“Buses rumbled up the avenue in pairs, hacking and panting, buses abreast or single file, sending people to the sidewalk in sprints, live prey, nothing new, and that’s where construction workers were eating lunch, seated against bank walls, legs stretched, rusty boots, appraising eyes, all trained on the streaming people, the march-past, checking looks and pace and style, sandaled women wearing headsets, women in floppy shorts, tourists, others high and slick with fingernails from vampire movies, long, fanged and frescoed, and the workers were alert for freakishness of any kind, people whose hair or clothing or manner of stride mock what the workers do, forty stories up, or schmucks with cell phones, who rankled them in general.”
Welcome to the summer issue of PLAN, which is dedicated to one of the most basic elements of the built environment, the street.
The New York street scene above is taken from Don Delillo’s 2003 novel Cosmopolis. The events of the book take place in a single day, and largely within the confines of a stretch limousine, from which the reader is compelled to follow Eric Packer, a multi-billionaire twenty-something, as he makes his way across Manhattan, a journey that proves ultimately fatal. The interior of the luxury car provides our protagonist with a window on the world outside: not only to the city beyond, with its “great rapacious flows” of people and things, but also to the international finance markets, through a series of screens that Packer monitors anxiously. Through the shiny surfaces of the interior of the moving vehicle, flows of symbols and signs (data on currency trades and news reports) are superimposed onto flows of pedestrians (protestors, tourists, businesspeople), with the two obeying a seemingly ungraspable logic that suggests that they are somehow linked. As Josef Vogl has pointed out in his analysis of Cosmopolis, this is a novel without a “plot”: its protagonist’s death, like the unexpected fall in the value of the Japanese Yen that ultimately costs him his fortune, is arbitrary, “random,” and occurs seemingly without any triggers or cause.
A cautionary tale is cocooned within this odd story, from a planning perspective, and it has little to do with a murder or the loss of a fortune. What is interesting here is the way in which the city, with its regular grid of streets, its layers of memory, and its lively zones of intense activity, fails to structure the narrative and imbue it with a sense of “plot.” Each block offers up its own scenarios of encounter—some violent, some romantic—only to be superseded by the next. Block after block, meeting after meeting, the story unfolds only to restlessly shift scenes and move on again. This is a city built on the principle of stimulation: of perpetual movement, and distracted and insatiable consumption. True to the mood of the speculative capitalist, the journey is motivated only by recourse towards the expectation of future gains. Architect Rem Koolhaas signals to the future-orientation of the gridiron street pattern in Delirious New York, wherein he describes the original 13 x 156-block grid of 1811 as an “act of prediction”: “the land it divides, unoccupied; the population it describes, conjectural; the buildings it locates, phantoms; the activities it frames, non-existent.” In the service of colonization, the street plots only the establishment of a land market, generating “data” in the form of buildings and activity that can be mined for patterns that in turn can be transferred into future profit.
But a street does not have to be this. There are many other uses to which this fundamental infrastructure can be put. “For the body to move, it must usually have a surface of some kind, and it must have at its disposal whatever technical supports allow for movement to take place,” the philosopher Judith Butler argues. Movement, for Butler, is here understood in political terms, as a political “mobilization,” a movement made in line with a political demand (for healthcare, or wages, or against a particular policy position), but it is also linked to a more fundamental state of being “alive”. She explains: “the body, despite its clear boundaries, or perhaps precisely by virtue of those very boundaries, is defined by the relations that make its own life and action possible.”5 In such a scenario, the street emerges as the ground that is required for us to express a political demand (for instance, through a demonstration), but it is also the space where we acknowledge our interdependencies. In being fundamentally dependent on each other, we are dependent on infrastructures; in this we are also “vulnerable”. The street forms the primary site where such vulnerabilities, dependencies, and demands surface. It is thus not surprising that the street is thus the place where the most vulnerable in society (those without the ability to vote, because of their age; or those without a home) gather: there is a performative politics in “hanging out.”
We expect that considerably more of our readers are heading for the countryside than the gridded heart of cities across Sweden. Summer is a time for “getting away from it all”—perhaps even for “losing the plot” a little. Warmer weather and time-off makes space for reflection, for reconsidering the basic tenets of what we do and why. For formulating our demands. As such, this summer issue of PLAN wishes to prompt a moment of reflection upon what we expect from the infrastructures that structure our movement, facilitate our encounters, support us, and exposes our vulnerabilities. If the Manhattan grid paved the way for the development of the Machine Age and the “metropolitan lifestyle,” what kind of “supportive ground” might future generations demand of us? What kind of “street” might we share with them?
Helen Runting & Sara Widås
Don Delillo. Cosmopolis. London: Picador, 2011 (2003). 41.
Josef Vogl. The Specter of Capital. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010.
Rem Koolhaas. Delirious New York. New York: The Monacelli Press, 1994. 18-19.
Judith Butler. “Rethinking Vulnerability and Resistance.” In Judith Butler, Zeynep Gambetti, and Leticia Sabsay (eds.). Vulnerability in Resistance. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2016, 15.