One form of fieldwork technique, walking together, creates an immediate knowledge shared with the people encountered on the site. It interacts with and instantaneously affects the environment. The city informs the walker at the same time as the walker acts upon the site.
The gaze that gives life to something.
Finding the unknown, the invisible, triggering the unexpected…
This poetic notion of a city which informs or communicates with a walker may outwardly seem to be exaggerated and far-fetched one. But it is true nonetheless from point of view of a walker who just spoke to the trees he trailed behind and heard a post box tell a story. Inanimate objects come to life when one observes them for what they have to say. Walking makes this possible.
It is difficult to perceive something as mundane and involuntary as the action of walking as a technique of architectural analysis and design. But, it barely has an equal as a method of such. This is because walking opens the doors of limitless observations and conclusions to be drawn from those which promise an in-depth and sometimes alarmingly up close picture of the surroundings in which it is carried out. The experience of walking has been profoundly effective and thus worthy of contemplation for me. The following chapters speak about my own attempt at the method of walking in architectural design over different environments and objectives.
Living in Sheffield as a student has its perks. Never before I have walked around the city as extensively as this and I’m really starting to enjoy it. I have to admit that before shifting here, temporarily as it may be, I never regarded walking as any sort of technique whatsoever. Thankfully now I am becoming aware of its potential as a tool to observe, understand and analyse the most essential context of an architectural problem – its site.
The experience of walking in Sheffield has been a remarkable one for the reason that much of the glimpses around the city were a thing of novelty to me. It was here that I came across a variety of social affairs for the first time, like that of a Christmas market or street musicians in a plaza.
Dérive: literally “drift” or “drifting.” Like détournement, this term has usually been anglicised as both a noun and a verb.
In dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.
But the dérive includes both this letting-go and its necessary contradiction: the domination of psychogeographical variations by the knowledge and calculation of their possibilities. In this latter regard, ecological science, despite the narrow social space to which it limits itself, provides psychogeography with abundant data.
Sheffield has been a perception of countless dérives. Unconscious as they may have been, their effect is profound nonetheless. As I walk through unknown walkways turning around unfamiliar corners, streets start to become friendlier and I do not realise when they begin to guide me to more familiar paths. Before I know it, I am once again on the main street.
Is walking aimlessly practically possible in a city? Or do we always head towards a point that subconsciously beckons us right from the beginning of that walk?
I experienced sounds of houses, textures of streets, smells of people, colours of trees, tasted the mist. Never before a walk had been so effective on the senses. Slowly I began to realise the power of a dérive. How was I oblivious to these signs of life, signs that a city lives, when I simply walked to the school with assignments on my mind? Perhaps for the fact that I am a part of the city life, an actor in the surrounding theme at that moment and I cannot observe unless I choose to stand as an indifferent audience.
I also had the chance to carry out walks that were carried out with a specific objective in mind. This was for and during the Live Project at SOAR Works. On a broad perspective, the objective could be described as to understand the link between two points. Start and end points that are restricted to given nodes, but the path in between can be altered for alternative perceptions. These were the beginning of my experience of walks as site analysis. In my mind, this method made an impression as a way to detect and identify social and geographical traits of a site surrounding.
Considering the danger of this reflection turning into a travel diary, I would like to mention how excited I was to undertake a visit to the Scottish capital. The walks in Edinburgh were a tiresome affair with their long routes and hilly terrain. Unlike back in Sheffield, they were planned over a decided network crisscrossing across the city. I was aware of what I was going to come across if not the exact picture of that itself. Such walks can be termed as walking towards or following.
The horizon in a scope of vision is a representation of an observer gazing at a range of objects. An awareness of an observer in relation to what is observed is a beginning of a fieldwork and a necessary instrument for observation/interaction.
This was a very precise experience of walking. I had the target in sight, and I walked towards it. I realised that while doing so, the mind is not as distracted as during a dérive and for obvious reasons. When I was heading towards a location, my perception of the surroundings was essentially relating objects I encountered to the location I was heading towards. I consciously began to notice if there was enough signage guiding me towards it; if there were influences of the place’s function across its perimeter; if there were function specific activities happening along the way and so on. The interesting difference between my previous experiences of walks and this was that I was more receptive to the environment but only limited to a certain faction of it.
