Psycho-what? The practice of psychogeography as I see it.

I was introduced to psychogeography as part of my community development studies. The exact practice is contested, with no simple agreed definition. But I ‘d like to tell you about what I think it is, and why I think it matters. In the interest of giving context, there’s a decent explanation of psychogeography here . If you get really interested, I’d recommend books such as Merlin Coverley’s ‘Psychogeography’ John Roger’s excellent and comprehensive website ‘The Lost Byway’; Lynsey Hanley’s ‘Estates’or John Grindrod’s ‘Concretopia’.The last two focus on post-war developments in housing and public buildings, but both feature in-depth studies and consideration of urban areas- important elements of psychogeography.  If you are looking for the more academic origins of the subject, read Guy Debord , from whom the term ‘psychogeography’ is derived.

So, back to me. What exactly is it that I get up to on this psychogeography nonsense? I was completely intimidated in the beginning. Firstly, the name sounds pretentious. It did not sound like the sort of thing a working-class woman from a housing scheme (me) would do, even one who was at University. When first asked to carry out a ‘derive’ (a sort of free flowing wander through a cityscape) as part of a course, I thought that I was pretty observant and completely aware of my surroundings. How much harder could I really look, I thought. But time constraints and convenience meant that I was reliant on taking familiar routes to places I knew well. Yes, I was in Glasgow city all the time for work and study, but I stuck to straightforward routes and the main thoroughfares. Psychogeography demands closer attention, a tuning in to your surroundings. The idea is to wander aimlessly through an urban area, the aforementioned derive, giving in-depth contemplation to all that you experience. Psychogeography requires that you have some time to explore, and encourages you to follow unknown paths. Go to the same places at different times. You don’t plan your route. This I found a little daunting at first, but most people are only ever a smartphone away from a map. Or a human away from advice. Are you Intrigued enough to start your own psychogeographical walk? Some things you could consider as a starting point:

  • When you are walking, notice who surrounds you.  Are there women and children present? Older people?  Are people their for work or leisure? Is the area  diverse or populated exclusively by one ethnicity?
  • Look for indicators of social class and divides too. Security guard in the store? Doorman in the entrance way? What pubs have smokers standing in the doorway as opposed to shielded and discrete designated areas?
  • Stop and look at street art. What are the messages in both the officially acceptable (yes, the city council funds most of those beautiful beautiful building-sized murals) and the ‘illegal’ kind, graffiti tags on railway bridges and in city lanes; vinyl stickers slapped on street furniture.
  • Look at litter with the same interest. The debris you see is often indicative of the people who frequent the area even when no-one is there. [In one example, I saw lots of lidless, polystyrene coffee-cups littered a fairly prestigious, seemingly residential area of Glasgow. It didn’t make sense. Returning on another walk at lunchtime, I discovered it was the debris of the pupils from a fee-paying school. They feasted on chicken nuggets and noodles from a nearby corner shop at lunch time. I had to be there at two separate times of day to make the connection]
  • If the street is clean, why? Whose image is being upheld? Are there council workers visible? If not, why not?
  • Engage all of your senses. Certain sounds and smells will stress you, others will calm you- this will change how you interact with a space.
  • What buildings are in the space? Can you enter them freely or are they out of bounds? If so, who gets access and why? Are there abandoned buildings? If so, how does that change the space?
  • What about evidence of retail growth, industrial decline, gentrification?
  • What are the features of areas where  people freely congregate? What is lacking or present in other spaces that prevents people from congregating?

What exactly is the point of all this walking, this wandering and wondering? I quickly realised, from the very first derive, that I was not fully engaged with the spaces I used.  Psychogeography incites new discoveries  and promotes critical thinking. For community development professionals, activists, and ‘ordinary’ citizens alike. Psychogeography hopefully encourage new insights and perceptions of the places that shape us. It should consolidate some existing beliefs and challenge stereotypes. You’ll probably make sobering discoveries. For example, early on, I found that certain prestigious city centre shops and malls are seconds away from loose communities of rough sleepers, amongst the city’s most vulnerable people. To uncover findings like this, you have to deviate from the safe,pedestrianised encouraged and’endorsed’ routes; you have to explore. I hadn’t exactly conceived that those without homes would congregate neatly on the periphery of the city by night to spare others the discomfort of the homelessness problem. But I certainly didn’t imagine that people would bed down at the back door of Glasgow’s luxury retail outlets. Retail premises, incidentally, which take up vast amounts of space and lie unused, with the lights on, by night.

