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Interrupted Choreographies

Looking at cities as landscapes of movement

Published onMar 14, 2022
Interrupted Choreographies
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[This is the pre-print version of an article that has been published in the journal Forum Stadt, where the original version can be bought. This translated pre-print version is being shared with consent from the publisher Forum Stadt Verlag.]


If a city only consisted of its buildings, streets, and tunnels, there would be no appreciable difference between the precious hours when it awakes, and its hectic rush hour in the afternoon. Cities—just like people—live, breathe, grow and sleep. Thus, they present a variety of atmospheres: a city can be dreamy or inviting, stifling and cramped, but also impressive and intimidating.  

In this paper, I look at situations in which ordinary movement patterns of cities get interrupted. Referring back to David Seamon, who describes the ongoing mingling of movement in cities as “body-and-place-ballets”,1 I examine three situations in which such flows of movement suffer interruptions. The first scene takes place in Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur. During the most important Jewish holiday,  “nothing” happens in the streets—supposedly. But while everyday life gets interrupted, unusual activities find space. The otherwise lively-hectic atmosphere of the Mediterranean metropole ebbs away and makes room for hesitant, yet exuberant, improvisations. The Ruhr area in Germany experienced a similar interruption of the mundane in the summer of 2019. The A40, the busiest highway in the region, was closed to cars for a day and opened to pedestrians and cyclists. The highway was filled with new sounds, smells, and speeds—thus changing its face entirely. The last scene takes place in a city during lockdown, which appears dreary and oppressive at this time of clumsy movements: the usually frantic pre-Christmas atmosphere having made way to well-ordered cues, hushed glances, and a peculiar silence. 

All three scenes describe situations in which the usual flows of movement in a place are interrupted, with a noticeable alteration in its atmospheric qualities. Those changes suggest that cities cannot be regarded as purely material conglomerates, but depend for their vitality on the scenes and movements that take place within them.

1. A holiday mood of trepidation and exuberance

Israel stands still for a day during the Jewish day of atonement, Yom Kippur. No car driving around, no buses moving, shops are closed and (nearly) everybody abstains from work. The movements of everyday life—the commute to work, the bus ride, the visit to the café—do not take place on this day and, thus, the pulse of this otherwise hectic Mediterranean metropolis comes to a rest. In this void, quieter, more hesitant, less purposeful movements find a place: urbanites stroll slowly in the middle of empty streets, taking time to picnic on zebra crossings and on roundabouts. The city invites sauntering, wandering with no obvious purpose, observing what happens around. An artist lets an elegant silk scarf hang from the motorway bridge and rehearses breath-taking figures.


Figure 1. Shay Rylsk performs on a vertical cloth hanging from a highway bridge in Tel Aviv (Photo: Elad Orenstein).


Next door, residents bring sofas onto the streets, setting up cosy spots on corners that are otherwise taken up by cars, non-stop. Although its buildings remain unchanged, Tel Aviv becomes another city: the scenes that present themselves on Yom Kippur are surreal, the atmosphere fluctuating between post-apocalyptic stillness, a quiet Sunday mood, and dreamy playfulness. A pinch of both holiday atmosphere and apocalyptic emptiness hangs in the air. While the day of atonement comes with prayer and fasting for the religious community, others bask in newfound freedom of movement. 

As soon as one steps into public space, it becomes possible to experience scenes of simultaneous—and at times contradictory—“place-ballets”. A postman tries to squeeze a letter into an overflowing mail box: its smooth paper grates against cold metal with a dull moan before dropping with relief to the bottom of the box. A door opens as an old lady sets out on her morning walk. A car drives off—already late like every other morning. Around the corner, a cat dies. Children slowly amble along the side walk towards school. The church bells ring. It is eight o’clock. The sounds of two lovers emerge out of a window. Somewhere else, a door slams.

