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Walking in the city of Seoul

Walking the streets of Seoul – the “Soul of Asia” – whenever we have had the time, after giving a seminar at a Korean university at the invitation of a friend, has reminded me of Michel de Certeau’s now classic study, The Practice of Everyday Life (1984), part of which is entitled “Walking in the City”.

This is no ordinary travelogue, however, as readers of De Certeau would know; far from it. It is a radicalisation of what one might call a “transgressive reading” of ordinary, everyday activities, revealing the surprising degree to which such “practices” surpass the mechanisms that – according to Michel Foucault’s genealogical analysis in Discipline and Punish – structure modern life, in the process inducing “docility” in subjects of the modern state. In contrast to emphasising such disciplined toeing-the-line on the part of the typical “consumers” of today in terms of a distributed “microphysics of power”, De Certeau talks about the “procedures of everyday creativity”.

He continues (in the Introduction): “If it is true that the grid of ‘discipline’ is everywhere becoming clearer and more extensive, it is all the more urgent to discover how an entire society resists being reduced to it, what popular procedures … manipulate the mechanisms of discipline and conform to them only in order to evade them, and finally, what ‘ways of operating’ form the counterpart, on the consumer’s (or ‘dominee’s’?) side, of the mute processes that organise the establishment of socioeconomic order.

“These ‘ways of operating’ constitute the innumerable practices by means of which users re-appropriate the space organised by techniques of sociocultural production … the goal is to perceive and analyse the microbe-like operations proliferating within technocratic structures and deflecting their functioning by means of a multitude of ‘tactics’ articulated in the details of everyday life … the goal is not to make clearer how the violence of order is transmuted into a disciplinary technology, but rather to bring to light the clandestine forms taken by the dispersed, tactical, and makeshift creativity of groups or individuals already caught in the nets of ‘discipline.’ Pushed to their ideal limits, these procedures and ruses of consumers compose the network of an antidiscipline …”

“Walking in the city” is one of the “ways of operating” that enables consumers to evade the otherwise ubiquitous control exercised over them by anonymous mechanisms of order, such as the myriad forms of surveillance, ranging from census forms and tax returns to CCTV cameras, radar speed traps and parking meters.

De Certeau contrasts the act of “reading” the complexity of the city visually from the top floor of a skyscraper in a “texturological” manner – which corresponds, as expression of the “scopic drive,” to the much earlier representations of the city by Renaissance painters (p. 92), as if from a god’s-eye view – with the street-level spatial practices that elude visibility and abstract legibility.

These below-the-radar activities, he intimates, are alien to the “geographical” space of panoptical, visual mechanisms, and he thinks of them as belonging to an “anthropological,” “migrational” or poetic experience of space.

It is in these practices of invisible, unrepresentable peripatetic movements, peculiar to walkers in cities the world over, that we have participated every time we have criss-crossed this colossal city of 14-million inhabitants.

Usually we choose to walk more-or-less towards a visible beacon such as the Seoul Tower overlooking the city’s downtown area, exploring the interstitial architectural spaces that present themselves, mostly unexpectedly, to our loose directional intentions, and sometimes deliberately walking without any directional intent, surrendering to randomness and passability of streets.

One easily forgets what makes this kind of wandering exploration possible, namely space in its primordial giving, which – as De Certeau appositely remarks – is a blind spot on the part of the functionalist organization of the city on the basis of technological and economic “progress” that privileges time.

To be sure, these “urbanising” operations belong to what De Certeau calls the “Concept-city”, with its language of panoptic power, but they do not comprise the only field of power in the city. On the contrary (p. 95):

“The city becomes the dominant theme in political legends, but it is no longer a field of programmed and regulated operations. Beneath the discourses that ideologise the city, the ruses and combinations of powers that have no readable identity proliferate; without points where one can take hold of them, without rational transparency, they are impossible to administer.”

It is with what De Certeau understands as the decay of the “Concept-city” and the kind of rationality on which it is founded, that the kind of interstitial, pluralistic practices, of which unpredictable city-walking is one, have been given a new lease of life.

His analysis of the innumerable pathways such walking describes highlights its heterogeneity, its qualitative, rather than quantitative character (the footsteps comprising it cannot be counted), its non-functionalist function of weaving places together, and the intangible manner in which such pedestrian movements constitute a complex, but elusive system which is inseparable from the city “itself.”

In a way that reminds one of Henri Lefebvre’s contention, that human social activities “produce” different kinds of space, De Certeau claims that the intertwined movements of walkers “spatialise,” or shape spaces.

We have had concrete experience of this the past week – every walk across the city is irreducibly different; while, as De Certeau points out, city authorities can, through surveys, determine which routes from one end to the other of a city are more frequently used than others, the qualitative activity of walking a route is singular, never exactly the same as before, even when “the same route” is followed.

Today, for example, it started snowing in Seoul, and my partner, who had never seen snow before, responded to the snow in childlike fashion, transforming her pedestrian appropriation of the street into a veritable body-celebration of what was by now a reasonably familiar space, suddenly shot through with flurries of snow – catching snowflakes in her hands, on her eyelashes and her tongue, and deviating from her intended route under the spell of a completely novel experience.

It is easy to underestimate the revolutionary potential of what may seem like the perfectly innocuous activity of walking in a big city, functionally organised according to principles of economic and technological efficacy.

De Certeau’s analysis, which I cannot here dwell on at greater length, leaves one in no doubt, however, that such “practices” impart an experience of precluding the totalisation of panoptical control under which one unavoidably lives.

