Cities Made for Drifting

Emma Jones explores the concept of cities and memory, and in particular, the idea of the street as the repository of a collective urban memory, using the city of Paris and Situationist International as an example.

March 8, 2012


In 1953, under the pseudonym Gilles Ivain, a young, idealistic, unknown French writer named Ivan Chtcheglov wrote an urban manifesto entitled “Formulaire pour un urbanisme nouveau” (“Formulary for a new urbanism”). In this work, he imagines a “new vision of time and space”, and “buildings charged with evocative power, symbolic edifices representing desires, forces, events past, present and to come.”


Chtcheglov was provoked passionately in his essay by the feeling that urban space had been taken over by a “hypnotic” and alienating capitalist culture; the influence of the mass-media and commercialisation was leading not only to an over-standardisation of culture, but also of urban space: “A mental disease has swept the planet: banalisation.” Capitalism had drained the city of its life: “The urban landscape itself, which once might have seemed a charged and poetic realm, had become a closed field, drained of mystery and passion.”

Chtcheglov’s vision of the convergence of time, space and memory within the city would go on to form the ideological foundation of the underground movement, based in Paris, which operated throughout the 1950s and 60s, and became known as the Situationist International (SI).


Situationism asserted that the privatisation of public space, brought about by the dictates of capitalism, as well as ideas of ordering, compartmentalisation, separation and cultural permanence, were alienating the citizens of Paris from their city. The Situationists declared they were “opposed to the temporal fixation of cities”, preferring instead the idea of a city in “permanent transformation, an accelerated movement of the abandonment and reconstruction of the city in temporal and at times spatial terms.” This attitude would combat perceived commercialisation and the reduction of urban space to a commodity separated along boundaries of use, (work/play, public/private) by allowing a more fluid, non-prescriptive attitude towards the way spaces in the city were used.


In other words the dissolution of established boundaries is not to be feared, but desired. The Situationists’ idea of urbanism, in comparison to the urbanism advocated by International Modernists such as Le Corbusier, is conceived to a be a constantly evolving one, concerned with situations constructed then abandoned, the reflection of society’s temporal desires and actions. The Situationists were against the fixation of people, places, time – the breaking up of urban space into clearly defined functions that reduced populations to singular consumers. They were generally against the grand planning gestures to be found in “monumentalist architecture” and monuments of any kind, seeing them as projections of government or corporate power, and were instead for collective, participatory, de-centralised projects.


The Situationists’ activism was in response to a very real phenomenon occurring in Paris – city officials were under development pressure to overhaul vast tracts of the city centre on a scale not seen since, one hundred years earlier, the nineteenth century Napoleonic regime had employed the formidable urban planner Baron Georges Haussmann to cut great gaping wounds through the old medieval city and rebuild Paris as a new Empirical power.


The redevelopment of the urban centre criticised by the Situationists was matched with frenzied construction on the city’s peripheries. These new outer suburbs were known as the grands ensembles, their plans described by writer Simon Sadler as “Haussmannian in ambition, neo-Corbusian in style” One development in particular, Sarcelles, bears a striking resemblance to the cellular dwelling blocks of Le Corbusier’s Ville Contemporaine. It should be reinforced, however, that Le Corbusier’s planning model was founded upon a genuine desire for the improvement of society, and a belief that the Contemporary City would indeed deliver a better quality of life for urban citizens. The grands ensembles, on the other hand, were a base response to the economic problem of housing shortage and a growing population. They were a far cry from the earlier visions of Le Corbusier and his contemporaries; in Sadler’s view, they along with other projects in the new vein of ‘mainstream modernism’ marked a shift from “the rational to the extraordinary, from the revolutionary to the bureaucratic.”

The Situationists denounced the grands ensembles, regarding them “as the work of twentieth century Baron Haussmanns” David Pinder describes them, under the umbrella of a typical space ‘type’ being produced by modern capitalism, as places “where differences and diverse pasts are being erased” These removed suburbs were predictably beset with social problems arising from cultural homogenisation and isolation, as most of the people resettled there were either poor immigrants or the French working classes. The social repression of select groups in society was thus considered to have occurred through spatial control by removed bureaucratic powers and the result was an associated homogenisation of time and space in these suburbs. History, as a precedent for ‘dangerous’ acts of revolution, is effectively removed from these urban spaces, which may occupy a fixed point in time through the negation of this history.


