Places at a Distance

Return to the byways through which you followed a slender cat, as to a landmark, hoping that you may see her again. These moments grow like dirt on the omniscient picture plane. Wear the same clothes through the city wanderings for two weeks. The creases and worn out spots in the fabric carry the imprint and tie to the crooks at street and wall where you have slumped. You are bound to your fancies perpetually, sweating and soaking them out, rubbing through the map in your pocket, wearing it away at the intersections of the folds imposing your body on the representational fabric of the city, and in turn losing your body in the now mythical spaces of the city left by that erasure.

The world around us is dense. Developed and undeveloped surfaces, designed and natural conditions alike are saturated with sensory charges and mnemonic triggers. Even the most traditionally dull spaces on earth have enough living pockets ripe for investigation and appreciation to keep us engaged for a lifetime. As if an empty apartment did not have enough aspectival richness, the city is filled with spaces upon spaces within and around buildings and infrastructure. The juxtaposition and use circuits of the city compose an infinity of lifetimes filled with memories and associations. The development of filters and methods by which we engage these oft hidden and cryptic gifts of the city is a case to be considered, although it is a milieu of character, it is also a utilitarian machine that functions to expedite the transactions of its inhabitants. The German thinker Walter Benjamin described the city as a multivalent field that must be discovered and uncovered through distant separate passages. Despite the similarity of the approaches to engaging the city, each person and each moment of each engagement with its infinitesimal alterations and inclusions in the fabric of the built landscape help to construct the life and meaning of the city.

But what characterizes an approach or a passage in the city? This could be understood as a series of purely geographic configurations, like routes or paths that touch on different points in the city and restructure relationships between different facets of use and form. Or it could merely be the breadth of ways that the populace negotiates their daily lives based on comfort levels and goals. Benjamin goes on to describe the temporal aspect of these ‘passages’ as a slow apprehension or habitual appropriation that occurs as the city is ‘received by a collectivity in a state of distraction’, an experience that ‘results from an accumulation of often distracted events and everyday encounters’. The juxtaposition of the physical action of appropriation with the psychological factor of distraction leads one to believe that it is both the geographic and formal passages of the city coupled with the approaches of use and human interaction that form its meaning.

For the sake of focus, this paper seeks to develop an understanding of the ‘passages’ through the city, those being the physical paths of form and space that describe the city, and how the skein of all their possibilities work to construct the meaning of the city and its individual architectural forms. But more precisely, how these passages that are highly specific yet latent fields, can have a meaning or image that is divorced from experience structured upon them by external forces. Constructions such as representations and images have an immense effect on the way space is perceived and negotiated. From the city map to the drawing of a piece of architecture, representations are responsible for conjuring things into being and ordering systems that are seemingly beyond conventional understanding. In addition, the types of drawing used by architects to envision a building have a strong correlation to those done to construct images of the city. Not only do the representations exist in the same familial lineage of orthographic denotative drawings, but their effect on the perception of the subject matter is analogous.

As noted, the space of the city is a spatially enveloping and irreducible construct. To engage it is to submit much of our experience to its control as all of its components have some way of framing our memories, consciousness, or actions. This extensiveness and saturation can often be overwhelming and lead the inhabitant of the city to engage it at a purely utilitarian level. City dwellers extract what they need from the city and use it as a vehicle for survival. They are able to thrive off the density of opportunities that it offers and form relationships between structure and meaning by consistent engagement and association. Living in the city, working in the city, and using the city affords this sedimentary process of understanding. This is the time Benjamin encourages us to take in order to formulate a stance and develop a highly personal strategy for digesting the dense networks of culture, history, and material.

Characteristic engagements with the city exist that do not afford the necessary time periods or goal constellations for the habitual process of learning to occur. The plight of the tourist in the city is one of a minor time commitment with a desire for maximum assimilation of the environment at hand. It is precisely the irreducible extensiveness of the city that the tourist seeks to enjoy yet fears at the same time. The short-timer awash in the morass of a new place is indeed a dispossessed individual, not necessarily suffering from the unease associated with political oppression, but the unease of the new or strange. With only a short time to digest new sensory and emotional experiences, the tourist seeks a way to make sense of the milieu, often before they have even engaged the impending unfamiliarity.

