Long title, lots of ideas here. Stick with me.
I spent last week in Rome, which is actually where la flaneuse first was born, six years ago. I didn’t yet know then that I would be wandering around cities as my profession, but as a writer for Let’s Go: Italy, I learned to love the solitude and spontaneity of exploring cities on foot, watching roads and residents as I went. Though I got to know Rome very well, especially as I tirelessly visited every restaurant, mapped every vicolo, and scouted every sightseeing deal, returning was a whole different ballgame. I was struck by the city’s layers, its character, the way it has grown haphazardly over time and then lurched under massive redesign campaigns by powerful leaders seeking to make their mark. I saw Rome with new eyes, and I want to share some of my observations with you.
First, though, I want to give credit for these new eyes to the ladies of Platform 2, an incredible conceptual art/performance/social engagement collective here in Boston. A couple of days before I left for the Eternal City, Platform 2 hosted a workshop/collective performance called “Get Lost,” and this collective experiment in lostness really helped me clarify my thoughts on the experience of cities. Here is my own diagram of “lostness”. I discovered several things from that experience, my time in Rome, and the workshop:
1. The experience of getting lost is primarily felt as a result of having a destination that you are trying to find.
1.a. Because of this, being lost profoundly affects the temporal experience of the city.
2. A well designed urban area will rarely permit you to become disoriented, because there is a clearly legible hierarchy of pathways and destinations, such as in Massachusetts towns.
3. The experience of being lost, and of wandering, encourages a heightened perceptual awareness of cues and signs around you. It also might encourage a process of serendipity in experiencing the urban fabric, as is seen in several of the projects presented at the Platform 2 workshop.
4. Given that, might a thoroughly navigable city be beside the point? Perhaps reducing legibility might be a strategic process designed to encourage a slower, more thoughtful experience of some parts of a city?
This brings me to Rome. I spent some time in old map stores in Rome, and saw something very telling in the plans: until very recently, these maps showed only buildings. What we know as “roads” where simply the negative space between buildings. This is common in old maps, I know, but in this city where so much of the historical development patterns have been preserved, it really reflects the fact that roads are not places that were actively constructed, but rather simply the spaces between buildings. They were essentially open space. You feel this as you walk around the city, where streets have no sidewalks and host cars, bicycles and motorbikes, and pedestrians alike. Along these small streets are shops and restaurants, homes, and small workshops where cottage industries and handmade goods continue to be a significant, or at least visible, part of the local economy. These are not really streets at all, you see: they are openings in the city, openings in different widths and textures, and with a lively activation that comes from there being no rules about what they are. This is confusing to people like me, for whom the logic of road networks is simply imagined to be part of the plan of development. There is no logic of the network in Rome, there is a visceral experience of use instead.
Also about these streets: their narrowness, their shortness, their un-straightness renders them like a maze the moment you enter them. It is disorienting, and lacks visual cues about distance and orientation so you can get turned around the moment you set out. But, as we discovered in our Get Lost workshop, this disorientation serves a really wonderful result: because you cannot see landmarks ahead of you, or even sense the presence of major thoroughfares until you happen upon them, your senses are restricted to experiencing only the small details of the space around you. This is I think what people love about walking in old cities, whether it’s Lower Manhattan, Boston’s North End, or this part of Rome, and as I said above, perhaps this could provide us with some new thinking about the “logic” of streets. Maybe we need an anti-logic, where legibility and navigability are reimagined to provide us with a new (well, old) experience of passing through space slowly, consciously, and with an eye on detail.
I want to end by saying: at Get Lost I experienced a new kind of planning research. Platform 2 is an artist collective whose works are designed to provoke thinking about social and spatial issues in Boston and beyond. But for me, it actually provided me a kind of laboratory for thinking about urban space in new ways, both by analyzing my own experience through new tools, and hearing about the experiences of other people in urban space. My co-attendees were not planners — in fact, they were primarily artists — and so the workshop provoked creative thinking and genuine insights into the experience of city fabric and the human experience of it. Has anyone else had this experience? I am now totally energized about finding new avenues for this kind of art-experimentation.