THE RIDDLE OF THE REAL CITY, OR THE DARK KNOWLEDGE OF URBANISMInterview
An interview with Wim Nijenhuis by MA History & Critical Thinking student Katerina Zacharopoulou
13 June 2017
AA Bookshop, London
MA History & Critical Thinking student Katerina Zacharopoulou spoke to Wim Nijenhuis, the author of ‘The Riddle of the Real City’, as part of the book’s launch at the AA on the 8th of February. The book was published by 1001 Publishers, a small, independent publishing house based in Amsterdam, which was introduced in the event as making each book as the one after a thousand others – “thousand” being the old word for “infinity”. Just like Scheherazade told a story every night after a thousand others, in order to stay alive.
Katerina: I would like to start this discussion with a general question that has preoccupied architects since the formation of the discipline; it concerns the relationship between word and image. Architectural projects, as well as books, use both media to express ideas. However, while in books text is usually considered the main element, in architecture the opposite happens. So what is the relationship of the two in a book that deals with architecture?
Wim: We can describe the relationship between words and images as follows. The word is a determinative force. It is determining what the image is about. The image itself is resisting this determination and trying to escape it. When it escapes, the word tries a new determination. And the image tries to escape it, and so on, and so on… So the word and the image are caught in a kind of fugitive movement.
Page from Book I, “a treatise on urban history”, indicative of the complex composition of different texts and images. Image source: Wim Nijenhuis and 1001 Publishers.
I will give you one example. I once attended a lecture about a modern building. In the public were many social democratic architects. The talk was about this nice modern building, with its steel-frame windows, lack of ornaments, good proportionality, a lot of glass, and so on. And all the architects said, “This is really a nice, interesting and progressive building. We like it.” In the end, the speaker revealed that it was built in 1932 in Italy, and that it was the main office of the Italian Fascist Party, designed by the architect Terragni. Although the architects were stunned by this political meaning that they disliked, they still liked the building. This case is still proof of the power of the word in reading an image.
Katerina: So this ambiguity between what we see, what we say, and what we mean brings us to the title of your book, ‘The Riddle of the Real City’. Could you tell us more about the use of these two words, the “riddle” and the “real”, and if and how they connect to the content of your book?
Wim: In that sense, I am kind of an International Situationist, who can write a certain book, take the title of another one and glue it above the text. Titles and content are interchangeable. But in this case, in my book, there is a relation between the title and the content. I think that words are meant to clarify, or to enlighten, a piece of reality. But sometimes you can have the experience that this doesn’t work. That the words are not enlightening things. That they are darkening them, or obfuscating them. Words whose provenance is in tradition, or in the repetition of truth over time, which is a tradition, can suddenly be unfit to explain what there is before us. In that case, reality is dark, reality is a riddle. And words are non-transparent.
Katerina: You spoke of changes, and we are sure going through major changes in our time also. I refer to what is commonly described as the ‘Information’, or the ‘Digital’ age. And I believe the way your book is published is a direct response to that situation, because it will be published on open access on the Internet along with the printed version. Were these the concerns that led you to this decision, and what is your opinion about the printed book, as you stick to that option as well?
Wim: Mostly, it’s a common fact that theory, that theoretical books, architecture books, have very bad distribution. They have to deal with a public that’s getting smaller, and we see that editors are moving to mainstream theories that will sell good, that universities are being attached to mainstream ideas about which there is not much discussion, and that radical theories, radical ideas, aberrant ideas, will be very difficult to distribute.
We, the group that made this book, think that radical theory needs better distribution. The electronic book can go everywhere in the world. It can go to Central Congo, South America, everywhere. It will evade the problem that people can’t buy, or afford, the book. So even the poorest ones, having a mobile phone somewhere in Katanga or Botswana can read this book. That’s possible, as it will be freely available in open source.
Why sticking to a book, why printing? Well, when there is a blackout, no electricity, you still can read a book [laughter]. The book is an object, you can touch it and you can smell it, and you can use it as a symbol of your lifestyle. “Hey, you‘ve got this book on your shelf, how nice!”. You can also avoid the linearity of the electronic publication by going through the pages, by making shortcuts, and gaining overview of what the book is about. Another thing is that in the very future, when robots will make excavations to study human culture, they will perhaps dig out my book [laughter]. And I hope it will be next to the ones of Alberti!
Katerina: So this is a very open approach to publication, as it will make the book available to as many people as possible. But there is another open approach in your book, found in its structure this time. It has to do with what you describe as the model of the “cloud essay”. Could you tell us more about it and the relationship it creates with the reader?
