Chapter 4 – City as Experience

“There will always be a type of experience recognizable only to those who have walked through that particular building, street, or district.” (Rossi 1982; p.33)

The city is not just its form and its contained collective memory able to be pinpointed and identified. The city must also be seen in terms of the experience of occupying it; it is understood and felt only when walking through its streets. Bernard Tschumi’s theories regarding his work consider the social dimensions to architecture; where the architectural form acts as a stage for the movement of bodies through it (Tschumi 1994). A building’s significance is only formed when it is being used, where actions occur inside and around it; it is those events that shape architecture and define it. A city without inhabitants to interact with its form does not exist.

In ‘A Berlin Chronicle’, Benjamin envisages mapping out the sphere of his life geographically upon a map, recounting biographically shaping experiences to their locations upon a map of the city of Berlin (Benjamin 1986; p.5). The memories of a city as experienced are quite ephemeral, they are not evoked by the façades of the architecture which have been gazed upon too often since childhood to conjure them up, instead they are evoked more as shadows where “they steal along its walls like beggars, appear wraithlike at windows, to vanish again, sniff at thresholds like a genius loci” (Benjamin 1986; p.28)

Wandering around the city offers us a particularly enriching experience and one that enables us to engage with our surroundings, Benjamin saw its merits as being able to speak to us in a way that engages with our senses.12 To wander around the city was a particular indulgence of ‘The Flâneur’ and they were able to engage and experience in all the textures and small wonders that a city may present to the eye, if we are willing to take time to open our eyes to its array of sights. The Situationists too had a number of games and interesting methods by which they would explore the city including the study of psychogeography13 and the practice of dérivements14 that they applied to the city. Use of these techniques resulted in a diversity of different experiences and encounters being chanced upon. 

Our experience of the city and what we remember about it may often be some ephemeral detail, a chance sight of something unexpected that makes us laugh or surprises us, rather than that which we are already aware of. Seeing other people occupying that space, getting a sense of the atmosphere, the smells and sensory impact it makes, are some of the details that are only perceivable on the scale of experience. It is these things that become the significant memories from that place.

12.  “Not to find one’s way in a city may well be uninteresting and banal. It requires ignorance – nothing more. But to lose oneself in a city – as one loses oneself in a forest – that calls for quite a different schooling. Then, signboards and street names, passers-by, roofs, kiosks, or bars must speak to the wanderer like a cracking twig under his feet in the forest” Benjamin, W. (1986). A Berlin Chronicle. Reflections - Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings. P. Demetz. p.8-9

13.  Psychogeography looks at how the environment affects our emotions and behaviours as individuals. Debord, G.-E. (1955) 'Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography' Les Lèvres Nues #6,

14.  The dérive is a form of wandering around the city that is based more on chance than the observations of the flâneur, it enabled the participant to truly explore the city without pre-direction and to follow its natural contours. Debord, G.-E. (1958) 'Theory of the Dérive' Internationale Situationniste #2,

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