Emotionality or feeling is threaded through a person’s day. It does not just appear at appointed times in pre-selected places; nor is it far oft. It is with the person all the time, contextualised and interwoven through their thoughts and actions.
We give much attention to the efficiency of our cities, although they are sometimes far from efficient. We give some attention to the equity of our cities, although we could do much more to make them fairer. A creative city must be efficient; it should be a city that is concerned with the material well-being of all its citizens, especially the poor and disadvantaged. But it must be much more than that. It should be at the one time an emotionally satisfying city and a city that stimulates creativity among its citizens. What principles might guide us towards such a city?
In his essay A City Is Not A Tree, Christopher Alexander posed two central problems for those who are interested in cities. To illustrate the complexities of the interactions that take place in cities, Alexander first contrasted the mathematical forms of tree and semilattice: the tree a simple structural form with branches bifurcating into further branches, the semi-lattice a form with connections of different kinds between all its parts. He then drew on experiments with complex patterns to illustrate human inability to grasp or retain very complex forms and human propensity to simplify to reduce an overload of information and stimuli to manageable form.
The city is an extraordinarily complex system. Even if we can’t fully grasp it, even if we are bound to simplify, we must hold on to that complexity, for it is complexity that gives cities richness, vitality, life and, significantly, health. In the same way that ecological variety and complexity give health to natural systems, so variety and complexity give health to social and cultural systems. People in different material circumstances, from different cultural backgrounds, of different ages, or of different temperaments, have different social and cultural needs. We cannot possibly list or envisage all these needs. They can only be expressed individually and satisfied by others responding to them in a myriad of different ways. Jane Jacobs, in The Economy Of Cities, has similarly drawn attention to the precariousness of cities that become too dependent on a limited range of industries and economic activities. So the first important principle for a creative city is to encourage variety and complexity.
We can also reach some understanding of complexity in another way, intuitively, by holistic thinking. Western education and logic systems do not, however, serve us well in teaching us how to think holistically, how to respond intuitively and how to work with rather than eliminate complexity. The system of logic that has dominated western thinking is based on Aristotle. In its simplest terms Aristotelian logic is concerned with the dichotomy ‘it is’ or ‘it is not’. In contrasting western and eastern logic systems, Masao Kunihiro, a distinguished Japanese cultural anthropologist, has commented that ‘In Kant’s Critique Of Pure Reason he poses only one question concerning the limitation of self and the world: is it finite or is it infinite? Kant’s reasoning’, says Kuniliiro, ‘epitomises that of the west since Aristotle. The Western mind has established clear boundaries between light and darkness, day and night, nature and counternature.’ In contrast Kunihirci cites the dialogue of Sanjaya in the Sen’yu-kyo scripture, which finds not two, but four answers to Kant’s question: positive; negative; positive and negative; and not positive and not negative. Sanjaya similarly finds four answers to the question whether there is life after death: there is; there is not; one can say both there is and there is not; and one cannot say either there is or there is not. Kunihiro notes that there are now other challenges to traditional western dualistic logic. The most recent theories in the fields of biology and quantum mechanics, for example, hold that the relationships between different entities are not fixed, but constantly changing. Kunihiro finally points out that the Japanese use both kinds of logic systems. For western-type analysis and dualistic contrast they use ‘square words’. But when they wish to express their true feelings they use ’round words’. A second principle, then, is to encourage more holistic, intuitive approaches to our cities.
Through holistic thinking we can more readily find the appropriate balance between order and complexity, for a creative city must also have order. It must be legible, transparent and understandable. But the order must not be destructive of richness and complexity. This is a third principle.
It might also be noted that in Japan these different ways of thinking also seem to translate into somewhat different organisational systems, structures in which much time and effort is spent in reaching full agreement on new directions for the organisation before action is undertaken. This ensures that when the action begins there is clear understanding of the collective task and an enormous harnessing of collective energy. The senior managers’ roles also appear to differ from those of their western counterparts. They are co-ordinators rather than individual leaders. Managers are also expected to spend much time in holistic scanning of the organisational environment. So we need to reflect on the way we have been taught to think, to look at problems, to appraise complexity and to act together. ‘
The complexities of cities can be illustrated by looking at some of the more familiar ways in which they are perceived and understood. A city can be understood as an economic system with very intricate networks of economic flows. These can be expressed sectorally – as systems of exchanges and transactions – or spatially and socially – as having particular effects on particular groups in particular locations. A city can also be understood as a political and managerial system with particular sets of power-relationships, influenced by different groups and individuals. In recent years, for example, increasing attention has been given to the analysis of structural changes in ownership and control of capital and their influences on different groups in society.
