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Building Cities, Making Friends: A Meditation, in Five General Propositions.


Like a bad concert hall, affective space contains dead spots where the sound fails to circulate.--The perfect interlocutor, the friend, is he not the one who constructs around you the greatest possible resonance? Cannot friendship be defined as a space with total sonority?

ROLAND BARTHES, A Lover's Discourse: Fragments (1)

I am much taken with this image from Barthes' poignant, fragmentary, nuanced engagement with the plight of the lover, stranded at the limits of language. All love is a kind of wish, and here we see the core of all human longing, the desire for someone who will listen. There is no better figure of friendship than the implied construction of the good concert hall, the one where there are no dead spots, where I am always heard because you, the friend, have created a space so sonorous and resonant that my merest whisper is heard in the rear balcony.

Friendship, especially of the intimate sort that Barthes has in mind for the lover, may seem an odd keynote for a discussion of urbanism and architecture. But ! want to suggest that the prospect of such intimacy, the space of total sonority, is the regulative ideal of all great cities, the goal, perhaps finally unreachable, towards which all effort is aimed. The construction of a resonance that allows each one of us to know that we are heard, that we have a friend in the existence of the city itself.

THE image is resonant in another, more obvious way in the current context, of course, because the impressively varied practice of Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects (KPMB) now includes one of the best, most resonant concert halls to be found anywhere, located in Toronto, the city where I live--Koerner Hall, part of the Royal Conservatory of Music renovation of 2009. I was able to visit the site of this construction before it was completed, and climbed the scaffolded height to stand inside what would eventually become the elaborate wave-wood ceiling of this exemplary space. That is, I was able to stand inside one of the design elements that make for sonority, that enable resonance, in the finished hall. That moment of suspension within a not-yet-finished architectural project remains, for me, a crystallized memory of what it means to build a city, to create the material conditions of shared dwelling. And now, when I step into the hall's lobby, which floats over the graceful pedestrian slope from Bloor Street that is known as Philosopher's Walk and embraces downtown Toronto as if we were in a living room--or a shared playground--I see again the genius of this design.

The meditative origins, the warm materials palette, the creation of a community space and not just a building: these traits are characteristic of the KPMB practice. More than any other firm, KPMB has sounded the keynote of urban renewal in Toronto, their home base. But projects in other cities and towns are equally significant makers of sonority. If we believe Aristotle, that a just city must be, in some sense, a city of friends, the architectural interventions of KPMB are more than commissions or projects; they are exercises in civic humanism. Buildings become, in effect, miniature cities, gathering their surrounding spaces, large and small, unto themselves. From the modified college cloister of the CIGI Campus in Waterloo, Ontario (2011), with its stunning cantilevered entrance and warm interior spaces for conversation and instruction (which converts the loose edge of a small town into a vibrant urban site), to the capacious Vaughan City Hall (2011), Canada's National Ballet School (2011), the renovated Gardiner Museum (2006), and the TIFF Bell Lightbox (2011), we observe again and again the material conditions of community.


By that phrase I mean at least the following five necessary features of city building: (1) a strong connection to existing urban geography--even if, as in the Vaughan project, for example, the surrounding area is anti-aesthetic or bare; (2) the artful reinterpretation of traditional elements and forms (the courtyard, the quad, the bell tower, the cafe); (3) the creation of public space within buildings as well as between them, forming interior crucibles of shared citizenship; (4) program design that makes for frequent mixing and social interplay; and, perhaps above all, (5) a sense of play, the ability to create spontaneous situations and encounters among people, to achieve even in workmanlike spaces a creative, non-utilitarian derive--a drift. (2)

Since these five features may seem obvious, even as their realization is in fact far from common, allow me to expand on them with a series of expansive theses which I believe the city-building practice of KPMB brings to our attention. Thus a meditation, philosophical and architectural, in the form of five general propositions ...

General Proposition No. 1: The city is a philosophical extension of the human person.

THIS proposition is valid along at least two distinct vectors. First, the city is an extension of human action in the same way that Marshall McLuhan meant when he said that communications media are "extensions of man." Media enable a routine transcendence of the limitations which inhere in the human sensorium. Unaided, I can see only what is revealed to my eyes, hear only what lies within range of my ears, and so on. But with the aid of a telephone, or a television, or a telegraph--with, to be sure, a computer or tablet but also, for that matter, with smoke signals or a walking stick cane I can experience a vastly expanded range of possible stimuli beyond my meagre bodily range: events, stories, intimacies. Media offer us an extended body, a body stretched and attenuated across large distances in space and time.

