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Citycity: a Coventry Sensography


This micro-project, which is run by Professor Nicolas Whybrow (Theatre and Performance Studies, Warwick), will seek to instigate a series of repeated and durational observational encounters with selected urban sites on foot, using the nine junctions of the problematic ring-road that encircles the city centre as points of departure.

The invented notion of ‘citycity’ is intended to operate on several levels but principally attempts to encapsulate something akin to the feel of a city or that that may be said to constitute city-ness based on a sensuous response to urban atmospheres, rhythms and textures. These are constituted and come about in diverse ways but are dependent on certain obvious common factors relating to the basic interaction of time, space and the movement of bodies, as well as such less apparent nuances as climate, weather, seasons and time of day. The city can be said, then, implicitly to present itself as an aesthetic, affective phenomenon that sensuously engages and motivates the human body in particular ways. As Amin and Thrift put it, the city is ‘a force-field of passions that associate and pulse bodies’ (2002: 84).

Moreover, each urban environment produces its own highly distinct set of atmospherics and behaviours that emerge as a consequence of a complex combination of factors as wide-ranging as the organisation of a city’s built environment (including the way ‘nature’ is framed and incorporated), historical evolution, demographics, amenities, industries, governance and so on. Having stated that, it should also be said that such a felt response to the aesthetics of the city tends to be something that is, at best, taken for granted and more usually ignored completely. A phenomenon such as atmosphere is by its vary nature difficult to pin down as anything other than a vague or implicit ‘sense’, yet it is also something that recognisably exists and should not therefore be dismissed as the source of serious contemplation in appraising the habitability of cities, as the philosopher Gernot Böhme has shown (1993).

The purpose of this micro-project is then to instigate a series of durational encounters on foot with selected urban sites (in the city of Coventry) and to attempt to be attentive to that which is triggered for the sensitised body by those locales. The conceptual point of departure for an experience of Coventry in particular is the two-lane ring-road that has encircled its centre since its construction in the period after the end of World War II. As a medieval cathedral town once surrounded by a ‘defensive’ wall, Coventry’s morphology was in any case concentric, so the post-war construction of the ring-road, after the city’s dramatic flattening by German bombers in 1940, maintained the centre’s essential form. To its credit the much-lauded civic plan for the development of the centre’s built environment after 1945, famously conceived and implemented by the city council’s architecture department under Donald Gibson, incorporated a significantly pedestrianised aspect, but the presence of the ring-road also clearly – and typically for the time – foresaw the use and mobility of the private car as a necessary transportational feature of modern urban living. As a city that staked its post-war identity on the development of a burgeoning car industry, whose success was dependent on more and more ‘never-had-it-so-good’ citizens acquiring its product for private use, it was hardly surprising that Coventry saw it as appropriate to facilitate the attraction of vehicles into the centre of the city and a ring-road, with its nine strategically spaced junctions, seemed like a good way of ensuring easy flow and dispersal. In truth, the ring-road proved to be a poorly conceived, unwieldy structure. With its sudden turn-offs, tight bends and cramped traffic merging designs – seen popularly, and ironically (given this is ‘car town’), as providing an invitation to crash* – it is arguably too small and confined in its dimensions to justify itself as a functional necessity. (The city centre can be crossed in approximately ten minutes on foot.)

Moreover, with its brutalist concrete design and predominantly raised structure, which means its grey, darkening underbelly effectively looms over large parts of the centre’s immediate perimeter, the ring-road easily takes on the aspect of an oppressive carbuncle that strangulates the city centre, arguably rendering the cultivation of humane urban living problematic. In the mean time, of course, the car industry in Coventry has been reduced, for a range of complex socio-economic reasons, to almost nothing and so even the ring-road’s symbolic raison d’etre, as a form of celebration of concrete architecture befitting of a burgeoning ‘motor city’, has disappeared too. Instead it stands now as sad testament to a misconceived 20th century fantasy of the private car as the solution to mobility in small cities.

The ring-road’s symbolic obsolescence aside, the micro-project will also focus on its phenomenological presence as a brutal(ist) structure. In particular it will adopt as its paradigmatic point of departure, first, the fact that it is in itself inaccessible for the pedestrian, yet it occupies a prime position within the built environment of the city centre (even riding a bike round it – strictly allowable – would be unthinkable). And, second, that it represents a form of barrier in the mental image that the pedestrian has of the city, rudely blocking the way between the outlying residential city surrounding it and the civic centre, which, in an era of internet shopping, increasingly struggles to sustain its purpose as a functioning public location. In the same way as Walter Benjamin saw the 19th century metropolitan arcade, with its apparent order, pragmatism and promises of the fulfilment of urban dwellers’ desires, as being effectively in radical decline – the epitome of the transiency and inherent ‘will to decay’ of a ‘phantasmagorical capitalism’ (2002) – so the Coventry ring-road represents a mistaken 20th century investment in a dehumanising ‘cars and concrete’ policy of urban living. As such, its nine junctions will be seen here as structural disjunctions, as figurative and actual points from which the pedestrian is physically repelled or dislocated, spinning off to alternative spaces in search of a humanising experience or of ‘finding a voice’: as a trope, being sent to Coventry implies being rendered mute or being ostracised, thus, in its capacity as an architectural paradigm of the city, the ring-road, much like the anodyne M25 of Iain Sinclair’s portrayal in London Orbital, points towards a form of condemnation to endless and anaesthetised circulation that leaves one alienated and ‘speechless’ (2003).