The city, as a totality, a functioning unit, is not prepared or formed for consumption. As a result, the tourist, who is traditionally a consumer, of culture, of image, of place-oriented goods, desires a tool or a package that will crack down the matter at hand. The tools are often digestions of opinions and formal keys that have been developed by inhabitants and omniscient bodies of time. Popularly and almost forcefully, tourist guidebooks have sought to provide this perceived necessity, providing the steps to understand the city, and more often than not, the goals, outcomes and images to be sought as well.

The guidebook is first and foremost a market driven publication. It contains listings of proprietary establishments such as restaurants, hotels, and retail outlets. These listings have a reciprocating relationship with their sources in that the more prominent and frequent an establishment’s listing, the more it can hope to achieve as a business venture. Perhaps not so curiously, the second component of the guidebook is a textual and imagistic digest of a place’s cultural makeup and prominence. Catalogs of major artists, historical figures, and political climates come together to form an expressive whole of a place’s identity. As is often the case, these cultural manifestations are also subject to the top-down whims of the marketplace. Certain aspects of the culture or counterculture may be suppressed and others that may not have had a lasting or truly formative impact may be highlighted in accordance with, in essence, a chamber of commerce developed image of the city. Maps, as the third component of guidebooks, are possibly the most peculiar, yet the most widely accepted and desirable facet of these publications.

Geographer J.B. Harley has intimated a way that maps appearing in guidebooks find their place among other representations that have succumbed to the external forces of marketing and cultural politics. He characterizes both the selection of content and the style of representation as a ‘way of conceiving, articulating, and structuring the human world which is biased towards, promoted by, and exerts influence upon particular sets of social relations.’ This indicates the same sort of top-down process of foregrounding and suppression that occurs in the selection of cultural material for guidebooks, and is essential for the formation of a unilaterally accepted image. But the map, at its essence is to be a translation of reality, a clarification, a making coherent, a plotting of a concrete set of features. The maps of guidebooks are really not so distant from these essential characteristics. In fact, the archetypal aesthetic of the map itself harbors this scientific originality and neutrality, no matter how much editing and mythologizing has occurred within the content. This neutrality is important because it masks the unilateral committee of values that the guidebook map forwards. If it were clear to their users that beyond the underlay of scientific cartography and political delineation of space, was a plotting of market driven information, that these maps indeed did not portray the entire breadth of possibilities or goals, the issue of their effect would not arise. However, the aesthetic of the map, the allure of the representation, masks this issues.

The function of every map is based on a certain amount of trust. This is the trust we put into scientific models of the world as neutral bodies or facts. As historian John Noble Wilford points out, the basic significance of maps is perceived to lie in the fact that they are surrogates of space. Yet one thing cannot be both of and a surrogate of another thing. For the tourist, who encounters the map before they encounter the city, the power of the representation is great. It always seems to prove its usefulness by containing the keys for structuring the city that one then finds embodying physically in the place. But it does this not because it is omniscient, but because it is omniscient and emphatically dumb. It contains both the process and the image. The city in turn dangerously becomes only a repudiation of the picture that preceded it. Those who see the map as an empirically grounded construction use it as a surface that is simultaneously capable of depicting images and accepting inscriptions of new images in the same field organization, like a half-full filing cabinet. For these people the map is sacred. The acceptance of an external (other) empirical construction and its subsequent plying to a situation may provide a complete understanding of the material at hand. However, it does this falsely, as it is only allowing the city to manifest the image that the map itself sought to prefigure and construct, dissolving the relationship between use and meaning from experience and choice.

The effects that are embedded in these representations and are sought by tourists were made prior to their engagement with the city physiognomy and exist in an atemporal realm that is inaccessible in real space. The tourist seeks to master the game play before ever engaging an opponent. Yet it is this sense of play that is lacking. The touristic agenda as outlined by the guidebook is one of going through the motions or devouring a prepackaged meal. This package betrays the meaning of the ‘inhabitant’s city’ that is an irreducible field of possibilities. As Guy Debord found beauty in the inert set of possibilities presented by the Paris metro maps, which truly document the legally accessible extent of their routes without bias, so too can traditional forms of representation be augmented to undermine the ease of the imagistic pursuit in favor of the power of human imagination and the comfort of choice.

