Sunday, 14 November 2010

Reading Kevin Lynch's The Image of the City

I’ve just read Kevin Lynch’s classic treatise The Image of the City (first published in 1960). I won’t write anything here about the five elements in the city image that are quoted so often: paths, edges, districts, nodes and landmarks. Instead I will discuss the peculiar way the book has of making the city into a work of visual art.

Lynch’s emphasis is clearly on cities as aesthetic objects. Moral or political concerns are bracketed: the form of the city is focused; as for people they figure either as part of this form or as audience – an audience which, one feels, is primarily that of a spectator moving around in the city, rather than an inhabitant living or working there.

Furthermore, the aesthetics is of a peculiar kind: ”This book will consider the visual quality of the American city [and especially] one particular vusal quality: the apparent clarity or ’legibility’ of the cityscape” (Lynch 1960:2). By legibility he means the ease with which parts of the city can be recognized and people orient themselves through sensory cues from the environment, for instance by identifying districts, landmarks or pathways. Clarity or legibiliy, he argues, are vital for creating the impression of beauty, offering emotional security and spiritual well-being, and thus heightening the ”depth and intensity of human experience” (ibid 5).

Here already, one feels Lynch is taking a bit too much for granted. How about the beauty of labyrinths, for instance – the beauty of passageways in which to get lost? How about the brutality of clarity?

And why this emphasis on the visual quality? Remember Henri Lefebvre, who affirms all senses except the visual in appreciating the city and for whom the visual is linked to the ”space of representation” of urban planners and social engineers, to an official space imposed from above on the lived or perceived space of everyday users and inhabitants.

To the extent that Lynch urges us to privilege the visual perspective, isn’t he in fact urging us to be content, as users, to adopt the perspective of the planner, identifying with the master? To be sure, Lynch admits that ”there is some value in mystification, labyrinth, or surprise in the environment”, but he hastens to add that this can be so only under two conditions: that there is no ”danger of losing basic form or orientation, of never coming out” and that the labyrinth or mystery ”must in itself have some form that can be explored and in time be apprehended”. ”Complete chaos”, he adds, ”is never pleasurable” (ibid 5f). Admittedly, he agrees that planners shouldn’t fill in all details. What is needed is not a ”final but an open-ended order” in which the ”observer himself should play an active role... and have a creative part” (ibid 6). Clearly, however, he thinks that the main, defining features of the city image should be provided by city planning.

Maybe he is right that complete chaos is not pleasurable, but he makes it sound as if such chaos would result unless planners didn’t exist to guarantee overall visual legibility. But is that really true? Does our fear of chaos really mean that we must rely on city planners creating such legibility for us? Surely, order can also be created from below. We all find our favorite paths, neighbors tell us where to find things we are looking for, and in unfamiliar surroundings kind strangers often help us find our way. The question is: ”legibility” for whom and provided by whom? What ”legibility” tells a homeless person where to find shelter for the night?

I look forward to reading his last work, Wasting Away, which promises to be a very different work.

Lynch, Kevin (1960) The Image of the City, Cambridge, Mass. & London, England: The MIT Press.

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