A telling example of the frustration felt in relation to the perceived homogenisation and commercialisation of Paris by centralised powers was the public outcry expressed at the planned demolition of Les Halles (closed permanently in 1969), the site of a sprawling Paris market that had met on the site since the twelfth century, an area full of low-rent buildings occupied by artisans and artists. The “unselfconscious” historical neighbourhood of Les Halles and nearby Beaubourg was much explored and documented by the Situationists, through psychogeographic maps, films, and written works (the area was given central position in the composition of “The Naked City”, suggesting it was the true ‘psychogeographic’ centre of Paris), but was nonetheless torn down to make way for a new commercial venture: a shopping mall, offices and underground car parking. This piece of urban surgery, apparently, had removed Paris’s heart.


The attraction of Les Halles, for the Situationists, was that it was a threatened bastion of an ‘authentic’ Paris, a Paris in a state of ageing, where the city’s memories were not so far below the surface. Above all they feared the preservation of these ageing historic parts of Paris and saw “the growing ‘museumification’ of central cities as symptomatic of the eradication of meanings and spatial differences” If not slated for demolition, these central areas of Paris seemed in danger of becoming ‘museums’ or ‘monuments’, sanitised and transformed, to borrow a metaphor from Le Corbusier, into ‘cemeteries to the past’.


Part of the problem of the new Les Halles and other central Paris redevelopments, according to the Situationists, was the increasingly excessive provision they made for the motorcar. SI members Raoul Vaneigem and Attila Kotányi were critical of the traffic-city, stating that it ”absorbs the energies that could otherwise be devoted to encounters or to any sort of participation.” Henri Lefebvre, a theorist who had been linked with Situationism until the early 1960’s, describes the atmosphere of May 1968, the date of the infamous student riots, as a brief return to a city for people rather than cars: “Paris changed and was restored – the vistas, the streets, the Boulevard Saint-Michel which, rid of automobiles, again became a promenade and forum.” These pedestrian ‘encounters’ were recognised by the SI to be vital to the survival of Paris; part of the tradition and cultural life of the city that, once destroyed, would destroy the city’s collective history.


“Architecture or revolution” was the catchcry of Le Corbusier’s manifesto Towards a New Architecture (1923). Le Corbusier believed that revolution might be avoided by the imposition of a ‘proper’ ordering architecture that would make sense of the city, changing the lives of its citizens for the better, and thereby rendering the idea of social and political revolutions redundant. The SI pitted itself against this mantra, reacting against it by consciously making the choice of revolution over architecture – their methods in every way advocated spontaneous action over ordered and externally imposed urbanism as a way of forming the ideal city, and their weapon was the reclamation of the street.


The SI believed the street had the potential to once again become a place of revolution, an ideological battleground as Haussmann’s boulevards once were. Indeed they drew on the revolutionary history of the Paris street in the enactment of their beliefs, citing the heroic but short lived political and social struggles of the Paris Commune of 1871 as “history’s sublime ‘moment’ and ‘situation.’” What figures most strongly in the history of the Commune is the repossession of the city by its own marginalised citizens. Situationist theories centred around the reclamation of the street reached their own apotheosis with the events of May 1968, considered to have been carried out in the spirit of the Revolution that encompassed such events as the declaration of the Commune and the storming of Bastille.


To remove the street would be, as we have previously considered, a way of erasing all traces of this history – a calculated act of control, as the past is often present, in this case a precedent, in determining acts of political change. SI member Guy Debord identified the “suppression of the street” by “all established powers since the experience of the French Revolution” as a means of restricting the freedom of citizens, particularly workers, to gather, demonstrate, and challenge the structure of “class power”. Perhaps May 1968 was what Le Corbusier had envisioned (and feared) when he proclaimed the necessity of architecture over revolution and advocated the absolute redundancy of the nineteenth century urban street as a planning model.


