Body City Relationship

Enjoy this great piece of writing about the relation of the body to the city:

The human body is inscribed into a number of cycles as we have seen in the broad field discussed above. Ultimately these patterns have a direct impact on any activities and social relations coming from the body, thereof also the shaping of the immediate environment. Furthermore this highlights the importance of looking at repetitive patterns as elements of the society in an overall sense.
Images taken from Wikipedia.

The relationship and interaction of body and city is the subject of direct investigation with theurbanDiary project. Through the GPS tracking of individuals in the city, the body movement is recorded on a city scale and visualises the extension of the interaction of the body with the urban morphology. Quite literally the record can be visualised as the body’s physical inscription onto the urban form. With the rhythmic constitution of the body in mind, this space ‘creation’ of the physical body is investigated.
In the more theoretical conceptualisation of the body, there is a great emphasis on issues of gender and sex. Although these are very important aspects, it would be too much to integrate it in detail.

If the body is read in connection to the city, the importance of these external issues is emphasised. The body shapes the city in a literal sense if the city is understood as a human artefact. They do actually stand in a two-way relationship, meaning that they directly influence one another resulting in the city shaping the body. Taken from the OED, the body is part of the Greek word ‘Polis’. A polis (πόλις, pronunciation [pó], [‘pɒl.ɪs] in English) — plural: poleis (πόλεις, pronunciation [pól.eːs], [‘pɒl.eɪz] in English) — is a city, a city-state and also citizenship and body of citizens. When used to describe Classical Athens and its contemporaries, polis is often translated as “city-state” (Wikipedia n.d.). As we can see, the human body played an important part in the early formation of the city through the ‘body of citizens’ as a metaphor.

In the current debate about the relationship between the body and the city, two main models can be identified. The first one is a cause and effect type of model. The body here is a dominating object over the city as a resulting structure, mainly derived from physical strength to actually build. In this sense, the body is projected onto the city. However as Grosz points out in Bodies-Cities (Grosz 1998), recently an inverted view on this relationship has emerged. The urban environment is labelled alienating and cities do not allow the body a “natural” context. It all fits in to a specific view on humanism. The human subject is characterised as an independent agent individually and collectively who is responsible for the creation of culture, socially and historically. Going as far as denying any contextual influence, in the case of cities this means humans make cities, and over all, in this sense, humans rule the world. In this light, the current debate around the overcrowded city artefacts, sheds new light. Much of the current debate in urban planning is directed by this understanding.

With the UN’s announcement in 2008 that now for the first time in the history of the earth, more people live in cities than in rural areas, a huge wave of debate has rolled over the professions working in related subjects, as reported for example in The Endless City (Burdett & Sudjic 2008). The above humanistic centred approach was applied to deal with rising predictions on city population. In a one-way relationship where the body is the cause and the city the effect the solution is simple. In this debate, it is presented as a question of cleverness to solve this “new” problem to regain dominance on a human creation. The concept city needs updating. Part of this problem is related to the disconnection of body and city. Our understanding has moved a long way from the meaning of ‘polis’ as introduced above. The relationship between the two terms shifted from a dependency to a rivalry. There are signs of the development of a new concept though. For example in ‘The City is You’ a book by Petra Kempf (2009), the title immediately suggests a dramatic change in understanding the city.

The second model is the direct modelling of the city on the state of the body. There are a number of concepts to transform the body, or use the body as an example in the attempt to model larger structures. Machines are amenable to such comparison, but also cities and even political systems have been subject to this sort of function / meaning transfer. The political model is mainly coined by Thomas Hobbes and developed in his book Leviathan (in Grosz 1998). He directly modelled his proposition of the ideal state on the human body, the head being the king, the nerves the law, the arms the military and so forth. A similar literal translation was undertaken by Francesco di Giorgio Martini in 1470 from the body to the urban form of cities. In his explanations accompanying the sketch ,he said: “One should shape the city, fortress, and castle in the form of a human body, that the head with the attached members have a proportioned correspondence and that the head be the rocca, the arms its recessed walls that, circling around, link the rest of the whole body, the vast city. And thus it should be considered that just as the body has all its members and parts in perfect measurements and proportions, in the composition of temples, cities, rocche, and castles the same principles should be observed” (Quoted in Nesbitt 1996, p.548). Similarly le Corbusier is reported to use similar references during a planning meeting for the city of Chandigarh, his only built city project. In Cities of Tomorrow, Peter Hall (1988) reports this monologue: “Corbusier held the crayon and was in his element.
“Voilà la gare” he said “et voici la rue commercial”, and he drew the first road on the new plan of Chandigarh. “Voici la tête”, he went on, indicating with a smudge the higher ground … ‘Et voilà l’estomac, le cité-centre”. Then he delineated the massive sectors measuring each half by three quarters of a mile and filling out the extent of the plain between the river valleys, with extension to the south. (Hall 1988, p.212)”

The relationship here, between the body and the city is a kind of parallelism. The two are understood as congruent counterparts with features and organisation mirrored in one another (Grosz 1998). The implication of such a relationship is not only the clear male dominance of the body over the city, but the resulting implied opposition between nature and culture. In addition, this is also based on a hierarchical structure, for both nature as well as culture.

via Body City Relationship


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