Urban Texture and the Friction of Difference / Jeff Derksen

Text for the catalogue of the solo exhibition “Domènec. Not Here, Not Anywhere” at MACBA, Barcelona 2018.


Ironically, while the urban fabric has expanded across the planet, the multiplicity of urban textures has been diminished. Despite the massive growth of cities in this era of planetary urbanism, the textures of the city have not necessarily become more varied nor more distinct. This reality is counter to the optimistic perspective of the ‘global city’ in the late nineties when it was understood that a global-urban dynamism would concentrate the intersections of culture, media and new modes of work in a way that would bring a multiplicity of spatial practices, communicative networks and possibilities into the city. That moment’s optimism for cities as the site of a new cosmopolitanism and citizenship has been stripped away, revealing a much more rationalised urbanism driven by economic intensification. In the new process of creative destruction, cities are left struggling to hold onto the multiplic- ity of their textures and histories. Along the way, the non-economic utopian prospects that were part of the imagination of the urban over the twentieth century (including the global city construct) and the city as a site of experiments in living or focal points in new modes of militancy get lost.1

This intensification of the city itself as an economic engine, as the agent of surplus value, also generated a potent global logic of gentrification as a naturalised process of city development that tragically became utilised as a policy for cities of all sizes. The result, felt across the globe, is an urban development and redevelopment which overrides existing textures, replacing them with social homogenisation, a limited architectural vocabulary and an emphasis on security, all tied to the supercommodification of built space and notions of liveability for a global investor class. The real consequence for cit- ies and neighbourhoods under this intensification is that development brings ‘repetition rather than innovation’, as Jamie Peck and others have said about Vancouver, the city I live in.2 For all cities subject to this, the repetition means that any form of production or consumption and any site that cannot generate a massive surplus as real estate is replaced by an architectural and urban order geared toward rapid and often startling exchange value. This accelerated emphasis, which is key to global-city making, puts even more emphasis on exchange value rather than use value built over time, and it erodes and even shatters texture.3

Thus the texture, which may have been seen as a minor quality or aspect, or even an effect, of urban space takes on a new role in built space and in the experience of the city. A deep mix of textures, both made from and beckoning different activities, where various or even wild rhythms of life are possible, and where space is not pressured to be primarily productive of surplus, has a profound effect on living in the city. Here I want to argue that the texture of the city is both representative of the experience of a city – that is, it reflects the lived networks and spatial practices of the city – and productive of modes of living and being. I am speaking of texture in an extended manner, drawing on the relatively open ways in which Henri Lefebvre has described it. As is common in Lefebvre’s extended concepts, texture is lived, representative, and productive. And like Lefebvre’s impulse towards a mode of spatial production that is both restlessly open to opportunities (which he often describes as moments) and determined by its social contexts, texture carries possibilities in both its existing use and beyond its lived experience. Lefebvre proposes: ‘Thus the texture of space affords opportunities not only to social acts with no particular place in it and no particular link with it, but also to a spatial practice that it does in- deed determine, namely its collective and individual use: a sequence of acts which embody a signifying practice even if they cannot be reduced to such a practice.’4 Texture produces an agency, or the possibility of acts which can change the character of space: rather than being only a representa- tion of an existing aspect of the city, in the global context for cities today, texture has become a site of struggle for the potential use, spatial practices, and character of a city. Lefebvre puts it this way: ‘We may be sure that representations of space have a practical impact, that they intervene in and modify spatial textures which are informed by effective knowledge and ideology.’5 This points to the essentially political aspect of texture.

Given a parallel uneven development between cities and the possibilities for art – from intensive financialisation to groups of artists who aim to intervene in the spectacle of finance, to artists who align with political movements – this expansive view of the importance of texture and the urban opens up two roles for art.6 One role, of course, is the representational aspect of art: how does art represent the new textural aspects of the city, and how can art point to the production of new textures or the erasing of older textures (which are never fully erased, but exist residually)? Secondly, how can art itself be productive of new textures in the city? For this second question, we can see how art takes on a dual character itself – artistic practices produce textures in the city and yet art itself is part of the productive and communicative texture of the city. My aim is to redefine texture as a site and a tactic for artists. Art argues for the multiplicities of textures within a city and it pushes against the domination of the texture produced by the logic of repetition over innovation and against a global same- ness of the city.