We may also see in the events of May 1968 proof that Le Corbusier’s well-documented aversion to the crowded urban street was in many ways justified. As the embodiment of the multitude of confrontations and contradictions to be met with in urban life, the student riots of 1968 could only have happened on the kind of street that the architect wanted removed, and could only have happened in the spirit of a revolutionary Parisian history that was inextricably tied to these very same streets. The Situationists’ belief, on the other hand, in the transformative potential of this crowd was most certainly vindicated by the events of 1968. This explosive potential is full of ambiguity and danger; the threat of violence is real. But rather than seeking to dam this torrent, the SI revelled in its chaotic release.


During May 1968, the Situationists, it is reported, were “particularly delighted to see the return of the slogan ‘never work!’ on the boulevard Port-Royal, some fifteen years after [Guy] Debord had written it on the walls of the rue de Seine.” This phrase, also harkening back to the philosophy of the Paris Commune, is considered by Pinder to be a “critique of the categories of work and leisure and their disciplining of space-time,” evidence of a struggle that had been continuously fought by avant-garde groups since the industrialisation of Paris itself.

In anticipation of what was to come, an encouragement of this space-time discipline is found throughout Le Corbusier’s second published manifesto, Urbanisme (1924), translated into English as The City of Tomorrow. In descriptions of the “Ville Contemporaine” (“Contemporary City”), the family is likened to a “cell”, and activities are prescribed for each member of that cell based on gender, hour of the day, and social class. In turn, each of these activities, whether involving work or leisure, has their own prescribed architectural zone within the city. This imposed space-time discipline was, the SI feared, becoming a reality in Paris, and it was not producing the utopia Le Corbusier had promised, but rather a nightmare of corporate control and the increasing isolation of individuals from their communities.


The Contemporary City is also, according to Jencks’ analysis, evidence of “the idea that one could change people’s lives through architectural form.” If this is true, it could be said that in the Situationists’ visions of Paris we see a reversal of this; the belief that the form of the city would change only after its citizens altered the way they lived their lives within it’s boundaries (revolution before architecture). Indeed, as Pinder explains it, the SI “viewed cities as potential realms of freedom through which people could transcend alienation and create spaces in keeping with their own needs and desires.” This idea of freedom was not the “freedom through order” to be found in the blank slate of ‘starting again’, but rather a freedom to be found in returning to an engagement with the already shambolic, time-laden city.


The Situationists recognised the importance of recording and celebrating the memory of this ‘city full of time’; in particular those areas of Paris in danger of being forgotten to history (as evidenced by their work in documenting Les Halles), in the same way as, one hundred years before, official photographer of Paris, Charles Marville (1816-1879) had stalked the crumbling city while it was under demolition by Haussmann for Napoleon III. Marville photographed the ancient medieval quarters before they were razed and cleared away and their desperately poor inhabitants displaced and turned out onto the newly completed, gaudy and glittering grand Napoleonic Boulevards. His collection of work laid bare the open veins cut by Haussmann, the self confessed “artiste démolisseur”, (‘demolition artist’), out of which poured veritable rivers of memory, captured by Marville and surviving to this day in the Bibliotheque Nationale de Paris.


Chtcheglov conceived of his manifesto in a similarly volatile climate to the one that Marville had lived through, though this time the enemy was not the Napoleonic regime but the irrepressible march of global capitalism. The actions of the Situationists could thus be seen as an attempt to wrestle historical and spatial control back from a perceived single capitalist power and to place it once more in the hands of the moving crowd on the street – the same crowd and the same street that quintessential French literary figure and fabled flâneur Charles Baudelaire had celebrated and romanticised in his eloquent collection of prose poems, Le Spleen de Paris (“Paris Spleen”, 1868).


The flâneur made famous by Baudelaire in the Paris Spleen poems adopts the guise of the outsider, becoming the observer and documenter of the city and of human behaviour. Social historian Richard Sennett interprets Baudelaire’s flâneur as a figure who;


“…accepted the fragmented character of everyday life. Experiences of immediacy became intertwined with those scenes on the street that tended to fragment one’s vision, to focus on the part. To accept this constantly shifting scene, rather than look for someplace fixed, stable, and whole, was to become involved in the life of the city.”


Chtcheglov and his followers were desperate for a return to the myth of the flâneur; a return of the restless, passionate spirit that could be aroused by the nineteenth century Parisian street, within the flâneur that haunted it.


