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Mediated Cityscapes 02: Memory and the City

In 1978 Rem Koolhaas (wiki) published Delirious New York, a “retroactive manifesto” that wildly reframed Manhattan through a rigorous analysis of the street grid, the skyscraper and congestion while excavating the history of the “mythical island”. A few years later Ridley Scott’s film adaptation of Blade Runner (wiki) explored the limits of the human condition against a backdrop of decaying art deco, flickering neon and unchecked corporatism. Syd Mead’s legendary production design for this film induced a sense of speculative nostalgia that simultaneously demonstrates bleak skepticism towards the promise of the future while pining for a romanticized vision of the Los Angeles of yesteryear.(1) Delirious New York and Blade Runner clearly illustrate how scholarly research and cinema can selectively engage broad historical trajectories and recompile new narratives from fragments and ephemera to fundamentally alter the mythos surrounding particular urban environments – it is rare that we get to enjoy meditations on ‘the city’ that are so capably crafted.

In thinking about creative projects that explore memory and the city, one would be hard-pressed to find a more influential (or ambitious) work than Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project. This masterwork was a meticulous examination of 19th century shopping arcades and Parisian city life largely driven by urban exploration, a reverence for the aesthetics of the poet Charles Baudelaire and countless hours spent at the Bibliothèque Nationale. Benjamin obsessed over the project from 1927 through his untimely death in 1940 and when his unfinished manuscript was published in the 1980s, it was widely heralded as both a comprehensive documentation of the cultural and economic changes caused by the industrial revolution and a prototype for free form historical research.

Built during the 1820s and 30s, the Parisian shopping arcades were exciting and progressive spaces. Utilizing state of the art glass and iron construction technology, gas lighting and heating, these ‘interior avenues’ reconstituted the complexity of street life as an architectural project. Never before had such a variety goods and services been under one roof, and this density of stimulus must have been utterly intoxicating. Anne Friedberg has described the significance of this visual overload as follows:

“Hats, umbrellas, gloves, and cloth materials were displayed in shop windows and vitrines as if they were antiquated objects in a natural history museum. The passage was not a museum or a warehouse, but a sales space where the purchase was a transaction endowed with near-philosophic significance. Commodities were transformed into souvenirs, memory-residue of the already passé.”(2)

The Arcades Project was a sustained investigation of this ‘theatre of purchase’ that uses these retail districts as a lens through which to consider the history of aesthetics, economic and social relations, technology and urban design of Paris. Given this contextualization, an inevitable question arises: in an era of increasingly mediated urban experience, what strategies and tactics can we glean from Benjamin’s preoccupation with the arcades? This query is best answered by turning our attention to the structure and organization of his manuscript.

the Arcades Project – Overview

[The Arcades Project, overview]

It only takes a few moments of leafing through the Arcades Projects to realize the text is far from a standard historical treatise. Acting as an archivist rather than an essayist, Benjamin examined Paris through collecting short fragmentary thoughts and ‘filing’ them according to a broad thematic taxonomy. Iron construction, flâneurism, photography and fashion were all used as ciphers for understanding the day to day street life and broader architectural and economic transformations that occurred during the 19th century. Many of these snippets of text were romantic, enigmatic observations penned by the author, but the vast majority of this content were excerpts culled from literature and poetry, journals, newspapers, social theory and historical documents. Benjamin’s experimental technique was bold and nonlinear and could be considered as anticipating the rhetoric of hypertext and speculating how a sampling-based approach to historical scholarship might play out. Sifting through the hundreds of entries in the tome is a revelatory experience, in many ways Benjamin created what can only be described as a meta-guidebook.

The Arcades Project is a key precedent for thinking about the passage of time and the city because it so capably leverages bits of granular content to delineate a broad range of interrelated social phenomena. Benjamin created a system that demands a data miner rather than a reader, and while this kind of media artifact was an anomaly at the time, it is now completely commonplace – look at how services like EveryBlock schematize news and events. A contemporary city dweller might use the new foursquare recommendation engine to find a restaurant to meet friends at for dinner, plot directions on a GPS device for the drive across town, use a RFID passcard to access a toll highway, dine under the watchful eye of a CCTV network and then upload geotagged photographs of the proceedings to flickr. In varying degrees, we are all now authoring these inventories of interactions across public and mediated space – this is before we even broach the topic of open municipal data and the transparency and the civic engagement it engenders. The generation and management of metadata and media libraries is now routine and this is the backdrop against which artists, designers and scholars develop tools to represent and call into question the nature of urban experience. Everyday ritual and ephemera, emergent narratives, archive-induced anxiety and the ubiquitous timestamp – the Arcades Project is practically a user manual for codifying personal and shared urban experience and tracking how the city changes over time. The following topical sketches describe three Benjamin-inspired discourses pertaining to memory and the city in the age of big data.