And in allowing such experiences, these practices keep the always uncompleted elaboration of freedom alive, and moreover, constitute a model of democratic actions: similar, but different.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


  1. Walt Walt 23 December 2012

    Wish we had a “panoptical” picture of snow in Seoul – for the soul, I mean, instead of the head.

  2. Keith Hart Keith Hart 25 December 2012

    I have long been a participant observer of street-walking patterns, starting with how strong the rule is for passing people walking in the opposite direction. Here one issue is how easily a body-language signal that you intend to pass on the wrong side will be picked up. My tentative guess is that there is more flexibility in Britain and France than in South Africa and the US.

    But my longest period of observation was in Cambridge, England which was transformed from a sleepy market town with a university into a hub crowded with tourists, shoppers and students in a matter of two or three decades. The town centre became a zone of competition for cars, bikes and pedestrians with the last gradually winning out by force of numbers. Foreign students from the language schools would crowd the pavements and ride their bikes wherever they liked regardless of the traffic rules. The English students picked up on this. The motorists got more and more irritated by crowds of indifferent pedestrians.

    But my most memorable moment was when a student rode his bike the wrong way up a rather empty one-way street. An old man walking in the opposite direction shouted “no you don’t!”, stiff-armed him and sent him tumbling to the ground. A life-time of obeying the rules led to a moment when one more young rule-breaker became intolerable. Walking the streets goes both ways when it comes to popular democracy.

  3. Maria Maria 25 December 2012

    Of course, only people who are walkers, like you and your partner, would really know what you’re talking about. Or would you imagine that people on their way to work, who take the subway up to a certain point, and walk from there to their place of work, would also qualify? I suppose that office workers do walk from the office to restaurants over lunchtime, though. This is excluding what I would imagine amounts to a relatively small percentage of individuals who prefer walking long distances, as you do.

  4. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 26 December 2012

    Docility is not just in consumers! For years I have been disagreeing with doctors about margerine being healthier than butter, eggs being bad for you etc – margerine is a processed product and not how God or Nature made it. Now I have confirmation from “Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book”, to quote:

    “Since this seems to be the horror page, I will now quote a piece about the process of turning crude palm, soya and ground oils into the kind you buy. You will understand why, in this book, butter, lard and olive oil are the fats preferred:

    First, the oils have to be degummed and neutralised. Phosphoric acid is injected into the oils and mixed under pressure to precipitate the gums.

    Then it is mixed with caustic soda which forms a soap containing gums and colour which can be seperated from the oil.

    Next stage is to wash the oil, dry it, bleach with fuller’s earth and filter it. At this stage it’s a fully refined oil but the original taste and smell remain, making it unacceptable for consumption.

    The final stage, therefore, is deodorising to ensure a bland, odourless oil that won’t tinge the flavour of what is cooked in it.”

    And THEN they also use it to make margerine!

  5. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 26 December 2012

    AND the European Union is subsidising the pulling out of Olive Plantations all over the Mediterranean to encourage farmers to plant tobacco!!!! (Ref: Carol Drinkwater’s books)

  6. Sophia Sophia 26 December 2012

    Bert, I wonder whether this peripatetic aspect of urban ‘discovery’ (beginning with its Aristotelian original) is dependent upon a certain purposelessness, or preoccupation that nevertheless permits aesthesis, or as Heidegger may have noted in his own meandering via the holzwege; a momentary aletheia? The commuting hoard must, by necessity sleep walk through the city absently, blindly, forgetfully – the choreography of the micro-disciplines are however paths of least resistance. These urbanites have neither the time nor energy (or luxury for that matter) to withstand the flow of habit. How wonderful of you to share your vision of a Korean Lyceum – brimming with
    joie de vivre…and of course the falling of snow can only serve to awaken and create new spaces (a la Fefebvre) for us Africans bereft of its startling ability to re-frame our dialogues with an architectural fabric. Why shouldn’t we inhabit these spaces with dance, where dance is an unconventional, free expression of phenomenological absorption? Thank you, S

  7. Bert Bert 28 December 2012

    Sophia – Thank you for that very perceptive comment. Yes, of course most peripatetic commuters are likely to be preoccupied with cares of the quotidian, which perhaps ‘permits a certain aesthesis’, or, for that matter, anaesthesis, in the course of their wandering. And your Heidegger reference is apposite – while the city is not the forest, and does therefore not allow one to stumble upon forest clearings, their counterparts abound in the city, and probably do occasion moments of aletheiac revelation, as it has happened with us on many occasions, from Paris to Toronto, to Osaka, to Istanbul, to Rome, to Prague, and to Busan and Seoul in Korea. I recall particularly the experience of emerging from a clutch of high-rises on to a street corner, often, from where a new architectural ensemble would appear, framed by open, park-like spaces on either side, or how a particular building-cluster – in Gangnam (‘South of the river’) Seoul, for instance, the Samsung headquarters, would stand out, brightly lit, at night, drawing one into the city’s embrace. And yes indeed, the snow does have a salutary, life-enhancing effect on the surrounding architecture, especially the traditional Korean buildings with their overhanging eaves and curved roofs – all in all, an almost magical and transformative experience, especially, as you may imagine, on someone who has not had that experience before. But even for me, having often seen snow before, it was wonderful.

  8. Bert Bert 28 December 2012

    The second-last sentence should read: ‘…all in all, an almost magical and transformative experience, especially, as you may imagine, FOR someone who has not had that experience before.’ I should have added that Walter Benjamin already showed, in his work, that he knew what De Certeau would talk about concerning walking in the city, long after Benjamin.

  9. Bert Bert 28 December 2012

    Sophia (you have the right name), I also forgot to comment on your suggestion regarding dance – yes, by all means! I know of few human activities that embody a celebration of life with as much phenomenological eloquence as dance. If people danced more – and felt free to do so in the streets (maybe this is why musicals often include scenes of street-dancing) – the world would be a happier place.

  10. DFB DFB 30 December 2012

    A moment of Zen and romance in the far east –eyelahes, tongues and snowflakes. Olly, the lost Huegenot from the South, goes forth with loquacity and philosophical babble with a young partner on an eastern tour. “Watch me do the Gangnam” is his next article!
    All in the interests of cultual exchange.

  11. Sophia Sophia 4 January 2013

    Bert, you are no doubt familiar with Deleuze and Guattari’s gnomic distinction between ‘smooth’ and ‘striated’ space, which are in turn aligned with their notions of the ‘nomadic’ and the ‘sedentary’ i.e. between the ‘war machine’ and the ‘state apparatus’, respectively.
    Re-reading your article on Seoul makes me wonder whether the enjoyment of ‘smooth space’ described within it, isn’t perhaps dependent upon an exilic disposition. What I mean by this is that, as we make ourselves ‘at home’ within the global city (within the postmodern world of saturated, sublime fantasy); we can no longer ‘know’ it. Instead we become disciplined, en-tranced, sedentary occupants of striated space, firmly within the purview of the state apparatus. Even when we know this to be the case (cf Zizek), we do nothing about it. Conversely, those who are not ‘at home’, often tourists, itinerants, criminals and exiles, ‘see’ and actively ‘read’ the city and thereby (potentially) evade (or ignore) the micro-disciplinary cues. Perhaps your meanderings, as De Certeau (whom I’ve never read) seems to suggest, are invocations of the nomad’s smooth space.
    One could venture further and speculate that the sense of ‘unheimlichkeit’ underpinning this appreciation of the sublime, and our response to it, must be a bodily response (along the lines of Merleau-Ponty). By bodily here I mean a radical variety of physiological praxis that de facto transgresses. Dancing, busking, jaywalking,…

  12. Maria Maria 6 January 2013

    Sophia, I won’t speak for Bert, but your comment makes sense to me, keeping in mind that “smooth” space, for D & G, is not homogeneous, but heterogeneous, precisely. Incidentally, I have come across indications in various places that De Certeau and D & G are regarded as being compatible on this score. .

  13. Bert Bert 7 January 2013

    Thanks, Maria – as usual, you know my mind almost better than I do…Sophia, as implied, I agree with Maria’s comments, to which I may just add a thank you to you for reminding me of D & G’s analysis of qualitatively divergent spaces in A Thousand Plateaus. It follows that, should one wish to subvert the striated space of the panoptical state apparatus, this kind of radical somatic praxis you suggest would be a commendable route. As long as one recalls that D & G point out the fact that these ‘opposed’ spaces rarely, if ever, come in pure form, but rather in an admixture.

  14. Rene Rene 8 January 2013

    Oh for those beautiful Korean girls – like Grace Park…

  15. M van Niekerk M van Niekerk 19 March 2013

    Reading about the two different systems of organization or discipline (one defined by urban planners or from a birds eye perspective and the other experienced on foot) that exists within a city, I immediately thought about Jan Gehl‘s book, Cities for people (2010). He explained how urban architecture is experienced on foot and what kind of elements of architecture you become aware of when passing by buildings in an urban environment. On foot you would realize characteristics such as: colour, rhythms, overhangs, window displays, solid vs. perforated edges, vegetation, people, smells and sounds to just name a few, while by looking from above you focus on the bigger picture and structure of the city as a whole. The discipline created by the city plan still allows for a secondary discipline to exist, created by the movement and interaction of people. De Certeau argues that the discipline that exists on a human level is dominated by behavioral patterns or habits and that people (pedestrians) are not always aware of these disciplines they are following or even creating. As architects we can manipulate the architecture on this level in order to create a specific or desirable experience.

  16. Taryn Taryn 21 March 2013

    In the further exploration of De Certeau’s writings on the practice of everyday life(1984) the analogy represented in a God’s eye view of the city, by Renaissance painters, gives an indication of the spatial conditions architects and urban planners portray themselves in the creation of space , in a god like manner without realisation of the attributes of the integrated social network contributed to it by the everyday activities of the “ordinary practitioners”. Spaces that are perfected by the hand of the artist but often in reality paint an ugly picture. The spaces meticulously planned to the awe of other deities is only a subversion of the spaces between them which are rich, vibrant and integrated by the unconscious ability of the everyday user breaking the boundaries of the disciplines they find themselves in.

  17. Hyacinthe Tonga Hyacinthe Tonga 23 March 2013

    For me, the article focus on the type of spaces, the rules on which they abide and their users.

    Our area of focus here revolves within the city structure and its users behaviour patterns. The city cannot be perceived as a boundless environment, especially from the influence of urbanist; dictating the flow of habits.

    Nowadays the vast majority of the population lives close or within the inner city and that’s why for our better understanding of Human behaviour, we compare the city to a house, where the consumer/ inhabitant will always abide by its sets of rules (docility) in order for everyone to cohabitate properly.

    Within the city; Certain areas such as highways cannot be taken as play areas due to the dangerous presence of fast driving Automobiles; opposed to (within our local context) Govan Mbeki Avenue from its commercial nature, will be paved to give priority to pedestrians.

    The pedestrians at some extend would have random pattern within such space oppose to pedestrians along Cape road: why? Because the street allows it.

    With regard to a house; sets of rules will be created regarding things that can be done inside as well as outside the house, things that can and cannot be touch, further more areas which you are allow to be in or not.

