The Japanese architect Toshiko Mori has said that, of all cities, Tokyo shows that ‘city’ is a verb. Tokyo is constantly changing; traditionally, houses have a light construction, as the purpose is not to build for eternity, but keeping the danger of frequent earthquakes in mind.
Compared with Tokyo, European cities may look heavy, plump, and, firstly, old indeed. However, even cities like Paris and Berlin have their own verb-like character, both in the meaning of Mori, who mainly talks about city planning, and from the perspective of people who live in and visit the cities.
In a recent episode of the podcast series Alles gesagt? of Die Zeit, art collector Christian Boros talks about the German word for monument, ‘Denkmal’: it incorporates a verb, ‘denk mal’ – ‘just think of it’, remember. The bunker in the centre of Berlin, where Boros is exhibiting his vast collection, is a good example. Originally, built as a bomb shelter, it remained on the eastern side of the border after the Second World War. It became a warehouse for fruit imported from Cuba, and was known as the ‘banana bunker’. After the fall of the Wall, it housed a notorious techno night club, which was closed by the authorities in mid-Nineties. A few years later, Boros bought the dilapidated building, with the aim of keeping its past as intact as possible in the exhibition rooms.
Writer Kirsty Bell would certainly agree with the idea that you can read the history of a city from its buildings. In her essay The Undercurrents, she tells her own Berliner story, which, at the same time, is the history of the apartment building where she lives, and, beyond that, of the entire city. Bell moved to Berlin shortly after the turn of the millennium, around the same time as when Boros discovered his bunker. She writes:
“There was a wilderness here, bordering at times on desolation. So much was empty, so much uncertainity (…) the availability and undefined potential of this place seemed to offer an openness in which one could act.”
She stayed, married, and had children. She realises that there is something simmering under the surface, when she moves to an old building on the Landwehrkanal. Her apartment has a special layout, with strange corners that complicate its furnishing. A persistently leaking roof is the limit for her. Desperate about the condition of the building, at the same time, Bell understands that her marriage is over. As a separated mother of two young children, she faces a very different city layout than before, and she starts to question the purpose of staying. These doubts lead to a new insight:
“There is always a certain amount of replacement in a city. The comings and goings of individual lives, washed over by waves of new inhabitants, generation after generation. Berlin has long been characterized by such a fluid population, seeping in and out.”
City is a verb; one, where the memory doesn’t necessarily match with a linear time, but which has to be remembered over and again. Bell calls it “a compound of assimilated actions”, and in her essay, she peels off that compound layer by layer.
Something similar happens in Lauren Elkin’s highly acclaimed essay Flâneuse. Women Walk the City. She is a Parisian out of choice, just like Kirsty Bell has become a Berliner. For Elkin, Paris consisted of fragments that became one whole only when she started to take walks through the city. Walking makes her curiosity grow: “I walk because, somehow, it’s like reading. You’re privy to those lives and conversations that have nothing to do with yours, but you can eavesdrop on them.”
She finds a flâneuse par excellence in cineast Agnès Varda; a walker, or a vagabond, with the film as her map. Starting with Cléo de 5 à 7 already, her breakthrough film from the early 60s, Paris has been both a protagonist and a background of her films. She lets the restless Cléo stroll through the city, tormented by a fear for a life-threatening illness, and in search of a stronghold. She finds it in a stranger who she accidentally meets in Parc Montsouris: a solder on a short leave from the war in Algeria. Their hours together are counted, but, against all odds, they decide to spend them together in the city.
Parc Montsouris on the border of the southern périferique, is not far from Les Olympiades, the towering flats that were built in the 13e arrondissement in the late 60s. Following the architectonic concept of that time, Les Olympiades are a city in a city. With their own shopping centre, restaurants and squares, they form the heart of the Asian neighbourhood. This is the setting of Jacques Audiard’s latest film, simply titled Les Olympiades.
It becomes evident right in the title that Audiard employs the neighbourhood not just as a décor: In the film, Les Olympiades stand at the same protagonist level as the millennials who live in them. In an interview, Audiard explains that he wanted to place his film in the 13e arrondissement, because it gives a more diverse, and therefore more realistic, image of the city than normally shown in cinema.
The way he lets the camera circulate around the flats in the beginning of the film, then slowly zooming in the window of an apartment, reminds me of Wim Wenders’ classic film Der Himmel über Berlin, that also starts with a tour around apartment buildings. Wenders’ city is still the divided Berlin of 1980s, scarred by history.
In Lauren Elkin’s new book, the flâneuse makes room for the bus traveler. No. 91/92: notes on a Parisian commute is her account of daily observations while riding on the bus through the city, which she now finds surprisingly ordinary. But even in the traffic jam, there is still movement: “One Hausmannian building every couple of minutes”, she writes. “A Parisian way of measuring speed.”
The city – a verb – is always on the go.
Earlier published in Dutch: Stad is een werkwoord.