A city can be understood as a set of social relationships and as a social network. Different societies and different groups within those societies have very different social networks. Understanding them is often very important. In many so-called slum-clearing projects it has been assumed that higher-quality physical conditions in new public houses or flats would lead to improvements in social conditions, while the significance of the social networks has been ignored. Preserving the social networks has later turned out to be much more important to many householders than physically improved housing in less accessible locations or with less attractive relationships.
A city can be understood as an ecological system. In many ways this is the most fundamental of all systems. Increasingly we have learnt how much damage we do to ourselves, to our environment and all our life-support systems by ignoring the ecological relationships – the earth’s atmosphere, oceans, land masses, air and water quality, soils, trees and vegetation and habitats.
A city can be understood as a set of physical constructs – structures, physical forms and spaces and their relationships. Architects, engineers and landscape architects are particularly trained to look at cities in this way. A city can be interpreted as an expression of the past, as the tangible, physical evidence of the evolution of the city’s history. Seen this way, the city is not just significant to historians, architectural historians or other groups and individuals involved in historic conservation. It also has strong psychic significance as the roots of our common culture and as the expression of the old, the comfortable and the familiar. Finally, a city can be perceived as a series of experiential relationships – events and activities and spaces and structures that generate emotions.
When we list these different ways of perceiving and understanding cities, two things are immediately apparent. In some sense we all experience cities in all these ways at different times, in different roles and in different moods. When we are reading newspaper commentaries on economic affairs or managing our personal or organisational finances, we are seeing the city as an economic system. When we are building our own houses or watching the construction of a large urban complex or reading the architecture critic at the Age castigating his fellow professionals, we are conscious of the city as a set of physical constructs. When we are voting, or reading with exasperation about our politicians’ antics, or approving a political initiative that we strongly support, or trying to get a passport (especially if you happen to have been born, as I and many other Australians have, in a non-English-speaking country), we see the city as a political and administrative system. But when we list the different ways of looking at cities we become aware of how little we are rationally conscious of this variety of human responses. So we have to recognise that they are all perfectly valid ways of perceiving cities, and consciously value all of them.
We then need to understand that certain forms of analysis are of prime importance for certain purposes. If, for example, we judge that social justice is our prime objective, then political economy is likely to be one of the most effective ways of analysing the city – but may not be very helpful in telling us what to do about it. If we are preoccupied with economic growth, we will use quite different forms of analysis. We have to be able to use particular forms of analysis for the limited purposes of the projects and activities that most directly occupy us without losing sight of the whole. And, very importantly, if we are to have a creative city we must be sure that our notions of creativity extend to all the different dimensions of perception and understandings I have described and to the different systems and networks to which they relate. We have to be creative in every realm.
Another principle concerns: our modification of environments. We are constantly modifying our environment, sometimes in very big ways, sometimes in small ways, sometimes well, sometimes horribly. It is not only what we do that matters, but how we do it. There is research evidence that animals and man in natural conditions select and modify, and that both show signs of stress when they are unable to select and modify. There is further evidence that the human stress of adaptation to a strange environment can be greatly reduced if the individual has some involvement in the initial change and some control over the later development and functioning of the environment. Choice, involvement and participation are thus important principles.
A further principle relates to stimulation and challenge. A creative city must excite and stimulate; but it must also have other qualities. Loren Eiseley, in his book The Unexpected Universe, likens the human quest to the Odyssean voyages of legend and science. In Eiseley’s words,
The almost three hundred year old epic the Odyssey possesses a perennial literary freshness that causes it to be translated anew in every generation. It can be read as an inward journey of reflection or as an outwardly active adventure. Throughout man’s odyssey his technological triumphs have been constantly at odds with his hunger for psychological composure and peace.
In our creative city we thus need to balance stimulating environments with oases of peacefulness and calm. Each individual has to find his or her own inner peace or harmony. Some do it through music, some through meditation; some, the unlucky, never find it at all. But in our creative city we also have to provide places and spaces for sublimation, contemplation and healing.