These movements are not intentionally coordinated; yet they form the milieus and soundscapes in which we live every day. Such patterns are surprisingly stable, as Seamon points out. The routines of urban events repeat endlessly and we are often not even aware of them. After a house move, for example, it often takes a few more (mistaken) arrivals at the old front door before routines shift and reliably settle on the new address. Everyday life “happens” as a string of such pre-reflexive “time-space routines”2 embedded within relationships and social agreements. For instance, people go to school and work at agreed times—not at any time. And anyone who has experienced queuing for 20 minutes at the post office on a busy Saturday morning eventually considers a different time for his or her next visit. Choreographies do not happen as solos, but alongside others moving simultaneously and together, to form a “chaotic-manifold whole”.3 These complex patterns of relationships do not receive enough consideration in regional sciences, according to Thorsten Hägerstrand.4 Indeed, regional planning that considers people as individuals in empty spaces fails to recognise that every movement a person makes happens in relation—and in response—to every other movement made in the same space. Seamon suggests a different perspective on urban life, by describing the vitality of a place as rooted in these movement routines. People “make” cities by going about their daily routines and, in the process, paths cross, bodies brush, gazes meet.

2. Still life on the highway

On the 18th of July 2010, the A40—the most frequented highway of the Ruhr area—was closed to all traffic for 24 hours. On that day, along the central reservation that normally provides orientation to car drivers, residents and associations put up tables and stages. The usual traffic jam was still there: in the afternoon, there were so many cyclists on the highway that a ‘bicycle jam’ built up. Normally, the A40 can only be experienced “through” a car. Air conditioning, glass windows, radio and speed mediate the bodily experience of driving on the highway, and shield the driver from his or her immediate environment.5 I wonder how many commuters might drive every day on the A40, without ever putting a foot down on the asphalt? During this exceptional day, the highway became touchable, walkable, and could be experienced in a different context. Other smells filled the air—fried sausages and sweat for example—and the soundscape likewise changed: the endless roar of the motorway suddenly giving way to accordion sounds, bicycle bells, and snatches of conversations. A botanical association took the opportunity to do a “floral-faunistic mapping” of the A40 and found a dazzling 335 plant families along a single highway segment.6 The highway suddenly offered a completely different experience than usual: the daily choreography of accidents, heat haze, and honks, gives way to strollers, performances, and music. Although the motorway is almost always heard or seen by the residents of the Ruhr area, it was only on this day that it became walkable and could be experienced differently. 

As with Yom Kippur, the car-free day on the A40 illustrates how a temporary change of use can completely alter the character and atmosphere of a place. The new slowness and unfamiliar actions reveal a yet-unknown facet of what a highway or a metropole might be like. The transformation of places is often attributed and left to construction and infrastructure projects. Yet, the above examples show how changing flows of movements, even for a day, can transform places. Architectural action can happen through building, but also through walking. Moving and walking are not just ephemeral events, but interventions that leave traces of different kinds.7 For his sculpture A Line Made by Walking, Richard Long walks straight ahead through a field and photographs the line. The trace in the grass shows how movements can shape landscapes, and how walking can be an architectural action.8

Figure 2. Members of the botanical association of Bochum examine the centre strip for plant communities, while pedastrians and bicyclists share the lanes. At noon, there was a 15-kilometer “bicycle jam”. (Photo: Julian Sattler)


The day of walking and cycling on the A40 can equally be looked at as a an experiment with future scenarios for the formerly-industrial landscape. How might the Ruhr area change after the automotive age? How could today’s traffic arteries be used, if they no longer had to function as bottlenecks for thousands of commuters?

It is remarkable how different the organizing process of the action day was, compared to the planning of the construction of the A40 back in the 1950s. The car-free day came about as a collaboration between thousands of inhabitants and associations and a coordination team. The organizing team created the conditions for the event to happen but, in effect, it came alive through the local inhabitants and associations. In contrast, the straight A40 was built after the model of American highways—a symbol of progress and mobility. Residential buildings and neighbourhoods that were in the way had to go. 

During the car-free day on the A40, the texture of events became multi-layered and polyphonic. One sees, for example, a group of young Turkish women in wedding dresses advertising their tailor shops in Duisburg Marxloh. They walk past a group of older men playing cards and sitting around a table, as if they were in their local pub. According to Christopher Alexander, it is this overlap of (eclectic) activities that creates vitality in places. In his essay The city is not a tree, he compares naturally grown cities—like Istanbul or Siena—with designed cities like Brasilia or Chandigarh.9 Even if the latter functionally fulfill all the needs of their inhabitants, they often lack a decisive “patina of life”.10 Alexander describes the natural city as a complex semi-lattice of repetitive patterns, in which built elements are intertwined with movement and activity. For example, a highway includes structural patterns—such as slip roads, signs, guardrails and interchanges—but it also includes the movements of traffic jams, of overtaking cars, accidents, and honking concerts. The liveliness of a place depends on whether it can accommodate a diversity of patterns and movements, rather than just a few. From this point of view, an important task for architects becomes to recognise, promote, and enable lively patterns of movement. Actions such as the car-free day on the A40 constitute moments in which new patterns of movement emerge. Such actions are as much architectural actions as infrastructure projects.