  18. Hyacinthe Tonga Hyacinthe Tonga 23 March 2013

    Now, with regard to the comment that you made on your partner experiencing the snow; the snow here will be seen as an extraordinary factor or Event within space. Those have the capability of changing the nature/ rules/ structure of a place; but only as a temporary base.

    No boundaries= freedom which could leads to new events (new aesthetic of place at the moment), expression= freedom of expression.

    Again; it could be link to a new kid (foreigner in new country) that visits his uncles for the first time (holidays); he will have that sense of freedom at first until he is introduced to the rules (manners) within and outside the walls of the house.

    House: stop jumping on the couch, play outside, put your belongings in your room…

    City: walk here, cross here, drive here, play here…

    So, that’s why you would at the end have:

    1. Temporary spaces: set by extraordinary factors or events.
    It will provide short experiences but intense (new)

    2. Permanent spaces: areas that consist of sets of rules to suit everyone is needs (for the good of everyone)- play areas- working areas- walking areas- driving areas.
    It will provide continual experience (boring)

    Could then this be a reflection of our social foundation?… based for the good of everyone? If yes, only if; what would then be the extraordinary factors?

  19. Justin Braithwaite Justin Braithwaite 23 March 2013

    There is no doubt that better spaces are produced through a bottom up approach, where the users of the space shape it in ways that match their activities. The contrary to this is the top down approach imposed on many cities that have developed according to modernist ideologies.

    Perhaps the reason that ancient and traditional cities can be seen to have superior spaces to modern cities is because of the differrence in the appoaches they have adopted.

    In the past cities had to be walked, they were viewed at street level and places seemed further away than what they do today. Cities were developed street by street, building by building – each one with its own character and micro-function. With the introduction of new technologies such as automobiles and superior building materials, the top down approach became more accessible and was used as an easy way for governments to impose their ideologies. Ideologies that hace often resulted in dispersed cities with lots of ‘space’ but no ‘places’.

    Walking the city in this age has unfortunately become a rare practise, one that is desperate need of revival.

  20. ris ris 23 March 2013

    De Certeau’s holds the view that “reading the complexity of the city” can be done from two opposing sets of viewpoints. Firstly, understanding city dynamics as being part of a controlled and regulated ordering system imposed by those in power, or secondly, understanding city dynamics in terms of the tendency of people to constantly try “evade the otherwise ubiquitous control exercised over them by anonymous mechanisms of order”. Both these views are sketched as two different experiences of space or, if you like, two sets of consciousness.

    This has interesting bearing on urban design, because the object of these interventions is to better the urban environment for its users. However, sometimes it seems urban designers themselves operate within the realm under the control of a ‘higher power’. The intervention on Govan Mbeki Avenue could be an example of a misunderstanding of the social forces at play “below-the-radar”.

    As the actual ‘underground’ dynamics of the city are “inseparable from the city “itself””, it stands to reason that the character of these dynamics will differ between cities and cultures.

    Architects should be aware of both of these mechanisms (control vs. resist) in order to design effectively and meaningfully for people. Lefebvres assertion that human social activities ““spatialise,” or shape space” strengthens the notion that architects need to understand the real quantitative and qualitative aspects of human occupation of urban space.

  21. Matt Matt 23 March 2013

    It is distinctly suggested that there are two notions of experiencing ‘the city’, an experience either by through walking within the city or by a “panoptical” view from above (as was identified).
    The word ‘experience’ means, as a noun: “practical contact with and observation of facts or events”. Or as a verb: “encounter or undergo (an event or occurrence)”.

    Without enforcing any ethical standpoint; doesn’t the definition of ‘experience’ suggest that the fundamental concept for an experience’ is to physically engage with something, in this case the city, as a way for experience?
    It is exceptionally easy how one can access information regarding a city from means such as the Internet, photos, images, etc. These, no matter how the occur, are ‘plastic’ (meant as artificial) two-dimensional representations of space where one can never truly understand the dynamics of a spatial environment.

    The danger of even trying to, in our case as architects, design from these ‘plastic’ representations of space can often have negative effects on the qualitative outcome of the designed space. An example of which can be seen in America, where urban activist Jane Jacobs battled against designer Robert Moses (expressly described in her book, ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’).

    [continues on next post]

  22. Matt Matt 23 March 2013


    The manifesto on “Collage City” written by Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter, also expresses that ‘the city’ should be compilation of different formal architecture gestures that reveal a unique experiences for pedestrians as they round each corner of ‘the city’. The city becomes a place of discovery, ‘experienced’ by walking and surely is something that a ‘plastic’ image can never replace.

    [definitions taken from Google]

  23. Pieter Muller Pieter Muller 23 March 2013

    The complexity of a city is more than just a built up blueprint, of copy and pasted parts of variety of successful city plans. There is much more to it than just a top down view of a city and planning it as a coherent whole. Today there are a lot of copy and paste of urban plans, “strategies” as Michel de Certeau terms it and these so called “producers” of these strategies. There is abundance of recycling of previous successful approaches and its adapted to cities without realizing the appropriateness on street level. Creating mechanisms that imposes control and strict discipline onto section of cities thinking it would be successful environment.

    However a city is more complex than that, each street has certain dynamics, an atmosphere defined by the occupants or “consumers” walking in the street. It’s unique also to the emotional, cultural, physical issues pertaining to the “consumer” on the street as well as the climatic issues that affect the street, creating unique environments.

    The fact is, society conforms but reshape or re-appropriate a certain grid of discipline imposed by the “producers”, creating there unique way of acting in the environment. Non-functionalist, complex weaves, of interconnected pedestrian movement paths are built up and elusive system are created which is unique to each city and street.Therefore i agree that, unpredictable walking in city has been revived, shaping and energizing streets.

