Nomadic Thoughts: NJ, by Aarden Hank – February 1993

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UNSIGHTLY SITES: Heading North, looking west, riding Amtrak, Philadelphia-New York. Why succumb to frontal vision? What is there, off to the side?

Despite the abstract discipline of underlying grids and the overt authority of regulatory actions, the built environment rarely conforms to the ideal conceptions adopted to describe and shape its development. In built up areas, the railroad’s impact on the landscape is initiated by linear cuts – removals revealing unsightly sites. (On open ground advance lines are drawn, signalling retreats – towns back away from railroad tracks.) The prospects afforded the train traveller were never intended as views. Rarely the result of conscious design, these unsightly sights refuse to acquiesce to idealized visions; because of their resistance, they deflect, rather than invite, attention. Since such sites are overlooked and undervalued not because of some inherent deficiency but because they fail to submit to the structural frameworks that measure value, focusing on them yields more than their physical description. It illuminates conceptual frameworks and value systems that previously obscured their recognizability.

Off to the side: an unsightly site is a physical location and an architectural vision. As a specific location it is “not site-like”: a place without discernible limit; a situation summarily dismissed by disciplined exclusions (the unseen, the unsightable, the unsituated). It can be “un-sightly,” in the sense of ugly, or displeasing even unseemly or improper. Or it can be “un-site-like,” lacking characteristics that might differentiate it from its surroundings – an unboundable condition. These sites betray architecture’s and urban design’s insufficiency; eschewing submission to a common measure, they suggest the impropriety of design’s controls. Unsightly sites are disregarded because they expose what we do not wish to see: an active space of confrontation, of inflection and infection, a mobile ground.

MOBILE GROUND: The curious thing about trains – simultaneous speed and stasis. Trains move as the viewer sits still. What can be drawn from this, a moving station point?

Moving on a train is moving in a gap between known points of departure and assumed times of arrival. On trains, still moving bodies cross a space in process, the space of being constructed. Because it is neither here nor there, mobile ground is the locus of transition and challenge, of movement and change. It is a space of progression, of slippage and constant re-valuation – a place where diverse interests come together to negotiate their differences. It is a place where different experiences, different times, tip over into and out of each other. In this a site of contesting powers, the locus of economic, political, spatial, and morphological negotiation, new types march across an existing fabric, consuming it in their path: the action is removals. Sartre writes removals indicate changes in American fortunes. For him, American cities “move forward at a rapid rate … not constructed to grow old; but to move forward like modern armies.” What is being conquered?

Against contemporary architectural culture’s preeminent concern with the frontal image, trains sponsor vision to the side. (Reyner Banham knows cars are personal motion machines – we steer, stare, and can always sop; trains by contrast, are driven by other powers and afford us time to wonder.  Aboard the train we are drawn across mobile ground, we project our sight lines and occupy space from an uncontrolling place. The forward trajectory of the train is the model of perspectival vision, but this ideal vista remains unattainable. Peering out we cast a sidelong glance, we reorient and remake our visual field. In the ever shifting position of a moving station point we are released from the conventional limitations of visual representations as exclusive of moving perceptions; on the move we conquer the mythos of the drawing as a single determination of a non-singular construct. Travelling a liminal cut across the landscape, we assume a peripheral location in relation to familiar point of views.

Aarden Hank

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