Somehow, a target locked walk helped me clear off the context-specific clutter and notice a set of events and their spatial relations more elaborately. Eg while walking towards the Scottish parliament, an old cemetery, which would have been a point of attraction otherwise, happened to have passed by and yet unnoticed. Instead, what caught my attention were the street bollards that stood out to the eyes, for there weren’t any other of similar design anywhere else in the city. On the other hand, while going back from the same street (this time with no target in my mind) the same cemetery caught my immediate attention and I ended up spending an hour over there.
Field trip to Istanbul turned out to be more than I had hoped for. For one thing, it proved true to every bit of its rustic yet enchanting reputation. And the pedestrian experience of the city simply brought out the grandeur of its spectacular urban fabric on a very up close level. A city so vibrant could only be experienced with not one, but repetitive walks on same routes.
Being a studio field trip with pre-decided agenda, the systems of walks were also a suggested part of the brief. With such varied social environments to walk through, it was only natural to select more than one method to unravel most of the city’s mystic charm. Apart from already experienced dérive and walk towards, some were going to be new escapades.
These methods can be described as,
Walk across (sectional walks):
By stepping across or bumping against something invisible by chance, a hidden boundary shows itself as a resistance. An observer can deliberately or accidentally use this tactic in order to mark and to register hidden boundaries as a succession of events which otherwise remain hidden.
Walk along (elevational walks):
Finding something or someone to accompany is the first instance of using an observer in order to obtain a positive feedback. Yet is still a subtle and ambiguous means of interaction.
The observer engages with the system in order to connect segments of it, reconstructing his/her own domain through a dynamic process of interaction. This process leads to the formation of an alternative field that will multiply and increase the complexity of the initial field.
Despite being clearly planned and marked accordingly on the map, undertaking these walks was no easy task for a first timer like me. To elaborate the difficulty, I can compare the experience with that of dérive or walking towards. Compared to these techniques, walking across, walking along and walking through turned out to be highly analytical in their nature. Being focused on the task at hand proved to be tricky, as the boundaries and limits on the map kept proving to be delusional in terms of perceiving depths and layers of social environments. This time, I learnt how to keep a keen eye for detail even during a brisk walk through a busy street market. Also, an important note to myself, while undertaking analytical objectives, to not walk astray from the planned route.
Tilbury had been visited frequently because it was the location of my intervention proposal for a design studio. By this time, I was growing aware of what my conscious walks can bring to me and thus, I tried to make as much use of this technique to understand the town of Tilbury and its behaviour. There have been visits, where an aimless dérive seemed fruitful with respect to knowing the place and there have been some visits, where walking along certain edges helped to identify the threats and potentials of those areas.
However, there still remain some methods to be experienced by myself, which are
Transgressing a boundary by agitating potential conflict, walking into trouble, is a useful instrument as long as an observer’s security is guaranteed. It is a way of integrating an observer into a system and a subsequent process of change. The transgression turns a realm of observation into an intervention or field experiment and turns an observer into an agent of change. Here the responsibility for the consequences of the observer’s action becomes the matter.
Writing a history is a rhetorical operation with a territorial ambition. An observer circumscribes a boundary around the system in order to reorganize segments of facts according to his/her point of view without direct contact or integration with the system itself.
Walk about (perimeter walk):
Dynamic modelling is a constructed field achieved through the interaction of an observer with the system under observation. The basic assumption is that this alternative field of reality is kept apart from the initial field of observation yet maintains a direct linkage through the observer.
To conclude this reflection, it would be appropriate to point out that developing the habit of walking in a systematic manner is an exceptionally effective way of opening senses to the environment around us. However, some drawbacks remain in my point of view. Walking around an objective/area of study is a time-consuming tactic at times. Although it produces very acutely perceptive notes, such remain a highly subjective opinion of the matter. What has been for a person during a particular walk might not hold true for the same person during the next time they step out on the same route and therefore, conclusions drawn solely from walks may not be always reliable. In such cases, it is beneficial to accompany a walking endeavour with supplementary techniques such as mapping, sketching, interviewing etc. Combination of two or more of these will produce a multi-faceted picture of the same objective, giving a more comprehensive feedback.
About the author:
Tejashri Deshpande, an Architect by profession and an animal lover by obsession, has her own design practice in Pune by the name of Design Doobki.