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Urban Design

The Teaching Of Cities…

There is a question that digs at the soul of anyone who ventures into a classroom facing a chalk board filled with emptiness.

But I’ll get to that later.

1280px-Andrew_Classroom_De_La_Salle_UniversitySource : http://www.wikipedia.org

It begins with you searching for an opening into a chamber. The entries are usually located at the rear or on the sides of the room that you see,  A long journey towards the Board follows. You see the backs of the people who sit in the chairs, making indecipherable noises and moving about; gesticulating wildly. They all look alike, fixed in their rigid geometry of chairs or benches. You are reminded of the children in all those horror stories that usually begin or end with the ritual sacrifice of a visitor. They generally refuse to acknowledge your existence until you reach the spot where the teachers usually stand. A gentle hush descends on your classroom as the Hive discovers your presence and is somehow surprised that you’ve actually had the gall to actually show up. You grab such things out of your bag or your suitcases as you can; laying them out on the table in front of you. It’s meant to be a gesture of intimidation and initiation, but it doesn’t work. You point to one of them and bend the extended finger toward you at least twice. A member of the tribe (perhaps not the one you pointed to) approaches, unafraid and curious. You point to a projector or some other piece of equipment. The Creature nods, as if to say it understood your request. It then proceeds to do something that may or may not be helpful. About a minute later, it holds out the object it’s been working on, to check to see if it’s kindness has been fruitful or more likely; to indicate that nothing could be done to solve this grave unsolvable situation. You gently ease the remote or some other expensive object out of its hands, scared it may attack you or destroy the object. You then resolve the problem yourself as the Creature watches you in bemusement. You thank it in what words you can, and point in the general direction of the rest of it’s Tribe. It shrugs (sometime they even smile…) and seats itself safely within the bosom of that matrix of chairs or benches that face you… Waiting…

 You realise then, that there are two hundred eyes turned toward you. There are also almost exactly half the number of noses and mouths and about an equal number of ears. The idea, you assume; is to get to the first and the last, while discouraging anything emanating from the other two. It doesn’t seem that easy. Having determined that you exist and are indeed standing at the head of the class about to speak; the Herd start chatting among themselves. You clear your throat. One of the Natives, looks at you with a certain pity that you feel strangely grateful for. He or she might even offer you a lozenge under slightly different circumstances. But not here. Certainly not now. The pity in It’s eyes quickly turns to boredom. You clear your throat again, louder this time… A few more look at you, a little puzzled at the rudeness of the attempted introduction. You seek a microphone and if there is one, you yell into it. It could be a greeting of some sort or even a Polynesian Battle Cry. The essential thing is loudness. This should, under normal circumstances; create enough interest in you to get their attention. The Herd is now annoyed, but also somewhat interested in your existence at this point. You realise that this is an opportunity that needs immediate action. You notice just then that your laptop has hung itself, probably depressed at the reaction it’s been getting. You run back to the computer, which is connected to the projector on the other end of the room. The local Wildlife seems fascinated at your frenetic activity, and don’t seem to be able to take their eyes off you while you struggle with buttons, cables and flashing screens. You look in their general direction and make eye contact with a few of them, grinning and shrugging; attempting to mask your terror. You make a small joke about the tyranny of technology. It doesn’t go well. The murmurs start again. The laptop or the projector or the cable or whatever it was, begins to work. A light, brighter than your eyes can look at; shines directly at you. You were standing in front of the screen. Your own shadow blacks out the image your were trying to open with. Someone turns off the lights.

You Begin…

The title of your lecture appears on the screen in big, bold letters twice the size of your head. You read it out. You ask a question to break the ice. A yawning canyon of silence stares back at you. You ask it again, hoping that your Audience did not hear you clearly the first time. It turns out that they did. This rattles you. But you decide to persist and point left. The Masses are unmoved. You desperately point right this time; hoping to see a raised hand or even an eyebrow. Not a muscle twitches. You desperately point to a spot in the audience randomly; hoping to find signs of Intelligent Life among these Creatures. A tiny, almost inaudible sound appears. You are ecstatic at the possibility of getting an answer from these strange, inscrutable, enigmas. You encourage the member of the Fauna to speak louder. Another silence. You ask again, this time taking care to enunciate clearly and use small words. An almost disembodied sound emerges from somewhere in the room. You congratulate it regardless of what it says and begin a hunt for a second Voice from the darkness. You have learnt that it will not come easily. So you pick another wriggling Specimen and beg it speak. It does. But then, suddenly another; maybe two of them speak… Your spirits rise. You beam at the Hive in encouragement and dare to ask another question. The Silence returns and a moment has passed. You sigh and then shrug once more and begin to speak. You show them a seemingly unrelated image, story or quote to get their attention. You attempt to gauge their reaction. The front rows are below your eye line and appear sullen and restless. The back rows are lost to darkness and to clouds of dust that float across the projector beam, They are a mystery to you; beyond your sight or comprehension. The middle rows are all that you can build on and all that you have left. They nod or perhaps just tilt their head. By now, you decide to consider this a gesture of encouragement.

