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Concrete Reveries: Consciousness and the City

by Mark Kingwell

There is a new urban game in town called parkour. An invention of French youth, parkour is the art of jumping, tumbling, and diving in public spaces, up and down steps, across roofs, through plazas – wherever there are expanses of empty concrete. (In North America it’s called “speed-running,” and has been enlisted for bank ads and action films.)

Wherever it takes place, parkour is about looking at the city with fresh eyes. Concrete Reveries, philosophy prof and hipster polymath Mark Kingwell’s latest investigation of our urban environments, also finds new angles on city life, vaulting and leaping from slab to slab and idea to idea with thrilling dexterity.

Concrete Reveries kicks off with a series of propositions. First, that there’s more than meets the eye to the ubiquitous building material that is at once cruddy and magnificent; in Kingwell’s view, concrete is symbolic as well as real, and in some ways a victim of its own cheapness and versatility. Second, that the cities shaped by concrete – that is to say, most of the world’s burgs – have a tendency to feel like cages, spaceships, or rat colonies, because concrete handily creates walls and platforms and rubble. Third, that modern transnational cities like New York or Shangai are examples of “the most significant machine our species has produced,” so it is worth trying to figure out how their teeming charms are evolving. And fourth, that to answer the question “Where are we?” involves examining our minds, bodies, and societies as well as our surroundings. Kingwell’s ultimate intent is to provide “a series of incomplete sketches for thinking and arguing about what places mean to us.” (These days, scholars generally prefer high-gloss ambiguity to old-school pronouncements.)

After some thoughts on the decline of public space (architects’ egos are implicated), and a pause to note that concrete can be fashioned into sensual, heady shapes as well as dreary junkspaces, Kingwell takes us to the streets of New York. A city’s gait, he suggests, tells us a lot about its character. We watch the crowds leg it around Grand Central Station, caught up in the Big Apple’s inimitable pedestrian experience, hustling and jaywalking, never breaking stride, everybody feeling like the stars of their own movies, “dancing and sliding and slashing.” The throngs have that New York state of mind: “the sense of possibility beckons constantly, but the hunting that results, the quick-paced restlessness, opens rather than encloses desire.”

Kingwell’s tramp through the metropolis takes in politics as well, particularly the politics of concealment; he points out that “buildings no longer have to look like what goes on inside them.” In New York, the really bad guys – the financial brigands – are safe in their huge respectable edifices.
    Or are they? Concrete, like the people who wield it, would like us to forget that it is vulnerable. When the big boxes come tumbling down, fresh hordes move in. Kingwell quotes architect Rem Koolhaas, who noted that, after 9/11, “New York becomes a city (re)captured by Washington.” 
    Halfway around the world from New York, Shanghai has mutated into a playground for superstar architects – such as Koolhaas himself – who have flocked to the half-feudal, half-hyperindustrial city because it lacks “the building restrictions and expensive labor that hamper architectural geniuses elsewhere.” Consequently, this city of more than 20 million people is studded with overblown, bleak building projects. Enormous, hollow, mostly half-populated structures such as the Jin Mao Hotel, one of the tallest buildings in the world, offer the traveller a totally bling experience. It’s “Compu-Global-Hyper-Mega-Modernity, an accelerated Version 2.0 of modern life,” as Kingwell puts it.

Following Kingwell’s wonderfully vivid account of Shanghai, Concrete Reveries experiences a slight systems crash. The author’s philosophical training takes over, and the going becomes a tad cerebral. Chapters on consciousness and architecture are burdened with academicisms: “The threshold is an ontological anomaly, a space outside of space, existing only in its vanishing.” Metaphysicians may see this as fine gold filigree, but to the average reader, it is the literary equivalent of drywall.

Still, Kingwell is incapable of being rarefied for too long: cheek-by-jowl with Descartes and Derrida are maps, etiquette manuals, and The Simpsons. He is one of those rare scholars who can take a difficult topic and strip it of its ivory tower voodoo, leaving behind only clear arguments and gleaming prose. His punditry is approachable and enjoyable, making him a kind of iBoffin of our modern environments and culture.