The difficulty with oases and special places is that they can be very personal. I am reminded of a fine article called ‘Treasure Island’, published many years ago in Architectural Design. Several people were asked to list their magic places. One respondent answered that for him Euston Station in London would always be a magic place since the day he saw a man and a woman walk across the station towards each other and start to waltz. When I think about influences on me I think of places associated with water, distance, and wonderful harmony. In Melbourne I think of the end of Station Pier or the Botanic Gardens or of parts of the river. Are there common qualities in these places? I think there are. What we need to ensure is that places with these special qualities of peacefulness and harmony are to be found in all localities of the city.
It is also of critical significance that the cultural opportunities we present to people should be relevant to their own lives and experiences. Citizens in different places and in different economic and cultural circumstances have different cultural requirements, which need to be understood, supported and encouraged. This may sometimes require those involved in cultural administration to change their mindset. It is easy to assume that it is enough to provide opportunities for aesthetic experience through film, music, dance, painting, sculpture and literature and by encouraging individual or community creative activities. Certainly, the demystification of culture and high arts ought to be a major plank of arts policy – often the initiated would be as profoundly grateful for such a demystification as the uninitiated. But we also have to understand that for some people, particularly the most disadvantaged, there may be other priorities. We should, of course, ensure that those groups do have access to as many artistic and cultural experiences as possible. But when people are preoccupied with burning social issues, racial discrimination or oppression, poverty, unemployment, isolation and alienation, we should help them to find creative expression for these concerns, because it is likely that this is what is most culturally relevant to them. We should also help them to dignify their local histories, environments and work experiences. And when we create institutions that might help them to do these things, we should not have low expectations.
I was connected with the creation of the Living Museum of the West in Melbourne and have taken a continuing, if rather long-distance, interest in its progress and development. The Museum of the West was conceived as a museum without walls and without collections, a museum that would research, portray and illuminate working-class life in the western suburbs of Melbourne. It would be a mirror, and a dignifier, of the society of the west. It is a great regret to me that we missed the opportunity to lift institutions like the Museum of the West and Theatre West to new plateaux of quality and excellence in this bicentennial year. I mean no criticism of the admirable work of the people associated with those institutions. The criticisms are of those who distributed the bicentennial largesse. Let me illustrate. Some years ago my wife and I travelled half-way across Sweden to see a workers’ play. Why? Because we had read an excellent review about it in a major Stockholm newspaper. That’s equivalent to the Australian’s theatre reviewer writing a rave review of a workers’ play in Port Pirie. We should help bodies like the Museum of the West and Theatre West to have a metropolitan, state and national profile equal to that of the best of our other museums and theatres. A major principle is thus the encouragement of relevant cultural experiences for all people in the city.
Furthermore, we must enrich all experiences. We cannot assume, for example, that it is sufficient to offer rich recreational opportunities in compensation for very poor working environments and conditions. There is now overwhelming evidence that the quality of work experiences colours – controls might not be too strong a word – the quality of leisure experiences. A six-nation Unesco study on Cultural and Working Life eloquently documents the fact that a person with monotonous, repetitive or stressful work experiences is likely to have limited and relatively impoverished recreational experiences. Leisure opportunities cannot fully compensate for poor work conditions.
We are in a time of accelerating change. While for some people change is exhilarating, for most it is threatening and stressful. There is a deep psychic need for constancy in the midst of change. That is one reason for preserving the old and familiar – not only the best aesthetically, but also representative examples. In the older parts of the cities are the physical evidence of the past, our cultural roots. In the older parts of our cities there are forms, structures and spaces that we would not build today. They add variety to the physical experience of the city. Some are of outstanding quality. Once they are destroyed, we will never replace them. Thus a further principle is the need for conservation of our civic and architectural heritage, of the old and familiar and well-loved.
Another principle is that of fitness and local character. At a recent conference Marion Blackwell, a Western Australian landscape ecologist, described the building of mining towns in desert environments in the following terms:
Such a town in the desert usually apes the ways, commodities and habits of its urban counterpart and completely ignores its natural surroundings. It tends to alienate its residents from the surrounding countryside. Some of them you find living completely isolated existences almost entirely within their air conditioned houses, hating the heat, the insects, the prickles and seldom if ever venturing outside the town precinct… Being unwilling to accept these new surroundings they concentrate on difficulties and on what are in their eyes deficiencies, spending their time pining for the things they were used to and which are not provided there.
