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Editing the City: Socio-spatial Subcultures as a Critique of Contemporary Urban Space

Part 1 Dissertation 2009
Robert Dutton
University of Plymouth, UK
Arriving into architecture via parkour, it seemed appropriate to return to the activity as the subject of my dissertation. Initial explorations of the subject area revealed similarities between the practices of parkour and skateboarding in terms of their use of urban social space, and also suggested parallels with graffiti and b-boying (breakdancing); identifying a vehicle with which to explore space, architecture and the city.

Brief conversations with practitioners of these subcultures (coupled with my personal experience) developed into a series of interviews, providing detailed primary material with which to contextualize these subcultures within contemporary spatial and urban theory.

The result is a paper which is a discussion of the role of the user within architecture; an investigation of how users are not simply subject to architecture but can generate it too. In exploring the means by which these subcultures engage with the city, it is shown that these subcultures undertake a critique of existing spatial and social practices. In doing so these subcultures not only function as a negative critique of the nature of existing urban conditions but demonstrate dialectical methods of spatial and social production, challenging hierarchical modes of producing space and architecture and revealing possibilities of new forms of urbanism with which to re-engage with the city.

The paper begins with a brief record of contemporary western urbanity, demonstrating the demise of essential urban components such as the street and public space. The following chapter examines specific spatial actions (gestures) which define these socio-spatial practices, exploring the role of the body, perception and representation in the production of space. The analysis then further develops to explore the implications of these actions on a larger scale (both spatially and temporally), placing actions within the context of the contemporary city. The paper demonstrates that repetition of these gestures produces social rhythms: the ultimate generator of ‘place’. Finally, the paper shows how networks of socially produced places radically alter the social geography of the city; revealing that users are not only subject to the dynamics of existing urban structures but are able construct a new syntax of the city.

Robert Dutton

This dissertation explores the realms of urban subcultures and their values to both practitioners of the explored subcultures and as potential for investigating and understanding the city.
Contemporary academic writings on cities are critiqued and interrogated in parallax with seemingly disposable subculture literature and the author’s personal experiences within these subcultures.
A further layering to the dissertation arrives in the form of ‘editing the city:’ a subtle methodology of structuring the dissertation which metaphorically arranges the chapters according to readings and annotations, rhythms, additions and syntax, subtractions and re-submissions through to definitions. The act of reading the dissertation thus suggests undertones of reading the city. The glossary which runs throughout the work supports these new definitions and explains them to the reader.
The dissertation is a strong piece of undergraduate work which has already become a vehicle for the author to undertake further study in this arena.
The work is beautifully laid out and presented with a level of professionalism and passion for the subject.
Rob's balanced approach, as a researcher, a practitioner and as a thinker of both the investigated subcultures and architecture develop both objectively and subjectively throughout the text, but always critically.

Adam Cowley-Evans, Dissertation Supervisor

Adam Cowley-Evans
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