Urban Fabrications

Horse in Motion (1878), by Eadweard Muybridge. Source: Library of Congress.

As the physical topography of the city is displaced by its constituent processes, flows, and non-physical motivators, these become the precise embodiment of a changed urbanity.  As Manuel Castells has written, the “informational city is not a form but a process, a process characterized by the structural domination of the space of flows.”(1)  To study and operate on this emergent and evolving cultural construction of “the city,” it is necessary to define and map the structures operating within and through it. But conventional tools for urban analysis are centered more on mapping the physically present forms, and are not particularly well-suited to mapping non-physical phenomena. Classical plan-based mappings, in particular, are inadequate.

Rather than focusing on still, residual objects within an urban environment, we can pursue the fluid, moving, and changing aspects at work. One strategy is to consider the moving body, within a moving context. This suggests ways of understanding this complex and shifting urban terrain by bridging between the local topography of the city and the topological space of flows. Itinerary becomes a critical operative term.

In the opening of his treatise Image of the City, Kevin Lynch reminded us that “moving elements in a city, and in particular the people and their activities, are as important as the stationary physical parts. We are not simply observers of this spectacle,” he wrote, “but are ourselves a part of it, on the stage with the other participants. Most often, our perception of the city is not sustained, but rather partial, fragmentary, mixed with other concerns.”(2) For Michel de Certeau, the people of the city “follow the thicks and thins of an urban ‘text’ they write without being able to read it.” He notes that “the networks of these moving, intersecting writings compose a manifold story that has neither author nor spectator, shaped out of fragments of trajectories and alternations of spaces: in relationship to representations, it remains daily and indefinitely other.”(3) For him, the city experienced in this way becomes “the imaginary staging ground for the working of culture, the process of meandering that is, within social, political, and local constraints, a deeply personal process … The mobility and flexibility of a ground-level perspective is key to a life that’s (actively) written and not merely read: meaning is not disseminated; it is accumulated.”(4)

The cinematic and urban both participate in constructing this full space, a condition charged by relationships, by meaning, and by matter.  Localized interruptions, events, overlaps, sequences, and connections are constructed, shaped by motivating narratives, sequences, loops, codas, and refrains.  The grain of the space is distilled. The challenge throughout is in finding ways to situate and/or create precision, legibility, and meaning within these somewhat chaotic, unstable, and variable terrains.  It requires a way of looking, thinking and making that neither romanticizes the noise nor obliterates it through foreign orders, redaction, or idealized abstractions.  And it takes clarity both in process and its realization.

The cinematic offers ways of examining the urban condition that move successively further and further from plan-based mappings, revealing and probing aspects of the urban condition that do not rest solely in static objects, but rather in whispers and echoes of absent motivators.


This paper was initially presented at the 2009 Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA) Southeast Fall Conference “Architecture is a Thing of Art,” October 8-10, 2009 in Savannah, Georgia and subsequently included in proceedings published by the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD).  It was selected as one of the best three papers presented at the regional conference, and was subsequently revised and presented at “Re.Building: 98th ACSA Annual Meeting” in  New Orleans, Louisiana on 7 March 2010.  The revised version of this paper was published by the ACSA as a part of the referred proceedings of this conference.

The essay builds on certain themes and project work initially explored in “Knots and Nurbs: Relational Spaces in Variable Fields,” presented at the National Conference of the Beginning Design Student (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 2009).

The full paper is available on the ACSA website at http://apps.acsa-arch.org/resources/proceedings/uploads/streamfile.aspx?path=ACSA.AM.98&name=ACSA.AM.98.114.pdf (member login required for download).


  1. Manuel Castells, “The Rise of the Network Society,” Vol. 1, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture (Malden, Mass./Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 398.
  2. Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City (Cambridge, Mass: Technology Press, 1960), 2.
  3. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 93.
  4. Tasha G. Oren, “Gobbled Up and Gone: Cultural Preservation and the Global City Marketplace,” in Global Cities: Cinema, Architecture, and Urbanism in a Digital Age, ed. Linda Krause and Patrice Petro (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2003), 64.
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