“The city is a fact in nature, like a cave, a run of mackerel, or an ant heap. But it is also a conscious work of art, and it holds within its communal framework many simpler and more personal forms of art. Mind takes form in the city; and in turn, urban forms condition mind.”
In this cold, even the light seems brittle, like old bones on a frozen beach. The straightness of light—its refusal to bend—seems more apparent. Everything has hard edges, angles, corners; I walk into town, directly into the mid afternoon sun, squinting because the light’s so piercing, or the air’s so cold. Possibly both.
What is a city? Buildings, streets, cars, people, all aggregated? This perspective views cities as primarily physical; made up of stuff—the stuff of cities. But a different view sees cities as processes, as aggregations of ideas, as closely connected relationships. Sometimes you hear cities described as having a particular soul—or lacking one. And the heart of a city is not necessarily its geographical centre. A city is not only organic.
Another day, and I look out from the behind the louvred windows of the Palmerston North City Library, through grey rain across rooftops. Below, occasional pedestrians walk along George Street, past the Deli and the designer boutiques. Past the Mao Bar with its bright red patio umbrellas: a geometry of vermillion warmth in the drab light, serving no function other than this, the ornamental—the umbrellas shelter beneath the eaves sheltering the footpath—but it’s enough. Colour like this can’t be considered too important on such a dismal day. Some of the passersby seem to have a definite purpose in mind; others amble, perhaps a little lost in their thoughts. Everywhere in this city, people right now are thinking about things from the mundane and pragmatic to the incandescent and esoteric. Some think about the same, or similar, things; some think about other people; some think of what was, some of what might be; some wonder what to buy for dinner. If you could draw a map of the city as a diagram of the connections between these thoughts, would you recognise the city? And would you know whether this city was alive and healthy or beginning its decline, heading towards eventual abandonment and final ruin?
I remember travelling by bus through industrial Tokyo in the remains of the day. Rust-stained pipework crawling over walls like a diagram with nodes made of valves and joints and spoked iron wheels. Razor wire, shredded paper wrapped around it. A bridge over a miasmic river. Skyscrapers in clusters on the smoky orange horizon; the city going on forever. The sense that this darkening area we were speeding through had already been abandoned and was now inhabited only by what had been left behind or had crept in unnoticed. In a representation of relationships, a diagram of connected thoughts, what would this look like? An empty space? A void? A faded patch in a multicoloured quilt?
Saturday night in the city, but here in a cul-de-sac in the suburbs it’s quiet. A breeze in winter branches; the sound of cars in the distance— boy racers. Occasionally, a far-off clamour of shouting. Nothing intrusive. The cat door rattles, then Molly appears on the bed, wanting to hongi , her fur damp and her paws cold. The best sounds in the world just before you drift into dreams are rain on an iron roof, the sound of moving water—the sea or a river—and a cat purring. In the heart of a city you can hope only for the first and last.
How do you represent thoughts or relationships? Should you represent the connections, and if so, between what? Between thinkers or thoughts? Perhaps you should focus on the intensity, the energy? “Should”, of course, is not a suitable word—I should have said, “could.” These questions are meant to provoke responses, not answers.
Perhaps this is what artists do best. An artist, intrigued with the idea of a city as a nexus of ideas, as a pattern of thoughts and relationships, might translate the idea into an expression of what seems impossible to pin down satisfactorily. It’s likely the artist, pressed to explain, would shrug, stumble over words, and finally suggest that the work is the explanation, or that the intention—as in all works of art—is not to explain but to evoke.
I’m left wondering, though. What might such a work look like? The shape and colour of a dream; the texture of imagination? Asked for a best guess, I’d probably reply, “The depths of a human brain.”
For the last month I've been looking after a house and two small, delightful cats in suburban Palmerston North. The stint ends in a few days; I'll miss Molly and Norman and I've enjoyed walking into town and some of the other benefits of urban living, but suburbia isn't really my environment.
1. To hongi is to greet another by pressing noses.
Photos (click if you want a larger image):
1 & 2. UCOL building at dusk, Palmerston North.
3. Eastbourne interior.
4. Wellington harbour and the South Island's Kaikoura Ranges. The tiny point of light in the sky in the East isn't a star, it's an aeroplane coming in to land.
Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor