The City Represented I: City Portraits

Seminar (052-0828-19)
Organizer: Chair of Prof. Avermaete
Lecturers: Irina Davidovici
Time: Thursday, 15.00–17.00
Location: HIL D 60.1

Looking is not as simple as it looks
Ad Reinhardt

The city itself is the collective memory of its people, and like memory, it is associated with objects and places
Aldo Rossi

The portrayals of cities at various times and places tell us about to the values and meanings attached to the urban condition, as well as the representational means used in its portrayal. During this seminar we analyse drawings and paintings from different times and cultures depicting urban environments and city life. Traditional art history examines artworks in order to build coherent narratives of aesthetic development. In contrast, here the picture analysis will help us make connections between the depictions of cities and the corresponding ideologies of the urban. The images included in this semester’s investigation are paintings and sketches, including architectural drawings, city plans and perspectival maps, yet excluding technical drawing, axonometry, photography and film. From the comparative analysis of artworks depicting urban scenes and environments, we will extrapolate various conceptions of cities as they evolved over time. We will discuss the content, composition and representational techniques employed in the depictions of cities, as well as the context in which they have been circulated. This level of analysis will help uncover the connections between the technique of an artwork, the purpose for which it was intended, and the ideological framework or message it sought to convey. In each session, we will compare two or more pictures created at different times on the same theme, thus highlighting continuities and persistent approaches, as well as disruptions and transformations. The seminars will be thematically organised to cover a variety of pictorial genres and urban-related content, comparing artworks from different times and contexts that address the same theme. The course aims to offer access to different ways of conceptualising the city than those made available by the history and theory of urban design.

Three analytical tracks will be used for the analysis of each picture or pairing of pictures:
  • Purpose: why the images were created and the context of their circulation.
  • Technique: medium, composition, viewpoint, framing, abstract/figurative.
  • Ideological register: messages about cities, civic and social life as conveyed.

Upon completion of the course, the students will be able to:
  • Discuss the motivations, purposes and ideologies driving the production of urban imagery.
  • Analyse the relatedness of subject matter, technique, intent and meaning in visual representations of cities.
  • Identify common themes and persistent motifs of city life, by comparing drawings and paintings from different periods and cultures.
  • Research paintings and drawings on given themes, analyse and convincingly interpret their composition and content.

Weekly sessions of two-hour thematic seminars as per schedule below.
Each seminar will comprise:
  • A short presentation on the weekly theme by the seminar lecturer, introduced through the analysis and comparison of specific pictures.
  • Group discussion, using the seminar texts to advance students’ comprehension of the different ways in which artworks can be understood.
  • A short classroom exercise to monitor the group understanding of the theme.
  • Individual 10- to 15-minute-long student presentations on one or two pictures on the given theme, (weeks 4 to 9, agreed in advance in weeks 2 to 3).
  • A short summary of the discussion and introduction of texts for the following week. The lecturer will offer brief tutorials with the students presenting the following week.
  • Exceptions: week 1: course introduction and methodological discussion; week 2: finalise seminar group and schedule the individual student presentations; week 3: discussion with guest Madelon Vriesendorp, artist; week 11: conclusions and presentation of final assignment.

Paintings and drawings form the basis of the seminar material. Some will be provided and discussed by the lecturer, others will be found and brought to the discussion by students. The main criteria for selection are:
  • Thematic relevance: suitability for the seminar’s weekly theme.
  • Artistic and cultural relevance: it is important to find images, by established or lesser-known artists, which have a recognised artistic value (these are usually reproduced and discussed in monographs). Note: commercially produced paintings that often show up in online searches will not be accepted.
  • Content relevance: the content must relate to urban environments.

The general readings for the entire course will be introduced in the first session. For each seminar, the students will be asked to read one or two short texts in advance, available as downloads from the course website the week before. These texts (often excerpts from longer pieces) are of three kinds:
  • Methodological: exemplary texts showing how to analyse pictures on a theme.
  • Contextual: pieces that offer information on the historical, cultural or social context in which to understand the picture.
  • Philosophical or theoretical: writings that reflect on the depicted phenomenon.

Each participating student will give one oral presentation (accompanied by PowerPoint or a PDF) on a chosen theme, selecting their own example or examples for analysis and interpretation. These individual presentations will be scheduled in week 2 and followed by a group discussion. They may form the basis of the written essay.

The seminar will conclude with the submission of a written and illustrated essay of 1,500 to 2,000 words, with notes and bibliography, in printed and electronic format. The deadline for submissions (at the chair office) is 31 May 2019, with hand-in possible from 20 May 2019 onwards.

Attendance of all seminars is obligatory. The discussion will take place in English, the written coursework will be accepted in English (preferred) or German.

Active participation in seminar activities: 10%
15-minute individual presentation: 30%
Written and illustrated coursework (1,500- to 2,000-word essay): 60%

21.2.2019: Tools and methods: Reading city portraits
BARTHES Camera Lucida 1980 Studium Punctum 
BERGER Ways of Seeing 1972 Ch1 
PALLASMAA Rooms of Memory 1985 
BARNET Guide Writing Art 
28.2.2019: Synthetic cities: The urban imaginary
CALVINO Invisible Cities 1974 EXCERPTS 
VIDLER Prologue 2011 
GOMBRICH Art and Illusion 1956 Excerpts 
7.3.2019: Civic bodies: The anthropomorphic city, with guest Madelon Vriesendorp
KOOLHAAS Delirious New York Skyscraper 
SENNETT Civic Bodies 1994 
14.3.2019: Perspective and Urban Order
ROSENAU Ideal Cities 1983 Renaissance 
28.3.2019: Cities from above
KING Beyond The Great Wave Hiroshige 
ROWE KOETTER Collage City Texture 
4.4.2019: Weather and light
VALANCE Nocturne 
11.4.2019: City maps and city allegories
ROSENAU Ideal Cities 1983 MEDIEVAL 
RYKWERT Idea Town 
18.4.2019: City and the human figure 1: Crowds
CANETTI Crowds and Power Excerpts 
ENGELS The Condition Working Class 
2.5.2019: City and the human figure 2: Monads
SEIXAS LOPES Melancholy And Architecture 
9.5.2019: Decorum: Urban landmarks and collective memory
AURELI Instauratio-Urbis 
16.5.2019: The urban as pictorial genre: Motifs and conclusions