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Cityscapes: Scaping the City

by Zoran Erić in Unfinished: Scars of the Past / Face of the Future, Museum of Contemporary Art Belgrade, 2007. All rights reserved.

“To think about the city is to hold and maintain its conflictual aspects: constraints and possibilities, peacefulness and violence, meetings and solitude, gatherings and separation, the trivial and the poetic, brutal functionalism and surprising improvisation.”

Henri Lefebvre1

The Method of Perceiving the (City) Space

One of the first and foremost questions in any analysis of the meanings inscribed in urban structures is the choice of method of perception, the prism through which we will look at different layers superimposed in the historical marks of city growth. The first premise that should be taken into account in this respect is that the physical form of the cityscape can not be separated from the specific society in which it develops. The organization and shaping of the city as well as the attribution of meaning to its different spaces should be understood as a social process. Spatial forms are therefore seen as social structures, and the reorganization of urban space as a part of the full-scale social restructuring. In short, the space of a city is produced and reproduced and thus represents the site and the outcome of social, political, and economic struggle.2

If we adopt this materialist perspective of the French theorist of urbanity Henri Lefebvre, who pointed out that it is not only the physical space of the city that is being produced but also the social space and that every society produces its own space, we could further argue that objective conceptions of space are necessarily created through material practices and processes that serve to reproduce social life. The objectivity of space is given in each case by the material practices of social reproduction, and to the degree that these vary geographically and historically, so we find that social space is constructed differently.3

With the idea to link historicallity, sociality and spatiality, Lefebvre conceived his conceptual triad, the “trialectics,” which consists of: perceived space of materialized spatial practice; the conceived space which is defined as representations of space; and the lived spaces of representation.

To put this in other terms, the materialized spatial practices refer to physical and material factors, transfers and interactions that occur in and through space in the way they provide production and social reproduction. Representations of space include all the signs and significations, codes and meanings that allow such material factors and deeds to be spoken of and understood by the discursive terminology of academic spatial disciplines. Finally, spaces of representation are understood as: codes, signs, “spatial discourses,” utopian plans, imaginary landscapes or even material constructions like symbolic spaces, specially designed environments, or places of culture that conceive new meanings and possibilities for spatial disciplines.4

Lefebvre’s argumentation could be summed up by the idea that spatial relations and spatial processes can be understood as social relations taking a particular geographical form.5 Society is accordingly constructed spatially, and that fact—the spatial organization of society—makes a difference to how the society works. We therefore need to conceptualize space as constructed out of interrelations, as the simultaneous coexistence of social interrelations and interactions at all spatial scales, from the most local level to the most global.6

Cognitive Mapping

The analysis of socio-spatial interdependence and particularly the social relations of global capitalism have brought several interesting models of interpretation. I will first revisit what Frederic Jameson called cognitive mapping, which was often translated into the realm of visual arts as a theoretical support and method of research of the urban. Jameson analyzed the capitalist concepts of social space and discerned three basic phases in the development of the spatial logic of society under capitalism. In the first stage, he argues that market capitalism was dominated by the spatial logic of the grid. Capitalism organized, and was organized by, a geometrical view of the space. In the second stage, monopoly capitalism, figurative space stands in the place of absent causes. Space represents, and is represented by, distorted images of the real determinations of social relations. The last phase, which is currently globally visible, is a spatial logic of multinational capitalism that is, according to Jameson, simultaneously homogeneous and fragmented—a kind of‚ “schizo-space.”7

To be able to trace the socio-spatial causality of capitalism and its flows, Jameson developed the analytical model he called the aesthetic of cognitive mapping as an alternative view of space and political action. He was not calling for the mapping of old notions of space, instead this is the name of a new form of radical political culture, its fundamental object is the world space of multinational capital. It is the logic of capital itself that produces an uneven development of space. These spaces need to be “mapped,” so that they can be used as sites of resistance by oppositional cultures and new social movements against the interests of capital. Following Lefebvre, Jameson argues that what is needed, in order to help recover these sites of resistance, is a new kind of spatial imagination capable of confronting the past in a new way and reading its less tangible secrets off the template of its spatial structures—body, cosmos, city—as those marked as the more intangible organization of cultural and libidinal economies and linguistic forms.

For Jameson, a cognitive map is “that mental map of the social and global totality we all carry around in our heads in variously garbled forms.”8 To reference this kind of mapping, he gave example of literal maps of cities and to Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City which demonstrated that “urban alienation is directly proportional to the mental unmappability of local cityscapes.”9 His conclusion was that the “impossibility” of creating social maps or urban maps calls on the aesthetic of cognitive mapping to be at the basis of any socialist political project.

