D I A L O G U E S W I T H P L A C E S
III. THE PLACE OF SURRENDER
We generally move in the world with a specific doing-goal in mind, despite the fact that we’re human beings. The Flaneur - the male gaze and attitude of strolling in city life, still somewhat made that turn, from doing into being: being aware, being observant of society and the places it builds, and the place we build for ourselves within it. A further inquiry about the urban territory could be a personal inquiry, turned towards oneself; a stroll with the sole purpose of observing one’s thoughts and emotions, guided exclusively by the body’s will.
Allowing movement to emerge from unconscious impulses can be challenging. I did so, in a town where I hadn’t been from many years. There was some anxiety to start with; a new exercise, would it produce any results?, the goal-oriented mind wondered. In each step, I let go; I decided to not start in a specific place, but to start where I was, without a plan. Strolling not for observing the urban landscape, but for looking into the emotional, interior landscape, of past and present.
The territory unravelled before me in a new, somewhat familiar way. Streets I couldn’t remember completely were made anew in front of my eyes. Patches of the town, unrelated in my memory, gathered in a new, logic urban fabric, united in connections between streets, memories of events, and memory of moods. The first street where my body took me had a feeling of recovery, of health; I didn’t remember, but that was the street where my doctor’s office was. How interesting. That which leaded to another one, going up and ending in a square that often came into my dreams, and that I didn’t remember to be connected to that street. It has a small church with a stork nest, an old prison next to it. I have no particular memory of this place, except for a very ancient one, a memory without words, so old its almost foreign; its mostly a feeling, not a structured thought. Still, being there, I had a deep, unconscious feeling that something was being solved, a mystery like an inner engine with a slight loose part that now was fixed. That same feeling, a calm relief, progressed to all the other streets where I had memories from different ages; contrary to what is usual, first, my body would arrive, and only then, memory and thought would surface. Ah, I remember this, I would think after arriving. I couldn’t point if or what was different, if materials had aged, if buildings or their occupations were the same. I have no memory of any of that. It’s as if a rational, generally dominant part of my brain had been washed through by pure emotional states. Which is interesting, because we are constantly having thoughts, but we’re also constantly having emotions, and their long-term states, moods, without much awareness. The particularity of that day was not that I wasn’t having thoughts, but that I was aware of body sensations first – which I then saw as holding certain emotions, meanings, by a process of mental attribution and building narrative; of making sense.
During that day, the geographic memory I had of that town changed; a deepened sense of it, with an impact on my relationship with its territory. Some places that had hold difficult emotions, and that because of that, I had some mental rejection to them in the base of aversion, fear, sadness or disgust, were made sensible in a larger narrative of happenings that integrated all of them – all emotional states, and my posterior reactions to them. This integration happened first in the body, in its sensory and emotional experience. There’s a song that says, "moments can be monuments to you"; and so is the realisation of much of this cityscape, anonymous and un-monumental per normal urban and architectonic considerations, yet holds emotional, monumental-like aspects to me. To all of us this would happen, I guess, as our lives are woven into our surroundings, be it landscapes, buildings, parks, beaches, the wilderness of nature, people. Moments, and the territories of streets, squares, gardens, passages, are the meaning receptacles of our daily lives, a symbology that goes beyond the mental processes of conscious attribution; that we can be aware of, when we allow the wisdom to the body to be made conscious by the intellect. The reconstruction given by Damásio’s I feel, therefore, I am (in contrast to Descartes I think, therefore I am), can be brought to fullness in the construction of urban spaces – or hopefully, of more urban places, where emotion and meaning are represented, instead of made secondary by the functional modern city. I think that full reconnection with the emotions in our surroundings, that integrated awareness of our emotional bodies will be a key aspect in designing the sustainable cities we so desperately need.
Certainly the places I’m describing here can be mostly defined as some sort of genius loci. Some of these places can be dissected as well by the tools from the urban disciplines analysis, and may even have qualities of atmosphere, generating that something, indescribable, sensible reaction with their beauty, proportions, structure; choice of materials, their location and how they relate to each other, among other aspects. Yet, I believe for anyone to design a well structured environment with these qualities, needs to first know very well their own inner genius loci: the inner narrative, the why’s and how’s of attributing to places and objects an emotional quality. Otherwise, how can we fully see it outside ourselves?
We keep having relationships with the places and people who don’t see or have departed; absence of presence is not synonym to an end. Quite the contrary, this holds the chance of restructuring and change, nuances we must be made aware of. Attribution arises from individual and collective stories, built upon a curated selection of events that happened - and with the not-curated uncomfortable peeking in the background, anyway. So we may as well learn about that cultural heritage, the full story of it, and being fully aware of the course, and corrected course for a well-helmed, plausible, interesting future. Sustaining that awareness determines the meanings we construct, in such a great responsibility that is the design of everything: is this street, object, building or monument being made for and with, a feeling of care, or of superiority? Is it an individual need to prove ourselves right, to affirm something, or is to share generously with others, or to solve a problem? Does it create a feeling of belonging and care - and does it actually walk the talk in the process behind its materiality to do this, or is it a conquering? Does it serve an individual need, or a collective one? And if it’s a collective need, who are exactly those people? These are some of the questions that the construction of meanings of any design process cannot escape, and to which, meta-cognition and emotional intelligence are tools that can help us in our learning curves and outcomes. In a society so terribly deprived of authenticity and real connection, these are some of the most important issues any discipline of the future needs to be concerned about.