Lamm, associate professor and landscape architect, gives a view on Urban Play, a temporary cultural intervention in the public space of Søndre Havn, Køge, Denmark. Art, architecture and play has brought life into the empty harbor area.

It’s a huge difference between the projects presented by Fredricson and Lamm. The serious orientation of the mapping is really contrasting the poetic, playful attitude in Søndre Havn. Different goals, different methods and different results. The crucial question is obvious in both cases – what happened afterwards? What did the mapping lead to, substantially? What did the temporary project leave behind – except memories and documentation?

Under the headline Sustainability speaks Kenneth A BalfeltHelena Bjarnegård and Cecilia Liljedahl. Kenneth, a Danish artist, presents a project in Folkets park, Nørrebro, Copenhagen, where residents and users have been integrated in the creation and running of the process. (A small but interesting detail is the darkness in the park. Some parts are actually left without light – marijuana smokers, dealers and lovers need the shadow, I guess…)

Helena presents Frihamnen in Gothenburg, an old harbor area, close to the city center; the most well-known piece in the project is probably the sauna, made by the Berlin-based architects of Raumlabor.

Cecilia shows some green art projects; the most visually salient project is a bamboo work by the Japanese artist Tetsunori Kawana, which will be raised in the beginning of the summer 2016.

The section about Art, contains three sessions. Ari Marteinsson is part of the Danish Bureau Detours, an organization with special interest in creating social environments in public space. Invisible Playground is a German group focused on games to explore and understand the city.

Kerstin Bergendal is well known for her social and dialogue-based projects, always with a high focus on the place and the public space. Her most recognized project is probably PARK LEK, today almost considered as a model or prototype.

Every speech is an aspect of the interaction between local/societal, method/result, temporary/permanent, time-consuming/”jajamensan”-mentality and theorists/practicians.

*          *          *

It’s raining in Gothenburg when I leave the conference. It’s two hours until the train departures and I decide to take a walk through the central parks and continue to Göteborgs konsthall. A great exhibition with Magnus Bärtås is on display. The rain increases and I have to take shelter at the library to finish this text.

The conference has raised several questions in my mind:

First, the popular method mapping. What should be mapped? Are the bad experiences, the conflicts, the tensions included in the mapping? In theory, every planner dedicated to the method would say yes. But when it comes to reality… And what happens to the results after the mapping process? How do we implement strategies? I’ve heard of so many mapping projects, but seen so little brave interventions…

Second, the ubiquitous tool dialogue. What is a dialogue? At first glance it has to do with mutual understanding and adding of new perspectives etc. But in reality – dialogue is also misunderstanding, indirectness, guessing, implicit contexts, friction, reading between the lines, disruptions, gestures… Without the total meaning of dialogue, the tool is, according to me, too romantic, maybe misleading, or even impossible to use.

Third, the tradition of gentrification. Planners talk about the grass-root perspective, their interest in ‘common people’. But at the same time, it’s obvious that quite a lot of the projects are ending up in gentrification – the old industrial area is transformed to an attractive hub for more or less wealthy people connected to businesses of information, technology, arts, brewery, education… The dirty, faded dwelling area, which used to house unemployed or in other ways marginalized people, gets shaped up, cultivated, attractive and – expensive…

Fourth, the issue of competence. Which competences are needed for a good cultural planning process? I’m sure, almost every municipality or region lacks knowledge within their organizations. I’ve heard so many enthusiasts, but do they have the knowledge? A planning process needs both overview and specialists, and I’m sure a lot of the projects need to step up, to go beyond the idealistic introvert reflections and backslapping. It’s time to do our homework.

Fifth, the role of the traditional institutions Public run libraries, art galleries, cultural heritage organizations and museums have been important for the cultural infrastructure during the last century. But at the same time it’s obvious that many of them are not flexible enough, regarding to for example funding, staff and buildings. Rigid artistic directors without capacity (or interest) even to listen to the competence of their staff… no, they will never be able to listen to the voices of the surrounding society and the audience, they will never be able to suck up the new movements. The temporary is the new permanent. We’re in a state of permanent transition where everything is fluent and floating. Believe me, empty echoing institutions trying to express and consolidate their power through monologues are most probably not a creative force in the negotiating about the fluid symbolic universe of the future.

*          *          *

The creative city is dead. To be honest, it never was born, at least outside imagination. Nationalism, that once at least tried to keep people together, walks around like a wounded animal. And a wounded animal is dangerous. The struggle between stability and change isn’t over; all that is solid melts into air? What we need is not to build a common, monolithic history, but a discussion of the common futures, the new destinations.