Discovering Calvino’s “Invisible Cities” in Brussels: September Salon 2017 (Part II)

For the past three years, on the penultimate weekend of September, 4CITIES alumni have travelled from all over the world to join the new graduates and first year students for a celebratory weekend of sharing beer, fries, and stories in Brussels. This has been the essence of our September Salon. However, each year we try to use the energy of such a strong presence of 4Citizens to do something more – to create a setting in which we can learn from each other, invite lecturers with expertise on critical urban issues, or take a look at our own urban explorations from a different angle. The following article is part two of a two part series.

This year’s September Salon was inspired by Italo Calvino’s classic text Invisible Cities and the excellent related projects of zURBS, a social-artistic urban laboratory co-founded by two 4CITIES alumni. The amazing ladies of zURBS were working in Copenhagen during the September Salon and thus unable to attend, but we tried to capture a bit of their spirit by connecting the ideas developed in 4CITIES theses with post-graduation projects and, broadly, urban exploration & discovery (Field Notes will look at the September Salon presentations of alumni Anja Petrovic from Cohort 06 and Predrag Milic & Viktor Hildebrandt from Cohort 07 in an upcoming article).

Our starting point was the perspective that there is no such thing as “the city” or even “Brussels”, as each city contains a multitude of cities, a thousand different Brussels exist in the same place at the same time, and all of these are built on thousands of other Brussels both real and imagined. As a city that defies easy identifications, Brussels is an ideal site for urban exploration and the discovery of the fantastic, the impossible, and the hidden-in-plain-view.

4CITIES students and alumni who participated in this game were organized into small groups that mixed members from different cohorts, given one of Calvino’s short texts from Invisible Cities, paired with an alumni guide, and sent out into the city to get to know Brussels all over again. Each group was asked to produce a handful of photos and audio recordings explaining their thought process. The results of the second five out of ten groups (see also part one) are presented below as the official closing of the 2017 September Salon. You will find the name of each group (taken from its Calvino city), a list of group members, an excerpt from Calvino’s text, and photos and audio clips from the group’s exploration.

Thanks to the other alumni who planned, organized, and brought the event to life (Hanne Lahousse, Pepijn Kennis, Devon Willis, Peter Gehlshøj, Viktor Hildebrandt, Kai Giersberg, Cecilia Braun, Tina Steiger); to everyone who participated and made the weekend one to remember; to Allee du Kaai/Toestand and The Peoples’ Kitchen; to La Bellone for letting us use their amazing location; and to 4CITIES, VUB, and UNICA for the financial support!

06 Aglaura

  • Sonja Dragovic (Guide, Cohort 06), Peter Ulrich (C4), Martin Sonck (C4), Veronica Conte (C6), Anhad Imaan (C10), Soheon Kim (C10)

So if I wished to describe Aglaura to you, sticking to what I personally saw and experienced, I should have to tell you that it is a colorless city, without character, planted there at random. But this would not be true, either: at certain hours, in certain places along the street, you see opening before you the hint of something unmistakable, rare, perhaps magnificent; you would like to say what it is, but everything previously said of Aglaura imprisons your words and obliges you to repeat rather than say.

Therefore, the inhabitants still believe they live in an Aglaura which grows only with the name Aglaura and they do not notice the Aglaura that grows on the ground. And even I, who would like to keep the two cities distinct in my memory, can speak only of the one, because the recollection of the other, in the lack of words to fix it, has been lost.

Notes on Looking for Aglaura in Brussels:

We thought about different versions and presentations of Brussels, and about the ways in which we can assess what version exists more, or less. We saw Aglaura in the center of Brussels – in Grand Place – and decided to present some of its contradictions in two doublets of photos. One shows the discrepancy between gilded windows of buildings designed centuries ago with a purpose of signaling wealth and power, now reduced to attraction for tourists, and the menu with golden color frame, aimed at those tourists, advertising the food prepared for one-time visitor in passing. The other shows Grand Place as a place without any special charm, turned into a board in front of which tourists take pictures, and contrasting it with a great Lebanese restaurant in the corner of the square, place where people – including those living in Brussels – come and return to not for a presentation of flashy golden past, but for some seriously good food.

Notes on Finding Aglaura in Brussels:

07 Irene

  • Anja Petrovic (Guide, Cohort 06), Roderick Allen (C3), Juan Sebastian Orozco (C7), Anousheh Parsaei (C10), Adriana Garcia Brenke (C10)

Notes on Looking for Irene in Brussels:

Irene is the city visible when you lean out from the edge of the plateau at the hour when the lights come on, and in the limpid air, the pink of the settlement can be discerned spread out in the distance below: where the windows are more concentrated, where it thins out in dimly lighted alleys, where it collects the shadows of gardens, where it raises towers with signal fires; and if the evening is misty, a hazy glow swells like a milky sponge at the foot of the gulleys.

Travelers on the plateau, shepherds shifting their flocks, bird-catchers watching their nets, hermits gathering greens: all look down and speak of Irene. At times the wind brings a music of bass drums and trumpets, the bang of firecrackers in the light display of a festival; at times the rattle of guns, the explosion of a powder magazine in the sky yellow with the fires of civil war. Those who look down from the heights conjecture about what is happening in the city; they wonder if it would be pleasant or unpleasant to be in Irene that evening. Not that they have any intention of going there (in any case the roads winding down to the valley are bad), but Irene is a magnet for the eyes and thoughts of those who stay up above.