The nine sites of displacement will include key Coventry locales such as the old and new cathedrals, the War Memorial Park, IKEA, Coventry Station and London Road Cemetery. In each case the presence of the human body as a form of sensor or receptor will be implemented in a range of methodological ways from spending extended periods of time loitering, observing and walking, to repeated visits at different times of day and in differing seasons. In this preliminary raw-data-gathering phase, still photography, the body’s sensorium and note-taking will function as prime tools in the tracking and capturing of atmosphere, rhythms, and objects/things in space, the city effectively being framed, in Latham and McCormack’s description, as an ‘affective archive’ that acts on the body. As Bourriaud suggests, capturing a city means following its movement, adding that wandering represents a form of enquiry into the city: ‘It is writing on the move and a critique of the urban, understood as the matrix of the scenarios in which we move’ (2009: 100). While de Certeau’s influence in establishing that walking be seen as a way of practising the city has been widely referenced (1988), Lavery has highlighted the ‘less remarked upon’ way that ‘textures and surfaces of the city perform on the body and produce a type of embodied writing that is sensate and sensitive to fleeting moods, and floating perceptions’ (2014: 62). Importantly the focus will be on the non-representational (in Thrift’s delineation, 2008), referring to that that cannot easily be assigned cognitive meaning or signifying sense but that operates more in the realm of sensuous experience or a ‘logic of intensities’. This may involve the felt analysis of acoustics (Gandy and Nilsen, 2014), smell (Henshaw, 2014), visuality (Latham and McCormack 2009), and texture (Lavery, 2014).

Following from the fieldwork the micro-project will shift to a data processing phase in which the nine sites-as-disjunctions will effectively be replicated as topographical assemblages, effectively creating in sum their own, but much looser ‘cartographic ring’ as a felt evocation of the city. Thus, making use of still photographs and documented notes, the gathered material will be translated into a performative text-and-image site-montage consciously based on a sensitivity to rhythm, texture and atmosphere. Visual imagery will be utilised to evoke space and form, while text will focus on what writing can suggest structurally and materially rather than semantically. This sensography will be presented in book form (or as a section of a book), but the intention is also to expand this into a 3D visualisation online, as part of a larger Sensing the City mapping of Coventry that can be navigated in an infinite number of ways by the user, and as digital content that can be triggered to appear on a ‘smart’ device, inviting users to submit to a similar exploration of urban locations.

*As Virilio has shown (Lotringer and Virilio 2005: 98-102), the test of the progressive nature of technological innovation is often challenged by weighing up the cost of it going wrong in the form of an accident: does the invention of a super-jet that can carry record numbers of people necessarily represent progress given that it means one thousand dead people if it drops out of the sky?


Amin, Ash and Nigel Thrift (2002), Cities: Reimagining the Urban, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Benjamin, Walter (2002) The Arcades Project, trans. H, Eiland and K. McLaughlin, Cambridge, MA and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Böhme, Gernot (1993), "Atmosphere as the Fundamental Concept of a New Aesthetics", Thesis Eleven, 36, pp.113-126.

Bourriaud, Nicolas (2009) The Radicant, New York: Lukas and Sternberg.

De Certeau, Michel (1988) The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. S. Rendall, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gandy, Matthew and B.J. Nilsen (eds) (2014) The Acoustic City, Berlin: Jovis Verlag.

Henshaw, Victoria (2014) Urban Smellscapes: Understanding and Designing City Smell Environments, London and New York: Routledge.

Latham, Alan and Derek P. McCormack (2009) “Thinking with Images in Non-representational Cities: Vignettes from Berlin”, Area, 41 (3), pp.252-262.

Lavery, Carl (2014) “Performing Paris: an Eco-graphy of Meridians and Atmospheres”, in Performing Cities, ed. N. Whybrow, Basingstoke Palgrave Macmillan, pp.56-79.

Lotringer, Silvere and Paul Virilio (2005) The Accident of Art, New York and LA: Semiotexte.

Sinclair, Iain (2003) London Orbital: a Walk Around the M25, London: Penguin Books.

Thrift, Nigel (2008) Non-Representational Theory: Space, Politics, Affect, London and New York: Routledge.