  24. Theunis C. Goosen Theunis C. Goosen 23 March 2013

    “The only thing I know for certain is how little I truly know”(to paraphrase Socrates), was the first thing that came to mind after reading the Bert’s article in response to De Certeau’s notion of the practices of everyday life. It is interesting to pose the question of where we as a human beings draw the line between rational practices ‘of the grid’ and irrational spontaneity in choice, in our everyday lives.

    As De Certeau said, there is a significant difference when moving along a rail, or in car, or in a trolley as compared to the self-propelled movement of walking. This significance indeed lies in the combination of the phenomenological properties of moving forward combined with the fact that the movement is self-initiated. (

    ‘All walking is constant falling and catching’ surely rang ever true while meandering through the streets of Seoul, as one does. Moving from path to space to path and so on, we are subject to a constant incoming flow of data. This flow, as he mentions in the video, has certain inherent properties. These properties are universal to most forms of movement; however, walking also offers the opportunity of a truer perception and choice. This choice allows for a peripatetic aspect of urban discovery (albeit random or out of flow of habit), which can be considered poetic, and I would submit, in more than one sense. Firstly the combination of moving through spaces of various lengths(time), shapes…

  25. Theunis C. Goosen Theunis C. Goosen 23 March 2013

    ….and sizes to the consistent rhythm of your footsteps and pressures on your feet is similar to the way a poet or songwriter writes the various stanzas/verses of his music to a particular pattern or beat. Furthermore, while walking, just as a sight (an object) becomes gradually larger, or a sound, louder, each verse of a song fades in, grips us on an emotional (and imaginational) level, and then fades out as the writers leads into the next verse. One verse followed by the next – one space flowing into another.

    Architecture, as I understand it, has the ethical responsibility of finding the balance between the rational (grid of practice) and emotional. The ‘God’s eye view’ that architects and urban planners employ, provides ample opportunity for rational, clear and efficient design, yet little understanding of the rhythms of perception and experience as a pedestrian, and are therefore negligent. They afford themselves little room to write a song that connects with its audience on the all the necessary levels.

    Thus, it is interesting to think of De Certeau’s notion of walking in the city, as a vital component in the process of understanding urban space which is so often overlooked and it makes me wonder what else we’re forgetting. What other practices in modern life do we designers of take for granted and what are the consequences thereof?

  26. Timothy Smith Timothy Smith 24 March 2013

    Now, more than ever, there appears to be a disconnect between how architects and urban planners respond to city planning and how the general public participate in a space. Over-arching ideas of ‘ideal’ cities are implemented without thought and investigation.

    As has been described, the masters of the Renaissance ‘captured’ these cities of divine proportions and great perspective in their works.Yet, historical references do not always correspond.

    Comparing this ideal to how we look at a city from a heavenly viewpoint today, we can observe how the city may have great legibility and structure from above. But the traveller or commuter may have a completely different experience.
    However well-designed or logical a city may be, the pedestrians are what is required to create a “sociocultural production” to “spatialise” the space.
    Therefore, urban planning should begin from the pedestrians perspective and evolve spherically from this viewpoint.

    This thus becomes crucial in how architects think about designing spaces. Rather than making something that appears to have great coherence and rational logic from a “God’s perspective”, one should think about the people that inhabit the space. The people that enjoy the snow in winter, the falling leaves in autumn and sunshine in summer. The ‘randomness’ and chaotic interactions of human beings with their environment is what facilitates an architecture that is responsive to human behaviour; and in turn creates a city…

  27. Theunis C. Goosen Theunis C. Goosen 24 March 2013

    It should read *** “Walking is constantly falling and catching” (Youtube comment – ‘dannyOdr’) would ring…

  28. JP Redona JP Redona 24 March 2013

    Walking in the City, a section from Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life (1984), states that any city, no matter its location, design or resourcefulness, is created by the people. The city would provide various stimuli that can only be identified and utilised by the people who live in it.

    de Certeau’s example of standing on the highest floor of a skyscraper looking down on the city free from it, clearly describes a god-like ability to study a city from above, where one would have a panoptical view of the city. This position, however, does lack the ability to understand the real city life. It seems ironic that one can observe the city from high above, and yet to really understand it one must come back down to the ground.

    Although it is the people that create a city, it is the pedestrians, who move along the streets that create the city. They, the pedestrians, unknowingly write the urban text without reading it. And as society can be separated into individuals, each of them writes their own interpretation of the city as the city provides different needs to them.

    All of us have a set destination and to get there we walk, we have the freedom to move about the city. de Certeau defines “to walk” as an act of “lack[ing] place”. Without people walking around a city will have no sense of place, becoming non-existent.

  29. khemi khemi 24 March 2013

    The ‘God’s eye view’ that architects and urban designers often use neglects the dynamics and energies experienced by pedestrians at street level. I believe this is due to modern society’s infatuation with technology as a design tool, e.g. google earth, photographs, etc. Technology separates designers from realities that need to be addressed as it does not represent the qualities and dynamic patternsthat exist in a space. Instead of reinforcing existing patterns in the city, systems are often superimposed on the city layout as structuring elements and disciplines. These systems often clash with dynamic patterns of pedestrians that already exist.

    Architects and urban designers need to ‘walk the street’ to fully understand the energies and dynamics that exist in a specific space as De Certeau claims that the intertwined movements of walkers “spatialise” or shape spaces.

