Commentary
12:30 pm
Mon July 21, 2014

Finding The City Under The City

Credit Tiffany Bailey / Flickr / Creative Commons

What do skateboarders, graffiti artists and French post-structuralists have in common?

Let’s start with the skateboarder. The sport that essentially began as a land-based substitute for surfing in the late 1940s has moved from empty pools and the sidewalks of Venice Beach, to enclosed parks built by cities, to huge stadiums where corporations plaster their names on every fun box, half-pipe and hand-rail available.

Somewhere along the way, street-skating developed, and kids figured out that skating could be more than tracing curves through a downhill slalom course—every surface, curb and rail of their city was available to skate.

This allowed for the conceptualization of “lines,” connecting various spots in a kind of choreographed manner, constructing a narrative with a beginning, middle and end. Compare this to the graffiti writer who plans routes across a city based not on efficiency of travel, but on the availability of paintable surfaces.

Of course, the repurposing of the city away from prescribed uses, such as work or shopping, into more fluid zones of play and exploration can be jarring to those tasked with keeping things tidy. And this is where our two French philosophers come in. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari wrote extensively about this tension as an opposition between smooth and striated spaces.

Striated space belongs to the state: it is ordered, specific and controlled. Smooth spaces, on the other hand, are transitional; they are always in the process of becoming something else. As we’ve seen with graffiti, striated and smooth spaces often exist on top of one another. In other words, a wall is a wall, until it’s a canvas.

A city that seeks to increase the prevalence of orderly, striated spaces, as all cities do, would minimize the opportunity for unregulated play by creating a regulated space for that play to occur. Skate parks, public murals and even children’s playgrounds are all ways of disguising striated spaces as smooth. It’s the city’s way of saying, “you may be creative, but please, only here.”

The main problem with this approach is that after riding all day at the skate park, you still have to skate home, discovering along the way the beautiful city you always knew was there, just underneath the striated surface.