Wim: We can say that the “cloud essay” is invented to promote what I would like to call “democratic reading”. And it’s an approach to media reality, fragmentation, and combination of the fragments. And, apart from democratic reading, it can also promote creative reading. Because of its very nature a “cloud essay” is never about one argument or one statement. There always are more, and they can be slightly conflicting within the content of one book. The book is more thought of as an intervention into the flow of discourse, than as concerning problems like method or systematics of writing.
Page from Book II, “a bundle of essays about the condition of the city in our media age”. Image source: Wim Nijenhuis and 1001 Publishers.
My book has three different parts and three genres. There is a treatise, a bundle of essays, and there are meditations. Academic discourse and non-academic discourse are mixed and you can tell the difference from the use of footnotes. There’s more than one entrance to the book, many points where you can start reading. For example, you can start everywhere in the seven meditations in Part Three. You can change the sequence and start another and the same you can do with the essays of Part Two. The first two chapters of Part One are not in the right chronological order, because they start with the 19th century and then the second chapter is about the 18th century. If you want, you can revert this, you read the second one first.
There is also the composition of the pages. In the book we tried to make complex pages sometimes. In the middle of the page there is a kind of row which is actually the main text. Alongside this main text there is sometimes starting an excursion on the left side, in another color. On the right side, in another color again, you get a row of footnotes, and sometimes the whole thing is broken up or interrupted by images with captions in the full width of the page. I think that if you read this kind of pages very quickly they will be to your eye like an instrument of seduction. So you will go over the page in every direction and this will give you, I hope, an experience of a kind of a mesh, the same you will have if you watch television. And somehow, we do understand this mesh.
Katerina: So it works a little bit like the Internet…
Wim: Yes. It could be a detail that appeals to you and in that way you start to go into it.
Katerina: As we can understand from the complicated structure of your book, it is difficult to cover its content in such a short interview. But I would like to touch on just a general aspect, which is its connection with other disciplines, and especially philosophy. For example, you bring into urbanism and architecture the work of Deleuze, Foucault, or Virilio, which has always been very popular with architectural discourse. So, do you think they are still relevant in our times, or, put more generally, what is your view on the role of history in the architecture of the present, both in design and theory?
Wim: They belong to my intellectual biography. They came across my path. I’m in this day and age of people who were very much informed by those philosophers. The point is that they remained in my memory and in my work. That’s one part of it.
The other part is that their theories are not obsolete, they are not criticised, and I think they are still topical because we still have power effects, and we still have the power of speed.
A linear history is operating with pushing things into the past, and studying them in their historical context. In my book I wrote a piece about a book by Alexander Tzonis, in which he is anaylising the work of Alberti. He says that Alberti, a Renaissance architect and writer, was pre-rational, and his work was guided by primitive, undeveloped psychology. So he’s pushing Alberti back into historical time as under-developed, not yet developed as we are now. But if you bend time, or read Alberti trans-historically, then you have a direct confrontation with him. And then you see quite different things, then you see that in his designs he favours the art of mingling, that he is a mingler. And that he’s speaking about “ars combinatoria”, combining things, and that he puts fantasy above reality, and that he’s quite often talking like a Gnostic, or a Manichaeist, especially concerning this primacy of fantasy. And I think that we can still be influenced by Alberti. And in certain chapters of my book, you can still see how I was influenced by Alberti.
Katerina: The last question is a very simple one; it’s just why you wrote this book.
Wim: Well, that’s a very difficult one, but we will give it a try [laughter]. I think that the central stage for intellectual discussion in architecture is a threatened one, it’s under menace. And I also think that the world is becoming labyrinthine more and more, and perhaps we can only save ourselves by trying to be the center of this labyrinthine world. In this sense, this book is the result of a process, my process of working, studying, and writing. The book has evolved in time and according to inner logic, it is the result of me being engaged with it, and producing it, it has resulted in a kind of unsolicited gift, coming from my generosity, in a gift to the world.
The question why I wrote it almost and always is a question about what the motivation was and how the book fits in our topicality, how it fits in our reality today.
But we can also ask what a book like this can do, how it works. Well, I think that it can be a theoretical toolkit for those who need a theoretical toolkit. And it can be a spark that arouses sparks in others. But I must say that it also problematises the threatened position of the street and the public space which are the core objects of urbanism, in our age of the media world. It’s a little play with the title of Heidegger’s essay called “The Age of the World Picture”.
 Martin Heidegger, The Age of the World Picture, from The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, (trans. W Lovitt), New York: Harper & Row, 1977, pp. 115–136.
Page from Book III, “a set of meditations about epistemological problems”. Image source: Wim Nijenhuis and 1001 Publishers.