Reading and re-writing urban space


These are some examples taken from a broader landscape of research projects in which artists seek to explore urban space through ambulatory soundmaking.[5] A common denominator in these projects is the fact that they focus on the interplay between body and site as established by the sound of the footsteps, a sound that – as we have mentioned – is created through physical contact and that generates an effect of presence.


This embodied, material, and situated relationship with the environment, established by the footprint and the footstep, has often been emphasized in the interdisciplinary literature devoted to urban walking in the last century. Moreover, in recent years, walking has been the subject of a renewed theoretical interest going hand in hand with the transformation and expansion of contemporary cities (Soja 2000; Augé 2009; among others) and the emergence of “mobility studies” in social sciences (Cresswell 2006; Urry 2007; Adey 2014; among others). In this field, walking has been defined as a way to establish a privileged and dialectical relationship with the everyday and the mobility of the city itself – its physical or intangible transformations. According to these discourses, the simple practice of walking offers a constellation of relational possibilities. It allows us to observe urban becoming and transformations (Benjamin 1999; Sinclair 1997); it establishes an embodied and situated exchange with the environment (Sansot 2000; Le Breton 2000; Thibaud 2008; Thomas 2010) in an experiential, non-chronological temporality (Augoyard 2007; Middleton 2009; Labbrucci 2011), while providing an opportunity to participate in the public sphere and to encounter otherness (Jacobs 1961; Solnit 2001; La Cecla 1988). Walking, from these perspectives, becomes a critical tool to perceive, explore, and experience the urban (in its physical, but also cultural, social, and political aspects) in contextual and embodied ways.


Yet, especially in French literature, considerable emphasis is put on walking as a way to re-appropriate, reshape, and rewrite the urban structure. In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau devotes an entire chapter to the practice of walking in the city. He describes it as a privileged means to experience urban space from an internal, embodied perspective – “an elementary form of this experience of the city” (de Certeau 1984: 93) – in opposition to the disembodied and totalizing bird’s-eye view that transforms city space into a “panorama city,” into “a ‘theoretical’ (that is, visual) simulacrum, in short a picture, whose condition of possibility is an oblivion and a misunderstanding of practices” (de Certeau 1984: 93). However, for De Certeau, pedestrians’ practices are also (and first of all) a form of writing of urban space. In his words, the city becomes “an urban 'text' [passersby] write without being able to read it” (de Certeau 1984: 93).


This interpretation of urban space as a text that can be articulated through walking had already been proposed by Roland Barthes in a talk given at the Institute of Architectural History in Naples in 1967. Discussing some of the foundational elements of a semiology of the urban, Barthes interprets the city as a discourse that the inhabitants, the pedestrians, actualize through use:


The city is a discourse and this discourse is truly a language: the city speaks to its inhabitants, we speak our city, the city where we are, simply by living in it, by wandering through it, by looking at it […] He who moves about the city, e.g., the user of the city (what we all are), is a kind of reader who, following his obligations and his movements, appropriates fragments of the utterances in order to actualize them in secret. (Barthes 1986: 92-5)


However, the interpretation of walking as a form of re-appropriation of the city’s spatial system remains only suggested in Barthes’ text while it is widely discussed by De Certeau in his reconsideration of use and consumption as anonymous, disseminated creative practices and forms of resistance to the pre-established powers, a reconsideration at the core of The Practice of Everyday Life. By establishing a clear dichotomy between planners and users and assigning to the latter the possibility of reshaping the spatial order imposed from above, De Certeau interprets walking as one of those resistance tactics through which users can reconfigure the dominant cultural economy. Accordingly, he explicitly refers to the linguistic system by interpreting walking as a speech act:


The act of walking is to the urban system what the speech act is to language or to the statements uttered. At the most elementary level, it has a triple ‘enunciative’ function: it is a process of appropriation of the topographical system on the part of the pedestrian […], it is a spatial acting-out of space […]; and it implies relations among differentiated positions, that is, among pragmatic “contracts” in the form of movements. (de Certeau 1984: 97-98)


As a linguistic system, the functionalism of urban planning provides a system of use and control of spaces, setting up a number of possibilities, rules, and interdictions. Pedestrians actualize and put this system in use, but they can also redefine, reinvent or deny its rules, thereby creatively re-writing urban space through their personal and social practices.


This linguistic metaphor returns in the writings of several authors (Bailly 1992; Solnit 2001), notably in Step by Step – the title of Jean-François Augoyard’s book, first published in 1979, that I quote in the title of this paper. In his examination of the everyday walking patterns in a newly built borough in Grenoble, Augoyard proposes a rhetoric of walking and describes this practice as a form of interaction between the pedestrian’s individuality and the organization of the built environment, as an act of articulation of the urban spatial structure, as a way to read and re-write space:


Walking resembles a reading-writing. Sometimes rather more following an existing path, sometimes rather more hewing a new one, one moves within a space that never tolerates the exclusion of one or another […] the succession of steps effectively rewrites the space that opens before the walker, even when done in the slightest of action modes. (Augoyard 2007: 25)


Therefore, walking becomes a form of both individual and social expression, a way to modify the meanings and material structures of space. It reads, but also re-creates space. From a visual point of view, one basic example is the progressive emergence of an alternative path in a meadow or a park through the constant passage of people and the accumulation of their footprints, a form of spontaneous rewriting that we all have probably noticed and practiced in our everyday walks.


However, in my opinion, this practice of reading and rewriting the urban by walking is particularly evident in the auditory sphere. The listening walker experiences the city as a continuous series of events in perpetual movement, a dynamic multiplicity that is constantly recreated in relationship with his/her (changing) position and behaviors. As Paul Rodaway writes in Sensuous Geographies: The soundscape moves with the sentients as they move through the environment and it continually changes with our behavioral interactions” (Rodaway 1994: 87). While moving, we actually participate in the creation of soundscapes, contributing to the ongoing constellation of sound events that is always already there in urban space. Brandon LaBelle further points out this dialectics between urban soundscapes and pedestrian practices:


The urban soundscape is itself a material contoured, disrupted, or appropriated through the meeting of individual bodies and larger administrative systems. From crosswalk signals, warning alarms, and electronic voices, the urban streets structure and audibly shape on a mass scale the trajectories of people on the move. In contrast, individuals supplement or reshape these structures through practices that, like de Certeau’s walker, form a modulating break or interference. (LaBelle 2010: 92)[6]


This interference is almost unavoidable: our listening context is always built through the interaction between “our own” sounds and those already travelling across space, implying that we can’t have an external listening position – the “impossibility of removing from oneself,” to use Peter Ablinger’s words – but that we are always co-creating the soundscapes we listen to.


Moreover, sound is essentially vibration. It is not an object or an attribute of an object, but it is generated through the physical interactions between objects, subjects, and contexts (O’Callaghan 2007). Every time we produce a sound it propagates in – it extends and penetrates – space and, conversely, it is reshaped by the physical properties of that space and its mediums, coming back to us in a modified form. Therefore, while producing a sound event, we are also activating the environment that surrounds us and the acoustic qualities of the spaces that we traverse. This dynamic relationship that we establish with the environment can create different effects – such as resonance, reverberation, reflection, absorption, etc. – allowing us to investigate space. The sounds we hear – resulting from the acoustic interaction between the source and the different materials, dimensions, and surfaces of which the ground and the surrounding architecture are comprised – allows us to perceive the material qualities of the places we traverse, allows us to read them with our ears.

From an auditory point of view, then, we always both perceive and take part in auditory spaces as we traverse them. We read and rewrite them.