Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 1980: Chapter VII, Walking in the City
Reading and Discussion
Most of the MA group (including myself) found the writing style a bit tricky to read at first- the French way of comparing systems. There are also contrasting quite poetic bits that read well, is De Certeau making difficulties? This may be deliberate due to the stopping and starting in the walking, there may be a connection between the dense bits and poetic bits. “See what happens”, “don’t try too hard”, “engage with it”, and this is how Certeau writes, he is talking about the thoughts and associations that one makes differently every day.
The Practice of Everyday Life has been a subject of study for its distinction between the concepts of strategies and tactics. Certeau links “strategies” with institutions and structures of power who are the “producers”, while individuals are “consumers” acting in accordance with, or against, environments defined by strategies and tactics. That we are being corralled or coerced into a particular way of life, how we experience the city is being decided for us.
In the chapter “Walking in the City”, Certeau asserts that “the city” is generated by the strategies of governments, corporations, and other institutional bodies who produce things like maps that describe the city as a unified whole. Certeau uses the vantage from the World Trade Center in New York to illustrate the idea of a synoptic, unified view. By contrast, the walker at street level moves in ways that are tactical and never fully determined by the plans of organizing bodies, taking shortcuts in spite of the strategic grid of the streets. Certeau’s argument is that everyday life works by a process of poaching on the territory of others, using the rules and products that already exist in culture in a way that is influenced, but never wholly determined, by those rules and products.
The Twin towers circa 1980
De Certeau is looking down on New York City as a European, talking from atop one of the former Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre (1973-2001). Looking down from the top of the Elysian Tower we can clearly see that we are located in an Island (albeit quite high up) created for roads, part of the city that is made for cars and very few pedestrians can be seen in the area. What tactics are we using to reclaim the city? What are the movements of the artist in spaces and cities?
Brief History of the Building
The Elysian is a “Celtic Tiger” era building at Eglinton Street in Cork, Ireland. Construction of the building was completed in 2008 and is the tallest building in the Republic of Ireland. It consists of many connected 6-8 story buildings, with a 17-story tower on the southwest corner of the site. The tower is 224 ft to the top floor, includes an enclosed Japanese garden and a two-level basement for parking. Like an enclosed, skyscraper city, one leaves and arrives by car. The building opened during an economic crisis in Ireland and by 2009, 80% of the 211 apartments remained unsold and 50% of the commercial units were vacant. As of 2017, it was announced that all apartments in the building were fully let.
Psychogeography and my dérive
The Elysian tower is a powerful symbol of the bust-boom financial cycles that cities find themselves in (for Cork City, at least). The empty tower was a joke around the city during the times of recession and there was an eerie feeling to my walk through the Japanese garden on the rooftop of the lower buildings on our way to the tower entrance. The scene before us was luxurious, futuristic, Utopian and the people who were destined to live here had “made it” in the eye of the Celtic Tiger. Thoughts about the opening of the building, the local farce and the bittersweet victory of being host city to the tallest building in Ireland wasn’t far from my mind as we made it toward the elevator. The giant sculptures, the waterfalls, and the exotic trees felt otherworldly, this was my city but it could be anywhere in the world especially on the sunny but crisp day it was, snow was coming.
I remembered how often I was stuck in traffic around the “island” of the building every morning during the end of construction, looking at the cheesy billboard signs of the late noughties depicting well-dressed-smiley-people, selling these extortionately priced apartments. The irony wasn’t even lost then: the beginning of austerity was hacking at my wages and the vital facilities of the vulnerable people I was working with at the time.
This was my first time being inside the building and memories of that period of its development came flooding back. Seeing the Orla Kiely knock-off pattern on the decor of curtains and cushions in the show apartment we used for our discussion just reminded me of the mass-consumerism and “keeping up with the Joneses” behaviour of the time. The majority of my friends (while we were just in our early twenties) had borrowed huge mortgages for houses that were not-so-special, miles-outside-the-city and there was huge pressure on me to do the same- “the mortgages are 100%”, “rent is dead money”. It was like we were going to run out of land or houses. I didn’t follow suit luckily, but we all know how that ended up for them; negative equity, huge interest debts, bank bailouts, home repossessions. It caused a lot of turmoil for many people-debt can be like a prison sentence.
In short, my experience of “Walking the City” of the Elysian tower complex was greatly influenced by my memories and the symbolism that the site holds in my mind.