Source : http://www.wikipedia.org

You speak of the definition of the city; trying to make it as inclusive and as powerful as possible while employing a voice that seems to be literally disembodied as it emerges from the speakers. A time delay of a fraction of a second or an echo in the room allows you to hear exactly what’s being said. An image meant to represent the misery of living in a City pops up on the screen. You have picked a sad image, maybe one of a starving child. You let it hang, hoping that the sympathy for the subject of the photograph, would somehow turn into sympathy for you. It’s a little pathetic, but you don’t really mind. You show an image of Joy In The City to inspire a sense of contrast. This is followed by images of other different layers such as Greed, Generosity, Wealth, Poverty, Intelligence and Stupidity to display the contradictions at the heart of Urban Life. You speak passionately about Beauty and gravely about Hope. Pictures of Rebellion are followed by scenes of Peace and Love. You hope it generates understanding, but decide it’s doubtful. A joke is slipped in now and then. A number of them fall flat. But not all. When they laugh, the Hoi Polloi do it in ripples; starting from a single person, followed by a ring around that person; radiating outward. They laugh politely and a little quietly. You have a slide with an intriguing title on the screen. Something like “Idiots & Civilisation”. They notice. Not all, but some. They look at each other puzzled, but don’t speak. You wait. Not patiently, but you wait nonetheless. You ask the Pack, without looking at anyone in particular; if there was anything that interested them about the phrase. A few nod and attempt to verbalise something, but give up and close their mouths. You wait for a second hoping that time would give them a response. As you feared, nothing comes. You explain the title. Nods ensue. But only from a few locations on the Matrix. The majority continue to stare blankly at the screen. You ask the Wildlife if everyone understood your last few words. More nods. You move on. 

You break for a few minutes. 

 When you come back, a quick visual survey shows that the population of the room has definitely decreased. As you begin speaking, a few more trickle out. You think of calling out, but it doesn’t seem like something that would make a difference. The rest of the things you want to say come and go easily. Perhaps because you have not asked any more questions, or because the crowd is thinner, or because you don’t care all that much any more. Your concluding slide looms large behind you. It contains a parable or a sentimental epitaph or a funny image or anything that allows you to speak for a few seconds more. You say your lines and exit from the stage. You pack your bag, putting the four or five pieces of equipment inside. On looking up, you find that the Swarm has not moved.They look at you hungrily. You remember the horror movies again. This time it’s the ones with the large groups of monsters that consider you an edible snack. You swallow. Finding your voice, you ask the nearest member of the Herd what the matter is. It stays silent. Another one identifies itself as a Leader of the Tribe rises; as if to pass sentence and order the others to chop your head off and eat your organs. But it’s only to let you know that you have not called for attendance. The Alpha of the Pack hands you a little pink book. It’s filled with names, and boxes next to them. The Creatures leave their cages and surround you. They get scarily close. You ask them to step back. This request only brings them closer. They look hungry and ready to bite. You call a name out of the little pink book. You hear a bellow. The next name elicits a hiss, The third a roar. You hand the book over to the Chieftain and ask it to finish. You suspect that this would save your life or at least from bodily harm. It snorts its approval and moves away. The rest look at you in contempt and slink away growling. They form a ring around the Alpha. You edge your way out of the room gingerly, taking care not to provoke the members of the Horde who are away from the centre. You have been told that eye contact would enrage them, so you avoid that as well. You reach the corridor. You don’t feel safe until you exit the building. 

You breath in the fresh air. It feels light and carefree. You try to remember where you parked. Before you can head in that direction, You see someone come up from behind you. It’s your old Teacher. She is now a Professor or Head or Chairperson of Something. You chat with her for a few minutes. She enquires after you, and your practice and your family. Happy to find a friendly face in the Jungle; you tell her. You make similar polite enquiries and feel the consolations of civilisation return. She asks how your first lecture was. You tell her. She is silent, but you feel that She is repressing a smile. You finish talking and She doesn’t repress it any more. She doesn’t need to tell you why. You have sat in chairs placed in front of her; many years ago. This realisation makes you a little indignant, angry and then sad. You almost protest; then think the better of it and say goodbye. 

She says something that chills you to your bones and will probably keep you up that night – ” See you next week…”

As for the question I mentioned earlier, it begins – “WHAT THE…..?”


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