The SI put out regular publications during the decade of its most fervent operation. They released an influential pamphlet in 1958 just one year after the group was formed that included Chtcheglov’s manifesto, and this was then followed by regular journals. A common theme of the articles centred on the importance of what was termed by Guy Debord as “the construction of situations.” This would entail “the concrete construction of momentary ambiences of life and their transformation into a superior passional quality.”


The emphasis of this philosophy was on restoring a sense of the spontaneous to otherwise increasingly sterile urban spaces. The SI advocated a way of living in the city that was at once playfully active and deeply theoretical. This constructing of adventures, or ‘situations’, might be considered one of the central devices the Situationists believed would alter, and in their view restore, urban life. Chtcheglov believed the construction of situations would be “one of the fundamental desires on which the next civilisation will be founded.”

Consider Lefebvre’s assertion that “moments constructed into ‘situations’ might be thought of as moments of rupture, of acceleration, revolutions in individual everyday life.” The kind of personal revolution brought about by urban collisions was already well documented by Baudelaire in Paris Spleen through the short story “The Eyes of the Poor”, in which a confronting encounter on a Paris boulevard shatters the narrator’s established ideas about himself and his world. The Situationists considered these encounters vital to urban life, as above all these situations would necessitate intervention rather than passivity. Engagement in the construction of situations not by ‘high artists’ but by everyday men and women in the street becomes a means by which the individual reconnects with the ‘moving chaos’ of his city.


Additionally, these situations or adventures, created by the people of the city might be envisaged as coming to form part of the collective history and genius loci of the urban environment. As this experience is wholly personal, the narrative history of a city becomes a jumble of perceptions, a challenge to the universal narratives considered to have been imposed by modernism. The events constructed by the Situationists mark a return to perceptions of the city as fluid, impermanent and uncertain – a dream-space, in the way that Baudelaire imagined it. There is no ‘whole’ vision of the city to be understood, no aerial view to complete the picture, only fragmentary experiences built around an image of a place, or a vivid memory.


The SI laid out clearly in their series of publications the various means by which these spoken of situations could in fact be constructed. For example, the visual device known as the psychogeographic map was a vital representation of Situationist philosophy. ‘Psychogeography’ was the means of charting the mental, rather than the physical, features of the city. As a device it relied wholly on the memory of its creator.

Debord, along with colleague Asger Jorn, produced two notable screen-printed psychogeographic maps; the first was entitled “Discours sur les passions de l’amour” (1956) and the second, considered the clearest example of the genre, was “The Naked City” (1957). The pair also collaborated on a screen-printed book entitled “Mémoires” (1959), described by Sadler as a “collage of text, maps, and illustration” which “evoked the sense of reverie appropriate to psychogeography.” The maps served as guides and records of those areas of Paris that were in danger of demolition, “retaining those parts that were still worth visiting and disposing of all those bits that they felt had been spoiled by capitalism and bureaucracy.”


In describing the psychogeographic maps of 1956-7, Pinder writes:


“The maps disrupt cartographic discipline and order… They challenge urban meanings and the representational regimes by means of détournement, a term the letterists developed as a means of subversive diversion, reworking, hijacking.”


If the ideal city as Le Corbusier had imagined it involved unblocking the ‘sick’ arteries of the city, then psychogeography presented a means of essentially clogging them up again through this device of détournement, doing so through “making a nonsense” of planning ideals by means that were often theatrical, playful, experimental. The sense of play comes about through a confusion of the relationships between different urban quarters and the diversion of clear routes in images such as “The Naked City”, resulting in a representation of the street not as the directional highway of twentieth century modernism, but as a surreal mental journey, where the complexities and disjunctions of mental life and memory are apparent in the disjointed paths of suggested physical movement through the city. It is the journey, not the destination that is considered paramount, and most importantly the journey affording the most détournements on which the citizen might choose to engage in urban recreation and ‘play’.


The traditional map aims to order the city for the user, to make it legible and easily navigable. But in the Situationist maps, observes Sadler, “Debord and Jorn attempted to put the spectator at ease with a city of apparent disorder, exposing the strange logic that lay beneath its surface.” The ‘aerial view’ in this case was not a means of making order out of perceived disorder as it was for Le Corbusier, but was rather a celebration of this disorder, a collage of remembered personal experiences of urban space and suggested routes that were documents of a mental geography rather than a physical one, an imagined city rather than a quantifiable one. Le Corbusier had already built the Unité d’Habitation, but Situationists sought a very different experience of living; they wanted a “unité d’ambiance,” and these often elusive ‘ambient places’ are to be found in the collaged zones between the arrows in maps such as “The Naked City”.

