[Essay] Dérive: Situationist Architecture and the Modern City — Matilda Roberts

‘We are bored in the city!’ wrote Gilles Ivain, the French political theorist, activist and poet, at the age of nineteen. Boredom is a condition first really experienced, by many people, as students. Not boredom just in the sense of having little to do but real boredom where all you can feel, whether you have a lot or a little do, is an emotional flatness and a resigned indifference. Why are we bored in the city? For Gilles Ivain, writing his ‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’ in 1953, boredom is the price we pay for living in a rationalized world where ‘darkness and obscurity are banished by artificial lighting, and the seasons by air conditioning’. For Walter Benjamin, our boredom derives from the repetitive sameness that our mechanized life develops. Henri Lefebvre, a French Marxist philosopher and sociologist, also explains boredom as a modern affliction deriving from the dominance of technology. Pre-modern societies developed systems that were connected organically to the rhythms and cycles of nature. In the performance of apparently identical tasks, there was always variation and novelty, however slight. For example, ocean waves, although appearing interchangeable are each subtly different, shaped by wind and the movement of the sea. There are smaller rhythms within the larger ones; in some instances they are gentle, at other times immensely threatening. They are unpredictable; Lefebvre writes, there is ‘always something unexpected, always something which seems to be a fragment but is suddenly a whole.’ Technology has fragmented a formerly integrated style of life resulting in an automatic, essentially passive response to lived experience.

Our automatic response to boredom is to scroll the Facebook news feed, search the internet for distractions and play games on our phones or consoles. At the end of this we are very rarely left feeling satisfied or even any less bored. As students we are initiates preparing for our role in a culture of general passivity. At least this was the stance taken by the Situationist International, of which Ivain and Lefebvre were some time members. For them, everyday life in the modern world is so deadened by routine, the banality of culture and the spectacle, that deep and unrelenting boredom is the inevitable result, and total revolution the only ‘cure’. The SI formed in 1957, and it’s two key publications were published in 1967. The ‘spectacle’ is at the centre of Situationist theory developed by Guy Debord in his 1967 book, The Society of the Spectacle, it is a development of Karl Marx’s concept of fetishism of commodities, reification and alienation. The ‘spectacle’ revolves around the idea that we are ruled by commodity and consumption and the mass media has rendered us completely passive. The Situationists rejected the fragmented nature of modern society and called for synthesis, drawing many from Surrealism, and in particular the Surrealist critique of bourgeois life. However, the Situationists spurned Surrealism’s concentration on the imagination and chance, and instead promoted the power of life and living itself. The Situationist’s thought that in restricting themselves to the aesthetic plane, art could pose no real threat to the established order.

Members of the group came up with a number of solutions through architecture. Constant Nieuwenhuys’s ‘New Babylon’ architecture would no longer be the concrete manifestation of a controlling social order. It would end nowhere; have no national economies, or collectivities. Every place would be accessible to all and life would be an endless journey across a city which changes rapidly. In his accompanying essay, ‘New Babylon’, Constant describes it as a shared residence, ‘a temporary, constantly remodeled living area and a camp for nomads on a planetary scale’. The very basis of time and space would be transformed by the introduction of free time and free movement to create completely new social relationships.

Gilles Ivain’s solutions to avoid boredom in the city involved splitting the districts of the city into moods.  There would be, among others, a bizarre quarter, happy quarter, noble and tragic quarter, historical quarter, useful quarter and sinister quarter. The city’s inhabitants would engage in a continuous dérive (dérive is an unplanned journey or stroll, another idea developed from Surrealism). They would completely disorientate themselves in the constantly changing landscapes. In order to inject fun and play in to the city Ivain suggested a few changes for Paris:

…the underground should be opened at night, after the trains have stopped running… rooftops of Paris should be opened to pedestrian traffic… modifications of fire escapes and construction of walkways where necessary… public gardens remain open at night unlit or with dim lighting… street lights should have switches… churches made into ruins or fearful houses… accentuate their unsettling effects…

In the city the situations we live in are created for us. The width of streets, heights of buildings, advertisements, lights, the circulation of traffic, the colours of front doors, and the shapes of windows all arrange our space and subtly shape urban lives. The Situationists wanted to radically disrupt this by disrupting the make up of the city.

While the ideas of Ivain and Constant may seem unreachable they indicate towards more realistic ways in which the boredom of modern life can be broken. Boredom can be seen as an estrangement from acting and thinking, from direct living. Natural rhythms cannot be entirely eliminated; many aspects of daily life still remain hidden and obscure, beyond the grasp of the fully legible and rational. The human body, for instance, preserves the ‘difference within repetition’ that Lefebvre thinks is lost. As long as we do not disengage ourselves from our own bodies we will still encounter chance and surprise. For the Situationist writer Raoul Vaneigem, whose The Revolution of Everyday stands alongside Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle as the canonical text of Situationist thought, creativity, love and play are life’s nutrients – the only real ways in which we can participate in the world.

While the Situationist International, as a movement, had a habit of over intellectualizing the problem of modern life, a number of their ideas regarding play in the city and attempts to interrupt daily life could be valuable in today’s society. Though they claimed art could pose no real threat to the established order, it can make successful attempts to disrupt daily life and inspire direct living. This can be achieved by escaping the alienating physical and social constrictions of traditional art practice; the separation of audience and artist, production and consumption, and creating art that invades daily life. The film The Institute, documents a situation in San Francisco in 2002 in which artists turned the city, for those who were paying attention, into a city of play. Participants in the game did not know what was going on but those who committed themselves to it reported the way in which the intervention to their daily routine changed their lives. Watch the film and you will see that this is quite an extreme example. But this kind of project can have a valuable effect on the inhabitants of a city, inviting a latter day Revolution of Everyday Life as it opens the door to a new way of approaching your environment not just as a tool for survival, but as a place to play, create and therefore really live.


Matilda Roberts is a writer based in the UK.


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