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11 / The Urban Experience

David Brown: A city could be thought of as the largest piece of collectively made vernacular art that contains, embedded within it, artist-designed architecture and public planning.

Anna Indych-López: In cities you have a concentration not only of life, but intellectual life that often can stir creativity.

Jon Ritter: Urban planning, urban design, seek to provide an experience of space, of social interaction in the cityscape. So, in that way, I think they are similar to painting and sculpture, which aspire to create an emotional, physical, and intellectual response to ideas made public.

Anna Indych-López: Cities function very much as cradles of aesthetic innovation.

Segment Title: The First City

Marc Van De Mieroop: It started in Uruk. The city of Uruk is the first real city in world history. It’s very south of modern day Iraq.

Babylonian culture and history was made possible by the rivers that flow through the region. The famous Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The entire region gets exceedingly little rainfall. So in order to bring water, they dig small canals to cultivate these fields.

Over time, they are able to extend this system to produce so much agricultural resources, that it becomes possible to have a dense concentration of people who no longer need to farm for a living. And you get the organization of a society that is truly new in the history of the world: a true urban society.

The south of Iraq is exceedingly flat. So when you see in the distance these massive buildings, which are on top of these artificial mounds, they become this beacon. And then, people know that this is a center. This is a place where you have writing, where you have manufacture of metal objects, tools, weapons, art objects, monumental architecture, monumental art. So, this is what I think defines a place like Uruk as a true city.

David Brownlee: There’s probably no more powerful tool in the repertory of design than urban design, when it comes to making a point.

Jon Ritter: Certainly, there have been those who have tried to make cities into complete, unified works of art in the history of architecture and urbanism.

Segment Title: Imperial City

Lothar Hasselberger: The ancient city of Rome considered itself to be the center of the civilized world. But when Rome was about to reach world power under Caesar, and then his adopted son Augustus, it became perfectly clear that Republican Rome was by no means living up to its new position as the first city of the world.

This was a major incentive to reshape, not just the history, but also the visual appearance of Rome from that republican city into one of imperial glory. Augustus had to express in the city, “You Romans rule the world.” So Rome needs to get a new visual stature. And that, of course, then ties into Augustus’s famous dictum: Let’s make it a marble city, one that can compete, in fact, is even superior to Greek marble cities. A city with public amenities, baths, athletic complexes, park landscapes, monuments, glorious buildings, and especially art. Augustus’s new Rome, the new heroic Rome.

Jon Ritter: The city is certainly history physically tangible. You can read the levels of history; the different ways the city has been used and grown under different regimes, under different functions.

Stephen Campbell: Think about how Rome must have looked in 1300—a tattered shadow of its former self. The buildings and the ruins of Rome, they’ve been turned into Christian churches. It’s a shock because, of course, Rome has tremendous spiritual capital. Rome is a pilgrimage destination from all over Europe.

By the middle of the fifteenth century, for the first time we have a sense of urban design as a coordination of space with monuments and architecture. A scheme to improve access to the various sacred sites, and to develop the Vatican. A whole series of popes imposing order on the city, manifesting that order through design.

In the sixteenth century, Pope Paul the Third has got Michelangelo at his disposal. Michelangelo ends up rebuilding St. Peter’s pretty much in the form in which we see it today.

Jon Ritter: You have layers there of the city that are re-exposed. This is why in Rome it’s characteristic of these kind of papal planners to mark specific spaces, specific squares, the place of a church with recovered Roman columns. And so, you have this bringing together of all these symbols, and the appropriation of those symbols, and association of them with church authority.

Stephen Campbell: The idea that this could all be turned into a grand urban composition where the streets would converge on a square—St. Peter’s Square—with the obelisk in the center—that becomes the principle of city planning in Rome for the next 300 years. We see it finally coming to fruition in the seventeenth century under the papacy of Alexander the Seventh. So it is the final “papalization” of the city of Rome.

Jon Ritter: Architecture shapes the urban landscape. Architecture is the wall, the container that forms the streets, the plazas of the city.

Segment Title: Shaping the Skyline

Jon Ritter: One way to look at and interpret the urban landscape is the way that it expresses the conditions of its making. And in the American case preeminently the conditions of individualism, of freedom, of capitalist competition.