Scaping as a Method

Here, we would do well to take note of the fact that the present model of disorganized capitalism10 is creating a new, multifaceted, intertwined order within the global cultural economy. It has, therefore, become commonplace to state that today’s world is principally characterized by objects in motion. If we were to try to detect and trace different spaces of flows, this would encompass objects, such as ideas and ideologies, people and goods, images and messages, and technologies and techniques. Arjun Appadurai proposed the model of scaping and defined the flow of images, histories and information as “mediascapes;” the flows of cultural and political ideologies as “ideoscapes;” financial flows as “financescapes;” and flows of migrants, tourists and refugees as “ethnoscapes.”11 Adding to this analysis, he introduced us to the notion of “artscapes.” According to Appadurai, the suffix scape points out the disjunctive character of global capitalism and the fluid, irregular shapes of these five “landscapes” that it is comprised of. Any analysis of their flows, their relationships, interdependence and constellation in different social forms has to be situated in historical, political and linguistic contexts and it has to be embedded spatially in the locality where it is being produced and generated.

This model could be well implemented in the process of analysis of the socio-spatial dynamics of city growth and development and we would therefore use the term “cityscapes” not just having in mind “urban landscapes” but the very model of perception of the city tissue, the flows that are running through its veins and the method of “scaping” as a way of reading it. This method shows more constrained, analytic way of perception, unlike the socially engaged neo-Marxist proposal of Jameson. The counterpart in artistic practice can be seen in more interventionist approaches, as in Situationist International détourment for example. Albeit, scaping the city is not an “innocent” view, it comprises a meticulous process of vivisecting the layers of “time in space,” disclosing the ruptures caused by turbulent periods of city growth and destruction.

If the result of the processes of cognitive mapping as translated into the realm of artistic readings of a city would be found in the creation of two dimensional maps, cartographical notes, personal itineraries, diaries of flâneurs; the scaping method needs another “optics.” This process needs a lens of the camera, a duration of focus on city frames and a time based concentration on the perceived. Going back to Lefebvre, lets try to link historicallity, sociality and spatiality, the “socio-spatial dialectics” on the given example of the city where the method is being tested.

Cityscapes of Belgrade

Transformation and change is immanent to the development of every city. These processes are usually driven by growth and demolition. The drastic tension between these two processes was historically repeated over and over again in the city of Belgrade. In recent history, Belgrade was the capital of a country that changed its name five times, most recently due to the secessions of all former republics of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, making it the capital of the newly formed Republic of Serbia.12

If we concentrate on the most recent period of history and the shift from socialist Yugoslavia, a society where the constitutive concept was “brotherhood and unity” and the social model was “workers’ self-management”—the experiment that is often revisited these days in search for alternative to present day capitalism—we would analyze the social space of a transitional society where capitalism is being reintroduced in its drastic “predatory” forms thus allowing us to use interpretative models reflecting this mode of social production on a newly formed country.

In other cities of post-Communist or post-Socialist countries this process of social change was induced by the shift to a market economy and capitalist modes of production after the fall of the Berlin Wall. These cities took just a couple of years to complete the first phase of transition to post-Communism. The subsequent second phase of transition was aiming for “new objectives” and introduced throughout society all aspects of globalization, which to a more or less radical degree influenced and determined the process of urban growth. The social space of those countries was marked by similar problems of increasing unemployment levels, a crisis of value systems, the loss of a former collective identity, the processes of commercialization and commodification, the revival of ethno-nationalism, and even a resurgence of sympathy for the recently toppled political system.13

In the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and more specifically in the Republic of Serbia, the way of “transition” differed from that of most other post-Communist countries. The process of urban growth and its specific attributes were determined by the political context of the 1990s, which was marked by the disintegration of the former Socialist Republic, wars in the vicinity, UN sanctions, hyperinflation and economic collapse, creating a situation of outer and inner isolation under the rule of an authoritarian regime. Unlike cities in which urban change was a slow but regulated process, Belgrade went through a period of chaotic rule by Milošević and his oligarchy, and suffered from the consequences of bombing by NATO countries, including grave damage to some of the landmarks of modernist architecture in its urban core. Throughout the 1990s, the master plan for urbanizing Belgrade conceived in Tito’s socialist country was ignored and illegal building, negligence and destruction characterized the process of urban change. The main attribute of the authoritarian system was an uncontrolled “grey economy” from the top of the state hierarchy to the smuggling and sale of basic goods on the streets.

Srđan Jovanović Weiss refers to this turbulent period in architecture and city growth as “turbo-architecture,” an uncontrolled, wild and chaotic process of “urbanization” of the city itself and a “post-socialist mainstream in nationalizing collective identity through architecture.”14 According to Weiss, approximately 150,000 material building shells, houses or additions were built in Belgrade and almost 1,000,000 houses in Serbia (excluding Kosovo) during Milošević’s rule from 1989 to 2000. The pace of economic hyperinflation was followed by a remarkable surge in the construction of illegal houses, from villas and mansions to kiosks, street stands for selling smuggled goods, small sheds and “cardboard houses.”

