5 Psychogeographical Experiments To See the City Anew
from 'Bending Out of Shape', Issue 8 of Crumble Magazine.
In January, I saw a call for submissions by Crumble, an architecture magazine based in Edinburgh. The theme was Bending Out of Shape and was about how we can “disrupt the controlled choreographies of our day-to-day experience.”
I immediately thought about psychogeography, an idea that was popular 20 years ago but which has fallen into disuse. I am not sure what happened — my best guess is that Will Self’s attempt to own the term put others off — but the situationists1 appear to have been erased from general knowledge.
Nonetheless, the Crumble editorial team were enthusiastic about my proposal and the article was finally published this week. They even invited me to read it out at the launch event.
The following is a condensed version of the article. I highly recommend you buy a copy of the physical magazine to read the full thing and much more. And, if you haven’t already, do sign up for this newsletter.
5 Psychogeographical Experiments to See the City Anew
Home, university, piano teacher’s residence — these three locations, creating a triangle on the map, formed almost the entire lived experience of a student in Paris in the early 1950s. This limited existence2 so shocked the Situationist Guy Debord that he was inspired to create the practice of the dérive.
Translated in English as ‘drift’, the dérive is a way of critically investigating the psychogeography of place. In the classic dérive, a group of two or three people use a combination of systems and randomness to understand the urban environment and the "distinct psychic atmospheres" they found. There was no set destination except maybe the pub, where twelve hours later, they would discuss the city's hidden histories and obscure power relations.
Our post-pandemic experience has arguably become even more limited than that of the Parisian student. Many are still working from home, only leaving the house to pop to the shops or visit the gym. When we do go out to explore, we carry a phone that tells us exactly where we are, stopping us from experiencing the strangeness of the city.
As a counterpoint to this monotony, here are five psychogeographical techniques to help bend the city out of shape. Walk them at your own risk.
Experiment 1: Solargeography
I discovered Solargeography on a bright Spring day while walking in Glasgow’s financial district. I found that every time I walked under the shadow of a building, I would feel a chill go through me. I decided to keep in the sun as much as possible, crossing the road to get in the light and absorb its warmth. I drifted east, away from the city centre and towards Saltmarket, where the buildings rarely rose above four stories.
Although most Scottish people are chronically deprived of Vitamin D, the purpose of Solargeography is not for health but to study how sunlight carves up the city. The aim is to stay in the light as much as possible, observing where the shadows interrupt your journey. The neolithic inhabitants of Orkney designed their cairns around the solar calendar. The question for the solargeographer is: how do buildings block and allow light?
Experiment 2: The Square
At the time of writing, the World Economic Forum were in Davos promoting the idea of the ‘15-minute city’. This is the fairly obvious idea that local neighbourhoods provide for your needs better than car-centric suburban sprawl. But to understand what it means in practice, I invented The Square.
All you need to do is walk for exactly 15 minutes in one direction. Turn right as soon as you are able and walk 15 more minutes. Repeat this twice more and then check how far from your origin point you are. Is it a square? What shape have you made?
Experiment 3: Egogeography
One of the Situationist’s standard psychogeographical techniques was to use a map of a different city to navigate the city you're in. You would treat London as if it were Paris, visiting the Eiffel Tower camouflaged as Marble Arch. Alas, Google Maps killed this fun with the tyranny of the blue dot. Randomness can, however, still be found in what I call Egogeography.
To do this, you need to find two places in your city map that are related to your ego. It could be your first name, surname, birthplace, workplace ... anything you have an attachment to or take pride in. Then walk between them. By visiting places you wouldn’t ordinarily see, by forcing yourself into random situations, by reflecting on the non-spaces you find yourself in, you broaden your sense of reality and maybe even lose some ego.
When I did this — going from Neil Street in Renfrew to Scott Street in Garnethill — I found a wasteland full of old tyres. I could sense the political forces that destroyed the shipbuilding industry. As I walked, I thought to myself: am I just a pawn in the grand sweep of history? Very probably.
Experiment 4: Traffic Lights
There is an imbalance between the car and the pedestrian. They both may stop for the lights, but one of them takes up ten times as much space, emits pollution, and can kill the other.
Traffic is, for now, a blight on the city experience. But it can be used to our advantage. We can use the Traffic Lights to help add random elements to our experience. If you see the green man, cross. If you see the red man, turn. Use the pedestrian crossing as a way of determining where you go with no preconceptions.
Experiment 5: Litter Picking
The strikes by refuse collectors in the summer of 2022 were a stark insight into what makes up the urban economy. Junk food, cigarette butts, disposable vapes, endless cups of coffee ... it is a fascinating glimpse into our civilisation. For this experiment, imagine that you're a traveller from a thousand years in the future. Put on some thick gloves and sift through the rubble of a lost world. What do these artefacts tell you about our time?
When I was shamed into Litter Picking by a virtuous friend, I couldn’t help but notice that the typography on Walker's crisp packaging that I picked up was from the 90s. The logo was faded, but the plastic is strong. How much longer would it have remained? What a terrible legacy we have left.
Three of these experiments (solargeography, traffic lights, and litter picking) can be undertaken whenever you leave the house. You can use the sun or the traffic lights as a way of becoming aware of your surroundings. The other two take a bit of planning, but I encourage you to give them a try or even make up your own experiments. The city is a game with no rules and no limits, we must place these artificial constraints on it to help make it legible.3
The Situationist International (1957-72) was a revolutionary avant-garde organization of artists and intellectuals who theorized that we were alienated from life by the spectacle of modern capitalism. The Situationists are most famous for the role they played in inspiring the May ‘68 protests in Paris.
Described in Chombart de Lauwe's Paris et l’agglomération parisienne (1952).