Skyscrapers drastically changed the city and the skylines. Writer Henry James, coming back to New York after a self-imposed exile in Europe, is absolutely shocked. His characterization of Manhattan as a giant pincushion; these skyscrapers sticking up out of the earth. And just shocked, because for him, coming from the context of Europe—unified urban scenes that express communal identity—he sees lack of kind of shared communal culture.

In the 1880s you begin to get what we really identify as the first modern skyscraper buildings in Chicago and also in New York.

The development of the skyscraper in the urban context is important because it reinforces and represents in many ways the concentration of the city, the density. The skyscraper represents the multiplication of the initial ground plane many times rising into the sky.

From the very beginning of the early skyscrapers an attempt always to aggrandize them with some sort of art—classical orders, Roman elements or even Gothic elements. The Gothic, of course, is a very appropriate way to express the soaring heights. Take the Woolworth building, for example, where you clearly pick up on the verticality of the architectural historic tradition of the Gothic cathedral, and the top of the building as a kind of sculptural element, clearly designed to be seen from afar to mark the space of the city. And you have this role performed by the church steeple, or the tower, in the classic medieval cathedral town where you see that as the dominant marking of the site of the city.

To many it seems odd, this idea that you need to clad a modern building with historic reference. And this is exactly the critique of the modernists who begin to dream of and later build the purely abstract steel and glass skyscraper buildings, especially in New York with the United Nations building, but then later the Lever building, and the Seagram building.

No matter how artistically they can be rendered, the skyscraper rarely is a civic building, but instead it’s usually branded as a corporate building, as a business building—again, Woolworth, Chrysler, Rockefeller Center.

David Brownlee: The architect of the Chrysler building borrowed the hood ornaments of Chrysler automobiles to create gargoyles at the upper level of the building, and topped the whole building with a gleaming spike that made the building the tallest building in the world. And the spike gave Chrysler the greatest advertisement of them all—literally being on the top of the world.

Jon Ritter: Certainly not all cities are designed. I mean, many cities grow organically, if you will, but there is certainly an inherent art to that as well, of course.

Segment Title: City of Mud

Susan Vogel: Africa has had cities from very early times. And one of the earliest is Djenné, which was founded around 900 AD.

Djenné is on a branch of the Niger River, in present day Mali, just at the southern end of the Sahara desert. It was one of the most important trade centers in West Africa, and a center of Islamic learning, which it remains today.

Djenné is on a promontory that sticks into a flood plain. After the rainy season, Djenné becomes almost an island, and when the river recedes, fish remains are in the mud. Cattle then graze on the flood plain and leave cattle droppings. So the mud of Djenné includes a very unique chemical mixture that includes both manure and fish remains.

They mix rice chaff into the mud and it bonds with elements in the local mud to make it extraordinarily hard. And that’s why the people of Djenné were able to build the largest mud brick building in the world, the Great Mosque.

The Great Mosque of Djenné is an architectural masterpiece. It’s in the Sudanese style, and it developed in this region about a thousand years ago.

The entire building has wooden pieces sticking out, and it’s a permanent scaffolding.

The mud is waterproof as long as it’s sealed. But at the end of every rainy season, cracks and fissures develop. So, every building needs to be re-plastered to keep the seal tight.

The mosque has to be repaired every year, and that has become a major celebration for a long time. It’s exuberant. And they start about dawn.

All the men from half of the city repair their half of the mosque, and a week later, all the men from the other half of the city repair their half of the mosque. And they compete with each other to finish it first, and to finish it well. And every man, if you’re in good health you have to do it. Elders sit on the side and give instructions. The masons are up on the walls. Young men bring the mud to them. Young women bring the water for the mud. Little boys trample the mud.

The whole thing is done in a few hours. And by nine in the morning it’s done, everybody is filthy and tired, and happy.

The city of Djenné is a treasure for everyone, and I think Malians are very aware of that, and will struggle to preserve it, even though that’s difficult. But I hope that Djenné survives for a long, long time.

Jon Ritter: The city’s inspired artists for its dynamic activity, life, concentration, diversity of subject matter, of possibilities.

Anna Indych-López: Certainly, the urban environment has been a source of inspiration for lots of artists.

