Five Auto-ethnographic ‘Vistas’ of the City.

What is the City?

In 1960, Kevin Lynch advanced a set of five elements that constitute the city: ‘paths’, ‘edges’, ‘nodes’, ‘districts’ and ‘landmarks’. Though they may seem fairly self-explanatory, I will recount an abridge version of Lynch’s definitions:

1. Paths: Paths are the channels along which the observer customarily, occasionally, or potentially moves… For many people, these are the predominant elements in their image… along these paths the other environmental elements are arranged and related.

2. Edges: Edges are the linear elements not used or considered as paths by the observer. They are boundaries between two phases… Such edges may be barriers… or they may be seams, lines along which two regions are related and joined.

3. Districts: Districts are the medium-to-large sections of the city, conceived of as having two-dimensional extent, which the observer mentally enters “inside of,” and which are recognisable as having some common, identifying character.

4. Nodes: Nodes are points, the strategic spots in a city into which an observer can enter… They may be primarily junctions… or the nodes may be simply concentrations, which gain their importance from being the condensation of some use or physical character.

5. Landmarks: Landmarks are another type of point-reference, but in this case the observer does not enter within them, they are external… Their use involves the singling out of one element from a host of possibilities.

(Kevin Lynch, 1960:47-8)

Reading these brief descriptions, I’m sure images from one’s own mental map of ‘cities know’ come to mind; specific examples of each spring forth unhindered in their immediacy. But the longer one muses on these categories, the more one finds grey areas between and overexposed areas overlapping these elements.

Inevitably, the constituent parts of a city are ‘more complex’ that Lynch’s five categories; a fact which Lynch himself notes. Of course, a particular element can be simultaneously two (or more) of these elements, depending on the perspective of the observer. So, as a brief example, the river Tyne, when standing on the quayside, could be seen as an ‘edge’ that serves as a barrier. However, standing on the Tyne Bridge, it could be seen as a seam-like edge connecting Newcastle with Gateshead. If one were to get in a boat, suddenly the edge becomes a path. If one were to get into a helicopter, the path could become a landmark. Travel (either by helicopter or boat, it’s your choice!) to the coast, and suddenly the Tyne becomes a district: Tynemouth.

How can we use Lynch’s categories if their application is seemingly so fluid? Well, I would contest that, in fact, in each scenario, the definition of the element is actually quite fixed. Standing by the river’s edge, it cannot be a path; it is quite fixedly an edge. To be sure, it is the observer’s perspective that applies these definitions, and the observer can change his/her perspective, often with ease. Yet within each perspective, there may be very little possibility for fluidity of definition. I’m sure there will be examples of elements that could be fit into more than one category simultaneously from one given perspective, but they are, I think, far fewer than those that present resolute categorisation from a single perspective.

So it is the perspective of the viewer that makes sense of the city. We put elements into these categories not in isolation, but in relationship to our knowledge of the rest of the city – that which surrounds it/us. This is something Lynch alludes to when suggesting “most observers seem to group their elements into intermediate organizations, which might be called complexes” (1960:85). True, we do tend to collate elements into interconnected groups. But this does not happen exclusively as an internal process. Cities are often designed with vantage points in mind; observation points from which to make sense of the ‘bigger picture’. Often these vantage points can emerge serendipitously: a clearing through trees (or buildings), etc. Comprising of many of the original five elements, and offering a place from which to connect various examples, these points are, I would tentatively suggest, something in and of themselves. They exist as spaces in their own right, with their own identities and significances. I would like to venture a sixth category to accompany Lynch’s five that describes these elements of the city:

 6. Vistas: To take the dictionary definition of this word, a vista is “a view or prospect, especially one seen through a long, narrow avenue or passage, as between rows of trees or houses.[1]” But the advantage of using the word vista is that it can be used to describe not only the view, but the location from which the view is made possible. Therefore a vista can also be “such an avenue or passage, especially when formally planned.”

Therefore, in this word, we get a dual meaning; both the view and the vantage point described as a singular entity. I think this is an apposite device as it offers the possibility of a place within the city from which to make some sense of the city. It is a place from which Lynch’s five elements can be assessed and joined together in those very personal narratives that each of us construct around (and through) a city, yet it is a place in its own right, with its own significances and interactions that, while it may be one of Lynch’s elements as well, (a vista could be a path, at the top of a landmark etc) it is something more.

