City Sites is an innovative web-based multimedia research collaboration that explores the meanings and forms of American urbanism in New York and Chicago in the modern period. City Sites is at the centre of the 3Cities project; a six year AHRB funded research project, based at the Universities of Birmingham and Nottingham, which seeks to foster new modes of analysing American urban culture as well as developing a network of international scholars working on US urbanism.

3Cities project members have been involved in collaborative ventures with urban scholars across the world, from the USA to Europe, Singapore to
Brazil, and the group has organised two highly successful
international conferences.
Much of this collaborative
exchange has been fostered through our web site
at www.3cities.org.uk which disseminates
information about the work of 3Cities and
acts as an archive for papers presented at
the conferences as well as other research
work we have solicited.

 

City Sites has been developed as the electronic centrepiece of the 3 Cities project. It features the work of ten European and American scholars and has been developed to demonstrate the ways in which new multimedia technologies can enhance conventional scholarly understandings of urban culture. City Sites presents an entirely new conception of what an electronic book might look like. Indeed we hope that the format of the book will provoke discussion about the newly developing protocols for delivering academic research in a multimedia environment. The book has been devised as a web based presentation, however – in keeping with the notion of a book format – it exists as a bounded and finished structure, within which users experience considerable freedom of movement but also extensive guidance and signposting to orient them within the book’s complex structure. City Sites is published by the University of Birmingham Press and it has been subject to the usual processes of external peer review, editorial processes and copyright protection. It exists, then, as a hybrid text, occupying a new space between paper text and multimedia presentation.

We have been keen to think critically about the frameworks we devised to present and interpret urban subject matter. Some of our basic presuppositions – for example, that the form of analysis would be very different from that of the written monograph or essay – proved to be well founded, but much was discovered afresh through the practice of preparing, editing and assembling the collection. We look forward to feedback from users of the book (which will be archived on the 3Cities web site) and the further discussion on the use of multimedia for urban analysis this will foster. While we remain committed to the virtues of traditional scholarly work, we are also convinced that this scholarship is enhanced by the interactive modes of analysis that the multimedia format can offer. Some of the comments by reviewers suggest that we are correct in this view.

 

Praise for City Sites

This methodology encourages the sort of complex, non-hierarchical, anti-narrative, reader-controlled analysis and study that has always been advertised for the web but has only rarely been manufactured. The real innovative nature of this work, and the ways it intersects with research quality, must be emphasized … This is by far the most innovative ebook I’ve seen … a remarkable and essential project; the ebook format will serve as a model for such projects in the future.

Peter Bacon Hales, Professor of Art History, University of Illinois at Chicago

 

This text introduces a new representation of the city through a sophisticated, interactive use of space, vision, navigation and multimedia. In its electronic format it makes an important step ‘beyond theory’ in making the imaginary totality of urban life figurable, but also in making the cultural work of electronic representation itself transparent and legible.

Berndt Ostendorf, Professor of American Studies and Director of the America Institute, Ludwig-Maximilians University, Munich.

 

Technologically dazzling and theoretically sophisticated, City Sites enacts the best kinds of interdisciplinary thinking about urban cultures and histories in forms commensurate to the ideas they present. It uses current ideas about visual culture and urban spatiality to create a layered and linked presentation that richly rewards both the experienced researcher and the engaged undergraduate.

Maren Stange, Professor at Cooper Union, New York City

 

An interpretive tour-de-force, brimming with fresh insights. Each author works from deep familiarity with a set of texts and a bracing command of divergent disciplinary scholarship and theoretical perspectives. The result is a collective conversation informed by intelligence and frequently passion. Although many theorists have called for attention to the spatial dimensions of urban life, City Sites is the most persuasive application yet of a spatial analysis of particular, historical literary and cultural representations. The potential of its innovative format informs both the authors’ conceptual approach to their subjects and the way that the book communicates their insights to readers.

Rebecca Zurier, Professor of Art History, University of Michigan.

 

This overview describes the structure of the electronic book, the relation between methodological imperatives and working practices, and theoretical reflections spurred by our multimedia work on modern American urbanism.

