The city today is a node in the networks. The city is about connection. Before, it used to be about distinction and protection, defense, control of in- and outgoing traffic. City walls and gates. Signs of representation and barriers of movement. Cities today are not clearly circumscribed entities in space, locations clearly distinguishable from their surroundings. The sub-urban sprawl, the tele-homes and tele-offices undermine the difference between foreground - the city - and background. City lifestyles are not set apart from the ones in the rural areas. The houses in the countryside are furnished with ensembles from the trans-national department-store distribution system. "The sphere of the town becoming tentacular." (Virilio) The average density of 'convenience' is everywhere the same. The only difference is the density of connections.
Cities are agglomerations of lines in transnational networks. Urbanization is conurbation of traffic lines. Traffic of people, goods, information, and garbage. Traffic lines of varying capacities and speeds, depending whether they are carrying material or immaterial traffic. As long as you are connected it doesn't matter whether you are in the city, the countryside or in an airplane. Inside networks that operate at the speed of light no matter where you are - you are everywhere, instantaneously.
"The urban planner", writes Virilio, "as well as the statesman, finds himself torn between the permanent necessities of the organisation and construction of real space, with its main problems: the geometrical and geographical constraints of the central and peripheral - and those new necessities that consist in the planning of this real time of immediacy and ubiquity with its protocols of access, its transmissions of packages, its viruses and the chronogeographical constraints of the nodal point and interconnected systems."
Groningen, for example, is a series of numbers: e.g.: 0041/31/50-. Holland is one of the 13 advanced countries with an operating ISDN-System. The Rijksuniversiteit Groningen and the Casino Groningen both have international relations. You can find this city of 175.000 on maps of Europe if not the world. It has friendly highway cops and romantic canals.
Groningen is connected. The three-dimensional real-time map of the traffic network, the highways on which people physically move from place A to place B, still require the marking, or rather indexing of a city within a certain radius. When we drive in north-east direction out of Amsterdam, the first sign of Groningen will appear soon after the interchange. It reads "Groningen 56 km". A series of vectors will guide us towards it, like the queries in a data-base, like command-lines in an algorithmic program. Groningen does not begin when we reach the belt of sub-urban sprawl around it and the highway starts to be surrounded by noise-protection-walls, but at every node in every network to which it is connected.
The city is essentially a space of signs. Signs that are loaded with an excess of meaning. That are legible on several levels, appearing different to the city planner, the artist, the choreographer, the economist, to the inhabitant. Signs fulfill their function in interrelation with systems of other signs. They form a language, a text/texture. Spelled out are the possible designs of urban lifestyles - media lifestyles. The city is in media.
How can such a city, how can any city form an identity? Identity is the awareness of the difference between myself and the world around me. Identity is formed at the boundaries, at the interfaces with the other. It is related to a sense of uniqueness and it is an ever ongoing process. Cities are too complex to freeze into a fixed identity that could be re-presented, for example, in artworks. Identity is a process of in/ter/vention, not of representation.
'Urban identity' is also a product that is nowadays frequently commissioned to PR-agencies. 'Image' being the service that copy-writers and event producers offer. Advertising, art and philosophy compete for the role of defining those evasive qualities of meaning, direction, identity. The city is in media. And it remains there by media-worthy events.
***On the occasion of its 950th anniversary, the city of Groningen undertook the endeavour to invent its identity by marking its boundaries. A project that, if taken literally, was bound to fail, "because everyone knows that in a world of airplanes and television this sort of thing is no longer possible" (D. Libeskind). A project that asked for paradoxical solutions.
Groningen has made a name for itself, as a place for architectural and planning experimentation. During the centennial celebration another event of international format was staged: video clips were displayed in pavilions designed by Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, the Coop Himmelblau Partnership, Peter Eisenman, and Bernhard Tschumi, all of whom participated in the 1988 exhibition on Deconstructivism at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Groningen will house a public library by Georgio Grassi, a horned apartment building by John Hejduk, a museum by Alessandro Mendini.
Groningen did not commission its self-expression to a PR- agency. The originator of the Citymarking project is a representative from the Gronigen business world, Frank Mohr, retired managing secretary of Philips and interested in the arts. He called together an advisory committee of experts in art and architecture. The Cityplanning Department Groningen carried the project out. Local companies did the actual construction of the objects.
The ideas in the first phase of planning circled around the map and around the gate/wall/moat. Many Dutch cities still have their medieval center, mostly unaffected by two world wars. A variety of historic layers - sometimes more, sometimes less organically - co-exist. The 17th century Groningen can still be found written into its contemporary inter/face/facade, itself already full of Renaissance quotes from ancient Greece. On buildings, squares, bridges, and in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam the old heraldic signs, coats of arms, inscriptions, allegories, columns, architraves, pediments can still be seen. They marked the idealized identity of the city with allegorical figures - the Muses for the arts, deifications of the city's industriousness and commerce, emblems of theatrical and magical powers. On some facades in Amsterdam - in the 17th century the merchant capital of the world - frescos of Negroes and Indians remind us still today that these prospering houses were build in a time when trading in slaves was not yet considered an indecent way to make a fortune. It is also this glorious 17th century Holland that Japanese amusement-park planners found most attractive, when they designed "Huis ten Bosch" in Sasebo, Nagasaki prefecture.
But these turned into representations of lost glory and aspirations. In 1851 the autonomy of the Dutch cities granted by the sovereign was abolished. The city walls of Groningen lost their meaning and were dismantled at the end of the 19th century. The areas where they stood were turned into parks, still clearly marking the border between the old core and the 20th century tentacles of the town.
So much for the solution to citymarking of 400 years ago. But how does one mark a city in 1990? Frank Mohr's plan was to find ten internationally renowned artists, designers and architects to place permanent artworks at the access roads to Groningen. They should be clearly visible to different kinds of traffic and illuminated at night.
The advisory committee then approached Daniel Libeskind to provide a framework, chose his collaborators, and conduct the realization of the project.
***Libeskind, born 1946 in Lodz, Poland. Studied in Israel, at the Cooper Union in New York and at Essex University. Taught in England, Canada and the United States. Has his architectural office in Berlin since 1987. He is an architect who until a short while ago refused to draw constructable designs for buildings. Known for his labyrinthic drawings Micromegas (1980) and Chamber Works (1983), and his wooden Reading Machine, Memory Machine and Writing Machine (Venice Biennale of Architecture, 1985). Since 1987 Libeskind does architectural designs mainly for Berlin. He won the competition for the design of the Jewish Museum in Berlin. A highly controversial building, but the local architects-scene stopped their usual bitching, and let him be.
Indeed a daring way for a city to go after its identity: Not handing it to one of the Great Sons - today more likely than not: Daughters - of Groningen, but commissioning it to an outsider, a Polish-born World Citizen. From him nothing easy was to be expected. A thinker who likes to cross borders. The term 'identity' with him never appearing without its necessary attribute 'broken'. Producing multi-layered and hyper-complex graphics, objects, buildings, and texts. Libeskind's cryptic texts look like concrete poetry from the late 1960s or random computer-generated texts. Under the heading "Manual Piety" he unveils part of his method: "Substitute 'tsum' for 'must'. Use semantics as a coast on which an ellipse can park itself defying convention. Ruffle your hair. [...] Who will decipher, save, and entertain purple hostility? Poems will be readily available if you call the right number or pull the lip all the way down till it touches the element."
In January 1990 Libeskind presented in his usual enigmatic style the Masterplan for the project Stadsmarkering Groningen. It was called The Books of Groningen, and came in the form of a book made of aluminium held together by nuts and bolts. Libeskind: "They asked me to make a master-plan. But I said, that is not possible. Something like the mastering of a problem does not exist. Mastering is the product of an ideology of control, an ideology that pretends to know everything, overlook everything. What I made was a critique of the master-plan."
Nevertheless, Libeskind accepted the task at hand and created a framework for "permanently remarking the boundaries of Groningen in time and space." The city is a system of signs. Libeskind's system links them with the Greek mythological origin of the arts, with the cycles and rhythms of time, and the combinatorial cosmology of the Jewish Kabbala. And with the one system of signs that includes them all - the text/book/library: "the historical text, read and written by the citizens of the once an yet-to-be City". Different from the systems of science and technology his are not exact. The formula x=f(2+2=5) is not to be calculated. Not even as a fractal.
The Masterplan defines a map of Groningen, connecting the nine most important access routes to the city clockwise with the letters of the first appellation of Groningen: CRUONINGA. This name appears in the oldest document of the city in which the German king Hendrik II. presented a farm and a castle of that name to the diocese of Utrecht. The first name, and therefore the first prerequisite for an identity. Furthermore, the Masterplan locates each of the markers on a matrix consisting of a Greek muse (as "the poetic guardian"), a color, a time of the day, a degree of angle, an urban function, a technique of expression, and a unit of cyclic time expressed in seconds/heartbeats. It is, of course, not a kabbalistic system in a strict sense. But the pre-modern taste of it is intended. Libeskind criticizes the dream of progress, perfection and salvation through scientific knowledge from the standpoint of the magic, irrational, emblematic. He wants to give back the magic to a world in which technology replaced the cosmic, the mythical and the divine. He is opposed to empirical sciences and all other totalitarian interpretations. "The place of rupture is what defines our participation in reality."
He is not interested in harmonious geometries, but in change and dissolution, in multiplicity of interpretations. What he calls his four main enemies are secularisation, rationalization, specialization and dogmatization. Openness and the crossing of the boundaries between differing fields of specialty are also essential in his design of the Citymarker project. "There must be more than seven ways of ambiguity; more than 16 ways to view the blackbird; more than only circular and linear patterns of history."
The Masterplan was received by the advisory committee with "astonishment and perplexity", and even a Dutch architectural magazine called it "pretty inaccessible". It was to be interpreted by a group of creative all-round intellectuals. Interdisciplinaries who are not afraid to leave their field of established expertise. The group consists of (including Libeskind himself) three architects, a playwright, a choreographer, an art and architectural historian, two visual artists, an economist, and a philosopher - 10 designers from 6 countries. They picked up Libeskind's parameters to a varying degree. Some of the art works are literally books, some are markers, some point to the stars, laying a link between the city and the cosmos. Marking the boundaries and at the same time the boundlessness of the city.
What Kurt W. Forster, Akira Asada & Shiro Takatani, Daniel Libeskind, Thom Puckey, Gunner Daan, Heiner Müller, William Forsythe, John Hejduk, Leonhard Lapin & Enn Laansoo and Paul Virilio have created anybody reaching Groningen by car, train, boot or bicycle, during the next 50 years can see. The markers form a 60 km long ring around the town. There are bus tours to see them all.
For maneuvering around in the network of markers I found the following matrix helpful. Maybe it could also serve as keywords indexing the Citymarking for future database retrieval (IC sentaa no deetabeesu).
sound, vision, interaction;
bridge, gate, tower;
letter, book, library (of types and styles);
traffic, trans/port/formation, in-formation, network;
boundaries, interfaces, connections, combinations, mirrors;
signals, information, knowledge;
conurbation, communication, commutation;
delimitation, inversion, transgression;
dimensions, proportions, structure, rhythm;
space, time (history), death.
Participation of the inhabitants of Groningen was a central theme in Libeskind's Masterplan. He played his game well, in the networks of artistic, political, social and financial interests. All of Libeskind's collaborators praised his way to mediate the task of design. All the designs underwent changes. Because it could not have been otherwise, and because of protests of adjoining residents and lack of money. Talking money, the Citymarking project cost 2.5 Mio Guilders, 1 Mio of which was provided by the PTT.
***The inauguration of the finished markers was celebrated on december 14, 1990. Did the marking points documented on the following pages succeed? Did they "have the capacity to represent a public sense of the city", to "articulate a 'fa‡ade imaginaire' of the city"? (Ed Taverne, The meaning of the City Marking Project) Did "age-old symbolism in contemporary shape establish the force of continuance", as Mr. A.A.M.F. Staatsen, Mayor of Groningen, wrote as a motto for the Citymarking project? Did anybody gain or maybe even get hurt while trying to slide over the much celebrated "rich slipperiness of meaning possible with emblematic imagery" (Nancy Stieber, The Triumph of Play, in: Art & Design)?
On a measurable level the project certainly had some PR effect. Groningen made itself remarkable. "Typical example of a theatrical approach" says Harm Tilman, Dutch professor for architecture. A program aimed at attracting activity. Calculated entertainment value. The city as an intoxicating amusement park. There was a general feeling that the markers could not possibly have succeeded in any deeper sense: "Identity is most of the time nothing more than a set of prejudices." (Geert Bekaert, another Dutch architect).