The dictionary offers a third, slightly more esoteric, definition of the word vista which, again, I think is not only applicable but of great use in thinking about the city. Thus, a vista can be defined as a “comprehensive mental view of a distant time or a lengthy series of events”. Writ large in this definition of the word is the concept of ‘connection’, not just the physical connections between urban elements (how one road leads to another, which ends in a landmark etc), nor even the personal connection one makes between significant points on one’s own map, but also held within this definition is the concept of connection through time; the city as a fluid, ever-changing entity, the ‘self’ equally temporal and subject to shifts, and the interconnectivity between the twain that plays out through the observer gazing on/from/ within the vista. Vistas can be (are) ‘memory spots’; we are perhaps afforded a chance to look out over a view of the past/ future: both as imagined, both as projected from the ‘present’ of the vista-as-vantage-point. It is a vantage point in the present from which to negotiate the past and future, to assess change and continuity both.

Presented below are five brief examples of personally constructed ‘vistas’. The aim here is not necessarily to write an autobiographical narrative of ‘me and the city’, nor to propose a quasi-solipsistic notion that the individual alone ‘creates’ the city around him/herself from the ‘raw materials’ left transparent unless ‘coloured in’ with personal significance.

The aim is twofold. If you, dear reader, have any knowledge of the any of the five vistas discussed, I hope to encourage a personal reflection on the vistas; how do you view them? Are my descriptions congruent or contradictory with your own? What have I over-emphasised? What have I left out? Ultimately, what do you see from/ what do you see in these vistas?

If you do not know of these vistas in particular, then, as with Joe Brainard’s classic personal memories contained in “I Remember”, substitute the specific for a specific of your own. Take the sentiment rather than the location. What vistas mean something in your location? Do they provide distinctions between, or conflate Lynch’s categories?    

West Road, looking out onto the A69/A1 Roundabout

 

West Road, facing the A69

 

This particular vista is perhaps the ‘odd one out’ in many respects in that is not within walking distance of my house in Newcastle, and it is a place I have no day to day communication  with. It is also probably the vista/ location that conflates Lynch’s five city elements most thoroughly.

The vista itself is, unsurprisingly, to be found at the apex of a fairly high hill. To one side, that which goes towards the city centre (turning into Westgate Road) there is a plateau, which drops steeply (eventually) past the motorbike shops. In the other direction is an expansive landscape; almost a suggestion of liminality (maybe this is only in my mind, I have a spesific association with this vista; it is going somewhere definite to me, which will be discussed later) between city and surrounding countryside, hinted at by distant green hills. Between viewer and (bucolic?) hills lies an expanse of quite dreary concrete and brick. In the middle distance sits the central ‘node’ to use Lynch’s vocabulary (though a convincing argument could be made for describing it as a ‘path’, and also as an ‘edge’… maybe even as a ‘landmark’?); the giant, labyrinthine roundabout connecting the A1 to the A69 to Newcastle.

So while the view itself is quite impressive in its scope, one could scarcely describe it as ‘spectacular’. The reason I have chosen this vista is entirely personal. What I love about this particular vista is its Janus-like quality. To me, and varying in nuance over time, this vista provides a looking forward/looking backwards space, both spatially and temporally.

Growing up, the A69 was the route that we would always drive into Newcastle. Now living in Newcastle, the A69 is the route taken back to my parent’s home. So there was always (and still is) a suggestion of the ‘promise’ of returning home in this vista for me. Similarly, there was always the excitement of going into ‘town’ as Westgate Road opened up its own vista at the top of the hill. Westgate Road was always the start of ‘the city proper’ in my mind. With is visible multiculturalism (along its route, it has Afro-Caribbean food shops, motorbike mechanics, a Hindu temple, Indian supermarkets, tower blocks, a Krishna centre) it served as a portentous (both in the sense of being marvellous and ominous) symbol for the vastness and diversity of a world I knew I needed to experience. I grew up in a small town (moving to the countryside later) where visible signs of cultural ‘difference’ were few and far between, so Westgate Road always captured my imagination.

Now, living in Newcastle, this Janus has somehow double his ‘home head’; in both directions now from this vista, I can ‘see’ representations of a home – that of my present and that of my past. The vista has changed in significance even for me in the interim years. And curiously, the previous feeling of vastness and diversity, (of sheer volumes of people) now feels quite parochial, familiar. This vista, I feel, highlights both the spatial and temporal characteristics of observation. I see countryside/city but also past/future.

