Time, space and narrative: reflections on architecture, literature and modernity: Jonathan Charley
It is with an image of the limitless concrete geometries from the top of the Banespa Bank in Sao Paulo and the ziggurats and leaping flames from the opening clip of Blade Runner that I begin my course every year on the History of the Modern City. Like my vain attempt to draw Borges’ metaphor for the universe, the indefinite and infinite Library of Babel, it is a vision of a metropolis that has no centre and no end. And as it drifts and stumbles outwards to the periphery before disappearing into the hazy smog of the horizon, it is as if it is demonically possessed with a speed and complexity that mocks our efforts at comprehension, and defies our knowledge of earthbound demographics, semiotics and urban economics. As dusk falls over this city of twenty million souls, and millions upon millions of lights flicker and illuminate a nocturnal kaleidoscope of objects and bodies, the scene is almost indistinguishable from the Asimovian mega cities beloved of the fantastic imagination that have bled and bled until they enclose the entire surface of the globe. The first generation of modern writers were likewise shocked and astonished as they gazed in awe at the hypnotic antinomies and creatively destructive patterns of
the nineteenth-century capitalist metropolis. It is why Walter Benjamin, Marshall Berman and many others have found such lyrical power in one of the greatest poets of modernity, Baudelaire, who on his urban drifts through Paris tells us that modernity is best understood as ‘the indefinable … the transient, the fleeting, and the contingent’1 (Baudelaire 2006: 399). Equally poetic in his depiction of modern life was Marx, who if legend is to be believed drafted the Communist Manifesto in the Swan Bar in Brussels’ Grand Place. Surrounded by the ornate guild houses and exotic town halls that reinforce Belgium’s claim to be one of the first industrial nations, and having fled from one European capital city to another, he was understandably mesmerised by the forces unleashed by capitalist production. In a phrase that he could well have penned from the top of the Banespa, he tells us that: ‘In scarce one hundred years the bourgeoisie has created more massive and colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together.’ But he also warns us. The bourgeois world is haunted. It is stalked by illusions, spectres and ghosts that have conspired not only to create, but to destroy a society that is characterised by nothing less than the ‘constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation’ (Marx 1990: 223). It was a sight at which Lukacs simply threw his arms up in the air and from the pulpit announced: ‘And the nature of history is precisely that every definition degenerates into an illusion:
history is the history of the unceasing overthrow of the objective forms that shape the life of man’ (Lukacs 1983: 186). It is this ephemeral and dynamic world, in which space splinters, time accelerates and technological wizardry is layered over lo-fi urban misery, that the modern writer and architect attempt to make sense of.2 But it is no easy task. The modern city would soon shake with the unfamiliar noise of machinery and early automobiles, ring to the shrill tones of telephones, spin with the whirr of a movie camera, and erupt in abstract splashes of colour and shape. Not only this but capitalist modernity appeared to have created a peculiarly dialectical reality, in which the world had been split into multiplications of increasingly fuzzy but powerfully evocative binary metaphors: civilisation and barbarism, capitalist and worker, coloniser and colonised, black and white, man and woman, sane and mad. Inevitably these transformations in the structure and patterns of everyday life were reflected in what Bakhtin referred to as the chronotopic (literally ‘space-time’) organisation of literary texts.3 In fact the novel undergoes a profound chronotopic shift that is exemplified by the difference between Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869) and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866). Whereas the former, despite its metropolitan encounters, still feels with its idealised portraits of peasant life like a novel run on agricultural time, the latter, one of the first great urban thrillers, beats with the distinctly modern rhythm of boulevards, pavement footsteps and murderous anti-heroes. Like a fading memory, the pre-capitalist world of villages, churches and fields, of priests, lords and peasants, living a life governed by seasons, tithes and calls to prayer, retreats into the literary hinterland. In its place comes the chronotopic vocabulary of modern capitalism and the battle cries of bourgeoisie and working class. Together they inhabit a new city made up of arcades, mills, factories, terraces, mines and railway stations in which time is governed according to quite new and strange rules. The day is now regimented by the click of the clocking-in card, the siren of the factory, piece rate wages and the speed of the production line. It all amounted to nothing less than a full-blown temporal revolution engineered towards the perpetual speed-up of everyday life, economic efficiency and the maximisation of profits. This then, is the space-time terrain in which the narratives of modern literature and indeed the plots of modern architecture unfold, meet and merge. By the turn of the twentieth century this metropolitan experience had become ubiquitous in advanced capitalist societies such that the creative imagination of the majority of both writers and architects had become almost completely urbanised. The city was no longer ‘a paradox, a monster, a hell or heaven that contrasted sharply with village or country life in a natural environment’ (Lefebvre 2003: 11). It had become the norm. As Raymond Williams commented, for many writers, ‘there seemed little reality in any other mode of life,’ such that ‘all sources of perception seemed to begin and end in the city, and if there was anything beyond it, it was also beyond life’ (Williams 1985: 230).