The Situationists and Jane Jacobs


I keep running in circles trying to figure out how relevant both the Situationists and the work of Jane Jacobs is today.

How much did they have in common?

Is their work/manifestos still the pressing issue in most of our cities?

Anyone up for a conversation on this?

May 12, 05 9:05 pm

This is the first I've heard of the Situationists. Can you explain what they are?

May 12, 05 9:23 pm  · 

situationists explained here:

they seem to be describing the reality of urbanism; not useful unless you want to copy reality unfiltered, but that happens without thinking anyway. had a point in the time of modernist universalism, but who believes that anymore?

jacobs is very insightful but also dogmatic, so you have to read with a grain of salt or two. But she is definitely still felt as a presence in urban pop culture. Damndest thing but the last three (recently written) books i read referred to her explicitly and they were covering distinct topics. Just when I thought she was good and buried there she is again...

if you want a blunt critique of her work "100 mile city" by deyan sudjic is good. He writes..."Despite her ostensible celebration of diversity and community, the underlying message is of unblinking paranoia."

and..."Jacobs is a self-proclaimed enemy of suburbia, but the image of the big city advanced by 'The Death and Life of Great American Cities' is as sentimental as the corny vision of utopia cherished by the boy scout garden city types she scorns." then proceeds to fill in fairly bluntly why she got the whole thing wrong. Basically says that just as Burger king is not a real diner, Jacob's city is not New York.

Steve Johnson in 'Emergence' also brings up a good point about how to read her discussions of the living sidewalk, concluding that this kind of entity is not physically important (in terms of form) but that its function of communication IS. His point was that many recent designers, in particular the New Urbanist types, have got a weird sidewalk fetish that misses the point. He doesn't suggest that jacobs is making that mistake mind (cuz she was versed in complexity theories when she wrote her first book and understood the implications for urbanism right off).

So, that aspect of her writing is still relavent, but it is important to heed sudjic and be aware that she ocasionally succumbs to disney-deluded visions of the city.

May 12, 05 10:41 pm  · 

Both have to be understood relative to what was going on at the time of their primary activity. 'Death and Life...' was very specific to a time and place, but has an incredible amount to teach us about some universals of urban life. It will be relevant as long as we have cities.

The Situationists are probably similarly relevant, though harder to pin down. My understanding of what they were about is dodgy, but they were primarily interested in the event and the context for events, moreso than they were the physical environment itself. Context was merely accommodation - maybe sometimes a foil - for the event. That said, there were some among them who proposed actual structures which were supposed to have arisen from the Situationist position(s). I've always had an issue with this. (Kind of like Sant'Elia shoehorning his monumental and very formal authoritarian forms into the Futurist movement which should have been all about tearing those down and living in tents...)

They're certainly both relevant today - if only as lenses through which to observe current conditions. What they might have had in common would make a good speculative paper...

May 12, 05 10:44 pm  · 
Smokety Mc Smoke Smoke

Jane Jacobs has her own cult of personality in planning circles ... she is maigned as much as she is adored. Her critics mainly attack her research methods, which are obsessively empirical (reliant on stuff like newspaper articles, etc), her supporters love her focus on small, intimate neighborhood settings.

I myself am not a fan of ther writing, but mainly for reasons said above. I find "Death and Life" very pleading and an all-too-obvious "relic" mired in its cozy boho lower-east side sentiment. Although New Urbanists tend to refer to Jacobs as as "everyday urbanist". many of her ideas are remarkably new urbanist.

But, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" is not her most siginifcact contribution to urbanism. One could very well say that "The Economy of Cities" is indeed a much greater, more relevant book. Basically, this book echoes what I think many of would like to believe: that cities are indeed the primary engines of civilization. This sounds a little obvious, but realize that Jacobs was writing in response to Lewis Mumford's "The Culture of Cities," which advocates that civilization started off in agrarian settlements. Jacobs one-ups Mumford and flat out states (using settlements in Asia Minor such as Catal Huyuk), that civilization not only started out in cities, but that cities first existed to support these agrarian communities beloved like folks like Mumford and Patrick Geddes.

As to Jane Jacobs' relevance, it seems to be more in the realm of urban design. Her approach is much more empiricist, taking into account the sensory and experiential bric-a-brac that define our urban existence.