One observer remarked that the markers are placed off, "where there are no people, but only trains and cars and factories. If they mark something then it is the void." We have to disagree with this gentleman. What the markers mark is the identity of the city as a node in a multitude of networks. In that sense it is not "only" but precisely where there are "trains and cars", boats and bicycles, electricity cables, and information lines that these markers fulfill their function. People's hearts are not where their home is, better: they made their home inside the networks.
Asada found the reading of their "Book R" by the people of Groningen marvelous. "After all," he writes in a postscript to the original design-description (in: Art & Design), "we cannot help admiring the daring intelligence of the citizens of Groningen, who understand the seemingly paradoxical fact that the identity of a city, if such a thing exists at all, can only be found by strangers."
What the strangers have marked is Virilio's teletopian non- place ("the idea of meeting far apart or being remotely present, here and elsewhere at the same time"). All of the markers are highly topical, but not so much to Groningen, that is trying to individualize itself, set itself off in a European and a global context, but to the post-modern city in general.
In the project an international crew marked the city's nodal points, its interfaces, from the outside (interfaces, being masks, necessarily having more than one side). An international city, linked to numerous cloned versions of itself, being a representative of the generalized model of the city as node in the traffic-lines of people, goods, information, and garbage. A city that is outside itself.
Maybe, the condition of the possibility of a true identity is absent in the area circumscribed by the markers. Maybe 'Groningen' can be found only in distans, for example, in the 'essence' of all that is Dutch (to the Japanese) - in "Huis ten Bosch" in Sasebo, that recently opened close to the older "Holland Village" in Nagasaki. It contains faithful reproductions of beautiful and famous buildings all over Holland, among them Queen Beatrix' palace Huis ten Bosch, Hotel Europe in Amsterdam and the dome of Utrecht including its 112-meter-high tower. In the 152-hectare-large area people can go sight-seeing, shopping, and even live there if they own the money to buy a house. It is more than an amusement-park, a "reality park" (Geert Lovink). A displaced manifestation of retro-identity that even visiting Hollanders attest as feeling perfectly real, "only the french fries are worse than at home, and there are no hash-coffee-shops around." For the rest it is a skillfully sampled Reader's-Digest of Holland, a cut-up of grande public images from the glorious Renaissance - 'Holland, the Re-Mix'.
After the transport revolution transformed urban territory, writes Virilio in "The Third Interval" accompanying his center- marker, "the present (interactive) communications revolution provokes in its turn a commutation of the urban environment wherein the 'image' prevails over the 'thing' whose image it is, the former city becoming little by little a paradoxical agglomeration, relations of immediate proximity giving way to interrelations in distans." Huis ten Bosch brings together, away from Holland, like in a catalog, the strongest images that even at their place of 'origin' are spread over a whole country. This catalog holds the chance that a tele-present identity of Groningen can be found in Sasebo, Japan, and that the markers established some tele-pathic link with it. Maybe, for the occasion of the 1,000-year anniversary the art & cityplanning department should consider a permanent satellite-link to its clone in Japan. Something like identity may not be found on either end of the telelink, but maybe in the in-between of the network.
The most intense effect the whole event had on the participants in the city itself. If identity is a process of in/ter/vention than these people by actively intervening into the image of their city gained something valuable - the people in the city planning department, the construction companies, the workers doing the actual realization, residents taking their intervention to court, and the kids from basic school who placed time capsules in the foundation of each marker, descriptions of their lives, ideas about the future, photographs of themselves, to be opened 50 years from now, when the markers will be taken down. All found it a little bit strange what the international designer-crew had made them build, but all were enthusiastic and put in unpaid overwork to meet the deadlines and financial constraints. When the alien objects, the mysterious sinage will have sunk into the fabric/text of Groningen some more, other city inhabitants take over the places, having a picnic at Forsythe's trees or leaving graffiti on markers, trying to steal Hejduk's joker.
The future? Mohr suggests a gloomy one. When Groningen turns 1000 years old in 2040 its borders might again be clearly marked - by a large glass-dome to keep out the pollution. What the material city ejected from its limits is eventually returning. A new wall of protection becomes necessary, not against human invaders, but - in spite of all informatization and putative immateriality - against the invasion of the garbage, the fouled air and water, the backside of all urban activity.