Such towns can be planned and designed to fit and echo their natural surroundings rather than reject them. Careful education programmes can be devised to open residents’ eyes to the grandeur of the landscape, to show them the delicacy of the desert wild-flowers and the uniqueness of the wildlife and to suggest other ways in which deserts can be enjoyed. At Leinster, a nickel-mining town in the western arm of the Great Victoria Desert, when a programme of this kind was developed, not only was personnel turnover reduced to a fraction of that in other mining towns, but people were also given experiences that some expressed as being among the most memorable they had had in their lives.
Last on this list is quality. It seems so obvious, yet it regularly escapes us. We have to teach people not to accept impoverished places and environments. We have to use able designers more regularly. We have to teach architects that architectural egotism is a sin and that great architecture can be produced within the constraints of urban or environmental context. We have to train urban designers to work with local people in local environments. We have to use the very best designers in the most important places. We have to train developers to recognise the difference between architects who can design and architects who can produce buildings very efficiently; both are highly respectable skills, but they are not always combined. We have to get architects to accept, without any sense of loss of face, that they may have a skill in one area and not in others and should combine forces more often.
These are some initial principles that might inform our approach to creative cities. In the last part of this paper I want to return to the different ways in which cities can be perceived, and to concentrate on one of those – the experiential.
Why the emphasis on the emotional and experiential? One answer might be, ‘Because it is an area that is most often neglected’. But there is another, more important. There can be few more significant objectives for a city than that of creating emotionally satisfying environments for all its citizens. Following Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of satisfactions, we know that certain other basic needs may have to be satisfied first. We know well we will never achieve such a lofty goal. But it is the objective to which we all intuitively aspire and towards which we should address our finest endeavours. Emotionally satisfying and stimulating environments – and in such environments I include events and activities as well as the places and structures’ – also work very well economically, administratively and politically.
Some people accept this with little persuasion. Marketers and politicians, for example, understand the power of emotion much better than accountants and bureaucrats. But they rarely see its full potential and mostly use it for very limited ends.
There are five groups of observers and performers who take special interest in the experiential; the scholars and commentators interested in changes in perceptions of space, structure, landscape and heritage; the environmental psychologists, scholars and commentators interested in human environment relationships; the marketers, especially the retail developers; the artists; and the architects, engineers and landscape architects. There are other groups – sociologists and psychologists, for example – whose work crosses into these areas, but the five groups I have chosen are perhaps the main ones concerned with the emotional experience of the city.
There is a rich tradition of study of historical and landscape perception. Different scholars have sought to trace changes in landscape perception in different times and different cultures. David Lowenthal, one of the most distinguished, has drawn attention to the changing attitudes to mountains and mountain scenery in European culture – from threatening and oppressive some hundred or so years ago, to grand expressions of nature today. He has also shown how, in the USA, historical environments have long been neglected in favour of nature and wilderness and how that is now changing. Some scholars have sought to find constants in human perception and valuation that can be isolated and used for classification of landscape values. Others, including Lowenthal, question whether there are such constants and argue that responses to environments are related to culture and time and background.
Others hold that there are different kinds of responses to environments – some genetically programmed, others culturally conditioned. One theory suggests that there are initial ‘hard-wired’ responses, lightning-fast initial appraisals, that are survival-related. For man in natural conditions, as for animals, these responses were a matter of life or death. Then; is then a slower, secondary review during which the environment is surveyed according to learnt cultural criteria.
Environmental psychology is now also a major field of study. It is concerned with human behaviour in different environments: how physical environments affect feelings and behaviour and invite or inhibit choices, and how people modify and affect their environments. It is an exceptionally important field for developers, planners, architects, designers and all those interested in urban change. Particularly noteworthy are the recent attempts to assemble the conclusions from this research and translate them into useful guidelines for practitioners. One pioneering work, Housing As If People Matter, summarises all the literature on behaviour and satisfaction related to medium-density housing and draws from it a set of principles for planning and designing environments that will work for people. The authors are Clare Cooper Marcus and Wendy Sarkissian. Vischer and Cooper Marcus also carried out a delightful review of an architectural awards programme in British Columbia. They used criteria somewhat different from the architectural judges’ – for example, whether people actually liked living in the places – and arrived at dramatically different conclusions. This is a cautionary tale for all designers.