Byker Bridge

In my mind’s visualisation of this vista, it is always dark. It is always dark and raining. It is always dark and raining, with the wind squalling over the alarmingly precarious bridge. It is always winter… or late autumn. It is always cold and damp. Two streams of car lights – one red tail lights, the other violently bright headlights – are blurred through rain-soaked glasses. Coats are always pulled tighter, scarves wrapped to cover mouth and chin. Head down, trudging, enduring, braving the elements.

The above description may sound as though it does a disservice to what is a distinctly impressive – almost cinematic – vista. Again, to me (and I assume many people familiar with this road), there is a duality of forwards/backwards imbued into this vista; forwards to the centre of town, backwards to home. But even this does not tell the full story of this vista. In Kevin Lynch’s terminology it would quite straightforwardly be described as a ‘path’. However, there is, as a pedestrian (the only experience I have of the Byker bridge) a heady mix of images that one must process. Not only is there the forwards and backwards aspect (the road itself), dominated often by the aforementioned stream of cars, there is also the sideways view. One way offers a quite stunning view out over the Ouseburn valley; a view which mixes urban and rural – trees and buildings – in alarmingly emulsified way. The other direction offers an ‘up-close’ view of the spectacular brutalist Metro bridge, which sweeps its serpentine way across the road and off into the distance. Behind this sits the almost quaint in comparison steel arches of the railway bridge.

However, from this vista, there is yet another view; a third dimension. Stopping in the middle of the bridge, one gets a dizzying look down at the Ouseburn valley below. On the right hand side (coming from Byker into the city centre) one is confronted by the incongruity of looking down on a farm (the recently re-opened Ouseburn farm) obscured by the dirty metal railings of the bridge itself. It really is a baffling juxtaposition!

For me, this vista marks either the beginning of a walk into ‘town’ or the signal of a journey from town coming to its end, hence my image of darkness and squall. It is more than ‘just’ a path to/from home to be traversed. Yet one would find it hard to describe it as a landmark or node in and of itself. I can’t imagine ever stopping there for any length of time. The view, however spectacular (in all three directions), is always viewed ‘on the move’. Though in many respects it is an ‘edge’ – the connection between three places (the Ouseburn valley, Byker, ‘town’) – it is more than this. It is a conflation of these three; a place that is part of all, and a place from which one can make a holistic picture from within the picture. One is not forced to stand ‘outside’ the city to view the city as a whole. In that sense, there is an indelible sense of progression, of hope, in this vista. There is an inclusionary air – again a promise of home – but of seeing the bigger picture; home as centre, centre as home.

Shields Road

Of course, not all vistas are so positive, and this next certainly less so! Shields road (particularly the section that stems from the Byker Bridge, up to the Byker East roundabout) holds, for me, nought but an oppressive feeling of desolation and sadness. In both directions, this vista offers views of derelict shops, crumbling edifices (one, famously (famous in my mind anyway!), with budlia – ubiquitous in this part of Newcastle – crawling out of the roof and top windows) and such a monocrop homogenisation of available shops. Betting shops, charity shops, pubs, ‘amusements’, pound shops swamp the high street.

The myriad historical socio-economic issues would take a lifetime to unpick; the general homogenisation of the high street nationally, the move to retail parks and shopping centres rendering obsolete many shopping areas (cf. Clayton Street), the general deprivation of Byker. I know not nearly enough about these things to posit any coherent theories. But the vista that has been produced is one of dislocation, of clamouring nothingness. It is actually quite an exclusionary place I find. All ‘edges’, all boundaries. From its two bookending roundabouts; both extremely (deliberately?) difficult for pedestrians to traverse to its uninviting shop fronts, there is more space denied to the viewer than is possible to engage with. There is less in this vista to imprint the personal vignette onto (or into)… except for the job centre… which I could count after my nadiral few weeks on the dole last summer… but I don’t count that place…. I don’t even recognise the existence of that place now. Shields Road leaves me feeling an ‘outsider’ – that I don’t really ‘belong’ here.

This is a feeling that has both a perennially concern and agitating bête noire of mine in relation to the concept of ‘Geordiness’. I was not born in the North-East (I was born in Plymouth; about as far away as it is possible to get without crossing the sea!), I ‘missed’ to a greater extent the traumatic, yet potentially unifying (retroactive romanticism?), ostracising visited on the region by Thatcher, I am markedly middle-class, I speak with no discernable Geordie accent (an American student remarked to me the other day “but you definitely have a slight Northern accent, I’d say you’re from at least north of Southhampton”. Either the student was not a British geography expert, or my accent is not very Northern at all!). Both of these things – accent and working classness – are often tacitly tied into notions of the ‘authentic’ Geordie identity, and they are things that, demonstrably, I do not possess. Yet being from the North-East (I hesitate, even here, to write ‘Geordie’) is of paramount importance to me and my own identity construction. I feel a profound connection to this city, this region, this culture, this countryside. It is my home: this is where I am from.

