Friday, 31 July 2009

Book - You are the City

You are the City by Petra Kempf, Lars Mueller Publisher by Birkhaeuser, 2009. A book that is not really a book might be more of a book than many others. This book here is really not a book, it is a box of sheets and a leaflet. The sheets are colour prints on clear acetate. It is a radical take on city planning with very limited to do’s and not to do’s.
This is rather refreshing and the fact that the transparent sheets allow for creative combination of the presented content goes way beyond telling the “reader“ about the new ”must” and ”don’t”, but rather directly involves them to participate and shape a number of distinct perspectives on the discussed topic. There is not much more to be said, is there?
Well there might be, there are questions about the formality of the visuals, the similarity of the representation, the limitation in the selection of tools and forms. One could argue that is the stuff for discussion and aftermath of the book, as it is still the authors take on the subject and it probably is, but the book does not offer any format for this. So the engagement with the reader ends there, were the sheets can be combined.

Image by UrbanTick

What Birkhaeuser says about the publication: “Cities are hybrid entities based on multilayered and sometimes contradictory organizing principles. As complex networks of geographic, economic, political and cultural segments, they are caught up in a constant process of differentiation. How are we to understand such dynamic processes, especially the complex connections between individuals, whose movements and interactions leave traces in the urban landscape? This publication offers architects, urban planners and general readers interested in city design and growth a novel approach, a mapping tool that creates a framework for understanding the continually changing configuration of the city. With transparent slides, the tool allows one to superimpose various realities like layers and build new urban connections. It invites readers in short to immerse themselves in the complexity of our cities.”

Image by UrbanTick

The book subtitle is “Observation, organization, and transformation of urban settings”

In regard of the topic of cycles and rhythms in the city, this publication has a similar aim to start describing and understand the city in a dynamic sense. Kempf writes in the introduction titled “To the Curios”: “Cities are an everyday invention. They are informed and imagined by many people at the time. A cities’ form is expressed in a vortex of temporal relations, mirrored in the activities of a collective body o individuals interacting with one another.”
This dynamic approach is also reflected in the naming of the different areas o investigation. The books contains 22 sheets covering four distinct areas, those are: Cosmological Ground; Legislative Agencies; Currents, Flows and Forces; Nodes, Loops and Connections.
The naming ad the approach can provoke links to Lynch. His five elements plan for the city from his “Image of the City” book were: Nodes, Edge, Path, Landmark, District. Five are much simpler to remember ( might be the success of the book) than 22. But obviously there are some more option with a higher number.
It does get complicated though. I can list all of them because I have the leaflet in front of me, but the suggestive and at times literal names are easily confused. But maybe this is not the point. Maybe it is more important to create an image though the naming that guides the combination process. The mix of naming strategies is more confusing. Sometimes it is something like Bus Lines or Airport compared to Information Swirls or Under the Ground. The mix of specific and more poetic names probably makes for the distinct aura of the publication.

Kempf has worked on a very similar project in 2001. Back then she called it Met(r)onymy 1. Images and style are fairly similar. It seems to be something she has started to develop much earlier on.

A very interesting comparison between “You are the City” and an earlier book by Zaha Hadid called “Ubiquitous Urbanism” is made on Kosmograd. The formal relationship of the two projects is striking. Interesting because Petra Kempf is Adjunct Assistant Professor at Colombia, the same institution where Zaha Hadid developed her book.

Image from Kosmograd

I don’t want to leave it here, because this could really create the wrong impression about the book. It is not a copy of something and it is a well thought approach to something new. It really opens the eyes in terms of planning, design approaches but also graphics and communication, You are the city - the City is you ha not promised something it will not be able to deliver, It is rather a very real promise and a rather lasting impression.
And if not for al these reasons you want to have one by now, there is one more. Put all the acetates on one pile, look into the sheets from an angle though the reflection (this book is horrible to photograph at a university with these kind of cheap lighting) and enjoy the depth, physical and theoretical this publication is able to create just there in front of you. This is worth buying a book for. Is it a book?

Image by UrbanTick

Kempf, P., 2009. You are the City Pap/Trspy., Baden: Lars Müller Publishers.

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