The city as memory

A couple of years ago I acquired a guidebook to Lombardy and Piedmont published in 1914 in which I was especially delighted to discover a map of my native Milan drawn in the distinctive and attractive style of the Touring Club Italiano publications. Looking for familiar places, I came across the road in which my father spent all of his working life and found that a river ran through it.

I knew about this: the blue line at the top left of the picture is a tract of the canal known as the fossa interna (‘inner ditch’) that was paved over in 1930 to aid the circulation of cars. What gives this cartographic detail some personal significance is that my father, when giving directions to unsuspecting motorists, always referred to that intersection as il ponte (‘the bridge’) in spite of the fact that by the time he was born it had already been removed, and the canal covered. But there they are.

I was reminded of this map last September when I visited Christchurch and heard landscape architect Di Lucas talk about the many waterways that had been paved over and canalised to make way for the growing city, some of which burst out of underground pipes and through levies following the devastating earthquakes that struck the city in September of 2010 and then again in February of 2011. The event at which Lucas spoke was entitled The City as Memory and had been planned since before the first earthquake, when that phrase would have had a different and altogether less resonant meaning. On this day we were shown amongst other images a map of central Christchurch in 1850 with those waterways still in place. The memory of a city also consists of these layers, of the things that are hidden from view but haven’t gone away.


Detail from Edward Jollie’s 1850 map of Christchurch. The full map is available at Te Ara


Then there are the things that are no longer there. It was Christchurch blogger Andrew Dean who first alerted me to CityViewAR, an application developed by Canterbury University’s HITLab that allows users to view pre-earthquake images of the city by pointing their smartphone to a building or the empty space previously occupied by a building.

It is not for me to feel one way or another about this picture. I never even visited Christchurch before the earthquakes. However there is something about the power of the app, its being – if it makes sense to use this word – so utterly persuasive, that gives me a little pause. It’s not that I can’t see the use for this, and not just in terms of the experience of using the app on the ground, which for some of us would amount to a questionable form of high-tech tourism but for others would be altogether more layered and meaningful. There is also, beside this immediate and private use, the promise of future public uses: the adding and the sharing of data that will hopefully make CityViewAR a useful social tool for rebuilding the city, as well as a repository of crowdsourced historical information on what was lost (for which there is at least a known working model in hypercities). It remains to be seen whether and to what extent these aspects of the project will eventuate, but they do at least offer a glimpse into how cyberspace could become a shared discursive environment in which to collectively remodel regular space.

But there is another side to this: for that intensely private act of seeing the past through a digital lens – in what pointedly goes by the name of ‘augmented reality’ – also creates a privileged space of memory in which the initiated is able to apprehend the past directly, seemingly without mediation. What makes this experience limited and exclusive is not that it requires ownership or use of a smartphone per se (although as a class and generational barrier it is not insignificant) but rather that ownership and use of a smartphone construct a subject that is predisposed to experiencing the world through that particular lens. It is the most banal observation imaginable – that technology isn’t neutral – and of course it applies just as much to the latest Android app as it does to a map from 1914 or 1850. But older technologies have had more time to sediment. They too have created their layers, like the city itself. And we are much more capable of identifying their products as representations, as opposed to virtually indistinguishable simulacra that blend in with the reality that surrounds us.

I am of the firm opinion that the greater and more urgent problem – and not just for Christchurch – isn’t to devise ever-more sophisticated ways to read and write the city, but to share them along with the ones that already exist. That is to say, to invest in democracy and participation to radically alter the way in which our communities are (re)constructed. However the resonance of title of those talks, ‘the city as memory’, lies in a vital challenge: to recognise that the past is inscribed in the city itself, in the highly complex system formed by the land, the buildings and the people, and that this complexity resists straightforward readings, no matter how persuasive. Imagine if you could walk though the streets of your own or any other city, point a smartphone at a particular space or structure and generate an image of what it looked like at any time in the recorded past: think of how exhilarating it would be, in the most genuine sense, but also of how much context would be missing from those images. And think of the layers that would still be hidden from view, all the things that no standalone piece of technology could ever show you but memory is also made of. This too we must carry forward, somehow.

On the city and memory, see this exceptional post written by Lara Strongman two weeks after the February 2011 earthquake. Simon Sellars has discussed the role of art and architecture in the regeneration of Christchurch for the Australian Design Review.

Giovanni Tiso

Giovanni Tiso is an Italian writer and translator based in Aotearoa/New Zealand and the editor of Overland’s online magazine. He tweets as @gtiso.