The built environment of the city is, by the same logic, a massive and complex extension of the human body. It allows me precisely to pursue all the bodily tasks of human life that make for the complex achievement of personhood: to shelter and work, to move and interact, to eat and drink, to remember and forget, to live, love, and die.

Not all of its extensions are strictly sensory, as in communications media as such; instead, the city is what we might call the ur-medium or super-extension of man. The city offers ways of getting somewhere, places worth getting to, places that are neither here nor there. The person, in the form of his or her body, perforce negotiates these spaces on a daily basis--and so comes into contact with other persons, other bodies, doing the same. The city is thus the physical manifestation of our desires and purposes, both responsive to what we think we want and constraining, shaping, of what we come to want.

It has been a commonplace at least since Aristotle (him again!) that first we create cities, and then they create us. Winston Churchill's much-quoted line to the same effect, where the term "buildings" appears in the place of "cities," is both less general and offered without proper provenance. He is not wrong, but the deeper point--the point that lurks in Aristotle's sense of the city as an expression of organic norms encoded in the natural and social world (really there is no bright division between them)--is that buildings affect other buildings as well as affecting people. Cities are composed of complexes of desire, not all of which are entirely conscious at the level of the individual user or even creator of buildings. (3)

The general proposition is valid in another, perhaps less obvious sense, however. It is related to the first but requires a little more philosophical flexibility to accept. It is this: the city is, like the human person, subject to a version of the mind-body problem. That problem, with us since Descartes, concerns that apparently mysterious causal linkage between one substance, the mind, which is wholly immaterial, with another, the body, which is wholly non-mental. (The Homer Simpson version goes like this: "Mind? No matter. Matter? Never mind.") How is it possible that the human person, apparently possessed, somehow, of both a distinct mind and an ambulatory body, is able to function? On the premise of two distinct substances, this should not be possible; and yet, the evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of its being not only possible, but trivial. People do things each and every day, blithely unaware that there is any problem at all concerning the interaction of the mental and the material.

We need not tarry here with Descartes' proposed solution to the problem (a neatly evasive reference to a mysterious substance-interface performed in the pineal gland) nor with the many decades, indeed centuries, of debate that this problem has spawned. What we can do, instead, is note that there is a rather obvious solution to the mind-body problem, which is in fact dissolution: the premise of two wholly distinct substances is flawed from the start. Human consciousness is not, despite philosophers' longstanding penchant for abstraction and out-of-body thought experiments, ever divorced from its embodiment; by the same token, the human body is not best conceived as some inanimate machine which receives a jolt of life from the ghostly inhabitation of mental activity. This point can be made as a matter of logic, as Gilbert Ryle did: his dismissive phrase "the ghost in the machine" for the Cartesian orthodoxy is deployed in my previous sentence. (4) It can also be made positively, via the introduction of an alternative view.


There are several such alternatives, but the most persuasive is some version of what has come to be called phenomenology. On this view, it is impossible to conceive of human consciousness without an awareness of the facts of embodiment. Consciousness just is a sense of being somewhere, in place, that complex immersion of self within a horizon of spatial and temporal awareness. To be myself (to be anyone at all) is to presuppose, as a condition of life's possibility, a sense of in front and behind, here and there, then and now. That premise--and not some division of substances manufactured in the laboratory of runaway meditation--is the philosophically significant fact about human persons. And it is realized in a host of daily actions and experiences, from the skilful but mostly implicit negotiation of myself through a doorway--together with the loss of memory that such a threshold-crossing may entail!--to the complex bobbing and weaving required to traverse a busy sidewalk or railway station concourse. (5)

We may seem to have wandered some distance from cities, and architecture, and architects. But not really. For a city entertains and then solves--or rather dissolves--its own version of the mind-body problem in just the same way. A city is not reducible just to its built forms: on the analogy, its matter or "body." But neither is the city merely the sum total of its citizens and their desires: again, per analogy, its consciousness or "mind." And just as neither of these reductions can be validly enacted, since each limits the reality of the city as a living thing, an achievement, it is likewise the case that the city is not best conceived as some troubled interaction between the two aspects. Indeed, the sense of division between built forms and citizen desires is precisely the premise that requires dismissal. Phenomenology sees the human person as embodied consciousness; good urban theory views the city the same way. (6)

General Proposition No. 2: The architect is an instinctive phenomenologist of the city.