The concept of texture also gives us a way to think through how the urban is a site of potentials – lost, imagined, realised, and lived – in the art projects of Domènec, particularly those projects that contest the lost possibilities and histories of the city in the current urban regime. Texture provides a marker for the critique of the modernist project as well as the urban project which has emerged after postmodernity, a project less concerned with the utopian or even humanist aspirations of modernism or the aesthetic conditions of post- modernity. This project is actually a global-urban relationship at the moment – a competitive relationship between cities of all sizes. This competitive cities model, as it has been named, has cities bidding on major events (Olympics, Expos, etc.), major development projects, innovation hubs, tech centres, ecological initiatives and development and redevelopment of varying scale in order to bring money in to make up the funds needed to sustain a city after the loss of funding for pro- grammes due to state austerity. And this project also has cities in competition for people – or talent – for the new industries they hope to attract along with a creative consumer class. Nothing shows this clearer than the scramble by 238 cities across North America to attract the ‘Amazon HQ2’ complex – huge tax breaks, free land, and even a mayorship for life for CEO Tim Bezos have been offered up.7

Between this new moment in planetary urbanism and the residual textures of modernism, Domènec’s projects continually push at, or aim to reinvigorate and recirculate – often in subtle or minor ways – not what modernism might have been, but what we might make of it today. This is a shift from the type of modernism that saw itself as a developmental answer that could be universalised (and then later be inflected with local vernaculars and particularities) and toward an architectural, social and political question about how to live together, globally and particularly. Of course it is ironic to reflect on the texture of the modernist urban project for it was an idea itself critiqued for its lack of texture as it razed, obscured, and eroded the textures of the older city, often shattering a lived textured of a city through massive development that was planned with universal concepts yet often inflicted on racialised, poor, and transient or precarious communities.

As well as springing from difference, texture itself can be differentiated, and Domènec’s projects foreground a variety of textures through the artistic tactics of radical rescaling, of pointing to residual temporal textures, and by his use of art as a communicative texture itself. All three of these approaches bring together time and obscured histories and how these live in and produce space. Most striking is Domènec’s insistence on scale as a defamiliarising device that reframes the debates – and even specific projects – of modernism. These projects also raise questions about how a reimagined modernism could be rescaled as a texture in the urban today. In a series of projects that circulate around Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation (1947–52) in Marseille, an iconic modernist project that exemplifies the potentials and tensions of what Reyner Banham called the ‘Machine Aesthetic’, Domènec has used variously scaled models of Unité.8 One project, Sostenere il palazzo dell’utopia (Holding the Building of Utopia, 2004), is set in Corviale, a 960-metre-long project on the outskirts of Rome, designed by Mario Fiorentino and constructed (although not totally completed) in the late seventies, and often seen as a dystopic symptom of Le Corbusier’s vision of modernism and the loss of neighbourhood and human scale. Equally, it has been also seen by architects and artists as a site of informal economies, architectural adaptation (through squatting), self-management and residence committees, and a cultural vibrancy born out of the politics of space and housing. In a series of photographs, Domènec has residents of Corviale holding a humorously small model of Unité in their arms as they pose in sites around the housing megastructure; these are portraits of the diverse range of people who live there as much as a documentation of the lived textures of the building which have developed over time. Domènec mobilises a number of key questions, to put the modernist promises of Unité in relation with the current rationalisation of urban space: this clash of modernism and the present rationalisation has generated calls for Corviale to be torn down as an affront to urban planning. In the current moment of a sterile planetary urbanism that is not offset or challenged by the utopian dimension of something like modernism (for modernism does not always have to be the future!), it is Corviale that comes out looking more ‘human scale’, more liveable and lived in, and more varied than new housing projects that trumpet social mix rather than social and spatial justice.

Rescaling the Unité becomes a form of critique as well as a mode to point to how the machine-age designs of modernism have given way to modes of living that the de- sign itself did not imagine.