Vitally, this movement was to once again occur on foot, having shifted away from the perspective of the man in the fast car celebrated by Le Corbusier and Giedion, and back to Baudelaire’s pedestrian in the street. This shift provides an insight into the motivations behind psychogeographic theory, as a body of thought locked in opposition to modern planning perspectives that had once been considered radical and avant-garde (as in the schemes of Le Corbusier), but had since the war increasingly become, according to the Situationists, dominant and repressive. This stance is clearly summarised by Sadler:


“..the situationist city was at odds with the Corbusian vision of people at ease in an ideal urban landscape, a place where the struggle with nature, with the body, with space, and with class had inexplicably come to an end. Le Corbusier’s Ville Contemporaine… was forever contemporary only by freezing time and ending history. In psychogeography, all the struggles were acute again, making a nonsense of the Corbusian fantasy of the city as something abstract, rational, or ideal.”


Pinder also reinforces the polemic position of the Situationists, stating that the maps’ “scrambled insinuation of paths and movements counter the functional schemes of urban planners.” But the psychogeographic map goes further than re-imagining existing urban spaces: It provides a blueprint for the kind of Paris the Situationists imagined for the future. As Debord quipped: “One day we will construct cities made for drifting.”

Complementing the theory of psychogeography is the practice known as the dérive: the physical enactment of the ideas to be found in the psychogeographic map. The dérive, documented first by Chtcheglov, forms part of the core of what Pinder describes as the Situationists’ “explorations of the possibilities that lay buried within existing cities through the development of alternative geographic practices.” In short, if the psychogeographic map documented the merits of a fluid rather than a fixed urban geography, then the dérive explored notions of a fluid rather than fixed sense of time. When read together, the two practices can be seen as a rediscovery of the constantly shifting space-time relationship within the city in the face of an increasingly static and ‘timeless’ urbanism that threatened to erase its past.


Pinder comments that the term ‘dérive’, associated with the French verb ‘dériver’, “carries watery connotations of drifting, with its etymological roots lying in rivus or stream.” Sadler also suggests a nautical metaphor is fitting in describing the practice, stating: “the city imagined as a psychogeographic sea, pushing and pulling the sensitive soul along its eddies and currents.” The aim of the dérive, conceived of as an experimental ‘drift’ or détournement through the fluid, submarine terrain of Paris, is to counteract the perceived “petrifaction of the city and the fixing of space-time through dominant forms of urbanism.”


Debord, a central practitioner of the dérive, defines it as “the practice of a passional journey out of the ordinary through rapidly changing ambiences” as well as a behaviour that should be of a “playful-constructive” nature. This drift through a fluid city and the associated disorientation and sense of displacement it entails above all enables a loss of fixed and measured time in the experience of urban space.  In an instructive essay on the practice entitled “Théorie de la dérive” (“Theory of the dérive”, 1958), Debord recommends that the dérive should generally be conducted in groups of no more than five people, with an average duration of one full day, although Chtcheglov, in the most extreme case, wrote of dérives where days, often weeks it seemed, might run into each other:


“In 1953-1954 we dérived for three or four months; that’s the extreme limit, the critical point. It’s a miracle it didn’t kill us.”


From these descriptions we can conceive of the dérive as being linked closely to the experience of the flâneur through the way notions of time in the city are understood. Both involve a rejection of the repetitive routines of capitalist urban life in favour of the freedom of wandering the city at an undisciplined pace. Both practices advocate a rediscovery of ‘slow’ time in a city in which the pressures of capitalist life have forced its inhabitants to live ‘by the clock’. Pinder writes:


“Just as the flâneurs of the nineteenth century had refused notions of a ‘proper place’ through continual wanders in the city, and of a ‘proper time’ through their disdain for the demands of time discipline… so those on the dérive refused the categories and rhythms of capitalist urban life and its demands for discipline and utility as determined by structures of work.”