The 1990s were marked by the decay of any value system in society and city planning suffered a similar fate. The political changes in Serbia in 2000 were a major turning point and new feelings of optimism overwhelmed the city. It was too soon to realize the extent of impact on city development that the selling of previously publicly owned buildings and the commodification of public space would have. Besides the phenomena noticed in all transitional societies of post-socialist countries where the central urban core is transformed into a platform for advertising and for the store fronts of different globally present chains such as Benetton, Levi’s, Mango and Zara, this space was predominantly occupied by banks. An increasing number of banks oriented towards the market of Southeastern Europe spread around the city center, buying the best office facilities and selling high interest debt to anyone with a minimum financial potential, thus beginning a credit-debt relation of dependence that was previously unseen in Serbia. The “phantom” banks from the period of Milošević that offered a “pyramidal chains of fortune” for naive citizens, and offered interest of up to 30% for investments, are now being replaced with Austrian, German, Greek, Italian etc. banks offering credits and loans probably under worse terms than in any other European country. The previous gray economy of destruction has been replaced by the logic of capitalism of today. This social reality could be therefore described as proto-democratic with the visible Marxist primary accumulation of capital and privatization as the only process that actually brings the society into the global capitalist flows.

Post-Milošević Serbia was facing a discrepancy between the fight for purification and eliminating the ballast of previous ideological constructs, and defining models for entering global integration. This transitional process created a strange, even schizophrenic situation of coexistence of anti-modern movements in society that set as an aim the legacy of European democratic states, even through the acceptance of the neoliberal politics. The loss of the spatially embedded logic of the socialist system, most visible in the modernist project of New Belgrade that was meant to be an administrative capital of new Yugoslavia after the World War II, created a vacuum and the possibility for insertion of new ideological constructs in the city space. The neoliberal tendencies started to pour into the city’s empty lots creating a new topography of supermarket chains, shopping malls, corporate buildings and business centers within the former “socialist dormitory” of New Belgrade, which emerged as the most interesting area for the future “city” or business district. Even the strong resurgence of the religious tendencies and the overwhelming influence of the Serbian Orthodox Church on some political parties and the society in total, founds its spatial manifestations in first churches in the part of the city where the former socialist society marginalized religion as one of the taboo topics. Those tendencies marked the further development and growth, again in a more of chaotic than thoroughly planned manner, of a vibrant and dynamic city that simultaneously has suffered from many changes in the urban dynamic and demography15 while being proclaimed the “City of Future” in Southeastern Europe.16 Through scaping of different layers of the produced (social) space in the city of Belgrade we are thus able to observe intense “Scars of the Past” and catch the actual moment of creation of a new “Face of the Future.”

  1. Henri Lefebvre, Writings on Cities, selected and translated by Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1996), 53.Return to text
  2. For this line of argument see for example: David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990); Edward Soja, Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory (London and New York: Verso, 1989); and Rosalyn Deutsche, Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996).Return to text
  3. Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity, 204.Return to text
  4. Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993), 32–33.Return to text
  5. Doreen Massey, “Politics and Space/Time,” in Place and the Politics of Identity, ed. Michael Keith and Steve Pile (London: Routledge, 1996), 145.Return to text
  6. Ibid., 155.Return to text
  7. See Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991); and Fredric Jameson, Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern 1983–1998 (London and New York: Verso, 1998).Return to text
  8. Fredric Jameson, “Cognitive Mapping,” in Poetics/Politics: Radical Aesthetics for the Classroom, ed. Amitava Kumar (New York: Plagrave Macmillan, 1999), 155–167.Return to text
  9. Ibid.Return to text
  10. Term of Scott Lash and John Urry.Return to text
  11. Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 33.Return to text
  12. After the disintegration of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1991, the two remaining Republics of Serbia (with the autonomous provinces Vojvodina and Kosovo) and Montenegro formed the new Federal Republic of Yugoslavia on April 27, 1992. After the name of Yugoslavia was rejected, the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro was proclaimed on February 4, 2003. Following a referendum for independence held on May 21, 2006, Montenegro seceded from the State Union leaving Serbia no other option but to proclaim itslef a sovereign country.Return to text
  13. See Aleš Erjavec’s introduction in Postmodernism and the Postsocialist Condition: Politicized Art Under Late Socialism, ed. Aleš Erjavec (Berkley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2003), 1–54.Return to text
  14. Srđan Jovanović Weiss, Almost Architecture (Stuttgart: Akademie Schloss Solitude, 2006), 17.Return to text
  15. In the 1990s, approximately 300,000 young people left the country and one million war refugees from Croatia and Bosnia relocated to Serbia.Return to text
  16. On January 10, 2006 Belgrade was named the “City of Future” for the region of Southeast Europe by the FDI magazine, a Financial Times publication, in London, U.K.Return to text