Tiananmen SquARed – Augmented Reality application

[4Gentleman / Tiananmen SquARed, Tank Man in situ]

History as overlay

Not every urban trauma ends up being ‘permanently acknowledged’ as a brick and mortar memorial, an emotional fixture embedded within the cityscape. For every event that is commemorated through architecture, public space or ritual ceremony, the recognition of many others are ignored or suppressed. One of the more infamous debates about the role and how memorials should perform was the controversy that erupted over Maya Lin’s proposal for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Although now revered, the manner in which Lin’s angled wall gently cut into the earth was widely panned as being “too abstract” or a “black gash of shame” when her design was selected in 1981. Concessions were eventually made and a more traditional figurative statue, Frederick Hart’s The Three Soldiers was added to the site in 1984. Although most events don’t have the the same emotional weight (or nationalist implications) of the Vietnam War, these kind of contentious dialogues prove how invested the public in how remembrance is expressed in the urban realm.

The above image is an illustration of 4Gentleman’s Tiananmen SquARed overlay for the Layar augmented reality (AR) browser. The application allows users to view 3D models of iconic scenes from the 1989 student uprising through their smartphones when visiting the appropriate Beijing sites. Given that the Chinese government continues to blot this revolt from the public record, this is a subversive albeit subtle intervention that will permanently alter the experience of the site for some visitors. In a supporting blog post, the authors describe their motives:

“Although it has been more than twenty years since [the] Tiananmen Protest took place in 1989, the authority persistently uses all means erasing the facts that Chinese people pursued democracy in this democratic and anti-corruption movement. In China, nowadays, young people are not aware the courageous actions, such as ‘Tank Man’ and erecting ‘Statue of Democracy’ facing Mao’s portrait on Tiananmen Tower, emerged during [the] student movement of 1989. Nonetheless, history should not be forgotten.”

Tiananmen SquARed clearly illustrates how platforms like Layar can be leveraged to archive historical information. In addition to foregrounding suppressed narratives and battle erasure, AR overlays (or map layers) can also be used to browse unrealized futures. The iPhone app Museum of the Phantom City: Other Futures (2009) allows an explorer of New York City handy access to images and information regarding a selection of unbuilt speculative proposals including Frank Lloyd Wright’s St. Mark’s Tower (1931) and Superstudio’s Continuous Monument (1969). In engaging this tool, a user equips themselves with what Geoff Manaugh succinctly described as an “architectural dowsing rod” and is drawn into the tension between the city that is and that which might have been. Furthermore, a user must travel to the sites of the various proposals in order to ‘unlock’ related content thus forcing participants to excavate rather than simply consume.(3) Although relatively constrained in scope (and admittedly smartphone-centric), these examples highlight how various media platforms can be deployed as time capsules to provide ready access to historical information that future urbanites might seek out, sift through or stumble across.

Graffiti Archeology

[Cassidy Curtis & Stamen / Graffiti Archeology, Bluxome St. wall in San Francisco – 2005 and 2007]


By focusing on the flow of commodities and bodies through Parisian arcades, Benjamin was able to carefully parse the ephemeral nature of urban experience. One only need watch the movement of a crowd on a busy street to understand that public spaces have a ‘refresh’ rate and their use and occupation varies tremendously depending on the season, weather or time of day. The city is rife with these kind of fluctuations and they happen so quickly or discretely that we often overlook them. In the same way that media can be used to commemorate historically significant events, it is also equally adept at logging at (comparatively) inconsequential changes. The above image is a composite of two screen captures from Graffiti Archaeology (2003), a project produced by Cassidy Curtis and Stamen that provides users with an interface for tracking graffiti activity on a number of key walls in San Francisco over the last decade. Once a wall is selected, a viewer can ‘scrub’ the timeline of available images to note the incremental addition of tags and partial or complete cover-up of a piece with a fresh mural – it is a fascinating example of vernacular ‘media architecture’ that seems straight out of Stewart Brand’s 1994 text How Buildings Learn. Beyond one-off photo archives, street art owes a tremendous debt to universally accessible web-based photo sharing services and blogs that allow the documentation of relatively short lived murals and stencil art to be archived, distributed and resonate internationally.

There are of course many other examples of media being used to inflect our inscriptions on and utterances across the urban landscape. Christian Marc Schmidt and Liangjie Xia’s Invisible Cities is a recently launched social media browser that geolocates and aggregates twitter and flickr activity. The application provides users with a first-person vantage point for exploring the narrative cartography of Manhattan through the delineation of nodes of content and “topic vectors”(4). If we were to expand the breadth of this project it starts to resemble some of the developments forecasted by Jeremy Hight in “Writing Within the Map”, an essay published on NeMe last year. In this text Hight offers a thorough and imaginative consideration of how publishing is becoming an increasingly spatial project:

“Publishing and distribution will soon also be in maps. Yes. The news stand is to also be within that red dot. You are here. But what is here? How many stories have been set in Chicago? How many essays have been written on the crumbling cores of cities like Detroit? … These places and all other places have many faces, aspects, and these speak to many voices, investigations and (re)iterations. So why not publish in these places? Why not in their maps as well?”