 

1. FRAMEWORK

The Essays

From an overall contents page (anchored by images of city sites) the user may enter individual essays. Each essay starts out from an establishing image of an individual site, which focuses analysis on the visual dimension of the piece while allowing an outward movement to larger urban concerns. When the cursor moves over the establishing image a pop-up menu of the essay appears – this is accessible through the essay by clicking on the essay title in the middle of the horizontal menu bar. This means the user can move dynamically across the essay, and reorient when necessary.

The essays are rich in visual material, and develop new ways of studying urban culture through interactive engagement with images, through the use of ‘live’ bibliographical links to external web projects, through supplementary material such as maps, charts, statistics and historical information which can be integrated within the multimedia essay form, and through the use of moving images and sound.

Each essay may be read as a whole, or the user may choose to begin with any one of its sections and move back and forth between essay sections and across different essays. Within the argument of an essay there is an opening out: for example, from the particular image and site to the general; from the visual to the social/quotidian; from the spatial to the historical. The essays combine the specificity of historical analysis, based upon archival sources, with a theoretical awareness of such current issues as spatial/cognitive mapping.

The Pathways

In addition to innovation at the level of individual contributions the collection as a whole pursues non-linear forms of analytic engagement with the materials by offering a number of designated ‘pathways’ through the e-book (for example, along a ‘leisure’ pathway or an ‘architecture’ path). These pathways connect different essays and different city sites, promoting exploration of the multimedia environment and suggesting alternative engagements with the city sites in each contribution.

The Hyperlinks

The hyperlinks to external resource sites indicate some of the research trails taken by the essayists, and also allow users to diverge and pursue their own interests. While users can fully enter the external site, a technical mechanism has been devised to keep them within the overall framework of City Sites and thus easily return them to the essay after exploration of the external resource.

The Maps

Annotated maps on the New York and Chicago pages are supplemented by viewable images of important areas and buildings. The essay ‘sites’ along with a brief descriptive entry are also marked on the maps as a way of locating the essays within their geographical and historical contexts.

The Bibliography

A ‘live’ bibliography encompasses all ten essays and can be accessed from within individual essays – viewed in a popup – and also browsed as an autonomous section in the main window area. The bibliography includes both paper and online resources.

Other Features

The left hand menu bar provides Configuration details – ensuring that users are able to benefit from the advanced features of the book (which use Flash and Java technology). It provides a link back to the project web site, thus locating this work within the broader context of the international 3 Cities project. It also features a Contributors page giving full biographical details of all project participants and a Feedback mechanism to allow dialogue and discussion with contributors and about City Sites in general. These discussions will be archived on the e-book page of the 3 Cities web site at www.3cities.org.uk. The book is intended to stimulate ongoing discussion and further research – these feedback mechanisms are vital in this respect. Our aim is to stimulate ongoing and critical dialogue on the nature and meaning of urban culture in New York and Chicago in the modern period. The feedback mechanism means this is not therefore confined to the virtual/physical boundaries of the e-book, but will continue beyond the point of e-publication and across national and international borders (see the project web site for further examples of this).

 

2. METHOD

Writing an electronic essay poses interesting questions about how to configure analysis and argument in the multimedia form. As City Sites is presented through the mechanism of a browser the conventional model of written communication – the relations between writer, reader and text – takes on new connotations.

Authors have considered the visual presentation of material, the role of the reader as viewer, and the potential mobility of the reader as an interactive agent in communication. Four factors figure centrally in the effort to make form commensurate to content.

The Visual

Essays are visually led. This is not to say that text is shortened or fragmented (in comparison to the written essay) but, rather, that it is variously positioned in a choreographed form to enhance both presentation and meaning, and exists in a dialectical relationship to the images rather than as an explanatory exegesis or as background information. We have had to find ways to adapt our modes of study to encompass a more visually stimulating mode of analysis and interaction where the movement between text and image is crucial to the composition of analysis and argument. This has meant a freer written style (certainly less dense) backed up with rather precise referencing of primary source material in the form of pop-ups.

