The Situationist City By Simon Sadler
Simon Sadler was born in the West Midlands in 1968 but immigrated to California to become Professor of Architectural and Urban History, and Chancellor’s Fellow, at the University of California. Prior to this he was a lecturer in Architectural History at the University of Nottingham. He has published many works studying the architectural ideas of avant-garde architects and individuals from Archigram to the Situationists, and other experimental practices since the Second World War.
His first book, The Situationist City looks into the ambiguous philosophies of the Situationist International group in Paris, from their formation in 1957 till their demise in 1972. During this time the Situationist International worked aggressively to change the restricted ideology of the capitalist and Western world. Simon Sadler evaluates the group’s artistic, architectural and cultural theories that created the group at a time when modernism was popular and counterculture was emerging from around the world.
The book is divided into three chapters that relate to the Situationist’s exploration of the city, their cultural concepts and their experimental ideas for a new city. The author has shifted “…among the detritus of tracts, manifestoes, and works of art that the Situationists left behind.” to provide an academic pathway of the Situationist’s history. By the very nature of situationism this book shouldn’t have been published as it only spreads “…lie[s] paid by a publisher…” to the masses.
Sadler attempts to extract the architectural theories from a non-biased perspective but with such heavy ideological agendas from the Situationists it is hard for him not to get caught out. The very term situationism was frowned upon by the Situationists due to its link with academia and the avant-garde predecessors the surrealists. Although the Situationists provided a different and interesting approach to architecture and design, Sadler had his work cut out for him to keep things impartial and obtain an architectural form.
THE NAKED CITY
The Situationist International was formed in 1957 as a merger between the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus, headed by Asger Jorn and the Lettrist International headed by Guy Debord. The Situationists were highly politicised at a time when it was fashionable for avant-gardes to separate from social revolt and the group believed that the “…strict professionalism of architects and design led to a sterilisation of spontaneity and playfulness.” The group had anti-rationalist and anti-consumerist philosophies which are constantly contrasted to many of Le Corbusier’s works throughout the book; one notable example being from the memoires of Guy Debord and Asger Jorn, likening the plan of a prison workhouse as a damning metaphor for their experience of modernity. Many of these anti-modernist opinions stem from Debord’s ideas on an ideal urbanism as a “…projection in space of a social hierarchy without conflict…” and from the belief that technology implemented into modern bureaucratised capitalism reduces people’s independence and creativity.
Throughout the first chapter, Sadler highlights the annoyances of the rational city for the Situationists and what they despise about capitalism and the ‘system’ whilst linking some of their ideologies to their grand/parent groups of COBRA (Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam, 1948-1951) and the Lettrist International (1952-1957). There are many unique ideas concerning travel around the city and some interesting analogies comparing the rational city to an egg whilst the Situationists were after scrambled egg.
DRIFT, DETOURNEMENT, PSYCHOGEOGRAPHY AND UNITARY URBANISM
The author introduces the concepts of detournement, unitary urbanism, drifting and psychogeography, which were all methods of inquiry adopted by the Situationists. Perhaps the most famous of these techniques is psychogeography which provided the source for one of the most famous images to come out of the groups works; the Naked City. The Naked City shows areas of Paris that were threatened by redevelopment and retained areas of the city that were worth preserving. The group believed that much of the ‘true’ city lied underneath the business and bureaucracy of the city and by mapping Paris through their method of psychogeography they could criticise traditional mapping techniques and investigate the bond between narrative, language and cognition.
Drifting is introduced as this wonderful alternative way to experience the city, seeing the urban ghettos as an urban asset rather than an urban ill, going against the urban grain of modernisation. Through the drift the drifter would experience situations that were unique to themselves that could not be reproduced. Debord agreed that change played a huge part in the drift but saw it as a sort of therapy, a fetishisation of those parts of a city that could still rescue drifters from the clutches of functionalism.
The Situationists weren’t the original inventors of the drift, as how can walking through a city be an invention? But Sadler comments how the Situationists were fascinated by Thomas De Quincey’s drifts across London. De Quincey’s work “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater” highlight the “…city imagined as a psychogeographic sea, pushing and pulling the sensitive soul along its eddies and currents.” The fact this text was written by an admitted opium-eater suggests a link between the psychedelic and drift, perhaps this explains the strong attraction to the situation and the needs and wants of the Situationists.
RETHINKING THE CITY
Whilst the first chapter deals with the theories of the Situationist International, the second chapter deals with the reactions to Paris and modernisation. The book references specific locations within the city that were emphasised for their social composition, supporting concentrated artisan, artist or student populations and draws attention to the varying and interesting techniques the Situationists would use to interpret these urban areas.
THE CITY REDESIGNED
The third and last chapter of the book puts forwards the ideas of the Situationist’s city and focuses on the constructing of situations. He compares the work of the Situationist to other radical architecture groups such as Archigram in such a way that promotes the Situationists as doomed by their own ambitions. The Situationist’s ultimate goal was to reconstruct the entire city, though their immediate goals were to construct situations, their “…ambition was admirable and preposterous, carrying no clear notion of how situations work or what they should look like.”
The Dutch artist Constant Nieuwenhuys was a founding member of the group, having been part of the COBRA group years before. He started working on a visionary architectural proposal for a future society and didn’t stop for almost 20 years. His work which was later known as New Babylon became the only architectural conclusion to a Situationist city as an intended polemical provocation. Constant intended to use megastructures as a means to unify multiple functions that the city accommodates individually, this was made possible with new advances in material science and construction techniques such as the space frame that could span a huge distance unsupported.
New Babylon was design in a way to provide changing landscape from one day to the next to lead to a complete but playful disorientation, creating a spirited drift through the labyrinth of the city. Areas of the city were originally proposed to correspond to ‘happy’, ‘bizarre’, ‘sinister’ and other such adjectives but were abandoned as it prescribed ambiences. Instead each area was described by its physical features that left emotional experience out, such as the ‘yellow sector’ or the ‘hanging sector’.
The conclusion of the book suggests the Situationists were nearer the mark when they realised that “…situationism did not exist…” and the author stresses that the “…architecture and spaces that were endorsed by the Situationists existed by chance rather than design.” This advocates that the Situationist only experienced the city by luck and that their attempts to reconstruct these situations were futile. However I would argue that their methods of experiencing the city were distinctively playful and their movements of revolution were inventive. I believe that everyone should take a leaf out of the Situationist’s book and take a moment to drift through the city, to experience something out of the ordinary; in a world where consumerism is so influential it is important to step back and appreciate the more important things in life.
Sadler, S 1999, The Situationist City, MIT Press, London.
Wark, K, M 2011, The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International, Verso, London
Constant, N 2005 ‘The great game to come’ viewed 6 June 2012 http://www.notbored.org/great-game.html
‘Translations published in the print version of NOT BORED! 1983 to the present’ viewed 6 June 2012, < http://www.notbored.org/trans_rep.html>