Segment Title: Impressions of City Life

Kimberly A. Jones: Haussmannization was this radical transformation that the city of Paris underwent in the mid-nineteenth century. Haussmann was the prefect of the city of Paris. He created this grand new vision, transforming the city of Paris into this kind of modern metropolis, this showcase, to make it one of the great beauties of the world.

Certainly, there were critics who mourned the loss of history and tradition. The Impressionists, they were witnesses to what was going on. And they both embraced and delighted in the sense of progress and renewal and change. But also they were beginning to see the downside as well, the increasing sense of disconnection, loneliness.

In Manet’s work, for example, many images of café scenes, you’ll often times see a figure seated alone or looking into the distance, such as in Plum Brandy. This young woman is seated all alone, not connecting with anyone. And he is able to imbue it with this sense of melancholy and loneliness.

Monet probably takes the most positive view of progress—certainly, the series of paintings he did of the Gare Saint Lazare, the first railway established in Paris. Trains, steam, the sense of progress, and movement—his paintings are really about going places and doing things.

In the case of Caillebotte, there is a little more ambivalence. He really isn’t as interested in notions of progress and the machinery, the way that Monet is. His painting of the Pont de l’Europe, which is the bridge that is directly over the Gare Saint Lazare rail tracks—in it you don’t really see the railway.

Instead, he focuses on the people and how they interact with the space. On the left we have an elegantly dressed woman and her companion. On the right side of the composition, we have a workman. It combines the classes, but at the same time they are separate.

Caillebotte’s great masterpiece is the Rainy Day in Paris, in which you literally see a slice of Haussmann’s Paris. It wasn’t just the new Paris and how it looked, but also how it caused people to engage or not to engage with one another, that the Impressionists really took as the fodder for some of the greatest paintings.

Julie Nelson Davis: Edo is today known as Tokyo. And by the late eighteenth, l.3 million people lived in Edo, possibly making it one of the largest cities in the world. It also becomes a center of ukiyo-e printing. Ukiyo-e, or “images from the floating world,” were produced for the people who are living in the city.

These pictures showed things from everyday life—the entertainments and pleasures that people pursued and enjoyed. They’re produced in large quantities at a very low price, all printed by hand, so each color is applied through a separate woodblock.

They were regulated in terms of what they could represent—things like Sumu wrestlers, Kabuki actors, the courtesans from the pleasure quarters, landscapes.

But in some cases, famous places in Edo, and famous places in Kyoto. When we look at these pictures we think of them as documents of what the city actually looked like. They are really a kind of idealized or beautified city.

I don’t think that their interest is really in documenting the city, as a recording of what it was like, but in kind of celebrating what it was like.

Segment Title: Art in the City

Jon Ritter: Public art is diverse and multiform. And it’s the product of multiple forces—of the creative work of the artist, the patron, of also the audience, and the way it’s used, the way that it is received.

Anna Indych-López: When you look at the places where murals are created, you need this kind of broad, vast network, infrastructure, vital nature of a city.

Jane Golden: Art can serve a social purpose. The work of the Mexican muralists, it’s aesthetically appealing, and it has great political and social significance.

Anna Indych-López: The Mexican muralist movement began in the early 1920s as a result of a post-revolutionary cultural movement after the Mexican Revolution, which was the first social revolution of the twentieth century. Most of these artists were to forge an image of the nation for the purposes of this cultural renaissance, as it is sometimes called.

There’s a tendency to lump them together, to group them as “los tres grandes”—the three great ones—Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, without distinguishing between these individual artists. And they had different visions, different styles, different trainings, different politics. But the one common feature I would say about all three and the other artists who are lesser known, is that they all created a unique avant-garde style in Mexico. And they’re speaking in a visual language that is very modern, but yet accessible. We see very serious political critique of the contemporary life of Indians, and migration issues, and struggling workers, and labor organizing.

The murals did change the nation in terms of cultural renovation, image of the nation, constructing a national visual language, and a broader cultural program. Mexico in the twenty-first century, in terms of cultural imagery, it still reverts back to what happened in the cultural renaissance of the 1920s and ’30s.

Jane Golden: There is a yearning in today’s world for not just beauty, but for representation, for people to feel like they have a stake in what’s going on in their lives. And murals are a way for this kind of expression.