The third category of observers is the developers and marketers. As we all know, the study of emotional and subliminal responses is a primary concern of advertisers and marketers, a concern on which billions of dollars hinge. But it is not only advertisers who are concerned with emotional responses. The most capable developers, particularly the retail developers, often have a superb understanding of the way people behave in different spaces. I recall a meeting with the US developer and philanthropist James Rouse, founder of the Rouse Corporation, builder of Columbia new town and creator of the Festival Market concept. He took me on a walking tour of Baltimore harbour. At each step he explained the ideal dimensions of waterfront boardwalks, plazas or interior corridor spaces to achieve certain kinds of people responses. ‘I am concerned with detail,’ he said, ‘because it is the detail which makes the places work.’
The fourth group are the artists. Just as we need a judicious blend of stimulation and repose, so we also need the left and the right hemispheres, square and round words. Artists are the experts with round words. In a short essay called A Narrow Escape From Poetry, Anatole Broyard tells of an experience in Paris:
I was … on my way to dinner … the light was fading … through the gloom a man appeared … He seemed to want to speak to me so I slowed my pace … when he spoke it was in a light murmur ‘La poesie, monsieur, ga vous intresse?‘ (Poetry sir, does it interest you?) For a wild moment I felt that I had come to Paris expressly to meet this man with his poems and his umbrella. How embarrassing poetry is I thought, like a blind date … ‘Bien sur,’ I said, ‘Poetry interests me very much. But as you will notice, I am not at home in your language. Also I am still suffering from jet lag.’
In other words I excused myself, as most people excuse themselves from poetry, out of cowardice, with one rationalisation or another. What difference did it make that his poems were written in French? The difficulty would hardly be increased, for poetry itself is a foreign language. And one always feels jet lag in its presence – one has to travel so far, through such vast, threatening spaces.
Here was an opportunity and I had missed it. Even if his poems had been bad, his faith was good. We could have spoken of faith, for that’s a kind of poetry too. We could have exchanged elaborate misunderstandings, which are perhaps the most poignant of all cultural transactions. To approach poetry you must start somewhere – in the dark, in the rain, in the shadow of a building, … on the way to some place else. You may not even need an umbrella.
Artists can also invest ordinary things with special meaning. So Bruce Dawe’s poem ‘Abandonment of Autos’ begins with the news item, ‘The City Council is reported to be concerned about the number of old cars being abandoned in city streets.’ In Dawe’s poem, the act of abandoning the car is transfigured:
It is the urban Arab’s Farewell To His Steed,
Down to the final affectionate pat
On the near mudguard before turning away
To shoulder a passage through the indifferent crowds.
Made free in the moment of loss, the one true test.
Only the licence-plate which he carries with him
Into the new life stating as clearly
As any letter of recommendation:
‘Here is one who senses the fitness of things.’
You see, there is no escape from poetry. We need the poets, painters and sculptors, the writers and musicians. We need the experiences and the challenges, since it is through the collision of their worlds of conjecture with the patterns of our daily thinking that we gain new insights and understanding.
The final group is the architects, engineers and landscape architects. They also bring very special skills and understanding to the making of the city. They are, indeed, the prime shapers of the city’s forms. Some of them are also artists. Their insights and intuitions about human responses are often very sharp. But sometimes they are not. This is most often true of public spaces. Recently, when I was in Toronto, Michael Hough told me of a colleague who regularly took his Master’s degree students at the beginning of the year to a natural stream in an unspoiled setting and asked them simply to describe it any way they chose. Each year he has found how much the engineers, surveyors, architects, landscape architects and other professionals have become the prisoners of their professional disciplines in the way they perceive and react to environments. This last year, as it so happened, he took one other person, a laboratory assistant without professional training, without a degree. He found that the laboratory assistant was the only person who gave: a complete description of the river and its setting.
My purpose in describing each of these groups is, first, to draw to your attention how much each can contribute to the development of creative cities and, secondly, to stress the extent to which each has an incomplete understanding of human and emotional responses to places and situations – because: the understanding is intuitive only, because it is limited in its scope, or because it is coloured and constrained by the way professionals have been taught to think. It is not hard to draw the obvious conclusion that all need to work together and to use their collective insights and skills. That is another principle to offer you.