 

3. Lockdown as an urban experiment

For at least a decade, city planners, politicians, and think tanks have been grappling with the question of planning a traffic transition—for instance, via expansion of cycle paths, fewer parking spaces, and improved public transport. The utopia of a car-free city has been set out many times, notably by the EU,11 by an initiative of Berlin citizens,12 and by countless urban planning offices. Which city does not want to be the first to master the traffic transition, and so become greener and more attractive than others? The change initiatives that go hand-in-hand with these aspirations are often aimed at repurposing existing infrastructure, which should lead—in turn—to different behaviour. This approach assumes that, once infrastructure has been put in place, people will change their habits accordingly. Hence, new cycle paths are designed to encourage people to use their bikes more, and so on. Everyone has heard of these thought experiments: they earn approval or disdain for a while, before ultimately being cast aside. If we shift our attention away from “what if” scenarios and instead look more closely at reality, we discover that the lockdown during the Corona pandemic was actually a big step towards changing mobility patterns.13 The city’s main flows of movement changed abruptly as offices closed, shops did not raise their shutters during the day, and cafés became pick-up stations for take-away meals rather than cosy meeting places. People moved from Berlin to Brandenburg once the home-office became the unassailable alternative to commuting. Public transport appeared ominously cramped for pandemic times and was used significantly less. Moreover, as the way to work started becoming redundant, streets emptied during major traffic times. Conversely, there was a huge increase in pedestrians and cyclists. While many recreational activities could not take place, walking experienced a renaissance: hiking trails that would otherwise be sparsely used suddenly experienced ‘high season’, and even in the city centre people took long walks wherever there was space. There had never been more joggers on the riverbanks, and while restaurants experienced existential crises, bicycle shops and sport shoe shops become sold out. As traffic flows change, other routines began emerging, and—with them—new movement choreographies were created.

Similar processes of change are difficult to bring about deliberately but, when they happen, they can indeed be recognised and encouraged. In those moments when habitual patterns of movement are interrupted—such as during lockdown—a space opens for new patterns to emerge. These changes do not usher a straightforward trajectory to a better city, but rather wind their ways as “paths, detours and aberrations”,14 into what eventually brings into being a traffic transition. The change in traffic patterns during the lockdown is by no means as romantic as portrayed in utopias of a traffic-calmed city. At times of lockdown, urban space has a lifeless, grey atmosphere that is hard to withdraw from. One might wonder, during these periods, what the purpose of urban space actually is. 

Spazieren”, the German word for “going for a stroll”, originally stems from the Italian “spaziare”, which can be translated as “to spread, expand, space”. Nevertheless, during lockdown, the city hardly feels expansive. Streets stretch for miles without any vanishing point, one walks and walks without interruption, and moments of dwelling—a pause in a café, a stop in a shop—become lost possibilities. Instead, tired legs walk relentlessly, following repeating pathways in designated areas. Dark shop-windows frame the sidewalks; existential crises lurk in silence. The lively and manifold choreographies of everyday life are thinned down to monotonous pirouettes. One circles around one’s own home, hardly encountering other passers-by. While the air becomes clear and breathable—as traffic decreases and factories stop working—the emotional atmosphere turns thin. The city is no longer a place to dwell in, drift, or linger, but becomes an impenetrable façade that only seems to accommodate hasty, directed movements. Cities sound strangely muffled and quiet during these times, as if a layer of snow had just fallen. These altered soundscapes are not merely a change in the acoustic environment, but directly affect the atmospheric experience of place.15

Scenes of lockdown speak of a strange placelessness. Never have the bicycle couriers been so visible, delivering food and waiting in the cold during the long unpaid pauses between two orders. Homeless people are also particularly visible during this time, as they stand out in the empty streets. While most people approve of the stay-at-home command, those who do not have one appear even more displaced


Figure 3. Bicycle couriers who deliver food orders are, for long stretches, the only people that populate the streets (Photo: Valentin Ihßen).


