Sunday, 23 August 2009

REVIEW: Hypercity - The Symbolic Side of Urbanism

Hypercity: The Symbolic Side of Urbanism
edited by Peter J.M. Nas and Annemarie Samuels
(Kegan Paul 2006)

This book applies anthropological research methodology to the study of various historical and contemporary urban situations, with diverse examples in Europe, Africa, South America and Asia. The book’s structure is that of a series of case studies that have their origin in papers presented at a symposium held in Leiden in 2004. The terminology employed by the editors - specifically the terms ‘urban symbolism’ and ‘hypercity’ - deserves brief explanation. In the first chapter, by Peter Nas, Rivke Jaffe and Annemarie Samuels, the two terms are discussed in detail. The former is described as an outcome of material culture and the need to explore the symbolic language of urban form as an aid to identity – although page 2 sees Kevin Lynch’s use of similar aspects in 'The Image of the City' dismissed as narrow in focus because of its essentially utilitarian character. In contrast the authors claim for their own use a deeper understanding combining perceptions of the self and others, and urban and collective memories.

With regard to the term ‘hypercity’, the authors claim that it proceeds from the more fundamental level of semiotics, and they see the interpretation of the city’s accumulated signs as indicative of the city’s state of being between stability and transition. The examples which follow in the individual case studies are considered in relation to these terms, although the distinctions made in the first chapter do not strongly determine the way the specific urban narratives are portrayed. Each chapter is dealt with by its author as largely self-sufficient, which avoids the opportunity to make broader comparison. They are diverse in their cultural context, which might make the comparisons difficult to structure, but which would serve a useful anthropological purpose in presenting the broad influences of symbolisation. Locations range from Kingston, Jamaica to Jakarta to Cape Town amongst others, complementing a series of European examples. The examples cover the changed meaning occasioned by the achievement of national self-determination and the construction of national identity through symbols. However, other chapters such as Christien Klaufus on Cuenca, Ecuador deal more with the processes of development, the control exercised by professional or academic bodies and their predetermination of urban image.

From the perspective of design education, the examples assembled in the book can tend to be superficial, the signs which are discussed such as statues which indicate meaning tend to be isolated and sometimes transitory elements. The richer areas of meaning which accrue to urban form and the social uses of space are left relatively unexplored as a source of meaning. This book can therefore only be regarded as an introduction to its field with some intriguing and unusual examples. However, it does suggest that not only could the city be read as a symbolic realm, but also that it could be designed as a territory of embedded meaning. The twentieth century saw many such examples, generally at the behest of totalitarian regimes, but participatory procedures offer the opportunity for the design of urban environments which have significance for their inhabitants and circumvent the prevailing sense of urban alienation. The ‘symbolic side of urbanism’ has a role to play, which goes beyond the names on streets and on plinths, and the ephemeral bunting of national celebration. That potential iconographic urbanity might be harder to identify and certainly to codify, but the task anthropologists and urban designers share is understanding how people find meaning in the cities where they live.

While this collection provides an interesting array of unusual examples, its anthropological emphasis might be profitably compared with Dana Arnold and Andrew Ballantyne’s edited book 'Architecture as Experience: Radical change in spatial practice' (Routledge 2004) where the focus of a similarly diverse collection was on the more formal products of the political use of space. Neither book can provide a definitive account of this wide ranging subject, but the present volume certainly adds to the broadening of locations of study for the urban image even if the theoretical construction in which they are placed perhaps strains too much towards the universal.

The title might persuade some potential readers that this book traces the inevitably monumentalising course of recent neo-modern architecture. If that was what was sought, with all its attendant blandness, banalisation of the urban landscape and improbable structural gymnastics then readers will be in for a disappointment. Instead the book deals with much more quotidian subjects, but subjects which effect more lives than can ever, one hopes, be effected by the work of a star architect and his urban compositions. This book, taking a slightly distanced mental view implicitly favours the spontaneous creativity of unattributable groups rather than the alliance of powerful egos which characterises much urban design in the developed world, and command the attention of the publishing and broadcast media.

Published in JOURNAL OF URBAN DESIGN 13:2 2008

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