Early incarnations of the dérive also indicate a return to the fragmented, subterranean dreamscapes seen and felt by Baudelaire’s flâneur, and are evoked in Chtcheglov’s “Formulary” essay:


“All cities are geological; you cannot take three steps without encountering ghosts bearing all the prestige of their legends. We move within a closed landscape whose landmarks constantly draw us toward the past. Certain shifting angles, certain receding perspectives, allow us to glimpse original conceptions of space, but this vision remains fragmentary.”


Chtcheglov imagines the city as a hidden topography, a submerged, almost fecund geology to be penetrated and uncovered. This submarine city is a city of ghosts, a city that is as much a geology of memories as it is of edifices.


Chtcheglov’s observations gleaned from the dérive are not concerned with the concrete representations found in the architectural tradition of the ‘bird’s eye view’, but rather with individual perceptions, which, like memories, are unreliable, unstable, and often fleeting. Glimpses of the past are to be found in the city’s “landmarks”, yet this history is not clear or quantifiable, being in fact a relative city formed by individual desire, revealed only through “shifting angles” and “receding perspectives”. This idea of the dream-city is again reinforced in later passages of the essay in which Chtcheglov imagines the city of the future as being able to encompass a “CONTINUOUS DÉRIVE”, happily noting: “the changing of landscapes from one hour to the next will result in complete disorientation.”


To enter once more into the heart of the crowd, as Baudelaire’s flâneur had done, is also one of the aims of the dérive. If Le Corbusier saw in the clean, blank slate the promise of freedom, the Situationists found it in the mess and mire of the multitudes to be found amongst the Parisian souterrains, the underground places, where instead of sanitised whiteness we find filth, dirt and darkness. Debord documents engagement with the city’s souterrains as an essential part of the overall experience of ‘drifting’:


“…a loose lifestyle and even certain amusements considered dubious that have always been enjoyed among our entourage – slipping by night into houses undergoing demolition, hitchhiking non-stop and without destination through Paris during a transportation strike in the name of adding to the confusion, wandering in subterranean catacombs forbidden to the public, etc. – are expressions of a more general sensibility which is nothing other than that of the dérive.”


The drift was a means by which one would encounter “both the city’s embarrassing contrasts of material wealth and its clandestine glories of popular culture and history.” In order to recreate the life changing experience of Baudelaire’s narrator in “The Eyes of the Poor”, the individual embarking on the dérive had to open up the city as a surgeon, but not in the blind way Haussmann had done; the objective was rather to view it from all angles, to confront oneself with its complexities and contradictions.

The activity of the dérive could thus be understood as a means by which ordinary citizens take it upon themselves to become actors in a scene – the scene of urban life – rather than mere spectators. The dérive encapsulates the often playful, always interventionist attitudes of Situationism in response to a perceived urbanism that had become passive rather than challenging, an urbanism devoid of the essential collages and confrontations of modern life.


In a discussion of psychogeographic theory and the practice of the dérive it is important to mention Le Corbusier’s derision of Paris as a “gypsy encampment” in The City of Tomorrow. The nomadic metaphor used by the architect is derived perhaps from scientific biases common at the time about less ‘developed’ or primitive cultures, and reveals his concerns about “the threat of uncoded and unregulated movement” taking over the city like a cancerous disease. This anxiety results in the deliberate tendency of the architect to set his vision “against free wandering and drift.” The desire to arrest movement is linked to the desire to stop time, to create a fixed space in which no boundary can be transgressed, no uncertainty occur. In the practice of the dérive, however, the free movement of the crowd or the individual within the “gypsy encampment” of Paris is to be celebrated. The dérive asserts the triumph of the ‘formless’ city over the ‘formed’.


The sense of the nomadic that was emphasised by Situationist theory as a response to the city of fixed space and time would find its expression in more mainstream architectural discourse. Italy’s Superstudio group, in their 1969 scheme for an “Endless City,”  conceived of the most extreme theoretical ‘city of drift’ in which landscapes and perceptions are continually altered and remade, geography and time occupy no fixed point, and all citizens are nomads. The city is no longer static, no longer concrete, but is manifest only in the realm of the mind – even the apparent solidity of bricks and mortar have surrendered to the uncertainty and impermanence of mental life and memory. Superstudio’s image “A Journey from A to B”, which depicts inhabitants wandering this endless city, is without horizon or reference point, giving way transiently to the innumerable “gypsy encampments” set up on its surface.