 

Shields Road questions that in acerbic tones.  It mocks me. “You hate me” it jeers. “You want me to be cleaner, to have nice little book shops, cake shops and the like. You want me to be more middle class because you’re middle class” it sneers. “But I’m working class” it asserts “and if you were really a Geordie, you would be too, but you’re not. You don’t really belong here.” This is the vista I see along Shields Road.

       

St. Teresa’s Catholic Church/ Heaton Park

A slightly spurious one this, as I think it more readily pertains to Lynch’s definition of a ‘landmark’ (particularly for me) as a “type of point reference… the observer does not enter within” (1960:48). However, I include it here as a good example of the existence of ‘multiple cities’ carved from individual significances sitting within the same structures.

The building itself is absolutely fantastic in its paradoxical nature; it is at once ostentatious with its flamboyant design, yet almost squat and modest in size – particularly when compared with the monolithic tradition of St. Cuthbert’s further along the road and the towering red-brick block of Heaton Baptist Church. It demands to be ‘looked at’, it’s bold equilateral triangle sides drawing the eye, yet the materials used are understated to say the least; light brown brick, a tinge of modest green on the roof slates, the pastel green crucifix towering above the structure, the plain strips of glass, always appearing black . It seems to provide a vista that gives the viewer a fairly immediate and succinct picture – a suburban catholic church, modern yet understated, yet there is something, for me, always ‘hidden’ about it. There is no vantage point from which one can determine the entire shape of the building – how many triangular protrusions are there? – it gives away so little about the inner layout, and the central portion of the building is almost shielded be these triangular barriers.

Behind St. Teresa’s is the merest hint of Heaton Park; a few skeletal trees sloping down out of sight provide a backdrop to the church as viewed from the road that moderates and subdues the ‘man-made’ artificiality of the perfect, repeated triangles. It creates the illusion of rurality in the heart of suburbia. It also promises space beyond – past – the church itself; a care-free, simple oasis of green on the other side of enigmatic (dogmatic) religion.

I should point out at this juncture, I have never been inside St. Teresa’s. I am not religious (let alone Catholic). I know nothing of the inner-workings of the place, its congregation, its place in ‘my’ community (other than it is impossible to find a parking space on my road on Sunday mornings). I am, in many respects, an outsider looking in at this vista.

But I feel not the same sense of exclusion that I feel from Shields Road. In fact, quite the opposite. When I look at this church, I often get a profound sense of serenity – maybe even nostalgia – and a kind of relaxed joy. In my mind, I see the church tinted by the watery light of a golden winter sun in late afternoon. But for what reason do I feel this nostalgia? I have no childhood memories of going to this, or any, church (because I never did), and I am loathe to apportion any of the significance on some ethereal religious ‘aura’.

I’m not sure of the answer to this, but what I want to highlight here, is that that this vista (and I’m not sure if this word is the accurate one for this example, because for me maybe it is ‘just’ a landmark) is a significant point on my cultural map of Newcastle. However, for someone who regularly goes to this church, for someone who drops their children off at the Catholic primary school next door (for those children), this vista will take on an entirely different significance. In many respects, it will be an entirely different vista; though the site is the same, each individual’s part in, and relationship with, each vista will colour it, change it, as to be unrecognisable almost to another person. Thus my description of the church may be contested vehemently be another who has a deeper relationship with it, who will have picked out different characteristics in their mental portrait.

In this sense, there are multiple ‘cities’ (by which I mean maps of significant elements, connected by vistas) sitting on top of (alongside? in conjunction with?) each other, each written by the individual, each a different city making sense of the connections between subjective symbols.

The Quayside

The above said, there are areas in which such individual, subjective, understandings become a lot harder to create; areas in which a prescribed meaning to the vista already exists (often from without, as opposed to from within – either the person or the city). These vistas often become synecdoche for the city in the imagination of the broader community. They become ‘the’ vista, the city.

Such a vista, unquestionable, can be found along the quayside. As with the other, more individual vistas I have discussed, this view contains within it pronounced examples of all of Kevin Lynch’s elements. It is itself a node – maybe even a district (city council promotion of the area as the night-life/ cultural hub would tend to suggest that there is a vested interest in promoting the narrow strip as such) – there is the long boulevard serving as ‘path’, flanking the imposing ‘edge’ of the Tyne. As for landmarks, well… look at any calendar, art gallery, or national media representation of this city, and the chances are you will find a picture of the Tyne Bridge, Sage, Baltic, or, at a push, Millennium Bridge (of course, the Angel of the North will usually get a visual ‘shout out’ as well). Irrespective of the fact that none of these grand landmarks can fully stake a claim to ‘being Newcastle’ – the Sage and Baltic are in Gateshead (though the extent to which they ‘speak to’ or ‘communicate with’ the rest of Gateshead is a moot point), the two bridges are in something of a liminal space (for some reason, I always think of the Tyne Bridge as being in Newcastle, but the Millennium Bridge as being in Gateshead!). Yet they have become almost the exclusive set of images that represent Newcastle, probably aided by the fact that all can be seen in the same vista; a landmark orgy!

But the overriding feeling I get when down at the quayside (which is not very often) is that it doesn’t really connect with the rest of the city; it is somehow removed from it, both physically and in usage. If feels ‘given over’ to some exterior group, not ‘truly’ Newcastle (I fully recognise the hypocrisy of complaining at not fitting in to the Shields Road vista, yet lambasting the quayside for not fitting in to the rest of Newcastle: maybe my Newcastle is somewhere between these two poles!). I think this is partially down to topography; being at river’s edge means that some sort of holistic view of the city is made impossible; one may only look along. When seen from the Redheugh Bridge (for example) the quayside is placed in context with the rest of the rising city backing it up (leading up to it?). When down there, perspective is lost, and it can feel isolated.

But also, the rebranding of the site as the ultimate leisure site: drinking, expensive meals, expensive concerts, theatre, more places to drink, high heels clicking on cobbles rendered ‘quaint’, sits uncomfortably, as a palimpsest not quite achieving (yet always threatening to) its sinister goal of erasing the industrial history of the same vista. An ‘identity’ (equally ubiquitous in its representation of the city in its heyday) of Newcastle as heavy industry, ships and coal, working class men and murky working waters has been engulfed by a new identity of ‘best night out in the UK’, and with that comes a loss, and a feeling of resentment – even for something I have no first-hand experience or recollection of.  

I suppose this feeling of national ownership, coupled with the ubiquity and famousness of the vista, allows little room for the viewer to impose his or her own narrative, his or her own identity, upon the scene. Lynch speaks explicitly about such a phenomenon: “a landscape whose every rock tells a story may make difficult the creation of fresh stories” (1960:6). This is the exact issue I take with the vista of the quayside; there is no room for the personal narrative. In many respects it moved from one ‘finished’ narrative (that of the industrial river), through a ‘dead period’ where its existence was almost forgotten (growing up, the concept of going to the quayside was never on the cards) to its new reincarnation, equally ‘finished’.

Conclusions

The vista offers the observer a chance to recognise Lynch’s five elements (it should go without saying that a vista may indeed be any (or a combination) of these five elements as well) in the landscape of the city, connecting them physically and through personal narrative. Yet the vista is in itself an element; the place from which one stands, from which one views. They offer a place within to assess, conclude, change, confirm, one’s construction of the city.

The individual – the resident, the observer, (the tourist?) – is integral in giving meaning to each element of the city. It is the individual who leaves an indelible impression – seen only by themselves – upon each building, road, park, river etc. It is from vistas that this process takes place.

The result is a concept of ‘multiple cities’, all existing within the same space. Each person is responsible for building up their own ‘map’ of the city; apportioning elements into categories, giving significance to certain facets, ignoring others. We connect elements of the city into a map. These differing maps sit atop each other – like sheets of tracing paper over some ‘original’. Often they may interact, often they share key ingredients, but often they will be as unique cities.

In saying that they sit atop each other, I do not wish to allude to some sort of hierarchy (the ‘more prominent’ on the top, the ‘more real’ on the bottom), but I say so to endeavour to rebuke the charge of solipsism. Of course ‘the city’ is not a transparent form upon which one is given free rein to signify. Each building, each space, and the manner in which they are assembled, all reveal prior intentions and attempts to colour attitudes and responses. So, in this sense, our individual maps are even more like tracing paper. The thicker the pile of tracing paper, the more opaque it becomes, the less option for free design is given. Our ‘maps’ are shaped and shaded by those that have gone before, by those that exist contemporaneously. But that we make our own maps at all – that we shape our own city from the forms given to us -is significant, and I believe that it is from vistas that such map making is possible.


[1] These definitions are taken from http://www.dictionary.com

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