While Hight’s predictions are opaque, his outlook is invaluable when thinking about an endgame for the types of spatial narratives that emerging technologies (AR, increasingly accessible mapping APIs, etc.) might engender and how they may extend and complement more traditional notions of authorship. The city is a space of not only substantial but fleeting discourse: what tools are at our disposal for tapping into and exploring this chatter?

Toronto G20 Kettling / Sukey

[Left: Police kettle citizens during the G20 Summit in Toronto, photo: Eldar Curovic / Right: Sukey]

Refuge in the crowd

This last discussion is not so much about the passage of time, but the evolution of power relations. The image on the above left documents one of the more widely publicized moments during the security debacle that accompanied the 2010 G20 Summit. In this picture, police have surrounded 200 citizens whose decision to visit a major downtown retail district during a global trade summit resulted in their being kettled for several hours. Kettling is an increasingly common police tactic where lines of officers surround and intimidate crowds into submission by containing them for extended periods of time. While the detainment minimizes bodily harm, it is a flagrant violation of civil liberties and effectively transforms tracts of the city into temporary open air prisons. In response to several instances of kettling conducted by the UK police during the student protests last fall, Sam Gaus and Sam Carlisle used Google’s My Maps functionality to provide real-time updates about police activity in London so that protesters could remain “safe mobile and informed”. A related suite of tools named Sukey was released two months ago to extend this functionality by providing demonstrators with the ability to interact with the service through various smartphone and SMS protocols. Users now have range of options for reporting and receiving information about which nearby road junctions are clear and obstructed and where police actions are occurring. Given that policing strategies for managing organized demonstrations have become increasingly draconian over the last decade, it only follows that we’d see a new breed of tools emerge that harness locative media and citizen sensors as a form of non-violent resistance.

Tim Maly wrote a brilliant summary of mediated resistance to G20 police violence that focused on the ubiquity of recording devices and sensors. The following particularly glib excerpt highlights the ‘disposability’ of individuals within a crowd:

“At highly documented events, the rate at which recordings are made far outstrips the rate at which we can view them. Any given photo or video can be lost but the loss is not that great. Any given observer can be beaten, arrested, even killed, and the loss is not that great. At least not that much greater than if it was any other participant.”

Although depressing to dwell on, this is the logic of Sukey – through presence and feedback, individuals work to increase the safety and decisionmaking capabilities of the collective. Conversations regarding citizen action against militarized urban space are hardly new, Benjamin dedicated an entire section of The Arcades Project to Baron Haussmann’s 19th century urban renewal program, which cut wide swaths through Paris in the hopes of sculpting an urban fabric that was more retail friendly and revolution-resistant. To paraphrase and expand on Benjamin: The mighty seek to secure their stature with cunning (fashion) and blood (police), the crowd responds with a many-eyed gaze (surveillance).(5)

Inception - what happens when you start messing with the physics of it all?


While the streets of Paris don’t figure that prominently into the layered narrative of Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010), they do function as kind of a staging ground where the base rules of the film’s dream logic are established. Conversations between protagonists Cobb and Ariadne lead into several bombastic CGI-driven scenes which culminate in the Parisian street grid folding in on itself, the city reimagined as giant setpiece. Right before this sequence the young architect Ariadne wonders out loud about the implications of her total control: “My question is, what happens when you start messing with the physics of it all?” Benjamin often described technology and progress as creating a universe (and city) of ‘phantasmagoria’ – an endless montage of illusion and desire. That definition still stands, so those of us thinking about how the presence of history might figure into new forms of representing urban experience had best heed her question.

The next post in this series will deal with DIY Mapping and Counter Cartography.


(1) Mike Davis’ perfectly describes Rick Deckard as a “postapocalypse Philip Marlowe” in the concluding chapter of Ecology of Fear.
(2) Friedberg, Anne. “The Passage from Arcade to Cinema” in Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. Pg. 50.
(3) A detailed overview of Museum of the Phantom City: Other Futures is available here.
(4) See the related “Invisible Cities: Representing Social Networks in an Urban Context” in the Parsons Journal for Information Mapping (Volume 3, Issue 1) for thorough documentation of this project.
(5) A rejigged [E5a,8] from the Arcades Project

About the Author: Greg J. Smith a Toronto-based designer and researcher with interests in media theory and digital culture. Extending from a background in architecture, his research considers how contemporary information paradigms affect representational and spatial systems. Greg is a designer at Mission Specialist, blogs at Serial Consign, writes a column on emerging technology for Current Intelligence and is a managing editor of the digital arts publication Vague Terrain. He currently teaches in the CCIT program (University of Toronto/Sheridan College) and at OCAD University.

  • niub

  • brilliant. I wonder how we could deliver such functionality to those in most need of it, potentially those without smartphones.