The Spatial

The second factor in the reconfiguration of analysis and argument is the spatial disposition of essay structure. A strict linear analysis gives way, where appropriate, to a more spatialised form which organises the essay as a series of linked planes or levels, respecting the semi-autonomy and distinctive spatial form of the scrolling screened ‘page’ as well as the relationship between frames.

Navigation

The movement within and across essays is carefully managed. A pixel strip underneath each essay page contains controls for navigating within an essay (or pathway) and the content of this frame changes to suit the section currently being displayed. The user is always able to tell which essay and which section they are in and what sections precede and follow the current one. The main vertical navigation bar remains constant throughout, thus providing maximum freedom of exploration without disorientation of the user.

Hyperlinks embedded in the pages lead to the different spatial levels; when such a section has been read the user can navigate back to the point of departure through ‘return’ buttons. These frame controls are designed to facilitate orientation and navigation in such a way that users can easily stay ‘within’ the selected essay while being clearly located and mobile. They supersede the conventional back controls on a browser, which proves an unreliable navigational mechanism when one is dealing with long, multiply layered documents. Other modes of control allow alternative forms of navigation, opening up cross-essay movement – through pathways – and movement to live websites and bibliography.

Interaction

Extra facilities are present to increase user interaction. The basic HTML mark-up language provides for the display of text and graphic images but a set of Java applets extends the basic facilities provided by the browsers and Flash and QuickTime plugins provide facilities for dealing with dynamic graphical and moving images. This enables the user to interact with graphic images displayed within the browser page and in popup windows. For example, it is possible to mark out an image in order to show small higher level popups when a user clicks on an area or to show an image overlay when the mouse enters specific hotspots. Flash animations allow the delivery of sequences of image montages, or use text and voiceover to present images and analysis dynamically. Such facilities not only showcase the special effects of multimedia technology, they enable the authors to develop imaginative ways of composing analysis and provide a temporal immediacy to techniques of reference and close reading.

 

3. THE PRACTICE OF MULTIMEDIA WRITING

The struggle to find modes of delivery that innovate in terms of form and content has, as our first reviewer, Professor Peter Hales, commented, afforded us some unique opportunities (more ...). Essays juxtapose the work of key thinkers and writers on a topic, for example, photography – mapping a historical debate but also critically intervening in it (see the essay on the Lower East Side by Douglas Tallack). We have embraced the use of sound (see the essay on Maxwell Street by Max Page); moving image (see Flatiron by John Walsh); the ability to annotate maps and diagrams (see the essay on Harlem by Maria Balshaw, Chicago Gateways by William Boelhower, Southside by Liam Kennedy, Lower East Side by Douglas Tallack); the capacity to illustrate argument rather than simply assert (see Boelhower’s discussion of Louis Sullivan’s ornamental practice or Eric Sandeen’s discussion of Times Square signage); the luxury of being able to include contemporary newspaper accounts alongside the high theoretical debates of the secondary material (see White City by Chris Gair) or having access to otherwise inaccessible archival sources and images (see Skyline by Anna Notaro).

Perhaps most importantly of all, the kind of collaboration electronic media allows has meant that very different theoretical, methodological, and geographical traditions have come in dialogue with one another. This happens, of course, with an edited collection but in practice the process is rather different with this electronic book. The electronic management of the project has meant that academics from Europe and the US have been in fairly continuous discussion about the e-book and its development. We followed a procedure whereby the whole framework of the book was mounted for viewing with essays then added successively. This has meant that those submitting later have been able to shape and develop their work in the light of the successes and failures of the initial pieces (and those earlier pieces have had the benefit of constructive critique and then reshaping of their pieces). This transnational dialogue will continue after publication through user feedback, which will be debated on the project web site. Again, one might say similar dialogues occur at conferences or through paper collaboration but the e-book does offer special opportunities to develop a praxis of urban study which brings together very different modes or styles (national, theoretical, disciplinary) based on the notion of juxtaposition rather than synthesis.