By reaching back to recirculate questions of design, housing and spatial justice through the Unité, Domènec builds a temporal texture. While we may think of time as not having a texture, when space is thought of in relation to time, urban textures necessarily have a temporal aspect. These temporal textures are as contested as space and hence their erasure or their production are equally political. Several projects from Domènec intervene in the temporal texture of Barcelona, the city in which he lives. For instance, Souvenir Barcelona uses the residual medium of the postcard to intervene into the space-time memory of the city. The postcard series marks events that cut across the texture that Barcelona has built up within the global-urban nexus of tourism and consumption and instead shows it to be a site of civil insurrection (the postcard marking the 8-day insurrection that began on 25 July 1909) as well as repression that demolishes textures and ways of life (the 1966 razing of El Somorrostro, an informal settlement of Roma people, immigrants and the working class at what is now Port Olímpic). These postcards are also constitutive of the communicative fabric of the city and are an agitating texture where, as André Jannson writes, ‘space is both produced and understood through texture, that is, through a spatial materialisation of culture’.9 As the communicative fabric of the city is extended beyond any of its spatial borders, and as this texture is literally thickened with new media, these informational moments which bring past events and even past architectural and urban possibilities into the texture of the city’s present, we have a temporal texture embedded into the space of the city.

Here, art as a communicative texture of the city illustrates the dual nature of art in re- lation to the urban. The urban is a social space produced through social processes, yet is, as Kipfer, Saberi and Wieditz write, ‘[n]ot reducible to physical markers (density, particular characteristics of the built environment), it must “live” through social practice’.10 Art then, and particularly art such as Domènec’s that confronts the ways in which we live together in the city, is a spatial and social practice that the urban lives through. Texture, in an expanded sense, gives us a way to recognise how the open dialectical process and struggle that the production of space is born from materialises into lived experiences and future-oriented potentials. Texture also gives us a way to think about art’s role within the urban which is more specific than arguing that art alters space or produces space or even reclaims space. Texture both differentiates and is produced by the friction of difference, and it therefore takes on a new importance in the very moment that Domènec’s work guides us to: from modernism’s incomplete project to the incompleteness of the market rule of the present.

Jeff Derksen is Dean of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies at Simon Fraser University, British Columbia, Canada.


1. Japhy Wilson and Manuel Bayón, ‘Black Hole Capitalism: Utopian Dimensions of Planetary Urbanization’, City, vol. 20, no. 3 (2016), pp. 360–67.

2. Jamie Peck, Elliott Siemiatycki and Elvin Wyly, ‘Vancouver’s Suburban Involution’, City, vol. 18, no. 4-5 (2014), p. 404.

3. Use value and the patterns and textures it brings do build up in areas that are designed for exchange value, in which living spaces are there primarily to be traded whenever it is beneficial. The variety of uses is also constructed in these neighbourhoods through their policing, through their policies and regulations, and due to the social homogeni- sation that they both bring and foster.

4. Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, tr. Donald Nicholson-Smith. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991, p. 57.

5. Henri Lefebvre, Production of Space, p. 42.

6. See Yates McKee Strike Art: Contemporary Art and the Post Occupy Condition (New York: Verso, 2016) for a recent overview of the relationship of artistic practices to political and social movements – particularly movements whose struggles take occupation and the struggle for space as central.

7. Jeffrey Dastin, ‘Amazon Receives 238 Proposals for its Second Headquarters’, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-amazon-com-headquarters/amazon-receives-238-proposals-for-its-second-headquar-ters-idUSKBN1CS21O. Accessed 29 October 2017. It is also possible to place a bet on which city will emerge triumphant in this process: Paddy Power has Atlanta as an early favourite, with Vancouver stuck at odds of 66/1.

8. Reyner Banham, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1980.

9. André Jannson, ‘Texture: A Key Concept for Communication Geography’, European Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 10, no. 2 (2007), p. 195.

10. Stefan Kipfer, Parastou Saberi and Thoben Wieditz, ‘Henri Lefebvre: Debates and Controversies’, Progress in Human Geography, vol. 37, no. 1 (2012), p. 119.