  30. Ivana Simic Ivana Simic 25 March 2013

    This article reminded me of an experience I had in Sarajevo, the city I worked in for a couple of months after 3rd year. Sarajevo is situated in a valley, along a river and has a long, rich history, its now one of the fastest developing cities in its region. I would take the tram to work on the same route every day, and in the beginning I was excited to see the city and went to new places all the time, but after about 2 months fell into a routine of work-home-sport-home-work. Then my brother, who is a downhill long-boarder, came to visit me and convinced me to skate that same route with him, so I went with him and this gave me a completely new experience of that same route. It was like the city had transformed into a playground, and it became a much more exciting urban space.
    I was also reminded of my admiration of people who do Parkour (a non-competitive sport where participants run along buildings, rooftops and landscapes attempting to negotiate obstacles using only their bodies). While architects and urban planners try and create the ideal spaces, they transform any environment just by using it differently.
    Here’s an interesting little video about this different way of movement through urban space-

  31. tracy haupt tracy haupt 25 March 2013

    Traditionally cities were observed from the street level as the city was created to accommodate the human on foot and through their movement patterns; various spaces for one to experience were created. With the introduction of new technology, automobiles and technocratic structures, new methods, according to modernist ideologies, were used to develop cities. This gave way to a new view point, birds or god’s eye view. This type of view is often practiced by urban planners, as they tend to focus on the city as whole. However, the view from the top floor of a skyscraper will give one a visual of the city, the “street level spatial practices escape visibility and abstract legibility.” Both of these views create different experiences of space
    Although these days there are plenty of means of getting around a city, I still concur that there is nothing better than walking around, whether it is in nature or the urban jungle. As it is through walking through the city, one gets to experience and understand a physical engagement with the city and its spatial, and it is through this experience which one is able to take in more of ones surroundings through the experience of various elements of architecture; scale, colour, texture, solids vs. voids etc.

  32. tracy haupt tracy haupt 25 March 2013

    It is of great importance to design cities while realising the appropriateness, not only from the above view but that too of the street level. Each street is unique, as the atmosphere is defined by humans using the space – ultimately humans actively produce space.
    There needs to be a balance in architecture between that of the bird’s eye view and that from the street view. Whereby, the bird’s eye view provides the rationality, great legibility and structure from above but also takes into account the perception and experience as a pedestrian. ”No matter how well designed a city is, the pedestrians are required to “spatialise” the space.” Therefore it can be said that spaces which are created from the street level approach is of a greater quality, as the users of the space shape it in ways that match their activities.
    Urban design interventions need to better the urban environment of its users and as architects we should design for the man on his feet, as this is the manner in which we truly perceive buildings and the spaces that are created.

  33. Crystal Crystal 25 March 2013

    City can be defined worthless without people and it takes people to make a city not the urban structure.

    According to de Certeau its people the brings life into a city, they do not have the all-seeing power and are therefor ‘trapped’ in this urban structured maze connecting networks of paths and goals.

    What caught my attention from further reading is “de Certeau”s three requirements for the ideal or “concept” city, we find that it leaves us with a city without life or presence”

    The simple social intercourse created when people rub shoulder in public. This is seen as a kind of social ‘glue’. looking at society today and this ‘glue’, it seems to be missing.
    It is missing in large parts of the city because the majority of the movement is taking place indoors in corridors instead of outdoors. A result of this could be blamed on the car that is now a dominated feature on the streets. It is damaging because it robs the street of people. This saddens me when I read de Certeau statement, the intertwined movements of walkers shape a spaces, because i agree with him, but it is lacking. In today’s society pedestrians stopped walking. Spaces should be created so people can move freely within a city, i would argue, without people these spaces ceases to exist.

    Thus it can be seen as a person moves through city space, so de Certeau defines it: there is no city space without a him. Cities is created and used by people and sadly i think the concept of walking city…

  34. Bashara Van Den Heever Bashara Van Den Heever 25 March 2013

    De Certeauhe suggests two ways of perceiving space: through ‘God’s eye’ view of the high-rise, satellite photo or the map view, may present the city as a kind of ‘printed’ text. Yet there is a process somewhere in negotiating with the text that they are producing, that enables the citizens to use the city productively. We cant not really understand the spatial nature and the hub of activities happening which leads to misinterpreting the space.
    Though this is not the way that citizens encounter the city on a daily basis, even if they can access such views with increasing ease with technology. Its through its twists and turns that we truly experience the city. This is where the real understanding of there pedestrian and there experiences lies.

    This reminds me of the book The Image of the City by Kevin Lynch. He speaks of how even the memory of the past experienced spaces leading up to your destination as well as the surrounding spaces of your destination influence your perception of the destination.This can only be experienced through walking and not by an aerial photo.

    What is challenging for me is the way space is perceived by citizens that can not be predetermined. Designers should not separate themselves from the citizens by looking from a aerial view but by looking at “below-the-radar activities” into understanding the experiences of the citizens.It is the movements of people and the sense of activity they bring in these spaces that make it a place and in whole…

  35. Chesney Boshoff Chesney Boshoff 26 March 2013

    While reading the article and without ever visiting Seoul, I was confronted with a very similar issue to the polemics we face in the “urbanising” of various South African cities.

    The notion of the “Concept city” and the rational approach to structuring, organizing and controlling socioeconomic activities are reminiscent of previous eras of state control and ideologies that inevitably alienate these “procedures of everyday creativity”.

    De Certeau’s argument against the mode in which modernist urbanists have gone about accommodating the “mechanisms of order”, reminds me of a statement by Jane Jacobs describing this practice in stating that “There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.”

    The statement however does not take into consideration the need for a pragmatic approach towards dealing with the highly complex economics and binary opposition between movement and activities that exist within the fabric of contemporary cities.

