Maison No 5, Paris (prostitutes), c1905.
The City

The Toy Chest of Urban Exploration

Dieter read my post on Kerameikos, and chided me via e-mail for my comment that Athens wasn’t a city for flâneurs. He said I confused the flâneur with the boulevardier. The flâneur, he said, digresses, wanders, observes; the architecture is less important than the surprises and stories one encounters when wandering through the city down side streets, letting oneself drift into unfamiliar neighborhoods, alleys, Hinterhöfe, bars and bordellos. It is the crowd, its intoxicating drama, he said, and not the buildings that the flâneur observes and, through conversations with people he meets along the way, experiences. What is meaningful is the feel of the city, the maelstroms and eddies of the course of everyday urban life, rather than its look. Dieter said I should read Robert Walser’s Der Spaziergang, a story of a day-long walk that a poor poet takes through the small city he lives in, to understand the heart of a true flâneur.

He thought Athens would be particularly rich territory for exploration, citing  Chtcheglov’s dictum that “all cities are geological. You can’t take three steps without encountering ghosts bearing all the prestige of their legends.”  Admittedly, Athens is a geological city par excellence. Construction work on the new Museum of Modern Art was stopped (and never resumed) when excavations uncovered the Aristotelian Greek Lyceum. But the more immediate past of Athens for many neighborhoods in the city is nothing more than vineyards and farms. Most of the city was built in the last fifty years, and not by architects but rather by civil engineers. Though I complain about the appalling absence of character in the countless faceless apartment buildings that form the urban tissue of most of the city, it is actually an extraordinary accomplishment that Greece managed to house the hundreds of thousands of families fleeing the poverty of the hinterland following the Greek civil war.

Dieter is unconventional in many respects (he regularly shaves his entire body) but he’s above all German and thus imposingly thorough, so he sent me the reference to Chtcheglov’s essay, Formulary for a New Urbanism (translated by Ken Knabb in his Bureau of Public Secrets). It makes for intriguing reading. In articulating  his vision of the city, for example, he writes: “the main activity of the inhabitants will be continuous drifting.The changing of landscapes from one hour to the next will result in total disorientation. Couples will no longer pass their nights in the home where they live and receive guests, which is nothing but a banal social custom. The chamber of love will be more distant from the center of the city: it will naturally recreate for the partners a sense of exoticism in a locale less open to light, more hidden, so as to recover the atmosphere of secrecy. ”  Kind of awkward traveling to the edge of the city to make love, but it does recapture the eroticism of the clandestine that is missing from longer settled relationships. A case of the other man’s grass being greener, I suppose: my own encounters have taken me to beds across the city and back home in the blue leaden light of the hour before  dawn, but what I long for, now that enough time has elapsed since my relationship with M. has ended to tire of  the novelty of such exploration, is bed and breakfast à deux in my own digs.

Dieter joked that I had a petit-bourgeois psychogeography. Actually the German, Spießer, is much more damning, as it connotes fuddy-duddy, old-fart conventionalism more than a social class, which I had to smile at, considering that we had met in Berlin both sheathed in rubber. His comment took some time to decipher—I never know if he’s being deliberately opaque in some kind of game or he thinks I’m smarter than I am—until I remembered that we had seen (separately since this was before we met) a fascinating exhibition at the Barbican called Future City: Experiment and Utopia in Architecture. The exhibition featured (among many other things) maps that traced the typical journeys individuals made through the city; there may have even been maps by Debord, who coined the term, but I don’t remember. In most cases the tracings revealed a few thick heavy lines of habit covering the same sidewalks from home to work to gym to supermarket, day in day out (a flaneur’s would be more spidery). Of course Dieter was right; my tracings would be more of the trunk than the branches: a lot of the same crossings, and perhaps even the limbs would be predictable, too: the Ideal and Trianon cinemas, a bakery on Petrakis Street in Syntagma that makes the best sourdough country bread in the city, a health food store on Panepistimiou Street where I can find steel-cut oats, “Rosalia” a down-to-earth taverna with a very drinkable organic wine in Exarchia (the self-styled alternative/bohème/leftist/student neighborhood of Athens)… But I don’t see these as emblems of lassitude. They are places good enough that I would want to re-discover them if I were an amnesiac.

Dieter said I need more toys—the happenings, ruses, strategies, occasions and events that take us off this trodden path to explore and experience the city in a new way. One Athens example being the annual design walk, an interactive design playground in which design studios in Psyrri—one of the oldest and now half-gentrified neighborhoods in Athens—collaborate with designers in Europe and the US to create exhibitions in their ateliers and open their doors to visitors during three days in February. I hope it’ll be repeated this February, though it may coincide with a planned trip to Berlin. And Berlin, with or without Dieter, is a much richer toy box.


Image: Eugène Atget, Maison No 5, Paris (prostitutes), c1905.


One response to “The Toy Chest of Urban Exploration

  1. I’d say there is a connection between the physical setting and the character of the people. People are quite similar – en masse, right across the world (though agreeably Gemans are undeniably thorough). I suspect the physical setting adds a little bit of flavor as does history etc. etc.


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