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SEISMIC CITY


Louis Aragon called one of his early novels: Le Paysan de Paris. How about ourselves then, peasants of the city? How much do we reflect on our hillside?

Like the Sorrentine, not very much. What if we were asked to describe where we live? We all have a picture (of sorts) of the city we live in, a triangulation of the life we lead, not at all to scale (or rather to a personal scale). Home, Work, Shops perhaps? Large tracts remain ignored; or within our own mental topographies they are telescoped or miniaturised because they have no bearing on our life. So the city becomes distorted; shrunken here, distended there, by our own priorities. We see these mental maps when someone sketches us a plan…say, how to find the post office. Barthes describes his movements around Tokyo, famously a city of many unnamed streets and minimal house numbers; (and what could be more seductive to the semiotician?) When he asks for directions in the street he admires the way in which his helpful local expresses his personal picture of the city "reversing his pencil to rub out, with the eraser at its other end, the excessive curve of an avenue, the intersection of a viaduct". Certainly people are more capable of drawing their own map than of reading an official one: Proffer a map to a local hoping that he will be able to send you in the right direction; useless! I watch in despair as a stubby, well-intentioned forefinger descends infallibly onto what even I know to be the wrong part of town. But he is the native and I am the tourist so what need has he of a map?

We need maps but we must remember how symbolic and stylised these themselves can also be. The most famous and institutionalised stylization of a city is the London Underground map. In the first Underground maps the mappers instinctively conformed to actual distance, proportion; the lines wiggled as they still (or perhaps do no longer?) in The Paris Metro map. But since the system was underground so there was no need for the plan to represent real space now. Indeed the notional London map of the underground is not just more convenient; it is actually truer of the underground travel, (though there is now a move to dilute the brilliant map of Harry Beck and return to a less stylised topography.)

   
 

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