Urban Climatology: A Phenomenological Perspective on the Postmodern City

Fabio La Rocca

They carried pictures, / And numbered tags / to prove their lives
They walked in line / They walked in line
– Joy Division

The city can be viewed in terms of any one of its myriad aspects – architectural, spatial, social and so on – which host individuals’ everyday experiences and symbolic reflections on social life. The lifeblood of city existence is complexity, a perpetual process which is the essential component of the urban experience. The sociologists of the Chicago School in the early twentieth century argued, rightly, that the city was the most coherent and accomplished attempt in humanity’s demiurgic instinct to structure its own world, and for this reason the urban environment also constitutes a vast laboratory for inquiry into social change, continually presenting itself to us in carving out its future visions according to the different historical stages of its development. We must appreciate that paradigm shift is a permanent feature in the discourse on the city, and closely follows the evolution of thought in the social sciences. The transformations of our cities can be viewed, therefore, through the lens of the epistemological intuition proposed by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). Every epoch, Kuhn suggests, with its social practices, its unique vocabulary and its particular experience of the world, produces an imaginary structure that he calls ‘paradigm’: both a worldview and a normative model which provides the framework for, and encompasses, all the countless intuitions of a given epoch. This model undergoes periodic crises which precipitate the passage from one dominant form to another, ultimately leading to a paradigm shift. Such crises provide the information necessary for the shift in vision, and often, in so doing, open up a multitude of discoveries.

The Kuhnian hypothesis of scientific revolution can be applied to the city. Indeed, every scientific paradigm shift helps shape the new vision of the urban scene which transforms its particular character. A city by its very nature can never be static: it offers “novelty”, which implies that our focus should be directed towards the perpetual evolution of forms as well as on the ways of experiencing its spaces – the ‘esperire’ (experience) of the urban world – thereby drawing out a reflection based on an “ontology of the present” which shapes our thinking and our view of the world as it is. To propose a vision of current urban environments also leads us to identify the temporality of the era, a kind of ‘location’; that is, to ‘situate ourselves’, a notion developed by Gianni Vattimo in his analysis of postmodernity. The present Vattimo sees is that of post-metaphysical thinking, our evolution beyond modernity leading to a new philosophical foundation, akin to that sought by Nietzsche and Heidegger in their critiques of Western thought (Vattimo, 1985: 10-11)[i]. Thus the situation of the postmodern city must look to the foundation of a new ontology of the urban present consistent with the epistemological paradigm shift.

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Nietzsche’s proclamation of the “death of God” in The Gay Science, Heidegger’s idea of going ‘beyond metaphysics’ and Lyotard’s argument about the demise of metanarratives in some ways constitute the foundation and framework for the birth of postmodernity. Emerging from these considerations, knowledge must change its status, implying a new mode of perception and thought with corollaries as regards how we feel, think and experience the city. The urban shape and experience, in short, acquire an ‘other’ dimension commensurate with these shifts in thinking, meaning that we can no longer conceptualise the city in the crude functionalist terminology typical of modernism.

The basis of modern functionalism was the privileging of function over form (‘form follows function’ was the famous slogan of the American architect Louis Sullivan). Modern town planners sought control over the city by projecting a “closed” form. The postmodernist, by contrast, tends to favour ‘open’ situations. Situations denote a way of acting and constructing space not only in terms of architectural design and town planning, but also a valuation of the everyday, taking into account day-to-day activities and individual practices: a ‘social architectonic’ of the diverse expressive forms through which individuals participate in the collective effervescence of the urban environment.

This is the spatialisation of existence, the process of a symbolic elaboration of space emerging through everyday life practices. Space provides a multitude of opportunities allowing for the creation of situations which give it its meaning: on the one hand, spatial specificity in its many aspects, on the other, individuals’ singular manifestations. In this relation between space and individual a continuity of meaning is revealed which constitutes an essential factor in expressing the variations of urban climate and everyday ambiances. In this analysis we can use the Heideggerian conception of ‘being’ to comprehend “the city-being” (l’être-ville) and urban social reality, and in particular those changes pertaining to the forms and symbolic meanings of different lifestyles. These styles characterise the collective ownership of space, and give a rhythm to urban life which manifests itself in the forms of the everyday. This rhythm is at work in everyday expressions and their dynamic rooting, where, as Maffesoli suggests, “body frenzies, musical flutterings, theatrical contortions, hysteria specific to contemporary religiosity operate as indications of an essentially chthonic social choreography” (2004: 43).

