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Why Cities Look the Way They Do, with Richard J. Williams and Timandra Harkness

Not to boast, but we think we live in one of the most visually stunning cities in the world (made even more so by the super cute drawings currently in our windows, obviously). So you can only imagine how quickly we devoured Richard J. Williams’ Why Cities Look the Way They Do, an engrossing and thought-provoking consideration of urban areas and their aesthetic roots. We were lucky enough to have Richard visit us for an equally thought-provoking talk as part of our Book Fringe programme, in conversation with Timandra Harkness and our very own bookseller David Bloomfield for a discussion about cityscapes, modernity, and the power of visual expression.

Richard is Professor of Contemporary Visual Culture at the Edinburgh College of Art, so the ways in which he explored the city were primarily mediated through the visual and the artistic. Part way through our discussion, Timandra recalled a radio interview that she and Richard had previously done together, where Richard claimed that in fifty years, art as art won’t exist anymore. How would cities fit within this model, Timandra asked. For Richard, this is in fact a precise example of how contemporary visual culture works: rather than the study of works of art in traditional forms, the city becomes a visual object that can be unpacked from an art historical perspective.

In particular, Richard continued, the major themes of art history – power, sex, and war – can be traced through the streets and facades of a city, much in the same way you would read them in a painting. Richard explained that these forces are in fact the processes by which the city is formed, so that the city is not a product of conscious design, but rather the visual outcome of political, personal, and sociocultural factors at work.

Expanding on this idea, Timandra and Richard dived into the ways in which the city has an impact on people’s relationships, and vice versa. Where are the places that you’re most likely to begin a relationship with someone, Richard asked. Bars, clubs, restaurants – these are all driven by the sexual economy (thanks, Tinder), and fundamentally affect the sale of real estate and thus the ways in which neighbourhoods are visually constructed and characterised. There is, Richard emphasised, an intimate relationship between people’s inner world and the outer world of the city.

This relationship between the interiority of the self and the exteriority of the city seemed a particularly pertinent conversation to be having in the heart of festival season in Edinburgh. Timandra and Richard both described cities as a myth, pointing out that Edinburgh – particularly Edinburgh in August – is a product of a collective mythologizing that sees it as a city of the arts, a city of the mind (and a city of crowds, if a commute through the Royal Mile is anything to go by). To understand the realities of Edinburgh and the people who live in it, we need to de-idealise it, and instead approach it as an entity that is shaped in various ways by the personal and the political.

Timandra and Richard ended their fascinating discussion with a short Q&A. One excellent question came from an audience member, who asked about unplanned cities such as Lagos and Brasilia that are informally built out of poverty and forced conditions, rather than through urban planning. David also expanded on the idea of unplanned forces, asking about the psychological and material effects of car bombs on city planning and development.

These questions highlighted the numerous complex factors that are instrumental in constructing urban spaces, with Richard’s responses underlining just how central this complexity is to his understanding of the city.

We had an amazing time chatting to Richard and Timandra and judging by the packed out room and eager questions afterwards, so did everybody else! We’re into the last week of our Book Fringe now, so check out the rest of our programme and come along for more equally exciting events!