Loeb Lab 7: Space for Uncertainty

Helen Marriage (LF '13), co-founder of the London production company Artichoke, delights in urban disruption – the kind that stops traffic and routine and makes people perceive new possibilities in the places they live, work and play. She offers her slightly subversive reflections on city life.

Living in America causes a Brit like me to pause and reflect on the differences between our two languages and to hesitate before opening my mouth in case my idiomatic utterance is incomprehensible to my new friends. This uncharacteristic linguistic uncertainty has made me pause and listen harder. And of course, I’ve subconsciously adopted favorite American-English phrases. Particularly “who knew?” There is no English equivalent that I know of – a pithy summary that implies a fact so obvious, so right, that its usefulness is self-evident. But only after the event. “Who knew?” is very definitely in the past tense. So to come to the Loeb Lab question, “What makes cities great?” – I would ask, who can possibly know? We can only hazard a guess and tiptoe towards an uncertain destination...

We city-dwellers are encouraged to understand our cities as permanent structures made up of buildings—houses, shops, offices—roads, public spaces, private areas, and then the infrastructure and services that are necessary to provide for, and control, our individual and communal lives. We live by consensus, each of us tacitly accepting that our own adherence to rules and regulations will be matched by those of our neighbors, in order that the normal life of the city might continue in an efficient, orderly and productive manner. Children will get to school on time, mail will be delivered, hedges will be clipped, poop will be scooped, accidents will be avoided, buses and trains will run, work will be accomplished, unfettered opportunities for shopping will be provided and, above all, vehicles will swirl unimpeded through our streets delivering us to the many important appointments that make up our crowded days.

It’s a rushed and noisy business, this living in a city in the 21st century, where the fixed fabric of our lives seems to set the pattern for how we may live, rather than the reverse. Consider for example, the morning commute: each of us, heading for our car/bus/train/underground in the full knowledge that our frustrating journey will only be frustrating because of all the other individuals behaving exactly as we ourselves are behaving. Our irritation and inconvenience stems from the generalized acceptance of these patterns of behavior—that we leave our houses together in the morning; we go to work at roughly the same time; we take our lunch together at midday or thereabouts, only to return home later in the day with roughly the same people that we started out with.

As we traverse our cities, consuming our diet of daily news, we receive word of those who live outside the pattern of our regular habits—the dispossessed, the privately wealthy, the unemployed, the vagrants, the migrants and the artists, whom we regard with equal doses of healthy curiosity and suspicion. As we navigate our pathways through time and space using the twin compasses of familiarity and routine, we shun disorder and interruption, blindly imagining that traveling from A to B and back to A—that getting through the day, through the month, through the years—is a life lived.

But stop a moment. Listen. The poet William Wordsworth told us over 200 years ago that there is more to life than shopping and traffic:

“The world is too much with us; late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.”

Eighteen words; four phrases. An artist summarizing living in Victorian London where an obsession with “getting and spending” was leading to desolation and alienation. What would poor Mr. Wordsworth have made of our 21st century urban lives with their emphasis on convenience and consumerism?

And yet. And yet. There is hope. We “lay waste our powers,” says the poet, meaning of course, that we’re choosing to fritter away our potential, but that together we still have the option to create disorder, to discover new ways of doing things, to explore new territory and above all to dream. We possess the ability to lift ourselves above the dreariness of daily routine to a place where we can feel connected, both to each other and our higher aspirations.

And talk of a place implies not only a state of mind, but also a physical space where such interruptions might occur. That seems to suggest the public realm, the uncontested territory where we might get to know each other and our place in the world. So returning to the subject of our cities and their hidden offer of a framework for action and interaction, we can begin to explore their potential to provide opportunities for the unimaginable, the mysterious and the delightful.

Italo Calvino quietly informs us that
 “Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.” Calvino’s personification of the city unveils the prospect of a physical world that is as mercurial and incomprehensible as any new acquaintance, and where the possibility of some marvelous unsettling discovery is hidden around every corner.

And these will be the momentary suspensions that we come to treasure. We can all name them—when the snow falls so thickly that roads become impassable to traffic; when a whale swims uninvited into the city’s river; when the sun sets so low on a winter’s afternoon that the sky turns a sudden blood-red; when an artist transforms a derelict landscape with a devastating block of unexpected color; when the heat of a summer evening entices weary home-bound workers to fall in love in a darkening city park—these are the moments that become the moments we remember. They’re unpredictable, for the most part unplanned, and bring with them only a break with routine, disruption and a certain uncertainty.

But oh, how necessary, how unforgettable and how glorious.

Fellowship Year: 2013
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One Response to Loeb Lab 7: Space for Uncertainty

  1. Cali Pfaff says:

    Lovely piece! And an unexpected vantage on the transience of joy, how it abuts the consumerist values that build our cities, and yet somehow slinks its way into our lives in unexpected moments. By positioning the designer as the architect of the public realm, it empowers us to be agents of serendipity, cupids in black turtlenecks. In this, an interesting premise is set up: intentionality breeds happenstance. It is the deliberateness of the work of a group like Artichoke that makes their work all the more compelling when it falls in the life of a passerby just going about their Monday. This kind of thinking forces a certain sense of generosity, a willingness for our work to have a unforeseen life beyond us, to improve–in ways seen and unseen–the routines of those that inhabit it.

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