During these weeks, it is not only people’s habits that change. Animals, too, discover new space. We all saw the picturesque photographs of dolphins suddenly swimming in Venice’s canals. But the negotiations for space weren’t always as peaceful as that. In Lopburi (Thailand), for example, a quaintly exceptional power play unfolded. The monkeys, usually fed by tourists, suffered from a shortage of feeding and turned “hangry”—hungry and aggressive. In search of food, they ravaged shops and vehicles and openly attacked people on the streets. These originally wild Macaque apes had become so used to being fed by tourists, to the point of unlearning how to hunt for themselves. During lockdown, the working loop of curious tourists and hungry apes got interrupted, and the monkeys rebelled. A woman told, in dismay, that she had to live in a cage to protect herself from them.16

Lopburi is one of many examples of the close-knit interdependent relationships between humans and animals, which probably also led to the outbreak of the pandemic. Although the exact origin of the virus cannot yet be clearly located, a link to the biodiversity crisis, as well as to the disappearance of natural habitats for wildlife, is uncontested.17 Further zoonotic infectious diseases are inevitable if the relationship between human, animal, and plant life doesn’t change drastically.18 Spatial negotiations do not only affect human residents, but also animal and plant populations. Biologist Bernhard Kegel points out that the return of wild animals to cities is by no means surprising; on the contrary, a large number of wild animals had already been living on the peripheries of large cities and moved rapidly into centres during lockdown.19 The “wilderness” has long since ceased to be a far away place. It lives right on our doorstep: jackals lurk in the streets of Tel Aviv during lockdown, coyotes roam San Francisco, pumas prowl in Santiago, and a flock of Kashmiri goats ambles through Wales. While people isolate themselves in their homes, animals explore the empty streets. 

To dismiss these changing “place-ballets” as petty exceptions would be frivolous. Instead, the phenomena that become visible during these times provide important clues for transitions: The return of wildlife to the metropoles speaks, for example, of destroyed habitats, and becomes an appeal to revise a skewed human-animal relationship. Similarly, changes in traffic patterns during lockdown offer a valuable experimental platform for urban mobility transitions. Those who have been cycling to work for weeks during the pandemic may still do so after it ends. As Seamon shows, people are attached to their routines and, once they become used to them, they become extremely reluctant to revise them.20 

Recognizing interrupted choreographies as opportunities for change 

Phases in which the habitual movements of the city are interrupted—like in the three scenarios described above—always pose the question of what a place might offer, in addition to its primary use. What does the city centre feel like when shops and restaurants are closed and the trip to the office is no longer necessary? The examples given in this paper show how urban vitality depends on the movements and customs of its inhabitants. 

For city planners, such a perspective suggests viewing urban space as composed by aesthetic experiences, and marked by movements, relationships, smells, and sensations. Inhabitants are not mere consumers of urban space, but performers that shape the city with each and every one of their movements. Moments of interrupted choreographies are then chances to explore scenarios “in vivo”—rather than “thinking them through”—and to see how people actually behave. Alexander aptly shows, with the example of a playground, that aliveness rarely takes place in designated spaces, but unfolds “in-between”:

The playground, asphalted and fenced in, is nothing but a pictorial acknowledgment of the fact that “play” exists as an isolated concept in our minds. It has nothing to do with the life of play itself. Few self-respecting children will even play in a playground. Play itself, the play that children practise, goes on somewhere different every day. (…) Play takes place in a thousand places, it fills the interstices of adult life. As they play, children become full of their surroundings.21

Yom Kippur and the action day on the highway in the Ruhr enable similar moments of fluid “play”, enabling uncanny overlappings of activity. In such experiments, new urban choreographies are born and thus change the atmosphere of a place. Even though they are confined to a limited period, similar experiences leave traces and memories that have the potential to shape further movements. This process, of living into the future through small experiments, requires city planners and architects to pay attention to temporary openings and to recognize them as spaces of transition. This profession is not a mere technical one, but a social craft that pays attention to movement patterns and to their vitality.

 


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Seamon, D. (1980). Body-Subject, Time-Space Routines and Place-Ballets, in: The Human Experience of Space and Place, London. 

 

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