Travels into urban landscape: the implications of visual culture, public space and the city


This article was one of the finalists in Circa's critical-writing competition for undergraduates in Ireland; more information here .








photo/ courtesy the author

The proliferation of difference that characterizes metropolitan modernity is so great that it seems unlikely that there is a single “text of the city,” the explication of which would reveal the city’s cultural script….Where does one look for a unifying theme in the modern metropolis when fragmentation is practically its defining characteristic? [1]



Get your skates on. Be. Lose Weight. Get glammed up. Be someone’s new best friend. Enjoy. Insure. Save. DANGER. CAUTION. Take Away. Eat. Give someone magic. STOP! These multifarious instructions assault my eyes and mind from billboards, signs and shop windows on my journey to college each day. Hundreds of large posters advertising films, concerts, new album releases and various cultural events form a mosaic on walls and hoardings, each one a work of art, colourful, contemporary, demanding attention. Occasionally, small illegal flyers are pasted up to rally support against issues like selling furs in Brown Thomas or global warming. All these messages amount to visual and mental overload, fragmenting my thoughts and creating conflicting feelings of curiousity, pleasure, guilt and anxiety, with a nagging suspicion that I am missing out on so many, presumably enjoyable, events. In his essay The Metropolis and Mental Life , Georg Simmel suggests that the metropolis creates such psychological conditions in the city dweller, an “intensification of nervous stimulation” caused by the “rapid crowding of changing images, the sharp discontinuity in the grasp of a single glance, and the unexpectedness of onrushing impressions.” It is heteroglossia in the extreme, causing what Simmel calls “the atrophy of individual culture through the hypertrophy of objective culture.” [2]






photo/ courtesy the author

This particular journey through a major artery in the city also generates a feeling of being outside, detached not just from other people, but also from the heart of the city itself and its apparent wealth. Most doors and windows are closed, impenetrable, and the many walls lining the route are high, designed to keep the unwanted out. Railings also tower above the pedestrian, their tips split and splayed for the same reason. Not for this area the beautiful stone walls of Marcuse’s “dominating city,” erected by the council in Foxrock or other leafy suburbs. [3] Here in the “tenement city,” the walls “hem in, limit, demarcate areas of private disinvestment and official neglect.” [4] There are few trees, little greenery apart from flower tubs at an intersection and a small garden space beside a block of flats. Many buildings are boarded up, for sale, awaiting demolition, or struggling to survive in this hostile milieu. Some original houses, grand in their day, now stand apart like amputees, the rest cut away over the years. Old blocks of council flats, or plain, local-authority housing provide the only other obvious dwelling places. It is a bleak, disjointed and alienating environment:



The absence of shape in the form of orienting landmarks is a major problem for a person trying to define a real city or navigate within it. If shapes make individual cities recognizable, urban shapelessness is a form of disorder, expressing anxiety and loss of coherence, and symbolizing the anonymous randomness of contemporary life. [5]



As much of this area has long been riven with poverty, there are no public monuments or celebratory cultural symbols. The former Wax Museum has been replaced by a bland and featureless hotel. It is rare to see or hear a child, and the dearth of graffiti suggests an aging population, confirmed by the presence of a Friends of the Elderly centre. Passing pedestrians hurry by, avoiding each other’s eyes, confirming Simmel’s contention that city dwellers could not cope with investing each urban encounter with the same personalisation as in a small town, where one has positive relations with almost everyone. [6] Bored police officers at barriers prevent entry to the environs of the law courts. There is little that is aesthetically pleasing. From a tourist’s point of view, this is definitely not what they would expect from the “sexiest destination in Europe,” or the place for those “in earnest pursuit of the craic,” the “intellectual potential of Dublin”, or looking to investigate the “effects of globalisation on the city,” as David Slattery and his comrades set out to do in their “journeys through postmodern Dublin.” [7] Apart from the hotel and some convenience stores, this route has been ignored by the agents of globalisation. However, as a graphic illustration of postmodernism, with its distrust of grand narratives and deliberate mixing of different styles and media, this area unintentionally fulfills all the criteria. As the poet Dermot Bolger says: “A city is a bastardised space.” [8]






