polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

City as Constellations: A Conversation with Matthew Gandy

by Andrew Wade

Los Angeles River (2003). Source: Matthew Gandy

Matthew Gandy is an urbanist and academic who writes and teaches about cities, landscapes and nature. He directed the Urban Laboratory at University College London (UCL) from 2005 to 2011 and has been a visiting scholar at Columbia University, Humboldt University, Newcastle University and UCLA. His extensive writing and knowledge of urban landscapes bring together culture, politics, environment and cinematic representations to produce prescient and alluring research.

What are you working on right now?

I'm writing, thinking and working on essays and a book manuscript. The book investigates cultural histories of urban infrastructure and material spaces of the city using water as a connecting thread. I'm also writing essays on wastelands and spaces of "wild urban nature." My aim is to reach a diverse audience using my blog, essays and books.

What do you think are the highlights and limitations of recent media productions about cities and urban change, particularly in the Global South?

Some of the best writers on cities are journalists. Examples are Jonathan Raban's "Soft City" about London in the early 1970s and Siegfried Kracauer's vignettes about everyday life in Weimar-era Berlin. In terms of recent art about cities, there are classic examples such as Hans Haacke's "Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System" (1971), as well as works by Gordon Matta Clark from the same period that remain very influential.

Recent examples of really important representations of cities include cinema: a film that really stands out is Andrea Arnold's "Fish Tank" (2009). Arnold uses an architectonic eye to explore landscapes of alienation on the edge of London. Another great urban film is Robert Guédiguian's "La Vie Est Tranquille" (2000) set in Marseille. It reminds me of other "cross-section" narratives such as Robert Altman's depiction of Los Angeles in "Short Cuts" (1993), where we learn about the city through intersecting story lines and chance encounters. Examples of this genre from the Global South include Alejandro González Iñárritu's striking use of Mexico City in "Amores Perros" (2000) and Dev Benegal’s Mumbai in "Split Wide Open" (1999).

What aspects are not being explored in the media?

Cost constraints, distribution problems and so on constantly militate against the possibility for more diverse forms of cultural production. We need space to allow new things to be created and experienced across all creative media.

How do these compare to past cultural representations of cities?

There was undoubtedly a very intense period of creativity in the 1970s, but I think creative production comes in waves, particular conjunctions of time and place: New York in the 1970s, Berlin in the 1990s and early 2000s, arguably London in the 1990s.

Berlin Mitte (2007). Source: Matthew Gandy

If you were to direct a film, what would you focus on?

I would like to make a documentary about the wastelands of Berlin while they are still there! I would like to interview artists and urban ecologists in the spaces that inspire their work.

Following up on your book "Concrete and Clay," if you were to do another in-depth study of a city today, which one would you choose and why?

I don’t plan to write another book about a single city at the moment. Some cities seem to inspire book-length studies, such as Berlin or LA, whilst other cites such as London are neglected. I think London has been better served by fiction than non-fiction — J.G. Ballard’s "Concrete Island" (1974) and "High-Rise" (1975) are fascinating starting points for understanding the city.

What are your thoughts on the notion of "assemblage" that is so often used in reference to cities, architecture and urbanism today?

I prefer the concept of "constellation," which links to the materialist history of Walter Benjamin. I feel that my work is rooted in the neo-Marxian tradition, but at the same time I recognize that there are blind spots within this intellectual legacy concerning aspects of culture, the body, sexuality and other themes. Whilst the concept of "assemblage" is certainly interesting, I think it needs to undergo further definition and development before we can really judge its intellectual value.

What do you think of the Occupy movement?

I am very sympathetic to the Occupy movement. I visited the St Paul’s encampment in order to write an article about them for the Architectural Association’s weekly free sheet, "Fulcrum." I was struck by the diversity of banners and agendas. I think there is a political polarization under way because of the scale of disenchantment with "mainstream" politics and the failure of social democracy to defend pubic interests against private interests.

Is the end of neoliberal urban development in sight?

No — in fact, there seems to be an intensification of neoliberalism. Things are not yet bad enough to provoke radical change or enable an alternative path to be successfully articulated. In London, for example, there is a full-scale housing crisis gathering momentum, with several causes, but the Left has not mobilized an effective or credible response. Even left-of-center mayors such as Berlin’s Klaus Wowereit seem to follow the neoliberal agenda.

Another worrying development is the growing disconnect between democracy and public policy: If the EU is appointing governments, this takes technocracy to a new level. Across Europe there are stark choices between investment in the future or a flexible race to the bottom, as the French economist and eco-activist Alain Lipietz has argued.

What path should we take as urban citizens toward healthy, democratic and attractive cities?

Public services must be under democratic control or directly accountable (as many used to be). Most importantly, we need to reconnect public policy with the democratic arena.

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