Singular Text, Many Authors: User-Generated Urban Plans

May 4, 2009

The Urban Typhoon workshops held in Shimokitazawa, Tokyo (urbantyphoon.com/2006/reports.htm) and Koliwada, Mumbai 2008 (urbantyphoon.com), yielded a complex set of texts – images, narratives, aspirations, dreams, maps, architectural drawings, data, figures and statistics. Each of them were collectively produced through collaborative interaction between local residents, vistors, professionals, laypersons and experts in a moment where hierarchies were minimised. All these texts were compiled into a report which is freely available for downloading.

These reports are significant examples of what, within academic circles, has come to be referred as multiple-authored texts.

The fact that a book can have several authors – and we are not talking of edited texts of distinct individually written essays – is not new. There are old arguments and debates about the idea of authorship that keep getting recycled within academic debates. From the demise of authorship altogether to the existence of multiple voices – one hears about plurality as an important value – often for its own sake.

Within anthropology, particularly from the eighties onwards, there have been frequent discussions about looking at ethnography (the practice of describing and inscribing other cultures) as a collaborative exercise – in which the anthropologist writes a text about a community in conjunction with its representatives.

Yet – when it comes to validating a collectively authored report about urban spaces – it takes greater effort. While literature and ethnography are spaces in which collective voices can be aestheticized in some way or the other, and eventually accepted, collectively authored reports dont always make the grade.

For one – the fact that there are so many signatures, ideas and drawings makes people draw the conclusion that plurality neccessarily translates into chaos, differences of opinions and contrary choices.

When it comes to drawing a plan for an urban space plurality is immediately seen to represent indecision in terms of moving ahead.

Maybe this is a classic case of over-interpretation – to evoke Umberto Eco.

Just as a city that appears to be messy and chaotic (see our entry on Mess is More below) is not always so – a report that has a diversity of styles, perspectives, opinions, ideas and expressions does not necessarily imply an inability to overcome differences or work with them.

It is easy to dismiss a report that has emerged from a collaborative exercise such as this to be amateur (because lay persons helped in writing it) or just a tokenistic celebration. Not something that can be seriously translated into action. Especially since it often lacks the aesthetics of uniformity of style – if not content.

However, if you look closer you will see in those reports, along with the images, the stories and expression of dreams – a very hard-headed set of visions that can easily be translated into specific urban projects – if you open yourself to the idea that urban spaces can consist of coordinated but distinct styles, designs and approaches.

Of course – one is not saying that these are completed texts or ready made plans. However, to value them, you need to accept that the language of plural authorship demands a different criteria while reading and appreciating them. It is difficult for a reader, so used to a singular voice in a book, to come to terms with two or more voices. She has to make the extra effort and evoke an older connection with stories so that the idea of singular authorship does not dominate her engagement with the narrative. Similarly, for all those involved with urban practices, maybe making the extra effort to read the special language of a plural authored text such as the reports in question, will lead to something equally significant. Perhaps, a genuine move towards a user generated urban plan.

It would be pertinent to ask – how would such a plan look? It would certainly not have a neat start, middle and end, nor a common aesthetic for its drawings. It would definitely have an uneven texture and very diverse styles – chapter by chapter, sometimes even page by page.

And yet – it could well manage to succeed in its mission of revealing a easily executable vision, as collectively and incrementally produced as the habitats it seeks to change, modify, build over and transform.

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