Monday, 24 August 2009

Walking: The Act of Moving About

The walked paths taken by human beings through space is controlled by many urban features. There are the more obvious solid objects like walls and fences that prevent people from taking certain routes through space, but not all of these barriers are solid: they might simply exist in the form of a notice stating 'No Entry'. But, often space is controlled in a much more subtle way. For example, the idea of 'walkways' which were popularised by architects in the 1960s, especially in regards to university space. Walkways were meant to join areas of the campus together and also encourage students to 'bump into each other'. Even though this seems like an community-spirited idea, it has the function of controlling space in such a way that students are discouraged from taking other routes.

Merlin Coverley explains that it is only by challenging assumed routes and investigating the unnoticed and dismissed areas, that one can get any real sense of what exists behind the surface of what appears as the everyday (2006 : 12-13). The students, academics and staff of the university move across the campus surface on established well-worn paths. Individuals tend to follow the same routes, as much for expedience as anything else. It is extremely unlikely that an undergraduate student attending a three year course would cover the paths that appear on the university pedestrian route map in the time they are at the university, let alone any routes that do not appear. As individuals in a busy postmodern world, we need to have an actual reason to go somewhere in order to see to see a new space; we are unlikely to wander, just for the sake of it. There could be many reasons for this, the discussion of which could make for a project in its own right. However, 'cheap' cars and a culture that does not encourage walking, do not help. Previous generations in Britain (and other cultures) walked most of the time. For example, in the 1960s it was considered perfectly acceptable to allow your children to walk to school, even when quite young. Multiple transport options allow people to move from place to place easily, but this also discourages the process of seeing the movement between places as an event in itself, an exploration of space. Walking enables the minutiae of the environment to be examined. Guy Debord explains how the city discourages detours because of its make-up: “cities have a psychogeographical relief, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes which strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.” (1996: 22).

A large part of the practise behind this project has involved providing other paths around the University of Leeds campus in an effort to: challenge the established route; experience the campus in a different way; and as an attempt to probe the very fabric of the university in order to encourage it to reveal its history. This has taken the form of a number of dérives (see other blogs). Debord states: “The city is the locus of history because it is conscious of the past and also concentrates the social power that makes the historical undertaking possible.” (2005: 176). This can also be applied to the university. The past of the university exists in the very fabric of the campus, and it tells a story of power; not just in the form of administrative decisions such as those highlighted when discussing the Compulsory Purchase Orders, but also the less obvious ones about how an individual moves around the campus. This history does not only exist in historical documents; the actual campus itself can also be read in an attempt to investigate the past, and even the future.

Coverley, Merlin. 2006. Psychogeography (Harpenden: Pocket Essentials).
Debord, Guy. 1996. 'Theory of the Dérive', Theory of the Dérive and Other Situationist Writings on the City, ed. by Libero Andreotti and Xavier Costa (Barcelona: Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona). pp. 22-27.
Debord, Guy. 2005. The Society of the Spectacle (Detroit: Black and Red).

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