Putting the life in space and place | David Porter

“If there is a lesson in street-watching, it is that people do like basics — and as environments go, a street that is open to the sky and filled with people and life is a splendid place to be.”

William H Whyte, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, 1980.

Whyte, a sociologist who became a pioneering urbanist, was also a wonderful and under-rated filmmaker. Perhaps you have done this already, but if not, visit vimeo.com and then search for The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. Bingo – there it is: one hour of repeated fascination, an urban ballet made with humour and wisdom (always a great combination). To quote from his very quotable sound-track:

“The street is the river of life of the city, the place where we come together, the pathway to the centre.”

His film manages to be both rigorous research and poetry at the very same time. He uses what was, in the late 1970s, state of the art technology: time-lapse film, alongside survey and mapping techniques to uncover the ground-rules for public space revealing a series of great insights that hold true 36 years later. I commend them, but for now, I am interested in his use of film to put life into space and place. The moving image helps us think differently about place.

The places Whyte filmed were, by comparison with our award-winning places, pretty hard-nosed and tough, shot mainly in downtown Manhattan, but with excursions to streets and playgrounds that could have come from West Side Story. They were ‘unphotogenic’ as urban places go. We see the dense business district, particularly the Seagram Plaza, as it was in the late 1970s, with flared trousers and droopy moustaches to give period charm. Whyte’s camera puts flesh on the bones of what an ambitious young architect, known as Rem Koolhaas, had just identified approvingly as the “culture of congestion” that characterises his “delirious New York”.

Inspired by Whyte, I have been using my iPhone (despite its pitiful memory) to make my own versions of his Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. I use the same phone in its ‘photo-mode’ and ‘video-mode’. What I found out is that, when you change the setting from ‘photo’ to ‘video’, the way I looked changed. The way I understood place changed too.

I realised that when I started using the phone in video-mode, the way I held it changed, and how I looked through it changed. I remember a film-maker friend explaining something strange about cameras, still or movie: that they have a will of their own – that they have a tendency to point at, as he put it, “what the camera likes to see”. His point being that the camera does not just take photographs, still or moving, but it composes them too. It is not a neutral and objective recorder, but comes with values attached. It is a compositional device.

Not only does video-mode capture movement, it captures the sound of a place, which in itself radically changes our experience because we ‘see’ places with our ears as well as our eyes.
In the early days of the Academy, I remember one of the board members, perhaps John Thompson himself, explaining that the idea behind the awards was based on Hollywood and the Oscar award ceremony. Hence “… and the winner is…”

The ceremony has much of the excitement of the Oscars but, despite the vivid contributions from Poet-in-Residence Ian McMillan, it is hard to capture the life of a place. It can be mapped and surveyed, but never measured.

Projected on the screen, we see still-photographs giving an impression of the attractiveness of special places. I do not think I am alone in worrying that we reward not just great places, but photogenic places, places that the still-camera likes to look at.

The lesson of the movies is to re-emphasise the importance of the life of places for people watching. As Whyte puts it: “What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people.”

Professor David Porter AoU is professor of architecture at the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing

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