    To state that there is a ubiquitous mode of planning and creating urban space would be ignorant and there would be great arguments for both sides.

  36. chuma chuma 26 March 2013

    If these urban designers and architects did not view from ‘God’s eye view’ or ‘birds eye view’ then i think the problem they might have is trying to make sense of these differently experienced spaces and trying to connect them in a way that would make sense to the users and still not change these differently experienced spaces. Each street is unique and therefore experienced differently from one to the next. The ‘God’s eye view’ design is an overview or a ‘summary’ of the place. This is usually when planning or designing a large area like a city and this is done by urban designers and I think this is an appropriate outlook or view of the matter.

    The problem comes in when they do not understand these spaces from the users/pedestrians view. You need to understand the small details and understand how it functions before you can put together the bigger picture. Understanding the small details, the behaviour patterns and the activities and preferences of the users gives the designer an upper hand in designing appropriate places.

    We can blame technology, development and vehicles and say they heavily influence the design of these places. We can say because of these things urban designers and architects do not consider the users or pedestrians. Leading to the point that they design from a ‘God’s eye view’.

    There needs to be a balance in designing from the ‘God’s eye view’ and designing with the consideration of the users/pedestrians……

  37. Mcoseleli Jafta Mcoseleli Jafta 26 March 2013

    To my understanding, De Certeau speaks of ‘walking in the city’ as way to engage with the city; getting into grips with the energies/spirit of space and place from first-hand experience as opposed to accumulating data from a birds- eye- view (technology) because such methods totally disregard the commoners (user group of the given context).Modernism failed because of the same methods, it disregarded the commoner- commoner being the majority user group of our cities favoured only for the utopian educated human they strived for efficiency, which turned out not to be efficient to the commoner.
    De Certeau clearly states that cities and their activities cannot be measured, as architects we can only accumulate data from an activity that which has surpassed (movement paths); the aim is not reinvent the wheel but to better it.
    As an architect, it is of vital importance to engage as much as possible with the user group of the given context or project at hand; we designing for the ‘commoner (ordinary person)’ not the architect otherwise then our buildings have a high chance of just being White Elephants in our cities.

  38. Mark Storm Mark Storm 26 March 2013

    In reading the article, a sense of overwhelming and the alienation in an exotic environment is portrayed to the reader. One would seem to be dumbstruck by the imaginary portrayal of a society or city, this compared to the realistic, modern ‘beast’ into which it has developed. No longer do cities humanise themselves to create delightful spaces for people. They seem to have harsh environments, strict & ordered by nature, run by a bureaucracy that monitors people (CCTV, zoned areas, parking meters) – and ultimately dictates how people shall interact with their city.
    Seoul, as with many other cities that are possibly understated has become slave to the highly rationalised and economically driven town planning “gurus”.

    This however can be argued as the mere development of a modern city – such as Seoul. With all the technological advances, we must understand that modern cities are dynamic and ever evolving spaces.

    In Michel De Certeau’s – Walking in the City, he states the notion: “the fiction of knowledge is related to this lust to be a viewpoint and nothing more” to be “a totalizing eye”. This can be understood in totally different sense, how the everyday user and commuter understands and perceives their environment. This often a view from an air-conditioned car, a protected place where criticism to the ‘outside’ world means little. By submerging ourselves into the unknown- and with a sense of intrigue,we can explore our cities, the technological…

  39. J. Pretorius J. Pretorius 27 March 2013

    When reading this article for the first time (out of the five times I had to read it) the first thing that sprung into my mind was : Ying and Yang; Chaos and Order; Good and Evil; God’s eyeview and bottom up approach.

    It almost seems to me as if ancient cities, that grew far slower than it does today, developed building by building, in its complete three dimensional form with the appropriate infrastructure to follow. As travelling was by foot, buildings, especially civic buildings, were celebrated from the street and where necessary the infrastructure in and around allowed for one to experience these delights from almost any imaginable angle.

    Today however, the layout of vast areas are done on massive urban blueprints, or master plans, without any buildings or designs that govern the movement of the pedestrian. With regulations and zoning being KEY. These plans are done from a god’s eyeview and the little slither of land that remain for us to put a building up often at a fraction of what it could be, leaving us with a “front, back and side” condition. It is almost as if, in the ultimate modern city, one would experience exactly the same whether you travel by foot, train, buss or car, just at different pace.

    This made me think about two things: Would greater interaction between Urban designers and Architects from the word go result in greater space making, and who would be the “good and evil” between these two professions.

  40. Ross Stephenson Ross Stephenson 28 March 2013

    We are becoming a virtual world. One might say they “know the world” when in fact their observations are based on superficial evidence of the true nature of the space. Recent technologies allow us view our cities from above, with an almost God like perspective. This gives us great insight into the way our cities are growing and show us a physical reflection of the political and social policies of the city.

    According to de Certeau, the “grid of discipline” is growing and an entire society is being reduced to particular “popular procedures” and there are particular “ways of operating” which we all conform to. He then refers to creative groups or individuals as composing the network of the ”antidiscapline”.

    This makes me think of our role as architects. Are we reflecting the social and political “discipline networks” under which we find ourselves, through our built structures? When one looks at Communism, we see how architecture was used as a tool to enforce a social hierarchy. Buildings were intentionally designed to portray the power of their nation and to express their leader’s supremacy.

    In design we study how all sorts of contextual issues affect the site in question, but perhaps we should also look at how our social and political context affects our creations. We must ensure that we do not design our buildings to conform to or enforce any political or social ideologies which may affect us subconsciously.

