Edit 2020: I’ve moved this series to my personal email list. If you are interested, don’t hesitate to contact me and I’ll be happy to share the links to this and the public airtable repository of supporting documents. Unfortunately, Medium’s partner program is not available in Colombia and I had to financially justify the time spent on this long term project. Leaving this one up for reference.
This essay is the intro to a monthly series of 12 long-form posts in which I am sharing some ideas about the future of cities. Here, in particular, I will lay the philosophical framework to move gradually towards more specific issues.
The objects we use speak about us in as vivid a manner as the stories we tell. Form, material, purpose, are not uni-dimensional. As a political scientist-slash-data analyst, I spend a lot of time thinking about how and why we make decisions and how we deal with outcomes. (And why people often think they are doing the former when stuck in the latter). Objects’ form and function have a lot to do with that.
Cities are dynamic, complex, massive collections of objects that not only help us go by our days but also influence how we do it. The space of the city and the way available objects are arranged within it determine our interactions and the decisions we make.
Which is not a minor feat: What are our daily lives if not interactions and decision making?
Take, for instance, choosing how to go from point A to B. If you live in a major city, can you confidently say that you are making a decision instead of merely managing the outcomes of past actions made by you and others you don’t even know, in order to make it work on time?
We are used to taking some aspects of reality as a given, such as most of our decisions not being “first-order” ones. So much that you may already be thinking that the last paragraph introduced an idle disjunctive. Don’t we always deal with things we don’t get to choose like our time and place of birth, to name a few?
My point is that it is not the same. The settings we live our lives in are of our making. We have been building cities for 6 thousand years. They have changed with us as much as they have changed us, influencing the way we do things.
One of the many definitions of power has to do with just that: The ability to make others do something they would not do otherwise. As intricate as this proposition reads at first glance, most people have an intuition of influence-as-power. (“Having someone’s ear”, “being the hand pulling strings”, etc.).
However, intuition often fails when considering space itself as an element of power, beyond the concepts covered by geopolitics such as access to resources or relative position to a strategic interest, an enemy, a route, an ally. Kings, Emperors, Oligarchies have used architecture as a means of exercising power (make people do something…) since even before official formulations about the matter existed.
In that context, it was the French philosopher Michel Foucault who back in the seventies stated how surprising it was that the emergence of space as an historico-political problem happened only well into the twentieth century, driven by the works of Fernand Braudel and the Annales School. An enriching conversation with J.P. Barou and Michelle Perrot that can be found here (PDF English, p. 158).
Space used to be either dismissed as belonging to ‘nature’ — that is, the given, the basic conditions, ‘physical geography’, in other words a sort of ‘prehistoric’ stratum; or else it was conceived as the residential site or field of expansion of peoples, of a culture, a language or a State […] The development must be extended, by no longer just saying that space predetermines a history which in turn reworks and sediments itself in it. Anchorage in a space is an economico-political form which needs to be studied in detail.
In a way, our understanding of space was limited to that of a field in which people, culture, language, and history in general occur. Much as our limited understanding of time as a fourth dimension, we perceive it but are mostly ignorant of its dynamics.
If this is a topic that resonates with you, please leave your comments and criticism below or find me on social media. I spent the last year doing research for this project and all the resources and documents will be shared. Thanks to Nadia Eghbal for their trust and support.