This approach contributes to a theory of urban and social morphology centring on the relationship between society and environment: a kind of ‘ecology’ in search of the archetype of urban life, its focus on spatial relationships in the various “natural zones” of cities where daily life unfolds. Living in a city is in essence synonymous with ‘being in the world’: as Augustin Berque’s “the human is geographical” (2000) suggests, there is no being without place, an idea reinforced in postmodernity’s rediscovery of place and its symbolism.

The centrality of spatial dimension as a modality of experience – crucial for Simmel – is the marker of social dynamism which suggests the climatological situation of the contemporary city: on the one hand, the form and specific modalities of the physical city, on the other, the sensitivity of individuals’ aesthetic experience which imputes meaning to place. This develops an equilibrium between cityscape and mindscape, and thus between the physical panorama of the city and its spirit, soul and culture. On this view the connotation of the postmodern city is given by a set of cultural practices, by a multiplicity of tribes, by signs and symbols assigning new meanings to the urban physiognomy. One thus confronts a space in continuous motion and perpetual renewal, all of which provide us with information and other intimations both on the course of the city’s evolution and on the state of society more generally.

The twenty-first century city focuses the attention of the contemporary sociocultural climate and must therefore no longer be thought and experienced in its simple functionality, or described merely as the crude visible manifestation of social organisation and the embodiment of modern rationality. To conceptualise the city in such terms is to impose a unifying logic that tends to nullify, marginalise or even render invisible the various characteristics of urban microcosms and their imaginaries as the symbolic places frequented, inhabited and experienced by multiple tribes.

The paradigm shift into postmodernity, characterised by the elation of urban vitality and disruption of pre-existing patterns, lends new resonance to the famous fifteenth-century German proverb – cited by Max Weber and Karl Marx – Stadluft macht frei: “city air makes you free”. This medieval maxim, which could suggest a certain rootlessness, is no longer an echo of the call to relocate from countryside to city. Rather, it should be understood in accord with the current metropolitan zeitgeist in the sense of a freedom of investment of social actors in multiple places, a freedom to enjoy the aesthetic forms in their everyday aspects: urban landscapes, meetings, itineraries; a freedom to hear a variety of moods, an organic liveliness that penetrates the heterogeneity of reality giving form to multiple diverse ambiances. A freedom which invigorates the spirit of the city refocuses attention on the everyday, constituted by a patchwork of styles and identities reflecting the plurality of forms and the meaning of places, and resulting in a need for social manifestation with a range of new codes and symbolic expressions which form the picture of the urban imaginary.

The imaginary of course embraces an entire existential universe, an everyday proxemics expressed in tribalism, in the attachment to significant places which manifests itself in “open” situations where a certain vitalism can be observed; in short, an urban grammar to ‘tell’ the city and its ways of living which forms a universe of meanings to express the “new”. This latter adjective is often used in describing contemporary urban existence, but it should be read here as a marker of qualitative change whereby the city acquires an “other centrality”, the sign of a concrete and symbolic transformation of status. “New” also indicates the transmutations in the territory of the metropolis which becomes a continuum of transformative specificities, establishing a kind of cosmopolis. That is, a ‘world’, or, more accurately, ‘world-city’: a vast ensemble constituted by a diversity of expressions of the contemporary urban condition. One might include the technologisation of space, urban “playfulness”, the carnivalesque dramatisation of the streets, the symbolic tribal conquest, architectural hedonism – all indicating a sensitivity peculiar to the spirit of the times.

