New Urbanism and the Dérive

I live every day in urbanism, or, more specifically, New Urbanism. Even if you don’t think you know what New Urbanism is, you do. New Urbanism is a way of planning communities that take the best parts of the “small town” and replicate it in new construction. Some of the tenants of New Urbanism are more walking, less driving. Small front lawns and narrow streets. No house is more than a five minute walk from the nearest public green space. Neighborhoods all have easy access to a central square with food and retail. The idea is to promote a community of people living together, not to isolate people behind fences and single-family homes with giant yards and private pools. Seaside, Florida is an archetypal example. Did you see the film The Truman Show? That was filmed in, and accurately represents, Seaside. My New Urbanism are the lofts at Tobacco Row. Redone, revitalized and renewed loft style apartments built on the backs of the cancer makers. We have beautiful courtyards with pools. Safe parking, scenic walks. 24/7 maintenance and climate controlled apartments. Ironically, the last thing it feels like is a community. Nobody talks to anyone else in the halls. We do not know any of our neighbors. But… it is quiet. Safe. Clean. Beautiful. I even feel hip living in the “bohemian” area of Richmond. Where all the cool people are. 14 foot ceilings! Exposed brick! Central air! Fresh cookies in the lobby! And nobody bothers you, to a fault.

I went to San Francisco a couple of years ago and visited a close friend (who is, coincidentally, an architect specializing in urban planning.) We spent a few days seeing what there was to see, and ended up in a neighborhood called the Marina in the northern part of the city. Beautiful shops, restaurants and stores. Nice streets, good looking, well dressed people. Mercedes and Lexus float up and down Chestnut Street. Cool coffee shops and knickknacks to buy, tucked between Gaps and Banana Republics. To sum it up: they even have an Apple Store there. But my friend and his wife hated it. “It’s fake here” they said with that arrogant air that ex-New Yorkers seem to have about anyplace that is not New York. “It’s not real” he said, shaking his head in shame.

Debord says that “tourism is the chance to go and see what has been made trite” (Thesis 168)—which is probably true, and yet, we flock as tourists to these places of triteness, including the Marina District and redone loft apartments. We know Disney World is not real, yet we go by the millions. We know that the T-shirt shops, overpriced restaurants, and audacious bars in Cancun, Mexico are merely constructs catering to tourists, yet we do not stay away. My lofts are aimed solely at the yuppies, and that is who lives there. We all know places like this, and are often snarky about how fake they are. Yet we want more of them, and enjoy being in them. The same way we enjoy a film, we enjoy the constructed realities. It is about living the fantasy, the dream. However, unlike a film, my cool, hip loft apartment is real. I sleep there every night. So the question has to be—if we think it’s real, is it still fake? I love living in my fake, constructed tourist haven. Does that mean I am not really experiencing living? Would I more accurately experience life if I lived in a row house in the Fan?

Debord and The Situationists believe we do not really experience urbanism as it exists now. We need to have more fluid, playful and exploratory experiences in our lives where we live and work. We should live in places that provide a more experiential existence that stimulate creativity and emotion. I find this idea interesting, and wonder if I feel more liberated and creative in my Richmond yuppie loft construct than I did in a 2-family duplex on the East Side of Providence? What I realize is that I feel equally creative in both places. Upon reflection, I think the reason being is that in both places I have a relationship with a design school. RISD there, VCU here. As a designer, the unitary urbanism ideal seems to be academia. Not the buildings, or the institution, or the campus, but the mindset. The questioning and the collective dialog of designers and artists.

I can only assume Debord would roll over in his grave at this thought. Visual designers like us work in representation, and Debord postulates that “all that was once directly lived has become mere representation” (Thesis 1.) The much hated (at least by Debord) “spectacle” is our bread and butter. To me, we (designers) are living an incredibly unitary urbanist experience, because the academics of design, and especially of graduate school, is entirely based on the dérive: wandering about and allowing the topography of your interests and experiences guide you to new interests and experiences.

Written in response to the following readings:
The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord
The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs
The Situationists and the City, edited by Tom McDonough