Friday, September 14, 2012

The technique of being a Suburban Flâneur (revised 15 September 2012)

(This image was found within an interesting piece, "Unit 1: A Crisis of Place and the Alternative of the New Urbanism" , on New Urbanism Online.)

One of the defining aspects of an urban flâneur is the activity of strolling down streets, stopping in cafes, observing people and thoughtfully contemplating the totality of the present urban environment that sh(e is immersed. This is usually accompanied by note writing and perhaps photographs.  To an urban flâneur, the urban environment is multi-layered and  not just a collection of houses, shops, streets, or factories, but a dynamic entity in which people conduct their lives and experience the world outside of them.
In our present age, suburbs are now a significant part of all major cities in the world, developed and developing.  Yet, they are often overlooked being overshadowed by the central city, which often holds more interest due to its diversity, compactness, history and dynamics.  Should we consider the suburbs as unworthy of the flâneur’s attention?  No, unless we want the concept of being a flâneur to be anachronistic and restricted to the urban core and oblivious to the modern urban world.  

As previously mentioned, one of the major distinctions of being an urban flâneur is the aspect of strolling or walking aimlessly.  In suburban areas, walking can be possible, but difficult because the suburban scale has defined by the automobile. Therefore to adapt to this different environment, the suburban flâneur has to drive ‘aimlessly’ to observe the suburb from the perspective of a driver (auto-flâneurism) and also stop when something catches his/her attention.  In places that have public transportation, this can be accomplished by observing the urban fabric from the vehicle (preferably a bus or tram) and then picking a stop and  getting off to explore a suburban particular area.  It should be noted that one can observe only people at stations (which might be of some interest) if travelling in an underground trains, but panorama of the suburbs as in a vehicle on the surface will be lost.

The traditional urban flâneur approach is altered in the suburbs, with vehicles, buildings and the physical landscape being blurred into a ‘kaleidoscope’ of images in the consciousness of the flâneur due to the perspective of being contained an automobile or public transportation, instead of walking. In an interesting article, worthy of further inspection by my blog readers, “Taking the flâneur for a spin to the suburbs: The auto-flâneur and a way of looking at the subject in suburban culture” by in the online journal /seconds Paul O’Neill expounds on this experience:
Looking from the inside (interior of the automobile) to the outside (exterior to the automobile) created a perceptional distance between physical body space inside the car and the landscape space occupied by objects by the roadside. Through the frame of the windscreen, a new mode of spectatorship and seeing was at play; one which allowed a certain visual command over objects and images without actually having a physical relationship with them. Structures of perception work with the colour and contrast of the roadside images and the distance of objects from the body as it is in motion.

When the concept of being a flâneur was developed, personal automobiles had not made their appearance.  However, the overall concept and technique of being an urban flaneur, can be adapted to suburban experience.  The surface banality of the suburb often conceals the interesting aspects of suburban life and its fabric.  As the suburbs change due to structural forces, the present suburban life should be observed and documented by photographs and writing.  The simple technique, as described early, is a portal into the suburban environment.

As discussed in previous blog entries, the methodology of flâneurism is appropriate for urban planners (see "How to be an urban flâneur and city planner"), urban geographers, photographers, urbanists, writers, or self-proclaimed urban flâneur.  The observations from the flâneur experience can be interpreted in numerous and creative ways.  An excellent example of the modern flâneur methodology can be found in the article "Barcelona 2004: A "Redeemed" Flâneur’s Report" in Urbana: Urban Affairs and Public Policy and also found in a edited book compiled of selected articles from the online journal in The Geography, Politics, and Architecture of Cities: Studies in the Creation and Complexification of Culture (McAdams, Michael A. ,  Ivani Vassoler-Froelich , & Jesus Treviño-Cantú , editors) published by The Edwin Mellen Press.

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