To understand the way maps affect spatial engagement it may be helpful to examine a city whose form has a truly odd relationship with representation. Venice, Italy is a city whose geography and topography are truly the bases for its image. One cannot think of the place without first visualizing its composition. The city is formed on a series of built up sandbars that have been reinforced over the years to provide a more solid and lasting foundation. It maintains its link with the initial maritime settlement by its inscription with canals and waterways that give the fluid as much precedence in the city as the solid. The byways that are not water are limited to pedestrian traffic, so the relationship between the person and the space is always unmediated and at a contemplative pace. The landmasses of Venice are incredibly dense and the networks of alleys are nebulous to say the least. It is often this characterization of a system in chaos that leads tourists in Venice to fall back on representational assistance for their navigation through the city.

Traditionally in wayfinding there is a consistent use and organization of definite sensory cues from the external environment. These are the methods that are learned over time. For the tourist, movement is much more strongly influenced by dominant flows of traffic and archetypal phenomena such as scale, brightness or openness, and comfort. These are the characteristics of what J.B. Jackson called the ‘stranger’s path’, a sequence of event locations and spatial types that are consistent with the movements of newcomers in a city. Venice is inscribed with what could be called a stranger’s path. This circuit begins in the area of the Santa Lucia train station where one either disembarks or leaves their car for the required footbound procession. From here, the streams of people flow out along the wider alleys replete with overflowing cafes, markets, Murano glass surplus shops, and arrow laden signs reading ‘S. Marco’. This omnipresent sign hints that the role of the Venetian stranger’s path is merely a processional leading to or an extension of the Piazza de San Marco, arguably the focal point of the island network.

Jackson’s path is one where the stranger learns about the city engaging it as a pseudo-resident might, in other words, moving by instinct. There are two ways that the main streets of Venice do not align with this learning process. The first is the character of this space a ‘show street’, a high volume mass-market street that caters to the production of image by highlighting place-oriented goods and blatantly themed establishments. One might more accurately assume that the more authentic ‘stranger’s path’ of Venice lies at the fringes, almost the suburbs of the city, populated by residential sectors and docklands. The second issue that reveals the distance between the show streets of Venice and space of learning is found in the relationship of landmarks and the maps of the guidebooks.

The typical slue of representations we find of Venice in the guidebooks regards the twisted form of the island cluster in plan view, an orthographic projection from infinitely far above. The landmass is too solid and is woven together by canals like a spline-curved puzzle. The s-curve of the Grand Canal is prominent, reading almost like a graphic sign that characterizes the place as fluid and supple rather than standing for actual geographic circuit. At the north end of the island the architecture and infrastructure of the great train depot is abstracted in while on the south the void of S. Marco is shown as the only geographic feature not included in the land or sea categories. The sestieri or districts are called out grossly by large text labels that obscure large portions of their geography. These initial large-scale cartographic simplifications serve as the base maps for other more detailed diagrams.

Supplementary maps begin to display orthographic information in more detail. Larger voids in the fabric are eroded out of the figure ground and given names while some entire islands are given a uniform neutral figure treatment, neither solid nor void, as if they had already submerged into the lagoon. Some maps substitute a referential numbering system that relates to a key of place-names, further distancing the information from the form. Due to the format of most popular guidebooks an increase in cartographic scale often requires cropping the geography to fit the page. The next level of detail is ostensibly developed in a map whose focus draws tightly in on the S. Marco island cluster. The figure ground is maintained and more place-names and larger circulation paths are enumerated to indicate preferred routes. All fine grained information about the city begins to be concentrated in this single district as the Cannaregio, Dorsoduro, and La Giudecca, including the Porto Commerciale and Piazzale Roma, are cropped from view and further reference.

Cartographic censorship, an explicit removal of information, when other characteristics are equal, is necessitated or dictated by ‘political expediency’ or ‘commercial necessity’. Scalar editing is a manifestation of the value system that engenders the unilateral urban image. The fact that there is such a bias does not necessarily render the map a malicious document, as objective, scientific representations too harbor unseen values. However, the fact that the values here are market driven, based on commerce and taste, turns the accepted use of these representations into a vehicle for enacting these biases in the space of the city and suppressing the existence of ‘other’ cultures and markets. The censored cartographic image both delineates the boundaries of permissible discourse and discourages the clarification of cultural alternatives. For example, the shift of focus away from the Cannaregio district in the larger scale maps implicitly erases the presence of the Jewish community in Venice. This group, defined by its ‘otherness’ in a Catholic city, is all but overlooked in mainstream travel literature. The Cannaregio is home to the world’s first ghetto, where the Jewish community of Venice remains to this day. The position of this ghetto was forcibly selected for its distance away from S. Salvadore, the spiritual center of the time. The apparent center of the city has migrated south to S. Marco due to a value shift from the religious institution to the tourist industry, distancing the ghetto even further from the urban format. This region is not only home to the population of Venetian Jews, but to some great works of synagogic architecture and fine shopping. The district and its works suffer still from a sort of ‘cartographic ghettoization’ based on their distance from the tourist center.