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  1. It’s weird reading this because I’ve been thinking along very similar lines. I live in Melbourne CBD, quite close to the Yarra. It’s the oldest part of the city and, as such, it’s changed immensely over white settlement. Yet because the river remains so prominent, you can still see the contours of the past — it’s not impossible, for instance, to imagine the area as the working port it once was.
    Or, take the Victoria Market, where I’ve just been this morning. One of the peculiarities of Melbourne is that the market was built by digging up an early cemetery, and, in fact, still sits upon hundreds of unexhumed bodies.
    An app that allowed you to compare the past and present (as in this link) woud be pretty cool.
    But the politics of geographical memory are complex, I think.
    I’ve always really liked this passage from Guy Debord:

    The landscape of the “new cities” inhabited by this technological pseudopeasantry is a glaring expression of the repression of historical time on which they have been built. Their motto could be: “Nothing has ever happened here, and nothing ever will.” The forces of historical absence have been able to create their own landscape because historical liberation, which must take place in the cities, has not yet occurred.

    So, in one sense, the revelation of history in particular places seems a real political act.
    Then, again, I also wonder if the sense of historical presence created by a sense of ‘on this very spot’ is too aestheticised to allow real historical thinking.
    At one point, I became obsessed with military reenactors, who, I think, illustrate the point really well. They spend hours and hours to recreate the past in the present. The goal of the hobby is to generate a feeling of ‘wow — that’s exactly what it must have been like’ to carry a heavy machine gun through mud in the trenches.
    But, when you talk to them, while they can tell you exactly what took place on a certain location, and what all the soldiers looked like, and what equipment they had, that knowledge almost seems to render any kind of analysis impossible. Because their understanding of history is entirely sensuous, it’s almost innately counterposed to real historical thinking.
    I don’t really know how to resolve this. Whenever I’ve written historical stuff, I’ve always found that kind of aesthetic approach very appealing — for example, the sensation in the archives of being the first person to read a letter since 1916 or whatever. But I half suspect it’s quite reactionary.

  2. “Whenever I’ve written historical stuff, I’ve always found that kind of aesthetic approach very appealing — for example, the sensation in the archives of being the first person to read a letter since 1916 or whatever. But I half suspect it’s quite reactionary.”

    Early in the life of my blog somebody suggested to me that all nostalgia is reactionary, and that therefore I should stop doing the kind of thing that I do for instance in the first two paragraphs of this – she was quite trenchant about that sort of stuff. And although I did respond and defend what I was doing at the time (quite prissily, too) I’ve been trying to be more conscious of the mechanics of looking back in time ever since, to at least try to separate in my mind the political from the aesthetic approach that like you I find very appealing. This was probably my most conscious response to that.

    The Debord quote is great and suggests to me we should always be looking for a pivot, for ways to make the means of reading and writing the past become ways of reading and writing the future – in architecture and planning as much as in political analysis and organization, or AR applications. There is no reason for instance why CityView or Hypercities couldn’t become ways to represent the cities we want, as opposed to the cities we used to have. Except of course this would highlight that without a political plan (which also needs to be designed, invested into, etc.) that work would be pointless, whereas documenting the past is seen – not altogether unjustly – as a good in itself.

  3. ‘ There is no reason for instance why CityView or Hypercities couldn’t become ways to represent the cities we want, as opposed to the cities we used to have.’
    Or, indeed, both at the same time. In the 40s, the CPA produced a pamphlet called Socialist Melbourne, which explained how the city might operate in the future — ‘this is how parliament house will be used’, ‘this is how the Melbourne Club will be appropriated’, etc.
    Visions like that, the future that didn’t happen are also fascinating.

    1. “Visions like that, the future that didn’t happen are also fascinating.”

      The history of the future section of John Ptak’s blog is a wonderful resource for that sort of thing (albeit mostly limited to material from the US). I would also be remiss not to point to the writings about the layers of the past at Poemas del río Wang. In fact their latest post is very apropos what you just said.

      1. That is very cool.
        ‘In the air, perfectly cleaned from microbes and dust, airships and airplanes are floating. ‘

  4. Basically just free associating now. 🙂
    But the Debord quote also makes me think of how official memorials effectively elide history, making whatever’s commemorated feel safe and dull and irrelevant.
    Not sure I could defend this theoretically but I do think there’s a difference when the commemoration is somehow unauthorised — the distinction between, say, a bluestone statue and a scrap of graffiti you discover that reminds you of how a particular building was once used.