It is the rapport with everyday life which holds strategic importance in approaching the postmodern ambiances: a kind of rediscovery of space, as Frederic Jameson (1992) put it, or in Bruce Bégout’s terms, a ‘rediscovery of the everyday’, where the body is immersed in a maze, an abandonment into space, wherein to feel its sensations, its emotions, in concord with the vital energy of the city.

The emphasis on the “essential character” of the everyday atmosphere precedes and lends meaning to our discourse. The constellation of fragments that encompasses the puzzle of the contemporary imaginary comes together into a particular vision: we could call it a ‘climatology’ of our time, which illuminates patterns in the atmosphere in which we are immersed and directs the gaze towards everyday situations. As a foundation on which to develop an image of the city, climatology seems apposite in determining the current climate in the urban landscape. This is a sociological and cultural climatology observing such variables as characterise the urban environment: the “social temperature”, the “cultural wind”, the “symbolic precipitation” and “aesthetic clouds”.

Through such considerations our navigation of the urban labyrinth traces a journey into the heart of the postmodern climate – specifically, in the atmosphere of a spatialised time. Durand (1992) would call it an Einsteinisation of time: time contracts in space by offering a re-signification, a re-emphasis of spatiality. Spatiality could be defined as ‘imaginale’ and acts in such a way as to accentuate the present. This postmodern climatology creates the effect of ‘time place’ where one observes the daily life of the city and where, as Maffesoli shows, a “fertility of the synergy between space and sociality” (2003: 60) expresses an aesthetic identification and a “new stylistics of living” (2002: 275). The climate analogy provides insight into the overall atmosphere in which we live, capable of capturing and understanding the epistemological changes unfolding in our society which are shaping the contemporary city.

Building on the work of Jürgen Habermas and his analysis of the crisis of modernity (1985), we can see in this climate a paradigmatic shift in existential, urban and social forms concordant with the zeitgeist. The vocabulary of the city, its sensory aspect, its architectural significance and its anthropology of ephemeral tribes assume another dimension which influences the visualisation and “imaginability” of the city itself, namely – to borrow from Kevin Lynch (1960) – our ability to form an idea, a representation of the city (perceived) as a product. Having an “image” of the city to form a three-dimensional – we might even say ‘synesthetic’ – understanding or decoding of urban elements. Reading the elements of the city through a climatological lens enables us to give it a meaning, to develop the stylistic requirements necessary in comprehending its continuous reinvention: a city in a ‘work in progress’ mode, a symbolic unity requiring new indicators, expressive metaphors conducive to refocusing the framework of this climatology: “bladerunnerisation”, “hype zone”, “urban software”, “bodies interconnection”, “magical spectacle”, “festive nomadism” are among many such neologisms conveying character to the urban present. This leads us into a situationist or Sisyphean labyrinth (Durand, 2000: 91) of the urban imaginary that gives each city its unique atmosphere, its own sensory poetics reflecting its essence, its mood, its vitality, its being.

This is a transfiguration that must be understood as a fundamental transition from old ways to another perspective, contributing to understanding the contemporary city through a ‘learning to see’ (‘savoir voir’) utilising an interpretation of the sociological outlook inspired by Georg Simmel to delineate the essential features of the Mundus Urbanus. A social sensitivity rooted in what Ortega y Gasset calls “atmospheric imperatives” enables our apprehension through psycho-physical mechanisms of the sensory spaces of the urban universe; the new nomos emergent at the surface of the city that demands we highlight and identify the forms of urban centrality rediscovered by postmodernity. As already suggested, such a perspective could conduce to a ‘postmodern climatological science’ of the myriad interwoven sites and linkages in such a way as to draw out the multisensory dimensions of the city. As with the method used by Simmel, the forms lived in the metropolis will constitute an approach of the world, commensurate with the spirit of the times.

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If the current acceleration of urban transfiguration demands a change in perspective, then it requires a recontextualisation of the vision of the city through a redrawing of the cognitive and sensory map. Sociological tradition has encouraged the adoption of a dichotomous model to conceptualise the transition from traditional rural society to modern industrial urbanism. The ideal-type that interprets the advent of latter is summarised in the theoretical distinction between Gemeinschaft (community) and Gesellschaft (society) formalised by Ferdinand Tönnies (1887), which views the emergence of the modern metropolis as a place of rationality dominated by the market. Then followed the Durkheimian perspective with its concentration on the transition from a mechanical solidarity to an organic one based on the social division of labour; then the Weberian view reduces the city to a static market-place regulated by actions driven by rationality and reflective of the “disenchantment of the world”. Looking at the contemporary atmosphere it is clear the framework has changed. The prevailing tendency in the postmodern city is an emphasis on aesthetic communities; the “re-enchantment of the world”. All will be taken into account in considering the various elements of the contemporary climate, and to do so a climatology becomes a necessary prerequisite for an appreciation of the urban scene capable of capturing the characteristics of its daily life, and hence the ‘reading grid’ of the contemporary city.

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If we talk about “urban crisis” or even “dead city”, it is, in our view, because it coincides with the observation of the annihilation of the Promethean and Cartesian hope to bring into being a perfect city commensurate with the rationalist model of the modern man. But the city revitalises itself, and every day the imaginary, myths, dreams and desires take shape on the social scene, reflecting a kind of urban renaissance. A re-enchantment of the social experiment occurs in the present of things in response to the attempted secularisation and functionalisation of the city by the modernist movement. If, under the aegis of positivist science and instrumental rationality, the modern city was the product of efficiency and functionality, the postmodern city, by contrast, would rather be a space for the sensory pleasures performing the update of the imaginary and of collective desires. At stake, and strengthened every day in the process of métropolisation, is an opening on daily life. A degree of sensitivity is needed to capture the current climate and consider the imaginary of our time in the context of this urban transfiguration, often perceived negatively as a decline, a collapse, or a crisis. In our view, a catastrophic dystopia is regularly at work in the discourse on the city.

That said, some of these stories featuring this dystopian urban phenomenon hold a certain interest in that they reveal another type of narration. This is particularly the case in the field of mass media culture or the imaginaries developed by video games. For example, the “pixelated” city, as more or less persistent virtual world, proposes a simulation model potentially instructive in examining the effects of urbanity and the imaginary construction of the city. Literature – science fiction in particular is a good example – offers a rich imaginary space for thinking the city. One could refer for instance to the visions of JG Ballard as part of an urban science fiction, a sort of ‘social anticipation’, or even a true sociological prospective. It should not be forgotten that the cinema, too, remains a magic lantern, a ‘fantascope’ making us travel in the territories of the imaginary and in the constellations of the metropolitan universe.

One climatological aspect of the urban lies in the fluid trajectories cities tend to draw in realising the richness and diversity of their living space. This is an existential and experiential perspective of the present, found to an extent in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, where the “here and now” constitutes the foundation of an assessment of the sociometropolitan dynamic. In climatological terms we could think of the present of the urban environment and the transformations in its atmosphere as a spiral, a swirl, a vortex – a pertinent visual representation of the rapidity and characteristic motion of the evolution of aesthetic forms: disparate signs scattered in space. These signs, once assembled, provide a vision of the contemporary city, but this is not merely about identifying the signs according to the current understanding of what they represent. Rather, it is a matter of focusing on the conditions of possibility offered by urban vitality. In this way we seek to access an “ordinary knowledge” of the world as it is experienced. In this visual panorama, the urban kaleidoscope with its infinite constellations of fragments accentuates the moments lived in the instant, or aïon, this immanent present where everyday life resides. So, a time of change, a present, acting in the dimension of space where societal change unfolds, embracing both lifestyles and spatio-architectural prospectives.

Secessio Vol.1 No. 1, Spring 2012

Translation by James Horrox & Bénédicte Brahic


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[i] Vattimo also develops his thoughts on the postmodern in the essay ‘Ontologia dell’attualità’ (the title refers to the text by Foucault) in Filosofia ‘87, ed. G. Vattimo, Bari, Laterza, 1988, pp. 201-223