Monday, 6 February 2012

Book - Urban Constellations and the Struggle of a Discipline


The UCL Urban Laboratory brings out a publication under the title Urban Constellations, summarising five years of work since the LAB was established in 2005. The LAB was set up as an interdisciplinary work group within UCL bringing together architecture, engineering, anthropology and film studies with a focus on urban. With urban Mattheew Gandy the Director of the urbanLAB and also editor of the publication sees encompassed far more than in the bounded term city. This is then also what the publications aims to achieve, drawing out and identifying critical themes and opening a discussion around them.

The collection explores themes such as new forms of political mobilisation, the effects of economic instability, the political ecology of urban nature and the presence of collective memory. The section Excursions documents artistic interventions in the urban context by 5 artists.

urban constellations cover
Image taken from Footprint / Installation The Games are Open, with materials recycled from the 2010 Olympic & Paralympic Winter Games Athletes’ Village, by Köbberling & Kaltwasser, 2010.

The other four parts of the publication are Urban Lexicon outlining popular topics in the urban discurse, Crisis and Perturbations depicting strong influential shaping process, Places and Spaces as a showcase of concrete examples of urban studies and Projections linking the theoretical discussion to other fields such as art. A preview of sample page can be found on the publisher JOVIS website as a HERE.

Each essay, of which there area total of 42, is intentionally short. As Gandy outlines in his introduction, the aim was to create little vignettes of aspects. With this linking it to Sigfrid Kracauer's work and use of the term urban vignettes. Similarly is the link established to Walter Benjamin via the book title Urban Constellations which link to the use of constellations by Benjamin. With this Gandy aims to underpin a close attention to detail of everyday life.

The essays are written by a selection of mostly well known scholars. In most cases they are related to the context of UCL with for examples Jane Rendell and Ian Borden form the Bartlett School of Architecture.

The essays are of very good quality and interesting to read although as mentioned very short, at most four pages. However, the main aspect of the publication is how it highlights the current state of the urban discussion. And this is if there is one, but more likely there are many. As Gandy himself already summarises in the introduction the essays draw form the remains of the modernist planning umbrella to examine how the urban context managed to cope, both with the domination of a religious planning doctrine based on technology and the decline thereof.

Further more it highlights the shift in approaches with the disappearance of bullet-point lists and the replacement of solutions with possibilities. The field seems all very vague and there are very few topics or even cornerstones the community can take for granted.

This is a very tricky position for the professionals to be in as with a lack of operational directions of development other disciplines are threatening to take over urban planning. Of course it is once more technology and the quantitative sciences promising anything they can even think of under a new umbrella of Smart Cities. It is of course no coincidence that here again the terms city is pushed as it represents exactly what Gandy described as too restrictive.

Qualitative research into urban environments in general is currently mainly exploring the boundaries of structuring aspects of dogmas and predefinitions. This is of course essential to understand more about the nature and the complexity of the urban context. On the other hand it would be healthy to start directing these efforts towards a more applied and pragmatic practice. As such the publications makes an effort to actually apply such a practice and combine the dismantling of modernist's remains with a application of findings. Things can be taken from there.

urban constellations cover
Image taken from amazon / Urban Constellations book cover.


Gandy, M. ed., 2011. Urban Constellations, Berlin: JOVIS Verlag.

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