ARCHITECTURE concerns the unfinished text of the city: the city is never over, always begun anew, ever layered. Architecture creates public space even when its projects are nominally private--an office building rather than a park or institution--because the architect's intervention is made within the shared fabric of the city. That noun "fabric," so often used without full awareness, creates a trace of meaning worth following, a thread to tease out: a fabric is not just textile but, instead, any made thing, that which is fabricated. The shared urban fabric is the making, the project, which engages and concerns us all. The city, the made thing which we inhabit, is our collective project. But the architect has a special status within this shared fabrication.

That master of the paradoxical thought, Pascal, said this about our status as thinking reeds, "the most feeble thing in nature," but blessed with the significant, indeed transcendent ability to consider ourselves: "It is not from space that I must seek my dignity, but from the government of my thought. I shall have no more if I possess worlds. By space, the universe envelops me and swallows me up like a point; by thought, I envelop the world." (7) Here consciousness flies out and back in an instant, and the occupation of space is revealed for what it is: a speculation by consciousness about consciousness, a thought about the very fact of thinking. This moment of reflection--which is the moment in which consciousness experiences itself as self--is architecture's business and highest achievement.


But (one might object) surely architecture is about solving technical issues in the deployment of space, heating and cooling, and program, the negotiation of site and client desire? Of course it is. But to what purpose? If architecture is not a form of speculation about life, the occasion for thought, it has failed its ultimate mission. That is why, contrary to the usual narratives of ego and mannerism, the real objections to signature style or grand formalist gestures in an architect are not about humility but, instead, concern rigour of thought. The architect who indulges style over conversation--with the adjacent buildings and streets, with the citizens, with the city--has failed to engage the philosophical responsibilities of the architect. He or she may have failed other responsibilities as well: aesthetic, political, ethical; but these are predicated on the more basic failure to think.



One therefore looks at this urban thought in action--in Concordia University's Integrated Complex combining faculties for Engineering, Computer Sciences, Visual Arts, and Business (2005 and 2009), for example, with its deft vertical integration of an otherwise inchoate campus stranded in a downtown Montreal neighbourhood that has heretofore lacked a coherent identity--and feels a power of thoughtful consideration, the way design is executed at the service of community and use. Other campus projects--for Centennial and George Brown colleges (2004 and 2012), future works at MIT, Princeton, and Northwestern universities--demonstrate the same sensitivity to gathering and listening. Indeed, we might say that here campus and city become specular partners: the urban college or university folded into the city surround, but also the isolated campus made into a miniature city.

Campus in Latin means field, and the first university campuses were not the quads and towers but the fields on which they sat; now, a campus is a field of thought, a field of possibility, at once delineated and opened by the built forms in which we work, speculate, and converse. Discourse, realized in matter, enabling discourse.

General Proposition No. 3: Not all great architecture is great urban architecture.

THE reason for this distinction should be obvious. There are great architects and (it follows) great buildings which do not concern themselves with city building. Such buildings may inhabit cities, or stand in their precincts, but they do not engage and converse with the city. Hence these are buildings that do not build the city--they are not part of its shared fabric. It is possible for such buildings to be monuments, in Aldo Rossi's sense, but only in the somewhat violent sense that they take up and redistribute the existing surround without regard for its history of effects. We might, indeed, distinguish here between violent monuments and benign ones, the latter embodying more of Rossi's sense that a city could be memorialized and extended by the monumental in architecture. (8)

Thus, one might include in the former, violent category such examples as the Eiffel Tower in Paris and Daniel Libeskind's Michael Lee-Chin Crystal renovation of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, and in the latter category the Empire State Building in Manhattan and, in Toronto, the John P. Robarts Research Library at the University of Toronto. Note that the distinction is not a function of modest elevation or of accommodating style: the Empire State soars but nevertheless manages to engage and (we might say) shelter its island home; the concrete brutalist mass of Robarts is surprisingly warm, even welcoming. The affectionate nickname it has earned from students at the University of Toronto--Fort Book--communicates benign monumentality better than any amount of theoretical discourse. (9)

