Seeing the City

I always find it interesting to see urbanism mapped in different ways, from the density of wifi hotspots to the presence of electronically surveiled routes. Seeing a map of proposed bus routes here in pittsburgh made me think about the way I perceive the organization of the city.

Pittsburgh Port Authoity | Pinwheel + Grid Scheme

Pittsburgh Port Authoity | Pinwheel + Grid Scheme

The way we see and understand cities is deeply rooted in the modes of transportation we use to move through them. The NY subway can be at times disorienting; last year Lars Lerup lectured about the dominacne the car and its high velocity claim in sprawling cities like Houston; William Mitchel demonstrated potential future reevaluations of transportation systems in a lecture this year; while Baudalaire’s flaneur and Guy Debord’s drifter offer historical pedestrian understandings of Paris. The key for urbanists is understanding what implications these differences mean in planning.

Situationist Paris

Situationist Paris

As a student on campus I travel a linear path up and down forbes and fifth avenues, going to oakland, or to squirell hill, but rarely venture to the man-made canyons of the golden triangle. There’s a coherent connection between my experience and a linear path drawn on a map. Living in the south hills this summer, however, has shifted my focus. Although looking at a map will reveal that I live closer to Oakland and the Carnegie Mellon campus than to downtown, in my perceptual world, I actually live farther away; I’m forced to take a bus from the South Hills to downtown, then another from downtown out to Oakland. I aquiesce to downtown as an important center, a place that is almost trivelized when isolated on campus. The map of current routes reveals the central importance of downtown to the buses, but does that match the multi-nodal reality of the city? Mapping infrastructure isn’t just about getting around, it also has social, cultural, and political implications within people’s readings of the city.

Daniel Burnham's Union Station turned luxury apartment

When I recently ventured to the former Union Station, once a hub of railroad transportation, to see the historic structure designed by Daniel Burnham, I was escorted off of the premisis and informed that it is now private property. Instead of enjoying a grand public space, I waited in the cavernous underbelly of layered and intertwining highway overpasses for a long commute home. As to the question of constraining architects to individual objects of architecture, my answer would look to Burnham’s building, no longer used by the bustling multitude. Can architects control how their buildings will be appropriated in the future or even commodofied in the present? How can we influence larger social systems and urban infrastructure, can we do it through buildings?

Being an intern marginalised to the difficuties of public transportation hasn’t been nearly as inconvenient as it has been enlightening. The city looks different from the seats of buses filled with multilpicitous crowds and during the laborous struggle of peddling up hill mounted on a bicycle (or at least I imagine) then it does from an air-conditioned sedan.


The Port Authority is looking for as much feedback as possible for rerouting buses. Click the image above to offer your thoughts. I hope they consider the symbolic power of the city along with the economic.

I’d be curious to hear if anyone else has had new experiences traversing cites this summer, either from a new perspective or in a new place.


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