Experimental architectural group Archigram’s “Plug-in City” (1963-1964) is also a city of endless movement; a city that travels, thereby avoiding the trap of the negation of time or a fixing of the space-time relationship. Its visual representation, especially the ink drawn section through the “Maximum Pressure Area” of the city, evokes the jumbled medieval town Paris may once have been; a collage of disparate elements occasionally in synthesis, often in disjunction with one another. “Plug-in City” is a city of parts added on, rather than a city where the old is removed to make way for the new. As it travels it is adapted for new uses; it is a ramshackle city, a giant evolving market stall that bears the unsanitised scars of human habitation and use.


Rather than the projection of an ideal time upon an ideal space, the SI imagined the city as a fluid geography that must fundamentally connect with people’s real needs and desires; desires of the kind that could not be quantified or surveyed in statistical data. The Situationists’ advocation of the forming of ‘humanised’ cities that would reflect human desires alludes to a passage taken from Italian post-war novelist Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1972), in which a fictional Marco Polo explains to the great leader Kublai Khan; “Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears.”


Fundamental to thwarting this creation of an urban ‘geography of desire’ was, for Debord, the perceived “destruction of history and the management of an ‘eternal present’” The type of modern, post-industrial ideology that continued to treat the city, Paris notably, as a kind of terra nullius was felt by the SI to be essentially a “closed system” when it came to urbanism, unable to embrace the fluid and changing nature of human experience – a system that counters a sense of time by the way in which it abandons a collective or ancestral understanding of urban space as the repository of a culture’s multitude of memories, a system, to borrow a phrase from Lefebvre, that “evacuates history without further ado.” In resistance to this ideology, Debord, in a preface to the 1979 Fourth Italian Edition of his manifesto La Société du spectacle (‘The Society of the Spectacle’, 1967) imagined a city and society that would “at last be able to surrender itself joyously to the true divisions and never-ending confrontations of historical life.”


Gilles Ivain (Ivan Chtcheglov), “Formulaire pour un urbanisme nouveau,” IS 1 (June 1958): 15-20, trans. and ed. Ken Knabb as “Formulary for a new urbanism” in Situationist International Anthology (Berkeley:   Bureau of Public Secrets, 1981). All subsequent citations of this essay are to Knabb’s translation.

Chtcheglov, “Formulary for a new urbanism,” 2.

David Pinder, Visions of the City: Utopianism, Power and Politics in Twentieth-Century Urbanism (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005), 2.

“L’urbanisme unitaire à la fin des années 50,” IS 3 (December 1959): 11-16, trans. Thomas Levin as  “Unitary urbanism at the end of the 1950s,” in Elisabeth Sussmann, ed., On the Passage of a Few People Through a Rather Brief Moment in Time: The Situationist International 1957-1972 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989), 143-7.

Pinder, Visions of the City, 129.

Pinder, Visions of the City, 129.

Simon Sadler, The Situationist City (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998), 58.

Le Corbusier, Urbanisme, 8th ed. (Paris: Éditions Crés, 1924), trans. Frederick Etchells as The City of

Tomorrow and Its Planning, rev. ed. (1929; repr., London: The Architectural Press, 1947), 227-38. All subsequent citations of this text are to Etchells’ translation.

Sadler, The Situationist City, 49.

Pinder, Visions of the City, 136.

Pinder, Visions of the City, 139.

Sadler, The Situationist City, 63-5.

Pinder, Visions of the City, 240.

Sadler, The Situationist City, 63.

Attila Kotányi and Raoul Vaneigem, “Programme élémentaire du bureau d’urbanisme unitaire,” IS 6 (August 1961): 16-9, trans. and ed. as “Elementary program of the bureau of unitary urbanism,” in Knabb, Situationist International Anthology, 66.

Henri Lefebvre, The Explosion: Marxism and the French Revolution, trans. Alfred Ehrenfeld (New York and

London: Monthly Review Press, 1969), 118. Quoted in Pinder, Visions of the City, 235.

Le Corbusier, Vers Une Architecture, 13th ed. (Paris: Éditions Crés, 1923), trans. Frederick Etchells as

Towards A New Architecture, rev. ed. (1946; repr., London: The Architectural Press, 1974), 269.