Over time, your endeavours will excavate themes. Control, visibility, order and disorder, claimed and contested spaces (see John Gaventa on this). Discrimination and segregation. Permissions, omissions and transgressions. Beauty and decay. If you get hooked on psychogeography (almost certain) your familiarity and freedom within a space will grow.  Your ability to traverse the city by your own two feet will hopefully astound you, the radical realisation that many places are walk-able by the time you wait for and use a bus will be heartening. The streets will seem to shrink as your knowledge expands. And with the emergence of understanding, your ability to prompt change will increase significantly. I can’t tell you how exactly, because I can’t predict what will affect people most. Perhaps you’ll be moved to document your findings or become more politically aware. Maybe you’ll seek out like-minded people or get involved in activism.  Maybe you’ll feel sickened by the amount we consume and spend in the literal face of others’ adversity. Maybe you’ll go to places you thought were out of bounds. Certainly, all of the above have happened to me.  I’ve already written that I believe places are part of what makes us ‘us’. Irrespective of your background, we all have a stake in shaping the places in which we live, travel and work.  We just need to give ourselves permission to believe it. From exploration, comes insight and understanding. And with understanding, the impetus to act.



What’s it Called? Cumbernauld!

My interest in Utopias and psychogeography stems from growing up and living in Scotland’s third new town: Cumbernauld. If you are from the town, or even just owned a television set in the STV region during the eighties, you’ll be familiar with the title phrase. If you’ve never heard this enchanting catchphrase before,  then you can see the delightful piece of propaganda it originates from here.  As a current resident, I can confirm I’ll be asked ‘What’s it called?’ around 84% of the time I mention I live in Cumbernauld. But back to that advert, if the eighties and the decades before (see this from 1970) were all about shameless self-promotion, then how our fortunes changed by the time the new millennium came around.

A little snippet of some bad news:

Despite the weary interviewees in the news clip, it’s worth remembering that Cumbernauld was once hailed a success, at least by architects. In 1967, it won the R.S. Reynolds memorial prize for Community Architecture, beating off stiff competition from the much heralded town of Tapiola in Finland. The architects of Cumbernauld employed a variety of housing styles. In areas that already had some established housing , such as the small Cumbernauld Village and the farming settlement in Kildrum, some attempts were made to keep the scale and appearance of cottage style homes. These homes remain very successful and in demand both as sales on the property market and as social housing (right-to-buy ensured that plenty of the former and less of the latter remain). However, more experimental designs of home did not work as well. Many properties were built as low-rise, medium density housing with flat roofs and substandard materials. Dampness was a problem, and many of these blocks were either demolished or extensively refurbished.

Houses were also purposefully built to face onto gardens and public courtyards rather than the traditional design of homes facing each other. In addition, Cumbernauld planners anticipated a high level of car ownership, and as such there was a garage for nearly every home. To keep residents safe from traffic, many footbridges and underpasses were incorporated into the design, and  today you can still walk through the town without ever needing to cross the road. These are all design elements taken from the Radburn plan, pioneered in New Jersey. These once-lauded elements of town planning are the source of many of the complaints made about Cumbernauld. Not overlooking your neighbours sounds like a good thing until you consider that this makes crime harder to spot. Underpasses become popular places for drinkers to congregate, and some say the incidence of flashing in Cumbernauld was higher because the perpetrators had so many places to hide unseen by passing traffic.

But, by far the biggest architectural problem in Cumbernauld is the main building. The architects, lead by Geoffrey Copcutt, had a strong vision for the town centre, conceiving a large, monolithic concrete structure with different ‘decks’ for different purposes. The intention was that all retail, finance/administrative and leisure and social spaces would be housed in this building. Also incorporated into this megastructure was a level of premium penthouse apartments built on concrete stilts. The architects envisioned that all residents in the newly built housing schemes of Cumbernauld would be able to see the centre from their neighbourhoods. Unfortunately, only a fifth of the proposed centre was ever developed, meaning many of the envisioned uses never materialised. The penthouses were barely occupied, and given over to charity and business use early on. Now, they mostly lie empty, their porthole-like windows are never looked out of. Other parts of the building have been lobotomised, entrance ramps and walkways were hacked off to make way for the shed-like Antonine shopping Centre we were graced with in 2007.

What, we wonder, will become of the centre? Most call for it to be demolished and for us to start all over again. But, both Modernist and Brutalist architecture seem to be enjoying a resurgence, with people having a fresh appreciation for the honesty of the design principles. London now has a brutalist architecture map, St. Peter’s Seminary at Cardross has been reclaimed by NVA and Sheffield’s Park Hill Estate has been, in part, successfully regenerated (although not as social housing). My own dream would be for the penthouse part of the stucture to become some sort of public space, perhaps with community spaces and a museum. Students from around the world continue to be taught about Cumbernauld as one of the best realisations of modernist planning that was built. No-one is in denial about its problems but uncovering and disecting those issues too help us to understand how people like to live. If the powers-that-be dared to dream, then I think Cumbernauld’s megastructure could enjoy the sort of esteem and acclaim its architects once hoped it would have.

Whilst I wasn’t always a fan of the building, by understanding the ambition and ethos behind it, I have grown to love it. Have you been to the building? Or do you have memories of it? Is it worth saving? I’d love to know what others think.