A rather queer type of representation that finds its way into the informational catalogues of the guidebooks is a variation on what James Corner calls the planometric. These maps, utilizing the same cartographic underlay as the other explorations, begin to introduce architectural outcroppings in the form of axonometric projections or small perspectival vignettes that lie not-so-seamlessly on the intense flatness of the page. These tiny inflammations take the place of the symbolic ‘dot’ that typically indicates a location of prominence on the map. The fluctuation between image and notation that is incited on the informational surface can be highly misleading and coercive. This representational technique gives a type of presence to things that they do not actually have in the city. Rising up from flatness like a sculpture in the round brings objectness to structures that are often legible as only a single façade, especially in Venice. In effect, the cultural or historical significance of a structure is substituted for the typological significance of a monument or landmark.

Maps such as these cease to stand as inert records of geological landscapes or passive catalogues of the city’s objects and begin to refract images of matter and shape the socially constructed world. By making the representation itself an overt reconfiguration, the planometric map seeks to re-form the existing reality. This disruption of the subject is possible in two ways. The first is giving precedence to the forms of inert objects and misrepresenting them with the goal of masking, belittling, or obliterating their intangible characteristics. The second way that representations can alter the city fabric is by contributing to the shift of centers of interest using an injected tourist population and developing shared landmarks.

Some landmarks are legible as such due to their contrasting edges in the similarity of the paths that lead to them. Such is the case with the Piazza de S. Marco. Not only is S. Marco the only true piazza in the city, but its character of difference is heightened by the convergence of all uniform passages upon it. The reduction of a publicized landmark to its token contrast with the city gives precedence to places of visual or imageable power as opposed to places that might resonate with historic or poetic value. A city that is structured by the goal of portraying an image would find itself completely useless. Urban theorist Kevin Lynch developed a scale of structural precision by which the city is viewed from being imageable to legible. Legibility is the correlation of meaning or use with structure or form. As with meaning for Benjamin’s city-dweller, legibility is a long-term acquisition. The focus of the guidebooks on moments in the city that are highly imageable, that are able to be denotatively represented, forces the level of structural precision into a developmentally stagnant position.

As Rosalind Krauss’ description of the relationship of the pictorial aesthetic movement to the perception of landscapes as one in which the significance of a subject is only understood through its representation, immersion in the city and its landmarks become secondary to the reputation developed for them by the guidebooks. Their sacred history is submerged behind the dubious pleasure of recognizing their formal attributes and magnificent spatial experiences become mere concrete resolutions to a situation first posed in the representation. The recognizable singularity of these instances are not ones of visual difference in a field, but in a familiar sense of effect. These are points that are not apparently singular but are raised to this level by external effects such as obtrusive propagnda. For example, the Ca D’Oro, an exquisite example of Venetian Gothic domestic architecture facing the Grand Canal, exerts very slight divergence from its neighboring façades. One might describe its relationship as contextual and it is arguable as to whether this façade is more apt in characterizing the period than countless others on the route. It is indeed a celebrated composition of decoration and Gothic motifs within architectural circles. Yet outside of those with a history in this field, the building’s beauty, perfection, and superiority in relation to its neighbors is based its pictorial prevalence in the guidebooks. In Grand Canal tours this façade consistently emerges as a more highly developed surface do to its correspondence with the labeled elevation studies of the text. Landmarks of this type, unless they are part of the tourists subject knowledge, are often less formally intrusive, less lucrative, less imageable, and thus occur in the silences that abound in the guidebooks.

