If you have been reading this blog for a while, you will know that I am on the home straight with my studies. If all goes well, I’ll graduate at the end of this year with a double major in Sociology and Media/Communication. I fell into Sociology by accident when the bossy lady in the enrolment department told me I couldn’t just do Psychology. It turned out that I wasn’t suited for Psychology at all and completely fell in love with Sociology. This semester I’m doing a paper on Sociology of the City and for one of the assignments we have to write two 1000 word blog posts. Because I have a real blog with real readers (hello everyone) I have decided to actually write four shorter blog posts and give you all a glimpse of what I’ve been learning. Please don’t feel any pressure to read these, I’ll label them clearly and you can just skip them if you like. Normal programming will resume later in the week.
The best way that I have found to describe what Sociology is, is that it is the study of the theory of society. There seems to be theories on everything and all of them are different. At first it was quite confusing, but after a while you realise that Sociology is basically people making sense of how society works. And then it becomes interesting, because you become part of the process as you wrestle with the theories and make sense of them yourself.
Sociology of the city is the study of the various theories about cities. The first three weeks were about the emergence of the modern city (beginning with Venice and Paris), a mythical person who lives in the modern city (called a Flaneur) and suburbia and the folks who commute to the city to work.
It is particularly interesting to study the Sociology of the city, when you live in a city that is currently being rebuilt. Everybody who lives in Christchurch is affected by and has an opinion on what should or should not be built in Christchurch and why. “It is the fate of cities, if they are not made into museums, to be transformed by every generation of inhabitants, developers, architects, entrepreneurs, immigrants and property owners.” Our city is being transformed by a natural disaster and Paris in the 1800s was transformed by a man called Haussmann who under Napoleon III undertook an ambitious program of public works which created the basis of Paris as we know it today. Either way, the changing of the city landscape polarises the inhabitants of the city as they grapple with the changing backdrop to their daily lives and the way they interact with it.
In Austria in the late 1800s - early 1900s, Otto Wagner was wrestling with with what being modern meant to architecture. He felt that “architecture bridged the gap between the engineer and the artist” and that it provided something that showed people how to be modern, how to live modern lives and engage with the city in a modern manner.
In this way both Haussmann and Wagner were striving to construct a modern environment for people to live in. The folks who shifted from the countryside to the modern city for employment had to leave behind their old ways of living. They had to make meaning of their lives away from the cues of the seasons and nature and into the city where commerce rules. The city makes you interact differently, it changes all aspects of daily life. The architecture is the structure of this life.
In Christchurch we experienced this when suddenly the centre of the city was fenced off. My children went to school on February 22, rushed out the door to catch their bus with barely a goodbye; and in the course of the day everything changed and we never went back. It was completely gone. Years later when the fence was gone, I went back to the spot and there was nothing there to mark the building that had been such a huge factor in our lives. The city had framed our comings and goings. The cafes were our living room, the library was our book shelf. The school was the heart of it all and in one afternoon it was taken away. For a long time we felt dislocated and alienated from our own city as we tried to find a new way to live in and engage with it.
It is little wonder then that there is so much angst in Christchurch about what is being built here and why. It is because we are trying to rebuild our home, our place in the world. You take most of the buildings out of the centre of the city and suddenly you wonder what holds the city together. Do we even have a city? What makes our place special? why should anyone come here? why do we stay here?
It turns out that the buildings of the city are not just the backdrop to our lives, we interacted with them, we could say, I’ll meet you at the Crossing at 12 and know exactly where to meet. In our emerging landscape, we don’t know how to find each other. It’s confusing and challenging.
Of course there are a lot of people who are happy to live in suburbia, to stay in their little islands and live all of their lives there. The city is not their neighbourhood, it is a place to commute into and work and then return to their lives of peace and quiet. Suburbia is a post war construction enabled in America by private car ownership allowing people to live further away from their place of work, and in Europe by public transport. Suburbia is a dream to those who hanker after a quiet life and a prison to those (young and restless) who strive to escape it. It is a place where people feel that they can live their dramas in private, where they can dream their dreams and create their own personal castle if they so desire. Funny enough though, I’ve noticed it is the suburban voices which clamour for the restoration of the Cathedral (even though they never went in it) and the saving of the heritage buildings (they never visited).
Yes indeed, everyone has an opinion in the city. I’m sure in time to come students of Sociology will be studying the architecture of Christchurch and how the new post-earthquake buildings have affected the ways Cantabrians live their lives and earn their livings here.
If you are interested the readings that accompany this blog post are as follows (I read them all #killmenow)
Week one:The emergence of the modern city: Vienna & Paris
Daniel Purdy, "The Cosmopolitan Geography of Adolf Loos” New German Critique no.99 modernism after postmodernity (fall 2006) pp.41-62
Roger Paden (2010),"Otto Wagner's modern architecture”,Ethics, Place & Environment: A Journal of Philosophy & Geography, 13:2, pp.229-246
David P. Jordan, "Haussmann and Haussmannisation : The Legacy for Paris”, French Historical Studies, Volume 27, Number 1, Winter 2004, pp.87-113
Walter Benjamin, "Paris: Capital of the Nineteenth Century”, Perspecta, Vol. 12 (1969), pp. 163-172
Week two: The Flaneur: street life and the urban gaze
Mike Grimshaw, "The Antimodern Manifesto of the Rural Flaneur: When D‟Arcy and John Go For a Wander”, Journal of New Zealand Studies 13, pp. 144-153.
Richard Pope, "The Jouissance of the Flâneur: Rewriting Baudelaire and Modernity”, Space and Culture 2010 13 (1), pp. 4-16
Mike Featherstone, "The Flâneur, the City and Virtual Public Life”,
Urban Studies 1998 35, pp.909-925
Wiliam Helmrich: "Modern-day flâneur”. Theories and demographics are all very well, but to know New York City's inner life you need to walk and talk
Week three: The rise of suburbia and bourgeois commuter
Tim Foster,' "A Kingdom of a Thousand Princes but No Kings": The Postsuburban Network in Douglas Coupland's Microserfs', Western American Literature, Volume 46, Number 3, Fall 2011, pp.
Yoke-Sum Wong, "Modernism's Love Child: The Story of Happy Architectures”, Common Knowledge, Volume 14, Issue 3, Fall 2008, pp. 445-471
David Kolb (2011) "Many centers: suburban habitus”, City: analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, policy, action, 15:2, pp.155-166,Annabel Cooper, "Point Chev boys and the landscapes of suburban memory: autobiographies of Auckland childhoods”, Gender, Place & Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography16:2, 121-138