photo/ courtesy the author

Moving into Church Street, the recently renewed pavement and restoration of the Father Matthew Hall have improved the aesthetic of the street, allied with residents’ pride in keeping their housefronts tidy and clean. However, the old trees that used to soften the landscape were uprooted with the pavement and will probably be replaced with new, generic, square trees like those in the revamped O’Connell Street. As in Smithfield, “Dublin Corporation struggles with the removal of the view of the indigenous. The view now is purely postmodern, in that it tries to efface the distinction between the past and the present, a distinction that gives rise to history.” [9]






photo/ courtesy the author

Church Street, facing south, is full of sunlight. Traditionally a place of pilgrimage for many Dubliners, the Capuchin friary and soup kitchen provide a palpable, life-affirming presence. Here is the quiet voice of compassion, speaking to the voiceless ones, drawing many hundreds for their daily nourishment. As one draws near the Four Courts, however, police cars and vans line the kerbside, or scream for space with their sirens. Members of the legal profession walk purposefully by, smartly dressed in regulation black suits, arms full of files and their gowns ballooning behind them. The strong, intimidating voice of authority, with all its well-known symbols, speaks loudly and clearly. In stark contrast, small clusters of foreign construction workers in bright, high-viz jackets sit outside a convenience store, eating their breakfast rolls. The result of their work towers over the narrow street nearby, its open layers awaiting completion. Massive cranes rend the sky above and two circular portholes in the hoarding provide a constantly changing picture of the fascinating machinations inside. The loud voice of money, of the Celtic Tiger, proclaims its brash and indiscriminate presence, drowning out the multi-lingual murmuring of immigration on which it depends. Cutting through this multitude of voices, the ringing of a bell announces the futuristic shape of the Luas, its silent passengers pasted up against the windows. Beyond the tracks, a huge, excavated lot lies untouched and overgrown since the archaeologists finished combing through it over a year ago. Holes cut in the hoarding invite the curious viewer to stop and look, although the view never changes. The ghostly voices of history and memory gasp from this huge wound in the landscape. What did they find there? Who lived there? What will be there in the future?



The modern world of the 19th and 20th centuries has gone as surely as medieval and early modern worlds. This condition – of standing at the beginning of something new, something unformed and uncertain – leaves us feeling rudderless and trying to find our bearings; trying to understand and manage what is happening around us…we live in a world which was always provisional. [10]



Overall, the visual and psychological impact of this journey is one of fragmentation and contradiction, with strange juxtapositions demanding conflicting responses from the psyche: seductive invitations and authoritative injunctions call from ads and signs; flashes of colour punctuate bare walls; islands of activity and investment float in wastelands of stagnation and neglect.  But the countenance of any city is not without its wrinkles and scars, its cavities, such as the above route, forgotten places that reveal the legacies of poverty, difficult times and lack of structural and cosmetic care.  As places age, their voices become faint and in the clamour of the city only the loudest voice will be heard.


Marie Soffe is a final-year student at the National College of Art and Design, Dublin, specialising in Fine Art Print and History of Art.


1 Thomas Bender, The Unfinished city: New York and the metropolitan idea , New York: The New Press, 2002, p 57
2 Georg Simmel, ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’, adapted by D. Weinstein from Kurt Wolff (Trans.) The Sociology of Georg Simmel , New York: Free Press, 1950, pp 409-424. Available at: http://www.gsz.hu-berlin.de/php/georg_simmel.php?style=0&size = (accessed 21 December 2007)
3 Nan Ellin, Architecture of fear , New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1997, p 110
4 Ibid, p 111
5 Burton Pike, The Image of the city in modern literature , New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1981, p 129
6 Simmel, Op. cit.
7 Colin Coulter & Steve Coleman, The End of Irish History: critical reflections on the Celtic Tiger , Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003, pp 139-140
8 Deirdre Purcell, Follow me down to Dublin , Dublin: Hodder Headline, 2007, p 234
9 Coulter & Coleman, Op. cit., p 150
10 Deborah Hauptmann, The Body in architecture , Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 2006, p 49