In fact, intangible constructs can become extremely powerful landmarks when they are understood in the continuum that has either rendered them absent or have lead to their incarnation. Near the Jewish ghetto in the Cannaregio district is a tract of industrial complexes that was to be the site of Le Corbusier’s Venice Hospital. This site, which foregrounds nothing but absence resonates only in a purely subjective state. The physical traces of this doomed project are nil and its position is as distant as possible from the city’s interest center at S. Marco. The site is not a visible destination due to its masking by the abandoned foundry that lies between it and the Grand Canal, yet it is also not accidentally encountered because it lies far away from paths that lead to more significant landmarks. In much the same was as the Cannaregio is cropped from the detailed maps of Venice, the absent hospital is sheared from the city by an urban formatting issue. There is no doubt however that this space has the capacity to evoke strong associations to one who has intimate knowledge of its story. Yet the marketability of such a place is very low due to the way its content evades representation in the traditional sense. It is precisely because the architecture is not there, because it made no physical trace on a medieval city like Venice, that this space is legible. The relationship of its form (absence) is tied to its meaning (failure).

The paradox of this invisible landmark is investigated in the work and writings of architect Peter Eisenman in his Cannaregio project. Much of Eisenman’s work in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s sought to turn intangible yet legible structures of the urban or domestic environment into imageable constructions whose power could be read without explicit knowledge of the hidden subject. In this particular project Eisenman constructs a textual, disengaged diagram of the city based on three prevailing ‘-isms’ in architectural thought: modernism, contextualism, and post-modernism. Contemporary Venice is then reconstructed through the lens of these categories as: the grid of Le Corbusier’s Venice Hospital, fragments of local structures, and the affect of Byzantine decoration respectively. By operating in the realm acute subject knowledge, of intangibility, and of the representation, a number of effects are initiated. The representational invocation of Venice immediately calls into mind some of the more imageable aspects of the city such as the canals and the Renaissance ordering of the architecture by keeping the city in an abstract graphic state similar to the maps of the guidebooks. At the same time, the referential structure of the text that develops the ‘-isms’ of architecture is given life, accurately or inaccurately by these images.

Maps, which are here used as a tool for understanding the physical and graphic relationship of forms, are not meant to be ‘simply and alone a case of reflection and analysis.’ It is odd that one can get lost in them, and the use of these representations as a foil for engagement, or for construction, facilitates their movement from a secondary medium to one that is its own thing, a miniature city. The denotative drawing does not become instrumental until the city itself is engaged. Until that point, the values it harbors only serve to structure artificially received relationships between form and meaning. The required relationship that would link Eisenman’s two groups of knowledge, experiential and intrinsic, is here disembodied from the experience of the city. As one reads and acts within these documents, whether they are architectural drawings or texts, one is developing a circumference of a new construction of reality that is very distant from actuality.

The back and forth movement being described between representations and their use that takes place with maps is not one that can or does occur in traditional architectural representation. The analogous process of architectural construction would be the productive use of an as-built document that takes into consideration only the major traits and characteristics of an existing building, a purely quantitative study. The new construction that would result from such a document would be a sort of parody of the original, relating in image only, lacking any essential correlation. This is the method by which the guidebook maps produce the image of the city. Through an alignment with these representational goals, the drawings of architects exact the same outcome on the spaces that are equally as distant as Venice is to the tourist, those spaces yet to be constructed that rise from the imagination of the maker.

By adopting or continuing to emphasize the procedural techniques of denotative projection drawings, both the designer and builder are alienated from ‘a synaesthetic and hermeneutical mode of making and knowing.’ Those who see building as a market-driven and expediential process are suspicious of more generative systems that are rich with connotative value and semantically rich language because they are not strictly instrumental. The goal of building a uniform vision relies on the tradition of a seemingly mute language of objective systems such as plans, sections, and isometrics. The nearly unilateral use of this drawing language in architectural practice indicates a submission to the rationale of constructability. On the other hand, the architect’s unwillingness to attempt dialogue by more figural means indicates a distrust of the builder’s abilities or vision to engage the ideas behind the drawing. These circumstances keep the drawing format in a sacral stagnation where it is held as a legally binding document and not as a vehicle for play, for creation, for getting lost.

It is in the inevitable spaces that are produced or discovered by these means of representation that we find so much richness. No matter what representational history a physical construct has, it still has the power to spark associations and implant its qualities in our memories. We should understand that it is essential to not consistently submit to the denotative pictorial structures that engender uniformity of effect through representation. As we walk in wonder, the path re-inscribed by the velvet ropes on the floor of S. Marco divorces us from the ritual and liturgy that gave rise to all aspect of the space, we should also understand that the legibility we find in the city and its architecture can be our own and can be bonded by our own perceptions of use and meaning.