“Power to the psychogeographers”, Simon Parker
In: The Guardian, 22 Feb 2002
Power to the psychogeographersThe ideas of a group of French radicals are enjoying a revival as planners seek to involve the public in designing their own cities. Simon Parker reports—–
Those who think of the Situationists at all probably associate them with the Paris riots of 1968. This obscure group of artists and drunks were among those who occupied the Sorbonne and plotted revolution. Their fame is based upon a handful of books and a couple of natty slogans painted onto the walls of Paris – “Free the Passions”, “Never Work”, “Live Without Dead Time”.
What is less well known is that Guy Debord and his disciples were also radical town planners, whose ideas are only now beginning to come back into fashion. The Situationists were a group that wanted a revolution in urban design, allowing citizens themselves to decide what kind of spaces and architecture they wanted to live in.
One article from 1958 sums up the group’s feelings about the city: “The world we live in, and beginning with its material decor, is discovered to be narrower by the day. It stifles us.
“We yield profoundly to its influence; we react to it according to our instincts instead of according to our aspirations. In a word, this world governs our way of being and it grinds us down.”
Debord’s analysis of the city was based on psychogeography – which the Situationists defined as the study of the effects of geographical settings, consciously managed or not, acting directly on the mood and behaviour of the individual.
Putting people in control of planning might sound like simple common sense, but many contemporary psychogeographers argue that even today’s town and city planners have failed to learn much from Debord’s theories.
In fact Ian McKay, a senior lecturer at the Southampton Institute and editor of the Journal of Psychogeographical and Urban Research, is hard pressed to think of any examples of good urban design.
Bad examples are far more common. Mr McKay points to a Southampton council estate with “green spaces so wide that the wind cuts through you”, and building layouts that are “cynical” and can only be made out from on high: “You know these estates because every major conurbation has them, and they spawn nothing but apathy”.
The problem for urban designers is that people always want to break the rules that planners try to set them. The design of the great council estates of the 1950s and 60s was a failure, suggests Mr McKay, precisely because planners sought to create communities without bothering to examine how people wanted to live their lives.
“Only in transgressing the rules of the planned space can we really find our own meaning and space,” said Mr McKay. “A good planner knows this and allows for this transgression of the plan by the individuals who have to live in the space. The good town planner may well be one not precious about the plan.”
Contemporary psychogeographers put a great deal of emphasis on examining the myriad experiences people have of living in a city. A sports supporter might see a city in terms of the route to the football ground, and the quality of his or her experience might be defined in terms of what they hear, see or do on the way. This is why some groups of psychogeographers are keen on “mood mapping” – charting cities by the way they make people feel rather than their physical layout.
Urban designers need to understand what makes city experiences good and act as a broker between the needs of different groups, argues Nigel McGurk, a professional planner and land manager with the company Countryside Properties.
Mr McGurk extends his definition of bad planning to include the “box bashing” approach of many housing estates and new towns, and the “green wastelands” created by developers who are forced to build parks as a planning condition but find they are never used as communal space.
He also provides an apt metaphor for the consequences of bad planning: “An experience I had as a developer was at a place called Winwick Park in Warrington. We needed to provide new nesting boxes for housemartins, it was a planning condition. The housemartins came back and built nests next door to the nesting boxes.”
There are as many potential solutions to this problem as there are sects of psychogeographers.
At the more radical end of the scale a group of artists calling itself the Nottingham Psychogeographical Unit argues that there are already too many buildings and calls for all new developments to be stopped immediately. Recent new buildings should be torn down according to popular demand from local residents, they say, and citizens should be given total administrative power over development.
The aim is to allow the city to grow in an organic way, guided by local needs and “opening ourselves and our cities up to the possibility of experiencing higher moments of life”.
Some psychogeographical groups have also brought the occult into their study of the city, becoming obsessed with ley-lines and other new age gimmickry.
But Mr McGurk is more practical in his approach: “We’ve got to find out what it is that people want – how they want to interact with their environment. One of the big challenges, I think, is for town planners to address what is meant by public consultation.”
He sees buildings such as the Lowry museum in Manchester as examples of good psychogeographical design. The creators of the Lowry, he says, have made a new community with a real sense of place by mixing galleries with restaurants, theatres, shops and bars.
Manchester’s new Urbis centre provides a similar mix of exhibitions, shops, meeting places and cafes. Mr McGurk argues that the designers have succeeding in using the centre to guide people into seldom used parts of the city.
The avant garde founding fathers of psychogeography would probably be horrified at the mainstream and moderate uses to which their philosophy is being put. But Mr McKay does have one radical proposal of which Debord would have been proud.
“I really believe that if planners were required to live in the conurbations they plan, and some are, their awareness of the subtle psychogeographies at work would quickly come into focus,” he said.