- Stadsmarkering Publiciteitsoverzicht, internal publication of City of Groningen, 1991
- Art & Design, London, Vol. 7 # 1/2, January-February 1992
(all the quotes in the following texts about each marker if not otherwise noted are from texts of the artists.)
The marker is placed on the tip of an island in a canal. On top of the pylon Forster had planned to install real gas-flames, which proved too expensive. The design changed to stylized flames made of aluminium with a highly reflective coating. Every day of the week one more of the seven metal-flames are illuminated, showing the passage and cycling of time. A neon sign lighting up twice a day reads "10.40": the time of the day and the birth-year of the city. At the foot of the pylon agricultural foggers spray out water that makes it appear to rise from a cloud of mist. The mast was supposed to lean at an angle, alluding to the drawbridge, "as switching device alternately securing passage on water and over land." This was dropped for technical reasons. "The Gate Tower Clio should be so plain as to require a second look, and yet so unexpected as to deserve a third."
Some citizens of Groningen took a fourth and decided that they did not think too much of a 40 m high electricity pole in the middle of the last natural reserve in the city area. There was some sabotage at the inauguration of the building site. Citizens showed their participation by appealing to Holland's highest court. The compromise between them and the city was to move Forster's marker to a new location after two years.
"As an icon of the invisible power of electricity, equipped with archaic ciphers of fire, Clio offers itself as a plaything to the winds of time: Von diesen Städten wird bleiben: der durch sie hindurchging, der Wind! (Of these cities will only remain what passed through them: the wind! (Berthold Brecht)"
"A Walk Along the Boundary" is the title, and clearly Libeskind is more interested in the boundaries, the interfaces where the fragments meet, than in their content. Maybe Libeskind would have been better off with the attribute 'concert' that according to his Masterplan was attributed to Müller, who's work would more appropriately have been attributed the 'graveyard'. But that's what you get when you call the powers of fate and the powers of 'magic' into action - surprising constellations, the truth of which might reveal itself only on a different meta-level. This might also be said for Libeskind's orchestration of the City-Marking Project as a - fragmented - whole.
The first part of his text consists of annotations on Gustave Flaubert's Bouvard and P‚cuchet: Utopia and Dystopia. An open system (to the stars) and a closed system (heat runs out - entropy). A Compact formulation of the extremes of the range of fragmented alternatives confronting our time. Icons that mark maybe the hottest walk on the wild side of the boundary. Libeskind's own vision for the future - at least of art: "Painting, bouncing up and down to determine its relation to gravity, is a map which can be refolded without dogmatically aligning each precreased lineament. It will be made of flexible pumaskin. Art will possess an exact unit of measurement: mosquitoes trapped in an attic, aeroplanes inside a coal mine - the sandking's spoils. [...] Miracles will happen!"
Today it's a dead symbol. For the Groninger chimney- construction company actually carrying out the realization in the old brick-by-brick fashion it was the first time since the 1960's. Nowadays only steel pipes or concrete are used. From inside the metaphor for an age before the invention of the word 'ecology', nature re-emerges. A transformed nature, still restrained by the ruins of human's think-big phase, but infinitely more powerful than even the most optimistic observers had hoped. Puckey's marker is reigned over by the muse Polyhymna. Thereby also marking the end of the monophonic melody of endless progress created by human endeavour. End of a knowledge ruled by rationalism alone. Art Meets Science and Spirituality. Like Libeskind, Pukey takes an interest in older combinatorial systems of knowledge - alchemy. "Last week I saw (again?) a Magritte painting of a hovering brick tower whose base had the form of tree roots. You never know."
Daan feels himself the professional architect freed from the practical demands and restraints of his usual duties to a client. "A slave he is called, a parasite, a whore, or at least a courtesan - and yet his art is called the mother of all arts." He who always has to "balance on the treacherous edges of compromise", within Libeskind's Masterplan, suddenly finds himself with the freedom he always wanted - "and there he is: proud but naked.
