City is destiny
What is a city? Is it merely a collection of streets and avenues, of buildings and parks, of schools, shops, museums, and police stations? Could it be that the city is the transportation system and the street-food kiosks themselves, the workplaces, the tiny apartments with a sad excuse of a balcony?
Defining (for what?) the city as a human settlement with administrative boundaries, economic powers, and functions, and as a set of utilitarian, commercial and residential structures (and other meaningless buzzwords) is, in my opinion, entirely unnecessary, and useless. The concept of a city is inextricable from the experience and the humaneness of those who make their lives therein. And that is why there can be as many definitions of a city as there are citizens.
A city constitutes a city because people live it. A city is because it can be walked, looked at, be loved, and be hated; and the city is the aggregate of what is felt in it, for it or despite it, by all of those who fleetingly (in the grander scheme of things) have the chance to live it.
Where do you live? // The city I live in ...
The strength of this linguistic construct does not pass unnoticed, which is a faithful manifestation of the cardinal role that the city in which I live plays in who I am and can become. A city is much more than the backdrop of daily life, it is an unequivocal reference and a determining factor of reality.
City is destiny.
I write these lines from London, one of my great loves. It so happens that I fucking love cities, and it’s just splendid. I haven’t even finished jotting down these words when I think about what Tejada and Isella (1979) brilliantly said: “one always returns to the old places where one loved life”. And I want to return to all the cities.
Yes, my love for cities draws from my training as an architect. But honestly, far beyond dissecting and analyzing them under the clinical lens of the urban planner or the historicist vision of someone who knows something (that is, nothing) about art, I prefer to fall in love with cities to the rhythm of short cups of bitter coffee and become entranced with the implicit proposal of everything that could happen to me there. If each of us has a profile, mine is certainly that of the flâneur, because I want to get lost in the cities, and only there, and there alone, I’m able to find myself.
Flâneur is one (am I one?) who wanders amid the fugitive and the infinite. An anonymous observer of life in the city, who, by walking it, connects with people. One who attunes the cadence of his steps to what he feels is the pulse of the metropolis. One for whom the streets of the city constitute a shelter, a refuge, a natural habitat (yes, I am one). About this, the poet Baudelaire (1863) further elaborates:
“The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito. The lover of life makes the whole world his family, just like the lover of the fair sex who builds up his family from all the beautiful women that he has ever found, or that are or are not - to be found; or the lover of pictures who lives in a magical society of dreams painted on canvas.
Thus the lover of universal life enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy. Or we might liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself; or to a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life.”
For me, being a flâneur means being an observer, a voyeur. It is being away from home, and despite it (or perhaps, for that very reason) feeling at home in every new city. By contemplating the world I am at the center of the world. Benjamin (1989, p.438) vividly describes the obsession of the flâneur:
"A drunkenness seizes he who has, for a long time, aimlessly walked through the streets.
At each step, the walk acquires new strength; the shops, the bistros, the women do not stop losing their attractions and the next street corner, a distant mass of foliage, a street name exert an ever more irresistible attraction.
Then hunger arises. The flâneur does not want to know anything about the hundreds of places that would allow him to satisfy it.
Like an ascetic animal, he prowls in unknown neighbourhoods until he collapses, totally exhausted, in his room that welcomes him, foreign and cold."
After hours of walking, chasing after new sights around every corner, having been surprised by so many faces and houses and colors and banners, I reach a state of acute hypersensitivity and receptivity, an urban ecstasy in which every sight seems to have an arcane, but transcendent meaning.
I know well that it is a typical symptom of the melancholic neurotic to have the need to permanently try and come up with an explanation for each experience instead of simply enjoying it through the senses, and to think perennially of strictly personal delights as hidden signs of some universal sublimity. And so what? I go crazy for the verses that the city recites just for me.
Part of the flâneur's experience is that of following trails, bearing witness of human activity by piling up its relics: Fleeting impressions that are wordless, but that point towards someone, somewhere, or some point in time.
It was unexpectedly sunny this morning, and I must confess that I called off all my meetings and went out for a walk. I followed my intuition, that which leads me to turn left instead of going straight ahead, to go through a square instead of towards the park. Strolling around I arrived at the corner of Leadenhall and Lime and understood myself. I had come to visit me, to visit who I was that rainy afternoon years ago when I got off a bus and looked at the City for the first time. I saw myself standing there: stunned, seduced, excited, and I couldn't help but smile.