Sadler, The Situationist City, 45.

Pinder, Visions of the City, 131.

Guy Debord, La société du spectacle (Paris: Buchet-Chastel, 1967), trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith as The

Society of the Spectacle, (New York: Zone Books, 1994), thesis 172.

Pinder, Visions of the City, 236. Debord’s slogan was first photographed for Situationist journal

Internationale situationniste (IS) 8 (January 1963), then the slogan rewritten as an homage by protesters was photographed and included in IS 12 (September 1969)

Pinder, Visions of the City, 144-5.

Le Corbusier, The City of Tomorrow, 227.

Le Corbusier, The City of Tomorrow, 171 – 249: 174.

Charles Jencks, Le Corbusier and the Continual Revolution in Architecture (New York: Monacelli Press, 2000), 141.

Pinder, Visions of the City, 128.

Walter Benjamin, Das Passagen-Werk, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Suhrkamp Verlag, 1982), trans. and ed.

Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin as The Arcades Project (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 12.

Richard Sennett, The Conscience of the Eye: The Design and Social Life of Cities (London: Faber & Faber, 1990; repr. 1993), 175.

Guy Debord, “Rapport sur la construction des situations,” trans. and ed. as “Report on the Construction of Situations,” in Knabb, Situationist International Anthology, 17, 22.  All subsequent citations of this essay are to the Knabb translation.

Chtcheglov, “Formulary for a new urbanism,” 3.

“Theorie des moments et construction des situations”, IS 4 (1960): 10-11, trans. Paul Hammond as “The theory of moments and the construction of Situations,” quoted in Pinder, Visions of the City, 167.

Sadler, The Situationist City, 60.

Sadler, The Situationist City, 76.

Sadler, The Situationist City, 61.

Pinder, Visions of the City, 153.

Sadler, The Situationist City, 77.

Sadler, The Situationist City, 82.

Sadler, The Situationist City, 69.

Sadler, The Situationist City, 77.

Pinder, Visions of the City, 158.

Guy Debord, “Théorie de la dérive,” Les lèvres nues 9 (November 1956), in Documents relatifs à la fondation de l’Internationale situationniste: 1948-1957, ed. Gérard Berreby, (Paris: Éditions Allia, 1985), 316, trans. Pinder, Visions of the City, 159. The essay was also published in English in modified form (without the final paragraph that includes this quote) as “Theory of the dérive” in Ken Knabb, trans. and ed., Situationist International Anthology (Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1981), 50-4.

Pinder, Visions of the City, 144.

Pinder, Visions of the City, 155.

Sadler, The Situationist City, 88.

Pinder, Visions of the City, 155.

Debord, “Report on the construction of situations,” 24.

Debord, “Theorie de la dérive”, IS 2 (December, 1958): 19-23, trans. and ed. as “Theory of the dérive” in

Knabb, Situationist International Anthology, 50-54: 50. All subsequent citations of this essay are to the Knabb translation.

Ivan Chtcheglov, “Lettres de loin,” IS 9 (August 1964): 38, trans. and ed. as “Letters from afar” in Knabb,

Situationist International Anthology, 372.

Pinder, Visions of the City, 150.

Chtcheglov, “Formulary for a new urbanism,” 1.

Chtcheglov, “Formulary for a new urbanism,” 4.

Debord, “Theory of the dérive,” 53.

Sadler, The Situationist City, 94.

Pinder, Visions of the City, 149.

Pinder, Visions of the City, 103.

Pinder, Visions of the City, 103.

Sadler, The Situationist City, 145.

Pinder, Visions of the City, 245.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities (London: Random House, 1997), 44.

Pinder, Visions of the City, 242.

Pinder. Visions of the City, 255.

Henri Lefebvre, The Survival of Capitalism: Reproduction of the Relations of Production, trans. Frank

Bryant (London: Allison and Busby, 1976), 61.

Guy Debord, Preface à la quatrième édition italienne de ‘La Société du Spectacle’ (Paris: Champ Libre, 1979), trans. Michel Prigent and Lucy Forsyth as Preface to the Fourth Italian Edition of ‘The Society of the Spectacle’, 2nd ed. (London: Chronos, 1983), 23. Quoted in Pinder, Visions of the City, 241.








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