"The subject will be architecture; but what remains, if the roof, the windows and the doors, the carpet, the sink and the light switches have disappeared? What remains is geometry, size and proportion, rhythm, structure. What remains is a historical catalog of types, a tradition of trades and a stock of materials. But were these not simply means to manipulate the commission? What were we essentially trying to do? Was it not daily life of all things that we were trying to translate into moments of beauty? And what is left, if I cannot hide behind a roof that does not leak, a drain that flushes smoothly, and a floor that is resilient, stays clean, reflects the light, suggests the Villa Rotonda, and only costs 58 guilders per meter? [...]
"They may be shabby clothes, but they have nevertheless been put on again. Vanity will show through the tears, though. Nudity is for paradise only."
When a visitor approaches the installation, photoelectric sensors trigger tapes of children and women screaming, and one of fingernails screeching on concrete, then silence. At midnight Luigi Nono's piece "Diotima Die Stille" can be heard from within the stele. Also the epitaph recalls Müller's friend, the late Italian composer Nono, whom Libeskind originally had asked for a contribution, but who had died before completion of a design. In his place and his memory Müller has created a somber, repulsing place. Müller: "I find it important how a city is dealing with its dead, or in general with death. There is a text by Walter Benjamin, in which he states that beginning from the last century the bourgeois society has been trying more and more to shield the dead and death itself from the living. Every people needs the memory of their dead. In order to have and identity. Without a past there is no future, only the present. My marker opposes a thinking that declares as eternal the present."
"Thin metal plates mounted upon a metal frame.
Tower dimension: four-sided structure,
one side from ace to king of hearts
one side from ace to king of clubs
one side from ace to king of diamonds
one side from ace to king of spades.
An observation: 13 cards high; 4 suits of 13 cards = 52 (weeks). All the numbers of the Tower of Cards add up to 364; 364 + 1 (the Joker) = 365 (days).
The tower is a fixed timepiece."
Nice idea, but the resulting art work has been criticized for its cheap cynicism and its quality of "a billboard alongside an American highway announcing that there are x miles to go before the next attraction." (NRC Handelsblad 12,29,90)
Like other markers, Hejduk's work has provoked a reaction by the general public. In his case it was not a show of discontent, but excessive admiration. In January 1991 someone tried to steal the Joker from his wheel of fortune. The life-size fool temporarily had to take his seat at the Groningen police- office.
In the process of realization Lapin/Laasoo's work lost the double helix of stairs, lost hight, walkability, and the dome on top with the mirror-coating inside, housing astronomical equipment. Their original design turned into a dead staircase missing the first two meters of stairs, leading up to a dead end. A reduced, stylized version awaking to life and illumination by an automatic switch only when a train approaches. Not to be used by people who move at a slower pace. The plate closing the stairs, that Lapin/Laasoo agreed upon in a "Big & Final Compromise" is marking a "border, gate, door ... from reality into irreality. Mirror is supporting this effect." But no one can go up there. The through-the-looking-glass effect would have been far more impressive, had the original design been realized. You could actually climb the ivory tower, like a meditation, losing contact with the earth below, crossing over into unreality - a mirror-coated dome. After an ascent of 33 meters - towards the stars - one would be confronted with a bizarrely distorted image of one's gasping self. And then - the stars. Like Asada/Takatani's marker 'Architektron Urania' would be mapping the boundary of the city onto a canvas of cosmic scale. Like others, but without any electronic tricks, it would have been an interactive installation. A powerful place to go to alone at night and get things in perspective again. Had the original design been realized...
It is a negative mark, a pit. An invisible sign that has to be given form. Narcissus implies the mirror. The "TIME CAPSULE for those who are not yet born" spans our attention into the year 2040 when it will be opened. The sign can be read as a hole in the globe. "In the center of the city: THE CENTER OF THE EARTH". Whereas Asada looks down from a satellite, Lapin up to the stars, Virilio grounds the city, and binds together the other nine Books of Groningen. With all the movement in the networks - at mega- bit-per-second speed - Virilio creates a zero-point, "A POLE OF INERTIA".
This point in space-time can also be taken to mark an upward vector, like a camera pointed to the stars. No limits both ways. Whoever still thought that city markers have to be at its actual outskirts will learn that there is a suburb of the ground and one of the sky as well. And that in the networked world it doesn't matter where you are, at any space-time you're at the center and at the periphery simultaneously.