The Mural Arts Program in Philadelphia was formed in 1997, providing opportunities to artists and kids all over the city.

Anne Pasternak: With these mural programs, the artists listen to the community about what they want, and then they help that community create something together.

Jane Golden: We’ve turned Philadelphia into an outdoor museum. Because the murals reflect their voices, people have a stake in the process. It’s casting a light on people and their stories in the best way possible. It’s not like our work is a solution for everything that urban communities struggle with. But it shows us the catalytic power that this art form has in dealing with a wide variety of issues, and how art impacts the life of a city.

John Beardsley: Sculpture has always played an important role in public space. But the character of public sculpture has changed a lot in the last century. If you look back at the great nineteenth-century public sculptures, they tended to be figurative, to represent shared ideals, or social goals, or they tended to be commemorative of great events or great people.

Public art now has a much more abstract character. It’s an exploration of form and material in the public space that’s unhooked from any kind of commemorative function, or any kind of real public purpose.

Jon Ritter: Just the simple issue of color and form in the urban landscape can draw attention to a corner or a part of the street or square, or bring people in, and use it and see it in a different way, in a way that perhaps is less ideological.

John Beardsley: I actually think that some of the more controversial public sculptures are quite successful as sculptures. For example Claes Oldenburg’s Clothespin in Philadelphia, it’s a kind of sly joke referring back to sculpture by a modernist artist named Brancusi, called The Kiss. And the Clothespin is in some ways the elevation of a mundane object. So it’s funny, it’s smart, it’s made out of beautiful materials, and makes a really interesting landmark for the city.

This happens in a lot of places. A sculpture by Alexander Calder that was installed in Grand Rapids in the 1960s—that sculpture, and the silhouette of that sculpture, now adorns city stationery, city garbage trucks. So even these things that are abstract can become icons in the visual environment of the city.

Anne Pasternak: Public art can do many, many things. And sometimes it can really reveal to us our differences. And then there are times where it is about bringing people together.

Projects like The Gates in Central Park are great examples of temporary works that have a lasting impression on our memories. But I think they do a lot of practical things too.

The Gates brought millions of people to Central Park in February, and helped boost the local economy. And there’s something about their scale that captures a lot of media attention. So people know about them around the world. With Olafur Eliasson’s Waterfalls in the New York City waterfront, the numbers were extraordinary.

Olafur Eliasson: The New York City Waterfalls is a project which defines a kind of area in the lower part of the East River between Brooklyn and Manhattan. Water basically being pumped up from the East River, up a scaffold onto a small basin on the top of the scaffold, and it falls back into the river. So the water is just circulated.

It’s not really about illusion. It can be elusive. I didn’t try to hide the scaffolds. I didn’t try to make it hard to get, so to speak. I think there is a certain responsibility in that you can let the people produce the piece by giving them the responsibility for determining what it is they are seeing.

People tend to focus on the waterfall as almost as a sculpture, as an object. But this is so much about public space. The sites from which you see the projects are as relevant or even more relevant than the project itself. You would walk, you would change angle, you see differently. A little bit of wind would carry the water away. You would see differently again. The way the light would catch the water, and so on and so forth.

I think it’s very exciting, when it comes to public art, that it’s a part of the city. And it kind of integrates itself into the tissue of the city in a whole different manner than when you do something in a gallery, in a museum.

Anne Pasternak: There’s the desire of the artist to communicate or tell a story of some sort. It’s not a literal story. And then it exists in cities to tell people that the city wants to engage them.

Olafur Eliasson: Being an artist, I don’t want to be outside of the world. I want to be inside, and working on a public art project. This is very much what it’s about. It’s about this kind of dialogue between a city and a project.

Anne Pasternak: So, hopefully, public art in particular reminds people to be open to all the different perspectives that are around us by the very nature of the diversity of our cities.

So public art also tells people that there are these moments that are being brought to them, to delight them, to provoke them, to get them to talk to one another; that those kinds of basic interactions within a city are important; that people deserve moments of wonder.

David Brownlee: A great city is the largest built structure that human beings create. A great city is a place of ideals and of real experiences, where the aspirations of the many are subsumed by the shared ideals of the totality.

Jon Ritter: The city as a whole is a dynamic creation of humanity. The city is as rich and deep and diverse as human life itself.

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