Cover Image: The Matrix - An Urban Design Project, TU Berlin, 2004

“Urbs Medusa: Perseus in the Contemporary City” by Sarah Rivière


How to reference this article:  

Riviere S. "Urbs Medusa: Perseus in the Contemporary City" in The Matrix - An Urban Design Project, Riviere S. & Slinger R. (Eds.) (Berlin: Technische Universität Berlin, 2004), pp. 8 - 14

ISBN 3 7983 1949 9

Full text here below © Sarah Rivière:



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1. Urbs Medusa: Perseus in the Contemporary City
The city, let us admit it, is a tricky protagonist for even the most experienced urban designer as he/she negotiates the process leading to a particular urban design. Having lain for years relatively quietly under the hands of urban planners and architects, the city has gradually been revealed both in the architectural and the art world as a creature existing in its own right, a multi-faceted conglomerate whose range challenges the powers of expression of even the most articulate. As Henri Lefebvre wrote in his article “Seen from the Window”: “Opacity and horizons, obstacles and perspectives… the Unknown, the giant city, to be perceived or guessed at...”. In constant movement, ever in transition, the city has emerged to the designer as an autonomous reality which extends far beyond the simple morphological outline of its physical form. Simultaneously each of us through everyday city-life directly experiences the range of its physiognomy, as we veer from fascination to frustration, as the mundane steps aside to reveal the marvellous (or vice-versa...), as the seemingly inhospitable develops into each person‘s unique and familiar home. The city can be subtle yet awesome, sometimes revealing great beauty, but it can also test human resilience to its limits - the tenuous strength of humanity‘s ability to survive against seemingly insurmountable odds is revealed daily in the world‘s largest urban conurbations.

How to bring any student, be they architect or urban planner, into contact with the city’s range, its intimacy and infinity, its dissonance and its poetry, in such a way that he/she is able to design with relevance and inspiration within it? How to ensure that contact is both established and maintained with the real living city of our daily inhabitation, with the active city in its complexity rather than with an edited facsimile of the same? The ever-present danger is that of a designer’s inelegant retreat, either into the tired boredom of simple pragmatism - the safest yet least poetic solution - or into ignominious cliché grasping at stereotypical solutions to cover all confusion.

Let us design an approach to urbanism where the steps towards urban contact are carefully choreographed. Let us, through this approach, negotiate a lightness of touch with respect to the city in order to make visible the more subtle layers of the urban realm, layers which hard pragmatism can so easily reduce to dust.

Italo Calvino, in exemplifying the attribute of lightness in literature, uses a passage from Ovid describing Perseus’ defeat of the Gorgon Medusa, to help him. He wrote:

“At certain moments I felt that the entire world was turning to stone: a slow petrification, more or less advanced depending on people and places but one that spared no aspect of life. It was as if no one could escape the inexorable stare of Medusa. The only hero able to cut off Medusa’s head is Perseus, who flies with winged sandals; Perseus who does not turn his face upon the face of the Gorgon but only upon her image reflected in his bronze shield.…….
To cut off Medusa’s head without being turned to stone, Perseus supports himself on the very lightest of things, the winds and the clouds, and fixes his gaze upon what can be revealed only by indirect vision, an image caught in a mirror.”

Perhaps Calvino’s use of this myth, which he sees as an allegory of the poet’s relationship to the world, can be extrapolated to encompass the architect’s relationship to the contemporary city. As such, this passage gives inspiration to those who aim to design without heaviness and opacity within the living urban context. Quite simply, through his elegant interpretation of the ancient text of Ovid’s Metamorphosis, through his use of this subtle myth for his own quiet self-analysis, Calvino makes us reconsider our own approach. He points out to us the rewards of subtlety, of versatility, of the lighter touch, which remains relevant even when faced with a challenge of seemingly immeasurable range.

In addition it seems to me that, neatly and with deft precision, while calling on mythology for its expressive capacity, Calvino reveals to us our own lack of the same.

2. Conversing with the Elements: Art and Urban Design.
The urban designer needs to both reconsider and redefine his/her role with respect to the city. The role of the designer within the city has until now been that of the God-like expert; he/she has, through study and experience, accumulated a wide store of knowledge, of concepts and information, about the city – his/her own field of operation. Armed in this way the designer faces the city, analyses and measures it. Wanting to keep an open mind he/she aims for that impossible goal, maximum objectivity. But now the urban designer must become aware that the expertise that he/she has at hand and the tools used to analyse the city in themselves can often, while enabling astute analysis, cause him/her simultaneously to overlook his/her own humanity, seeing for example, the non-pragmatic, the non-concrete, the ephemeral, the mythological even, as irrelevant.

The fact is that when it comes to the city, these few square kilometres are packed so full that it is infinity in a nutshell. No expert eye can encompass it; the attempt is perhaps honourable, but impossible. In addition, in the past the attempt to attain the maximum so-called objectivity of approach to the city in order to encompass the widest range of information available has been taken in opposition to the subjective view, which was looked down upon even in comparison as offering a narrower view of the world, blinkered by pre-conceptions. But of course the expert viewpoint is not in itself objective - rather, as any viewpoint, it preconfigures and prescribes the experience it offers. But once one acknowledges the subjective human located behind the expert eye, one opens up the field to a multitude of human, non-expert and non-measurable quantities which all impinge directly on the analysis in hand. A multitude of viewpoints revealing a complex multitude of readings.

Consider next the array of tools belonging to the expert in his/her own field. Weighed up against the obvious advantages there is also a downside which should be acknowledged to having a set of analytical techniques, a battery of precise and powerful tools, a history of learning at hand when approaching any subject: armed in this way it becomes difficult for the expert and the object of his gaze to assume the roles of two equal partners in a negotiated exchange – indeed it is often predestined that the roles adopted are rather those of, say, the expert surgeon and the immobile patient, etherised on the table. The operation of the tool often prescribes both the mode of approach and the roles to be taken in the exchange, removing the requirement and even the option for the parties to negotiate new terms of engagement. Blind reliance on a tool can make fine-tuned awareness of the response of the other party superfluous: eye contact is not possible from behind the sights of a Challenger tank.

3. A Conversation with Hans Holbein the Younger

The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger, © Licenced Wiki Commons

In London’s National Gallery hangs a picture by the German Renaissance artist, Hans Holbein the Younger. The Ambassadors, an oil-painting on oak panels, is a double portrait painted in 1533 showing two men, Jean de Dinteville, at that time French ambassador to London, and Georges de Selve, Bishop of Lavaur who visited London that year. The two men stare out of the picture with brown eyes, one man serious the other sad. They stand in front of a green damask curtain, between them a two-tiered table crowded with a collection of musical and scientific articles displayed like wares to the consumer.

This picture is famous both for its iconography and for the depiction of a strangely-shaped image stretched across the lower centre of the picture which, when viewed from a certain standpoint relative to the picture plane, mutates in your vision into a clearly recognisable image: that of a human skull. The skull has become famous for the way in which it demands that the viewer set up a new relationship with the painted surface, one which goes beyond the accepted mode of viewing an oil-painting. Normally, a painting talks to you in the same way (telling you the same story) wherever you stand in the room in relation to it, this is because your brain takes into account and compensates for your location relative to the picture making your location unimportant to your comprehension of the image. But in The Ambassadors Holbein has painted the skull with such extreme elongation (anamorphism) that it can only be read as such from a particular line of sight, ie. it only becomes recognisable when you look at it from a certain part of the gallery. Thus this initially incomprehensible element sets a question and a challenge to the viewer as he/she stands before the painting, concealing its own image until the viewer moves to his allotted place. The shape first perplexes the viewer and then, but only on its own terms, reveals its content.

It is a wet Saturday afternoon in February and I am standing in the National Gallery directly in front of this painting, The Ambassadors. From this standpoint my eye is drawn first to the larger of the two men depicted, Jean de Dinteville. Rich and bulky, claiming fully his allotted half of the painting, he stands with his foot forward to hold the floor. His sumptuous crimson shirt draws the eye, his golden accoutrements, medallion and sword, are ornately decorated. In comparison his companion in the portrait, Georges de Selve, is more retiring: his stance is reserved in comparison with the more casual poise of his bolder companion and he visibly takes less space on the painted surface. His face is paler, his eyes are hooded and sad and his coat, though clearly of rich material, is dark and closed. George de Selve is, from this standpoint, the secondary character of the two.

But now a stretched object below the two men calls my attention: It is the skull, but in order to see it as such I, becoming aware of Holbein‘s painted request to do so, must move a few steps to the right and there, from an angle of perhaps 15° from the wall, the skull forms before my eyes and for a moment I stand fascinated, absorbing the image. But Holbein is offering more that this simple trick: I let my circle of vision expand to take in the rest of the painting from this angle. As the skull takes its place as one image contained within a wider frame, I see that from this angle some parts of this painting are more legible than others. The face that holds the painting now is that of the second, sadder man, Georges de Selve, while his bolder and more colourful companion is distant and even blurred. As I look from de Selve’s pale face to the skull again it is clear that the scale of the two, which before was very different, now matches: the largeness of the anamorphic skull image has reduced to a size directly in relation to that of de Selve’s own head; indeed if one imagines the size of the skull behind that face it must be identical to that of the skull that leers out of the painting below. As my eye looks from one to the other, from head to skull, between them two articles on the table catch my attention: a book, its open pages turned directly towards the viewer and a lute with a broken string. Through the depiction of a German hymnal it seems that here music would be offered - the musical instrument could be used to play it but for an annoying technical detail, a broken string on the lute. Is this a commentary from the artist on life and mortality? Perhaps - surely the interpretation is open to every individual‘s personal reading.

Through the movement of the viewer in the gallery with respect to the painting (movement which is precisely choreographed by the anamorphism of the skull) not only has the skull been revealed, but the wider content of the painting has changed. For me the new message offers a clarification of the relationship of certain articles in the picture to one of the two protagonists, Georges de Selve, and through linking these elements a new story is told, a story which through its subtle lack of closure held for example in the broken string of the lute, mutates into a question in my head. It is clear that what began as a sleight of hand on the part of the artist, an adept anamorphic game, has become a tool to enable a new reading of the work whereby certain characters, here skull, hymnal, lute and Bishop find their voices in an active performance. Through their coming together I receive, transmitted clearly over a period of nearly 500 years, the wry and lively commentary of the long-dead painter, Holbein.

It fascinates me that I, a casually informed viewer strolling through the gallery, can have such an inspiring and generative relationship with this picture. After my visit to the gallery I buy books and a video about the painting; its iconography, the details of its loving restoration, the history of the two main protagonists, even details of the scanning and computer-modelling of the anamorphism of the skull in the foreground of the picture, all are catalogued and explained here - but although these are fascinating and informative somehow, naturally, the magic of my personal relationship with the work is missing. Through taking my own approach to the work I have allowed a wider space for interaction with the same, thus enabling a more private, intimate relationship to develop with the painting, and with the artist Holbein even. This is what sends me back to honour the role of the interested layman, the subjective and personal experience.

4. Urban Design as a Four-Dimensional Conversation
Just as The Ambassadors, a two-dimensional painted surface, can adroitly draw one into an almost conversational exchange, negotiated through Holbein‘s choreographing of the viewer‘s movements within the gallery, so even more the city, an infinitely more complex partner, can be allowed to draw the urban designer or architect into conversation. But first the city must be allowed to speak.

As we live in the city each of us develops our own personal reading of the hieroglyphics of urban life; The Matrix seminar proposed a validation of the history of the students as experienced and critical urban participants, each already involved in his/her own specific relationship with the city. It empowered course-participants to acknowledge and develop their own terms of engagement with the city, to be later expressed through the final-stage design of networks of real urban interventions.

Within the project, participants were first given two weeks to develop their own specific urban concerns and agendas through models, plans and discussion centred on forming proposals for inhabitation of an available cartographic field, the studio-Matrix. As each group of four students negotiated a specific urban stance through their own proposals they simultaneously, through working at an urban scale with the every-day tools of urban design, developed a certain critical and analytical expertise as planners. At the end of the second week each group found themselves neatly located within the city of Berlin through the revelations of the Matrix-overlay which linked the now-inhabited studio-Matrix with the real city. At this point participants were able to simultaneously engage with the city both as analytical and critical planners and as subjectively-located partners in an urban exchange as their previously-defined urban agendas were transformed into specific terms of engagement with the city. The aim was to enable a multiplicity of parallel exchanges, one could even call them conversations, to take place with the city, which generated probing and passionate group discussions through the design of real interventions in close contact with the reality of the living metropolis. 

The Matrix seminar proposed not a reversal of the historical hierarchy of the expert planner over the layman, not a prioritising of the subjective view over the so-called objective one, and particularly not a reduction in the value of the training, education and critical research of the expert, attributes crucial to his/her task. Instead it proposed the parallel and interconnected existence of the expert view alongside the knowingly subjective view. Through proposals for mythological inhabitations of the studio-Matrix, participants were empowered to admit their humanity, suspend their so-called objectivity and become aware of their own histories, hopes and dreams, concerns and fears with respect to the urban realm, becoming empowered as subjectively experienced urban inhabitants. Simultaneously The Matrix encouraged participants to develop the critical stance of the trained planner, exercising their expertise and analytical distance, drawing on previous lectures and urban training as a pool of knowledge to inform and locate their own proposals. The Matrix seminar proposed that the expert view and the subjective view are simultaneously active and are allowed to take mutually interactive roles in informing the viewer. Similarly, for example, in the National Gallery any art historian can consciously adopt my approach to the painting and, as I did, can let The Ambassadors direct him/her around the gallery, musing over the picture with a relaxed eye; but as, perhaps, through this specific engagement the lute and book fall into place between the human head and the grinning, naked skull, at the same time one imagines the art historian as being informed by his/her expert self of background knowledge to hand, of de Sevre’s history, of the meaning of the Latin words on the page of the hymnal, perhaps even of the tone of the lute‘s music, could it only play. This information surely both deepens and locates the more personal relationship with the painting. 

The Matrix seminar proposed that we architects and planners knowingly acknowledge our own positions both as trained designers and as experienced participants in every-day urban life. It proposed that each designer, through the development and acknowledgement of his/her own and various viewpoints to the city, thus allow the city itself to fall into place around them, ready for conversation and exchange. In this way designers can gain access simultaneously to the city‘s mythology and to the true reality of the urban realm. I would add here that it is only through the designer’s conscious acceptance of his/her own history and humanity as a member of a family and a community, leading to the development of his/her personal mythology of urban existence, that these three personal graces, history, humanity and mythology, can finally be both validated and enabled, becoming influential and active players in the processes of urban design.

Text © Sarah Rivière, 2004

The Matrix, a taught project in urban design, took place at the Technical University in Berlin in the summer semester of 2003.  Taking the form of a five-week workshop, The Matrix project concerned itself with the choreography of the negotiated exposure of first-year architecture students to that multi-faceted and complex conglomeration: the contemporary city. Through the combination of a range of potentially inspirational elements, references and events the project aimed to carefully guide and inspire all ninety-three students through their first designs on an urban scale. Within the course a broad constellation of filmic and literary references were offered to the participants for their inspiration according to each person’s own developing agenda, indeed some of these were taken up by more dedicated and enthusiastic participants as an open-ended challenge. A selection of visuals showing some of the resulting urban proposals appear in this booklet.

The studio-Matrix, a cartographic diagram, was designed as a basis for the course and laid out in the architecture studio for inhabitation during the project, forming over time an articulate, multi-dimensional playground. An Urban-Tarot Card offering literary and symbolic references located each four-person group within this studio-Matrix. From this location for the first two weeks of the course participants developed their own urban concerns derived from selected spatial and narrative themes of previous work and freely interpreted through the Urban-Tarot references and symbols. These were communicated and developed within each group through the construction of models and plans for each mythological urban location, alternating between a scale relevant for the creation of place (@1:250) and a scale specific to the city as a wider structural network (@1:2500).

Thus the studio-Matrix became a platform for each group’s creation of an individual inspirational buffer-zone to the real city, consisting of alternative urban fragments and expressed through experience of urban tools and scales. Removed from the real city, the studio-Matrix offered a space where each group‘s personal mythology of urbanism could be defined, where dreams and schemes could communicate themselves through models and plans provoking discussions and decisions; a space, ultimately, where a lightness of touch and a storehouse of myths could be nurtured and tested before, later in the course, being thrown into inescapable contact with the dusty reality of the physical city.

After two weeks each now-inhabited studio-Matrix was revealed to the participants as a non-negotiable connecting element linked to the unavoidable reality of a particular urban segment of Berlin. Over a weekend following the routes of their own cities through Berlin participants developed new terms of contact with the city. These were communicated to the wider group through images, texts and sound-tracks. Upon this basis the participants of the course undertook three weeks of sited urban design, developing proposals for networks of real urban interventions within the city of Berlin.