  41. Stephanie Briers Stephanie Briers 28 March 2013

    My immediate response to the thought of walking in cities and societies resistance to being reduced to a “grid of discipline”, stated by De Certeau’s writings of the practice of everyday life (1984), was that of the South African cities and the manner in which people tend to move through space. My desire to visit an intriguing space between the gaps of built fabric is stifled by the ever present thought of safety and security. Are we not controlled and forced to use certain paths in a particular manner as a result of a preoccupation with safety?
    Leading from that a very successful project comes to mind. The project, the Violence Prevention through Urban Upliftment in Khayelitsha, aimed to reduce crime and violence in the area. Through intense baseline research and analysis of the area key walkways as well as danger zones were identified, with 281 adults, 80 children involved in the process. A series of “active boxes” — shops doubling as safe houses and community patrol bases — are planned along these main pedestrian routes to and from stations and taxi ranks, open 24 hours a day to allow unquestioned access by anyone who feels threatened. Crime has since decreased drastically and a safe walkable area has been created.
    To conclude, in dangerous areas people might feel the need to follow specific routes designed by urban designers but it is possible to design these walkways and routes in a particular manner based on community involvement and street-level spatial….

  42. Stephanie Briers Stephanie Briers 28 March 2013

    practices that elude visibility and abstract legibility, as referred to by De Certeau so that pedestrians feel this is their choice of route rather than feelings forced into a “grid of discipline” stated in De Certeau’s introduction of Walking in the City.

  43. Dylan Monsma Dylan Monsma 7 April 2013

    There are two responses to Bert’s article. One is how we, as pedestrians, experience the city via different modes of transport and how our view of the city changes. When driving in a car, we are more focused on the traffic, surroundings cars and correct lanes as oppose to viewing and experiencing the immediate environment. We are almost completely oblivious as our focus and concentration is on other topics. If we travel via rail/ train/ tram, we are passengers and are able to view the city, but only along the predetermined route. Whilst it may change due to weather, construction etc, we are unable to control the time spent experiencing the city as we are at the mercy of the train driver or controller. However, when we walk a city, we can choose a number of routes to reach our destination, the time it takes us and how long we linger on specific architectural objects, and we are completely in control. If we walk only one route and travel at the exact same pace, our journey will still be completely different as our fellow travellers will change from day to day.
    The second point is that we are faced with two different types of cities. The first is a traditional city as found throughout Europe. These cities are walked by many everyday as it is often quicker and more cost effective. The occupants of these cities therefore experience their cities and appreciate the small changes that take place. The second city is one that is fairly new and has been developed by architects using a…

  44. Dylan Monsma Dylan Monsma 7 April 2013

    top down approach and designed for efficient vehicular transport. Whilst this may seem to be the modern and logical approach, inhabitants of these cities do not experience and connect with their living environment as one should.

  45. Theodor de Goede Theodor de Goede 17 April 2013

    Kinaesthetic, the movement of our body, is our sense that becomes highly active if we have the freedom of moving, allowed if we walk within a city, a freedom that one doesn’t experience within a car capsule. “Kinaesthetic provides us with a measure of things and space. Passing through, visiting, dancing, gesture- all allow us to appreciate the splendour and exploration of that which is hidden: to move closer, move away, go round, go up, go down, go into, escape, are all actions which invite us to organize for ourselves what we want to see, hear, feel, smell, touch in a given environment.” (Von Meiss, Elements of architecture, pg.15)
    I can relate to this in my walking in P.E central, whether it is from the house to the bus stop and back, or just a stroll. I have certain routes that I’ve identified and made my own, it might be because it is a bit of a shortcut, or for the beauty they hold. Either way I have immense freedom walking, that I for certain don’t have driving due to regulations, for instance one way roads etc, or a low wall that I could’ve jumped. When I get out of my house gate into the city streets, it’s like jumping into a pool. The comparison is not for the refreshment of a pool, but rather that your senses become all activated at that moment, you become fully awake. Senses can to easily be controlled within a vehicle capsule.

  46. Lionel Stroh Lionel Stroh 22 April 2013

    Different means of spatial experience is capable in our day and time as to what was in the ‘traditional city’.

    Traditionally walking was a main means of transport and thus was catered for by the spatial qualities as seen in traditional cities. Although time and technological advancement has changed the way we can experience space, it should not change the way we create space – for the human. With new means of experiencing space should come new means of creating space but the essence of spatial quality should be kept closely with the interests of the humankind and not diverge to cater for aspects only evident through moments, such as driving in a car.

    As long as we do not allow the rigid and controlled aspect of our times technology to dictate the way we create space, then the freedom an activity such as walking provides will never be neglected or forgotten.

    We should not be against or for one way of doing things but rather utilize the qualities inherent to both activities and recognize the flaws to ensure the qualities from both are utilized to there full potential. Trying to make things how they were is impossible but with recognition and innovation may arise the harmony we all seek in our walks through life.

  47. Zamubuntu Sipuka Zamubuntu Sipuka 22 April 2013

    A vantage point is explored, that presents the city as a whole graspable image which conveys a tranquil and peaceful urban model. This is contrasted with the disorderly and unpleasant “down below” experience one has when meandering through the city, primarily inhabited by pedestrians who use and transform the space.

    It is through this urbanistic project approach of viewing vantage points/ google-earth images that result in regulated, meaningless urban structures. De Certeau suggests “walking in the city” as opposed to viewing it. The pedestrians of a city create an organic movement network, intersecting any planned or regulated scheme of the city. This organic language speaks about the city and creates its own meanings to places and streets which are not the same as those originally assigned to them.

    A radical response informed by the physical spatial street performance is needed, where architects and urban designers experience the physical amenities that shape the city life to appropriately respond towards a dynamic and meaningful model.

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