It takes great skill to create emotionally satisfying environments. Both analysis and intuition are required. Many different kinds of environment are needed in a city; the designer/creator has to think carefully about the emotional experience he or she wishes to create. Many environments will work in ways quite contrary to our expectations or preconceptions, so we also have to be open, humble and willing to learn. And that is a final principle.
I recently passed through San Antonio in Texas. At first sight, San Antonio is an ordinary, awful American city. The central city is ringed by elevated freeways, blighted by empty sites used as parking lots. Walking through San Antonio, there is no immediate hint of the remarkable sub-surface world, the river. The river is a tiny, bijou environment, a few metres wide but delightfully planted and paved; much of it is adjoined by a host of small cafes, restaurants and shops.
Along a short stretch of the river is a series of different environments with different uses and designs. The first is the stretch along which the bars, cafes, small restaurants and shops are clustered. In the evening this is an area of extraordinary activity. It is hard even to move along the path, so many are the people strolling, eating, drinking, or browsing in the shops. There is a rich, soft quality in the planting, paving, stonework bridges and lighting, that relates perfectly to the informal cafe activities. In another area a river arm has been extended into a new shopping centre and hotel complex. This is also a high-activity area. Here the architecture is consciously rich but quite different from that of the informal cafe area. In an opposite arm a cultural centre has been built. This is the severe, formal architecture of high culture and established order. No-one walks here unless they are bound for a conference or concert. There are other areas of a quite different character, landscape environments of peace and repose – some partly man-made, partly remnant of the natural river, others new and consciously fashioned. So in a very small stretch of river there are areas of informal social activity, more deliberately planned areas of high-consumption activity, areas of formal culture and areas of peace and repose. The river is a microcosm of many different urban experiences. But it is not the world of all the residents of San Antonio.
On my night in San Antonio, I sat by the river and watched people in their thousands strolling, milling, drinking, eating. The next morning, very early, I went back for a walk along the river. I had it virtually to myself. The light was muted with the lazy promise of a very hot day. As I walked under the canopy of trees, past the flower beds, past thee empty restaurants with the taller buildings dissolving into the sky above, past stretches of river landscape, I came to a tiny theatrette spanning the river. As I passed by, a voice behind me called out, ‘Father, Father Priest’. I turned, and the voice called again, ‘Father Priest is that you?’ I saw an old Hispanic man standing with a broom. ‘No,’ I said, ‘I’m not a priest.’ I walked back to him.
He looked at me carefully and said, ‘You are very like him. Many times I have walked the poor streets with him – for injustice.’ We then laughed and shook hands. We talked about the performance that night and shook hands and laughed again. And I walked away. But I was very moved.
David Yencken (1931 – 2019) was a builder, businessman, academic and heritage practitioner in Australia.
References cited, in alphabetical order, are: C. Alexander, ‘A City is Not a Tree’, in Design, 206, February 1966; Anatole Broyard, ‘A Narrow Escape From Poetry’, in New York Times, 14 August 1988; C. Cooper Marcus and Wendy Sarkissian, Housing as if People Mattered (University of California Press, 1986); K. Cranham, ‘Eustori Station Discourse’, in ‘Treasure Island’ Architectural Design, 7/6, June 1969; Bruce Dawe, ‘Abandonment of Autos’ in R.Hall, ed., The Collins Book of Australian Poetry (Fontana/Collinss, 1981); N.K. Denzin, On Understanding Emotion (Jossey-Bass, 1984); L. Eiseley, The Unexpected Universe (Harcourt Brace & World, 1964); B. Heurling, ed. Culture & Working Life: Experiences From Six European Cultures (Unesco, 1979); J.Jacobs, The Economy of Cities, (Jonathan Cape, 1970); M. Kunihiro, ‘The Japanese Language and IntercuItural Communication’, in The Silent Power, (Simul Press, 1976); D. Lowenthal. ‘Finding Valued Landscapes’, in Progress in Human Geography, Vol. 2, No. 3, 1978; J. Vischer and C.Cooper Marcus, ‘Design Awards Who Cares’, in Places, Vol. 3, No. 1, 1986, pp. 66-85.