The conclusion I mean to derive from these rather tendentious examples (for what examples are not tendentious when we speak of architecture and theory?) is that sometimes, maybe often, the "bold" or "original" architectural statement is precisely the one that does not succeed in building the city. There is surely a place for signature buildings and insistent gestural design in all great cities--one might even argue that no city can be truly great without the spirited conversation, or controversy, that inevitably erupts around such buildings. But they do not, themselves, make the city; in fact, they are parasitic upon another kind of architectural genius, namely the sort that intervenes in and subtly extends existing conversations, not splashing but rippling the waters of urban life.

Pedestrians may not stop on the street to take photographs of such buildings, but one must concede at a certain point that this is the point. A photographed building may be a mere oddity, a sport, a folly. More nuanced regard may be present in the form of quiet approval, pleasant engagement, calm beauty. This is the stillness of perfect form, which yet works a sly magic on the viewer and user, stretching the boundaries of consciousness in ways more powerful for being less jarring.

General Proposition No. 4: Urban architecture is, above all, the creation of place.

THERE is a line from David Young's play Inexpressible Island, about the bare survival of a Royal Navy expedition to Antarctica, which has stayed with me since I saw the original production in 1997. In the drama, based on historical events, six men are lost in the extreme landscape near the South Pole at the same time that Robert Scott's ill-fated Terra Nova expedition is perishing of cold

and starvation. The six figures in the play will all survive, barely, the brutal eight months of winter, only to find their story overshadowed by the harrowing tale of Scott's failure. The play is about many things, including class and spirituality, but mostly it shows the weirdly inspired madness that can descend on human beings undergoing desperate conditions of life. Towards the end of the winter, the small unit's medical officer, Dr Levick, descends into a kind of philosophical delirium.


"Nature, in the form of man, begins to recognize itself," Levick says, ostensibly to his commanding officer, Lieutenant Campbell, but really to himself. "That's what we're doing here in the South, Lieutenant. We are all artists, of a kind. We are giving nature back to herself." And later: "As much as anything that's what has carried us here on this pilgrimage. The South Pole is an idea. A place that is no place. The final nothing." (10)

There is much to consider in these lines, as in the whole play. The South Pole is an abstraction, a notional point created only by the world-defining Cartesian geometry of the Mercator Projection. It is both real and not real: a place that is not a place, something that does not exist for humans yet can be fixed, and visited for the first time (as we know, it would be Scott's tragedy to find that Norwegian rival Roald Amundsen had beaten him to the spot). Thus this is a pilgrimage of the mind, carried out by the body. A modern spiritual journey, a hejira defined entirely by lines, angles, and national identity. But it is also a work of art: the creation of that place where the mind and the body meet--perhaps to perish--where the universe becomes aware of itself in the form of human consciousness. Nature, in the form of man, begins to recognize itself.

All creation of place exhibits this eerie mixture of abstract and concrete, of material and mental. And so we return again to the basic phenomenological awareness of embodied consciousness, but now tied even more closely to the idea of place, of being in place by deploying the conditions of possibility for place-making. Anywhere--and, it follows, nowhere--can be a place. As long as we are there, to think and talk, to listen and respond. The world, once conscious of itself in the form of human making, is a vast concert hall. What sounds there is not the divine music of celestial spheres, as the ancient Greek mathematicians believed, but the sound of one human after another issuing the daily plea: to be heard, to be understood, to be accommodated.


And, invoking another play about survival, extremity, and madness, we know that the opposite condition, the poor, bare, forked condition of human alienation, is precisely the lack of place: the heath, where Lear must go mad because he is not, finally, heard. Reason not the need!

General Proposition No. 5: The creation of place is the gift of play.

A gift is given without expectation of return. In the true gift economy, wealth is measured not by how much one has accumulated but by how much one has given away. Truly to give, to give beyond all exchange or reciprocity, is to be irresponsible, creative, ironic, spontaneous, available. It is to play, in the sense that great art and great philosophy are forms of play.