    1. The small town of Foxton in New Zealand has done very interesting things with its heritage, through a mix of officially planned – but still by a committee of citizens – and independently created memorials. It’s an utterly fascinating place to me. Cue
      more self-linkage, I’m afraid, from about halfway down the page.

  5. Oh! Suddenly remembered that when I was working on Reason in Revolt, we scanned most of the Melbourne and Sydney utopian texts. So here’s Gibson’s Socialist Melbourne,11,1,S,
    Full list
    Can I particularly commend Melbourne and Mars to anyone interested in interplanetary socialist novels written by phrenologists.

  6. A river runs through it. It’s an interesting concept, the layered past. My own parents were and are acutely steeped in New Zealand history. Queen St is for them a buried stream, and former coastlines in Auckland and Wellington (obscured by reclamation) take on a symbolic meaning.

    Perhaps the most interesting example I’ve encountered in my own work have been Google Maps portrayal of Indonesian (West) Papua. Since its inception in the mid 2000s, it’s had the same imagery. Forests that no longer exist are saved, towns that are now minor cities are forever constrained, and the world’s highest tropical glacier is frozen in retreat. Even when new, much of the satellite imagery dated from the 1990s, and represents a ‘lost world’ and tropical paradise. It’s like we’re looking at this small section of the world from a much more distant vantage-point.

    At some point this decade, Google will no doubt decide that Indonesia is worthy of better description, and purchase or generate better imagery. At that point, we’ll be cast 15 years into the future. There’s an extent to which all illustration is a snapshot of the past, but we’ve never before had maps that purport to be self-updating and continuously in the present.

    1. Not the least reason why I like the backbone of memory projects to depend as little as possible on technology. Otherwise you typically find that the richer/whiter areas enjoy much higher resolution.

  7. One of the blogs I most look forward to reading is My Darling Darlinghurst ( While I’m not sure that Violet’s intention was to expose the political layers of the postcode 2011, for me this constantly comes up. It feels of nostalgia, but isn’t – whether she is talking about a certain café that veers into the history of that building, or shows photos of the same corner a hundred years apart with everything altered but the peculiar curve of the gutter. Some of the worst/best moments are when she discusses the villas and manor houses built in the late 1700s and early 1800s that are mostly no longer here. You can’t be but painfully aware of the colonial history of the area and the context of wealth made by military officers and others being put to use to build over the areas occupied by the Eora people. The descendants of whom sleep rough in the streets of the area every night now. There is something very politicising about being aware of first settlement in this way, and somehow everything is more in its proper historical place just knowing of elements of the city that can no longer be seen. Really enjoyed reading your post and Jeff’s thoughts.

    1. That is a truly excellent-looking blog, thank you – agree that the best kind of that writing has a (predominantly) politicising value. Something to aspire to for me.

  8. Let me say for starters that I love this post (and its links), but heck Giovanni, you pose a dizzying array of dilemmas as meditations here – on time, duration, history, memory (intellectual and mythic), justice, politics (material and metaphysical), the image (still and moving), text written and spoken (tenses perfect and aorist), nature, beauty, violence, force, disruption, decay and death (to list a few for starters) – all compossibly wrapped and layered in an electronic app of some sort? I hope I live to see (pay witness) to that!

    City as memory? You filter your title, as you say, through a Christchurch event of the same title, and this is what bothers me, the notion of city as memory. The something else needed for the vision of your closing paragraph to become a reality. I’m not saying it’s not possible (everything remains possible), but in secular times, where there is a struggle even to envision discursive history in its fullest sense, and without a sense of the devotio, and all sense of the monument and mythic time lost, to raise the city to the power of a collective sense of consciousness and being, both affectively and symbolically, without simply picking and choosing? A collective vision that, using Christchurch as an example, pays due and full respect and attention to the diasporic movement and culture of the Polynesian voyagers to the Christchurch region, for instance.

  9. I’m not suggesting that the notion of the city as memory is unproblematic – few things about memory are. Most obviously: who decides what constitutes heritage? who writes this memory, with what means and in what language? In this respect with regard to the last part of your comment it’s the negotiation that is going on concerning place names in New Zealand is very pertinent. For instance in a recent Treaty of Waitangi settlement with the Crown the South Island iwi Ngāi Tahu demanded that 96 toponyms be changed back to the original Māori.

  10. Thanks for the response and the great blogging. In my questioning of the city as memory aspect of your dream project, I imagined I was more pointing at the contradiction between using mostly photographic images (I guess), which are in a sense a negation of memory, and less secular, more mythic/religious times, where memory held life eternal.

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