The city inside things (vs. things inside the city)
5 April 2016


“The eye does not see things, but images of things that mean other things”

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, in “Cities and Signs 1”, 1972

We are used to thinking that cities are the result of a form given to the needs of people who create them, live in them and use them, and evolve following their changes and planning. And we are also used to seeing a correspondence between spaces and activities in them.

In informal unplanned contexts, needs emerge in an impelling way and sometimes concretise in non-codified ways, so that at times we cannot see any translation between spaces and phenomena anymore.

Things happen, but they are not translated into specific physical spaces, where their function is expressed through the elements of the space itself.

Nevertheless, they do happen and give form to the city as social dynamics.

In this case, the point of view of the observer is crucial.

Nowadays, due to modern technologies and the traditional approach of urban planning, quite often the perspective used to look at cities is a top-down one. But even if we go back to the Middle Ages, we find the same attempt to watch them from a higher eye than the human one (a bird view for example, or the axonometric projection) even though at that time we didn’t have the means to get that point of view.

It was a theoretical approach and an imaginary vision.

When many of us think about a city, we see streets, buildings, squares etc. from above. We have an image of the city that is also connected with the orientation we try or want to have in it, like the visualisation of a map.

So, moving through the city is also influenced by this vertical eye.

However, the act of going through the city is essentially a horizontal movement.

De Certeau in his “The Practice of Everyday Life” says:

“The act of walking is to the urban system what the speech act is to the language or to the statements uttered.”

(Michel de Certeau, The practice of Everyday Life, Paris, 1980, P. 98).

Walking through the city generates a tale of the self. Already almost fifty years ago Kevin Lynch, in his book “The image of the city”, told us about the perception of the city as its own essence. The image of the city is not only a physical one, but also, and not less importantly, a mental one. The mental image is the one related to the sensitive (perceivable) aspect of experiencing, so the one which leads to judgment. And judgment determines actions, and the use of space.

According to the Global Health Observatory, in 2010 the global population crossed the threshold of 50% living in urban areas.

This was a significant step. Although only 3% of the world’s land surface consists of cities, it hosts more than 3.5 billion people.

Maputo, the capital of the African state of Mozambique, has 1.1 million inhabitants. About 800 000 of them live in informal or semi-informal settlements.

These are the parts of the city that have grown the most during the last sixty years, cramming the existing “bairros” (neighborhoods) and opening new directions of expansion. The “Cidade de Cimento” (litterally “concrete city”, the formal one) is just a small portion of Maputo, in terms of both surface and popu lation. The “Cidade the Caniço” (“reed city”, the informal one), on the contrary, is the most dynamic part, in which an incredible range of worlds come together, mixing customs from the rural context with highly urbanized occurrences. This is the part of the city that grows and evolves. But it evolves, frequently, more with facts and less with physical spaces.

This work focuses on the informal bairro of Chamanculo C in Maputo. It hosts about 26 000 people and is one of the most densely populated of the capital, as well as one of the oldest. Informal dynamics are set in a greatly organised hierarchy and internal organisation. Here the city takes unexpected forms and shows us the potential for something that withstood even the most negative predictions and visions of something that should have been temporary, according to the initial design for Maputo.

This work is a tale about the city inside things in Chamanculo C, a pro-positive vision of images that mean other things, which leads to a strategic proposal to let the city be inside things.

Master’s thesis, Technische Universität Berlin, Professor Jörg Stollmann and Professor Rainer Hehl, 2014

–> Click here to have a look at the master’s thesis!