Notes on Finding Irene in Brussels:

08 Octavia

  • Peter Koch Gehlshøj (Guide, Cohort 7), Hala El Moussawi (C6), Maryam Zarekeyvan (C7), Eesha Iqbal (C10), Bibi Witvliet (C10), Varvara Borodkina (C10)

Notes on Looking for Octavia in Brussels:

If you choose to believe me, good. Now I will tell how Octavia, the spider-web city, is made. There is a precipice between two steep mountains: the city is over the void, bound to the two crests with ropes and chains and catwalks. You walk on the little wooden ties, careful not to set your foot in the open spaces, or you cling to the hempen strands. Below there is nothing for hundreds and hundreds of feet: a few clouds glide past; farther down you can glimpse the chasm’s bed.

This is the foundation of the city: a net which serves as passage and as support. All the rest, instead of rising up, is hung below: rope ladders, hammocks, houses made like sacks, clothes hangers, terraces like gondolas, skins of water, gas jets, spits, baskets on strings, dumb-waiters, showers, trapezes and rings for children’s games, cable cars, chandeliers, pots with trailing plants.

Suspended over the abyss, the life of Octavia’s inhabitants is less uncertain than in other cities. They know the net will last only so long.

Notes on Finding Octavia in Brussels:

09 Phyllis

  • Viktor Hildebrandt (Guide, Cohort 07), Wojciech Kębłowski (C3),  Mohammad Hammash (C3), Hanne Lahousse (C4), Matevz Straus (C7), Stephen Kent (C9), Daniel Hilhorst (C10), Mariia Kostenko (C10)

Notes on Looking for – and Finding – Phyllis in Brussels:

When you have arrived at Phyllis, you rejoice in observing all the bridges over the canals, each different from the others: cambered, covered, on pillars, on barges, suspended, with tracery balustrades. And what a variety of windows looks down on the streets: mullioned, Moorish, lancet, pointed, surmounted by lunettes or stained-glass roses; how many kinds of pavement cover the ground: cobbles, slabs, gravel, blue and white tiles. At every point the city offers surprises to your view: a caper bush jutting from the fortress’ walls, the statues of three queens on corbels, an onion dome with three smaller onions threaded on the spire. “Happy the man who has Phyllis before his eyes each day and who never ceases seeing the things it contains,” you cry, with regret at having to leave the city when you can barely graze it with your glance.

But it so happens that, instead, you must stay in Phyllis and spend the rest of your days there. Soon the city fades before your eyes, the rose windows are expunged, the statues on the corbels, the domes. Like all of Phyllis’s inhabitants, you follow zigzag lines from one street to another, you distinguish the patches of sunlight from the patches of shade, a door here, a stairway there, a bench where you can put down your basket, a hole where your foot stumbles if you are not careful. All the rest of the city is invisible. Phyllis is a space in which routes are drawn between points suspended in the void: the shortest way to reach that certain merchant’s tent, avoiding that certain creditor’s window. Your footsteps follow not what is outside the eyes, but what is within, buried, erased. If, of two arcades, one continues to seem more joyous, it is because thirty years ago a girl went by there, with broad, embroidered sleeves, or else it is only because that arcade catches the light at a certain hour like that other arcade, you cannot recall where.

10 Chloe

  • Mai Kjølsen (Guide, Cohort 04), Guillen Torres (C6), William Otchere-Darko (C6), Natalia Perez Bobadilla (C10), Sanila Pradhan (C10)

In Chloe, a great city, the people who move through the streets are all strangers. At each encounter, they imagine a thousand things about one another; meetings which could take place between them, conversations, surprises, caresses, bites. But no one greets anyone; eyes lock for a second, then dart away, seeking other eyes, never stopping.

A girl comes along, twirling a parasol on her shoulder, and twirling slightly also her rounded hips. A woman in black comes along, showing her full age, her eyes restless beneath her veil, her lips trembling. A tattooed giant comes along; a young man with white hair; a female dwarf; two girls, twins, dressed in coral. Something runs among them, an exchange of glances like lines that connect one figure with another and draw arrows, stars, triangles, until all combinations are used up in a moment, and other characters come on to the scene: a blind man with a cheetah on a leash, a courtesan with an ostrich-plume fan, an ephebe, a Fat Woman. And thus, when some people happen to find themselves together, taking shelter from the rain under an arcade, or crowding beneath an awning of the bazaar, or stopping to listen to the band in the square, meetings, seductions, copulations, orgies are consummated among them without a word exchanged, without a finger touching anything, almost without an eye raised.

Notes on Looking for Chloe in Brussels:

In Chloe, strangers are not interacting with one another. We decided to observe strangers in Brussels, whether they were interacting with each other or silently contemplating.
We imagined their stories, lives, present situation.
We observed their interaction or use of the space. Strangers passed by, they were all in public, but some went about with their private business. Others encouraged interaction with other strangers, but they all took up space in the city on equal footing – in our eyes, at least. 
These were just a few people in a a vast crowd that makes up an impression of Brussels. The more people there are the more anonymous you become. But we decided to “tell” their stories – thus making them people, not strangers.

Notes on Finding Chloe in Brussels: