Urban Dreamscapes

I've been contemplating the idea of dreamscapes a lot lately and wondering how they relate to the existing urban environment. There isn't really an established idea, culturally speaking, of what a dreamscape is, so the topic is fairly malleable. The official definition explains the dreamscape as "a dreamlike, often surrealistic scene," though I think that refers more to paintings and other artwork. I'm more interested in how the same ideas used by the fine arts crowd manifest themselves in the designed urban environment.

Urban design and architecture are perhaps the most relevant artforms, in terms of daily life. This is by no means a knock against the fine arts, but it is an inarguable truth that buildings and city plans are works of art that we encounter and interact with almost constantly. The downside of this is that, through their relevance, buildings and neighborhoods become incredibly mundane, far moreso than a painting or drawing ever could. So to find a dreamlike or surrealistic scene in your immedeate surroundings is next to impossible, because even intentional dreamscapes become so common as to be taken for granted.

Take, for example, Lincoln Park in Chicago. The Windy City is notoriously flat. Yet along the lakefront north of downtown, where the landscape should be at its most elevation-challenged, you will find gently rolling hills covered in grass, trees and, of course, statuary. This geological aberration is by design, planned out by landscape architect Ossian Simonds in the 1860s. Simonds followed Prairie Style design maxims that led him to carve out a whimsical dreamscape in a no-nonsense city that valued right angles and evenly-distributed commercial districts. Chicago is still one of the most utilitarian cities you'll find in on Earth (in terms of layout), but over time the curvaceous landscape of Lincoln Park has become an accepted fact of the urban environment that fails to surprise as, assumedly, it once did.

Cities are rife with these forgotten urban dreamscapes; places that used to thrill and excite now serve as pleasant surroundings for pedestrians and joggers. The ironic thing about dreamscapes is that, while those that are created become unremarkable, some of the most unremarkable places by design can be infused with intense meaning and mythical importance in an urban environment teeming with people. I read this week about a project in Singapore that aims to "build a collective memory of the magical spaces in [that city]." They describe a magical space as "a place that holds memories and emotional treasures. It could be ANY place, ANY where." This concept takes the idea of a dreamscape and tweaks it a bit. A magical space is a place that is dreamlike or surreal because of a personal experience, not a careful design. This is the sort of idea that reinforces the "cities are places for people" way of thinking; approaching the city as a place filled with tiny, almost imperceptible magical spaces transforms even the most annonymous of neighborhoods into dreamscapes filled with emotional artifacts and spiritual alcoves.

A post by the L-Arch geeks over at Pruned provides an important piece of my frame of reference, here. After accidentally typing "Utak" into their Google Maps search for Utah, Pruned discovered a landscape in a practically uninhabited area of Russia dotted with long strings of mysterious horseshoe-shaped mounds. Their reaction? "Lest someone tell us that they are simply defensive fortifications or ordinance storage bunkers or outdated meteorological instruments or the beta test site of Bush-Putin's Transcaucasian missile shield or Michael Heizer's Complex Four or ancient auroral observatories -- don't! Better to speculate than to be told the truth, right?"

In the end, this seems to sum up, better than anything I can think of, why exploring urban environments is so exciting. When we walk around new neighborhoods or in new cities, we are promised nothing but the unexpected. Even if a place seems familiar, it is completely new. Even if we find nothing odd or abnormal or even terribly interesting, everything corner we turn has the potential to shock and awe us. And if we are lucky enough to find some strange, magical place -- if we do manage to stumble upon a real, honest-to-goodness dreamscape -- isn't it better to speculate than to be told the truth?

(Photo from Flickr user evanembee.)

The Magical Spaces Project (Five Foot Way)

Uta(h)(k) (Pruned)

No comments: