Manhole Covers, The Naked City and Paul Klee

In class two weeks ago, I read a thesis from 2001 called ‘Manhole Covers and Other Art Underfoot’. I was mostly interested in discovering how to create a thesis out of a concept so abstract. The author found that upon transitioning to a pedestrian lifestyle after moving to New York City, she began noticing and appreciating so many details in her surroundings. I definitely had a similar experience of waking up to the beauty of our city, even in the most banal everyday things.

‘While the exotic may raise our eyebrows, it is the mundane that is truly engrossing, and from which the most can be learned. It is in the everyday that we find insights and miracles, in what’s under our noses… and under our feet.’

New York City at one time was dotted with cast-iron foundries that produced everything from decorative railings, staircases, doors, building fronts, weathervanes, lampposts, boot scrapers, and manhole and coal chute covers. In the thousands of miles of sidewalks in NYC you can find the names of these foundries with handiwork from as far back as the late 1800’s intact. Also, one of the most beautiful aspects of the Gramercy Park neighborhood are the cast iron gates surrounding the buildings.

It is definitely interesting that these manhole covers signify an old-fashioned time in New York City. A time when we burned coal for heat (oh, we still do that) and had to access the reservoir from downtown, and when there were many fine craftsmen available to make beautiful designs for our buildings out of cast iron.

The most interesting part of the thesis was an historical section that examined the Situationist movement and derive. The Situationist work focuses on the urban environment and it’s interaction with human behavior. Derive is “a technique of transient passage through varied ambiences, one that entails playful-constructive behavior and awareness of psychogeographical effects.” This is all so related to urban planning, and some of the articles I plan on reading for thesis research are within this field. I am only interested in this subject with regards to how welcoming a space is to bring people together to interact with each other and their environment.

It is so interesting to think that the experience of our place is so dependent on the maps that guide us. Guy Debord and Asger Jorn offer an entirely new perspective with ‘The Naked City’, a map of Paris that weaves together parts of the city based on their psychogeographic importance. In the map they offer an antidote to being “swept along by crowds… bound by an artificial imperative of speed… rushing toward sites of alienated production or consumption.” It is possible to create a map for residents and tourists alike that suggests drifting through the cities backwaters to enjoy the sense of encounter, and highlighting unique aspects of the city beyond the standard tourist attractions.

This reminds me of a book I just read actually. I was lucky enough to get my hands on a copy of Paul Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook (1925), which diagrams in detail the many points, lines and planes that are available to the artist simply from referencing our environment. In my Visual Communications I class with Professor Mark Sanders, one of our first assignments was to find a modular structure in our walk to class and create a pattern out of it. The concept originated in the Bauhaus philosophy, and more specifically Klee’s philosophy “that rested on empathy with the created world, accepting everything that is with equal love and humility. As a very young man he had spoken of his art as “andacht zum kleinen” (devotion to small things)… Through observation of the smallest manifestation of form and interrelationship, he could conclude about the magnitude of natural order.” This text is found in the devotional introduction to the book by Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, and in the concluding notes she quotes Novalis in the hopes that Klee’s book will inspire others to:
“…give sense to the vulgar,
give mysteriousness to the common,
give the dignity of the unknown to the obvious,
and a trace of infinity to the temporal.”

Published by Elizabeth Pizzuti

Design, art, and cats mostly

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