Place-making is play-making. In one sense, to make a place is to create the material conditions of experience, to create the phenomenological clearing; but a place is not a place without my being there, my finding myself there, being in place. Further, place-making does not end with the subjective experience of either the one-in-place or the maker-of-place. For it is the nature of places to keep on giving, to create and renew, again and again, the conditions of their own possibility. Places are, in a sense, living things, maintained in time by experience and enjoyment. That is what it is for a place to be a place. This is what it means to clear a space for us to play in.

City halls, educational buildings, cinematic complexes--functionality varies according to task. Place-making, and hence city-building, transcends all specific functionality. It speaks to engagement, not program, freedom rather than function.

It is in such places that we may find--or (as we sometimes say) make--friends. There may be in actuality no perfect interlocutor as described by Barthes, but the well-built city gives us the chance, over and over, to try to find that comprehensively resonant friend. The one with whom we can play. The one who will listen while we drift together, continuously.


(1) Roland Barthes, A Lover's Discourse: Fragments (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1977; New York: Hill & Wang, Richard Howard, trans., 1978, 2010), p. 167, from the fragment "No Answer: mutisme/silence."

(2) Though I borrow here the term favoured by the Situationists, there is no need to align the sort of city-building I am discussing, with its feet firmly rooted in reality, alongside the utopian New Babylon "city of play" advocated by Ivan Chtcheglov and Constant Nieuwenhuys. Still, there is something compelling about the vision of a city designed entirely for homo ludens, a city where, as Chtcheglov puts it in his "Formulary for a New Urbanism," "[t]he main activity of the inhabitants will be CONTINUOUS DRIFTING." Chtcheglov promises an "aesthetic of behaviours" but also a "complete phenomenology of couples, encounters, and duration." Along the way, he reserves some choice words for Le Corbusier: "Some sort of psychological repression dominates this individual--whose face is as ugly as his conception of the world--such that he wants to squash people under ignoble masses of reinforced concrete, a noble material that should rather be used to enable an aerial articulation of space that could surpass the flamboyant Gothic style. His cretinizing influence is immense. A Le Corbusier model is the only image that arouses in me the idea of immediate suicide. He is destroying the last remnants of joy. And of love, passion, freedom." (See Chtcheglov first drafted the "Formulary" in 1953, when he was 19, under the name Gilles Ivain; it was published in the first issue of Internationale Situationiste. He spent five years in a psychiatric ward after being committed by his wife, and died in 1998.

(3) A somewhat hostile review of my book Nearest Thing to Heaven: The Empire State Building and American Dreams (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006) suggested that the claim there--namely, that the Empire State had in a sense "caused" the people of New York to construct it, given the logic of the "race for the sky," contemporary technological advances, and so on--was evidence of my having been "bamboozled" by fashionable French theory. No, just taking Aristotle seriously.

(4) See Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1949).

(5) The congruence between phenomenological theory and clinical psychological findings is a growth industry in academia. Just one example: a 2011 University of Notre Dame study found that doors and other spatial thresholds created "event boundaries" in episodes of experience or activity, prompting changes of consciousness that might, for example, present as changes of mood or, notoriously, temporary loss of memory. Hence the common experience, even absent dementia, of arriving in a room and not knowing what brought you there, or what you came to fetch. One of the study's authors offered this advice: "Doorways are bad. Avoid them at all costs." See Misty Harris, "Study shows doors can be linked to memory loss," The National Post, 9 November 2011.

(6) This is an extremely brief rehearsal of arguments that I make at length in Concrete Reveries: Consciousness and the City (New York: Viking, 2008).

(7) Blaise Pascal, Pensees, no. 348.

(8) Aldo Rossi, The Architecture of the City (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1982). It is worth noting that Rossi considers himself, after a fashion, a structuralist devotee of Barthes.

(9) But for more theoretical discussion, see Mark Kingwell, "Monumental- Conceptual Architecture," Harvard Design Magazine, 19 (Fall 2003/Winter 2004), and also Nearest Thing to Heaven, passim.

(10) David Young, Inexpressible Island (Scirocco Drama, 1998), pp. 116 and 120.

MARK KINGWELL is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto and a contributing editor to Harper's magazine. His latest book is Unruly Voices, a collection of essays on democracy and human imagination (Biblioasis, 2012).
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Author:Kingwell, Mark
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Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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