Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Florence, Siena and the ‘space of flows’

We are in Florence for a conference, in what is to my mind the most enchanting part of Italy, namely Tuscany. Because I have always been interested in art and architecture, and in principle we don’t take taxis, but walk everywhere we go, we have already seen the most beautiful buildings and urban landscapes, framed by the famed Tuscan hills, in and around the city.

A few days ago we walked to Fiesole, a village on a hill overlooking Florence, where there are stunning Etruscan and Roman archaeological remains, and were caught in an atmospheric thunderstorm that left us wet but thrilled by the experience. And yesterday we visited what is undoubtedly the most beautiful (little) city I have ever seen, Siena, plus an equally captivating medieval village nearby, San Gimignano — both architectural gems that have given me enough material to write on to make this trip thoroughly worth the cost.

There has only been one thing that has spoilt, and is still spoiling, the visit. Let me phrase it in terms of Manuel Castells’ social theory of the dominant mode of space today, namely what he so graphically calls the “space of flows”. From previous posts (see “The space of flows and the social elites of today” and “Resisting the dehumanising architecture of the space of flows” some readers will recall that the “space of flows” is the spatial mode that has become dominant in the course of the technological revolution that had its inception around the middle of the last century with the invention of the computer and television, followed later (crucially) by that of the internet, and which has still not run its course.

In a nutshell, this revolution has brought about a transformation of societies worldwide, so that, today, one can legitimately use the title of Castells’ magisterial book, The Rise of the Network Society (1996; 2nd edition 2010) to characterise what is distinct about contemporary society. Networks (actual and virtual) are everywhere, and along these networks — the internet being the basis of the vast majority of them — everything “flows”: information, communications, commodity and financial investment-flows, merchandise of the most unimaginably diverse kinds (think of the growing number of courier-services), etc even postal services are being re-imagined in terms of “post-net” images.

This is what the “space of flows” amounts to — as Castells has pointed out, all modes of space have always been the basis of what he calls “time-sharing activities”. In the Middle Ages, a village square or a Romanesque church was such a space, what he calls a space of “place” or of “contiguity”, in which social activities marked by simultaneity took place. The difference today is NOT that space is no longer the basis for simultaneous social activities, it still is, BUT because of the technological revolution it is no longer place-bound. Today social, economic, political, or intellectual activities take place simultaneously, and at locations scattered all over the globe. THIS is the “space of flows” that is the dominant spatial mode.

You may wonder why I remarked earlier that the space of flows “spoils” one’s visit to wonderful places like those in Florence and Siena. First remind yourself that the space of flows did not appear from nowhere, it was always there, but until now it was never dominant, the space of place or of contiguity (next-to-one-another space) was dominant. In other words, it was not the roads or paths that dominated the places where one was on one’s way to, but the other way around. The space of flows has always existed in the shape of paths in forests, roads linking towns, and so on. It was given a boost by the roads that the Romans built throughout the Roman Empire about 2000 years ago, and another, bigger boost by the 19th century construction of railroad connections throughout Europe, America and the colonised world. That railway system was an anticipation of what could, and did, happen when technology crossed the electronic barrier. Only then did the space of flows become the hegemonic spatial form.

Where do we encounter the space of flows today on a daily, almost continuous basis? Most conspicuously, when you are texting or talking on your smartphone, or when you see people sitting together in a coffee shop, not conversing, but engrossed in what is happening on their smartphone screens. When you are using, or surfing, the internet, you are part of the space of flows; when you enter an airport building, you are part of it, especially in the “duty free” areas where all you see around you are nauseating repetitions of Gucci, Versace, Bulgari, Dior, or any of the dominant brands that have the world in an economic stranglehold.

And, to get back to the spoiling effect of the space of flows when one is admiring unique architectural works in places like Florence and Siena (but also Paris, Prague, Rome, Vienna and all the beautiful cities of the world), picture this, or think back to similar experiences you have had: you walk down to the famous Piazza del Duomo of Florence, where one of the outstanding examples of church architecture stands, with the almost impossibly colossal “cupola” or dome designed by Brunelleschi and completed in the 15th century. When you get there, even as early as 8.30am, there is already a queue stretching the length of the huge building, waiting to go inside. And most of these people are part of tour groups — for myself one of the dreaded manifestations of the era of the space of flows.

Don’t get me wrong — tourism is as old as the hills; it probably existed in the Roman era, and not only because Goscinny and Uderzo show this to be the case in Asterix books. But again: today it is a phenomenon that overwhelms one because of its sheer magnitude. You will respond by pointing out that we (my partner and I) are part of it. Yes and no. Unavoidably you become part of this mass of rubbernecking humanity, but as a matter of principle we avoid tours — we prefer doing things like discovering beautiful places “on our own”. Involuntarily, however, you are swept along by the wave of humanity that comprises the travel-accompaniment of the space of flows.

One has no option but to live with it, which is why we often deviate from the beaten track by hiking into the hills, as we have done here in Florence, to have a different perspective on the city stretching out before us, without being suffocated by masses of tour groups around us. Where it really became almost too much to bear was yesterday when we visited the stunning little city of Siena (google it through the space of flows and you’ll see how beautiful it is), which is by far the best example I have yet discovered of a “space of place”, which, in Heideggerian idiom, creates its own singular “region”.

From the Piazza del Campo, where the annual horse races still take place every year, to the charmingly crooked little streets, with unexpected vistas unfolding as you walk further along them, and the white and black Tuscan marble Gothic cathedral atop the hill, the liberating “place” — quality of Siena is music to one’s soul. But it, too, is spoilt by the masses of people, mainly tour groups (easily recognisable by the tour guide walking in front, holding a conspicuous object of some kind).

I know that it comes with the territory of “travelling” today, and it’s no use complaining. But it’s such a pity that one cannot experience a place like Siena as it was “meant” to be experienced. After all, it flourished in the late Middle Ages, long before the space of flows triumphed, and its inhabitants would have known what it meant as a unique space of place. Even today the charm of that spatial aspect is not wholly absent. We spoke to a woman who has lived there for 10 years, and in her passion for the place, born of her happiness to be able to live in a city with such diverse, yet qualitatively coherent spatial attributes, we could detect the irrepressible workings of the “space of place”.

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