In my opinion, Jane Jacob's version of urbanism is very much reminiscent of a Sesame Street set, sans Kermit and Grover.

May 12, 05 11:24 pm  · 

I'm sure Jane would be so proud to be grouped in with the Sesame Street crew. She does love neighborhoods!

Yesterday i was talking to someone who called Tschumi a modern-day situationist.

There were a couple books written in the late 90's about the contemporary relevance of situationist theory. 'The Situationist City' by Simon Sadler and 'Constant's New Babylon' by Mark Wigley.

Here's a review in Harvard Design Mag:

The last part of the review is cheesier than i can handle.

May 13, 05 12:23 am  · 
too degrading

I like to think that the Situationists are like Jane Jacobs on acid.

May 13, 05 3:25 am  · 

Imagine what 'Death and Life' would've been like if ol' Jane had been tripping?

May 13, 05 3:28 am  · 

isn't jane dead?

May 13, 05 3:35 am  · 

don't believe so, but she must be around 90 by now.

tschumi as situationist...yeh i can see that. many of that generation have at least a bit of the situationists in them. how could they not after living thorugh 68. i think the normative world view has caught up with them though, so if they wanted to be as radical today they would have to become leon krier.

jacobs as sesame street sounds bout right. she has some good points though in spite of the blinders.

May 13, 05 5:38 am  · 

I would share the caveat of some postings here that Jacobs' work of the 60's needs to be seen in context -both then and now.

But whilst we reach for a pinch of salt, let's celebrate a person who fought for the City - when there are so few advocates and believers in 'the urban' amongst developers and local government.

May 13, 05 6:38 am  · 

Jane Jacobs is not dead. In fact, she wrote a book last year called "Dark Days Ahead" which got pretty bad reviews... Regardless, I still greatly admire and appreciate her influence on city planning.

May 13, 05 9:01 am  · 

pick up the book "cities of tomorrow" by peter hall... he briefly talks about the situationists and jane jacobs in a larger context of the history of urban planning. He doesn't feel that Jane Jacobs is as significant figure as everyone seems to think she is, but places her among many individuals who were reacting against modernist planning practices. I feel her writing is a little more accessable to the public - and see her as more signiifcant in terms of the history of neighborhood advocacy. She lives in Toronto.

The situationists are another story- they belong to the counter-culture movement of the 60s, Constant is the only one i can remember as playing a signigicant role in the situationist movement... while the smithsons and van Eyck were loosely associated with them (some think that van Eyck took many of their ideas when he posed a question that ultimately disbanded CIAM). They were another reaction against state-sponsered modernism as well as the de-individualizing nature of capitalist architecture (they were also anarchists, but lazy anarchists)... i feel they are particularly important in terms of humanizing the urban and architectural landscape, and their ideas remain particularly relavant today.


May 13, 05 10:34 am  · 

The more I read about the Situationists....the more I wish I could have been there. Perhaps I'm secretly a lazy reactionary. Not so enthralled by Constant's bizarre designs for the 'ideal city', but the movement's emphasis on wandering the city looking for the minute details, ambiences and typologies that we hardly notice on a daily basis is something I wish we had more time to do as design students. If you've ever spent extended time in Tokyo, this way of studying the city is imperative and deeply affects ones design work - even when you don't want it to!

May 13, 05 1:13 pm  · 
Smokety Mc Smoke Smoke

I tend to lump SI(IS) with Archigram ... both seemed to be knee-jerk reactions to the modern condition. Archigram is more celebrated (funny guys, cute collages, very visual), yet their critiques are not as caustic as Guy Debord's and SI's (IS').

It's funny, because the more you read about Archigram and Situationist International, there is this magic moment, a Gladwellian "tipping point", where for a brief second, you think are actually in the middle of a Thomas Pynchon novel.

Good thread.

May 13, 05 2:05 pm  · 

The best thing the situationists had to offer was their engagement with the culture of the streets. Their movement contibuted enormously to any semblance of urban squatter culture that has occured since mid-century. As North American cities keep getting 'cleaner' [thank you Mayor Guilliani] and as Sharon Zukin puts it, 'distinctiveless architecture with a market-oriented franchise look

May 13, 05 3:35 pm  · 

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