The primary mode of web organisation is discontinuity (within limits) – a meandering logic as Peter Hales describes – and what works least well is a unified, tightly crafted linear line of argument. There is a very useful distinction with the e-book between the totality – the framework that holds all the essays together and allows ease of access, and indeed movement across the different parts – and the essays in themselves, which remain the property of the authors (and in quite idiosyncratic ways retain their imprint). Each essay is in dialogue with the others, particularly if the user chooses to eschew the argument of the essay itself and move instead across the pathways. These allow that the user may draw rather different conclusions than the individual pieces suggest – through the experience of juxtaposition. At the same time the different intellectual traditions of history, philosophy, cultural studies, English, American Studies, film studies, urban studies are held in productive tension with one another.

American Studies, along with cultural studies and urban studies, has been the subject of hotly debated and often intractable discussion about its modes of practice, the national and post national shapings of these practices and the relationships of inequality these definitions often naturalise. It is the source of some hope (and interest) to the editors of City Sites to participate in a project that can embrace such different intellectual locations as an (originally American) Italian based Americanist with his roots partly anchored in European philosophy working in Padua, with an American historian from Wyoming, a postgraduate early film specialist from Nottingham, and a cultural studies scholar from Winchester (to mention just a few of our contributors). An electronic book isn’t the only way to develop such collaborations but it has allowed careful consideration of our modes of praxis – our critical and intellectual investments – as it requires one to think and write, and visualise differently (more ...).

 

4. THEORETICAL REFLECTIONS

It is fitting that issues of space, vision, navigation and interaction should so insistently come to the fore in our working practices as these factors have suggestive analogues in urban representation and experience. Frameworks always compose their content of course but in this instance many of the authors were struck by the ways in which issues of spatial orientation, visual framing and movement suggested correspondences between the frames and object of research. Our multimedia research critically foregrounds a common urge of modern urban aesthetics and theorising: to render the city legible, to make it coherent and knowable. Our city sites are understood as representations – as sights – and our various interpretations and analyses, while differing in many ways, collectively call attention to the role of representation in the making of urban space.

 

Space and Representation

Space has become an increasingly irrepressible metaphor in contemporary cultural and critical theorising and a point of convergence emerging from interdisciplinary work in the humanities and social sciences. As theory itself travels from one locus to another, a common interest emerges: the making of space as a social product. A common understanding of space is that it is simply there, intangible but given. Attempts to fix it in language can quickly tumble into tautologies and negations – not surprisingly, as we can no more think outside of metaphorisations of space than we can live outside its representations. To approach space as a social product, though, prompts fresh consideration of the instrumentality of space as a register of not only built forms but also of embedded ideologies. This entails a demystifying of space as natural and transparent so that it is understood as a social entity with particular, localised meanings.

While questions of representation figure centrally in contemporary theoretical work on urban space, they are often formulated in ways that delimit the role of representation (and more particularly its cultural forms –ideational, narratological and imagistic) in the production of space. Throughout City Sites we have sought to consider the formations and functions of the illusory power of representation (more ...). The city is inseparable from its representations, but it is neither identical with nor reducible to them – and so it poses complex questions about how representations traffic between physical and mental space and render the city legible, responsive to our desires to read and see it (more ...). We do not propose that the generative relations between space and representation can be readily be typologised but they can be brought under analysis, with the understanding that representation provides us with a partial and provisional framing of the city as a legible space.

In City Sites the (il)legibility of urban space is the focus of much critical attention. Analysis of the formations and functions of the signifying power of representation is one of the ways in which scholars drawing on literary, film and cultural studies can contribute to the new understandings of space and spatiality. They bring particular disciplinary perspectives and interpretative practices, which both illuminate the workings of, and question assumptions about, representation. The making of urban space invites theoretical consideration of the conditions and effects of the signifying practices, discourses and images that give it legible form. Representation does powerful cultural work in a wide variety of forms to produce and maintain (but also to challenge and question) common notions of urban existence. Literature, film, architecture, painting, tourist guides, postcards, photography, city plans – all provide selective representations of the city and shape the metaphors, narratives and syntax which are widely used to describe the experience of urban living (more ...). Our analyses respond to the cultural work of representation, which offers us specific reading and visual practices for approaching the spatiality of the city.

We recognise that urban space itself is a mode of representation – often the common distinction between material and text is not pertinent – and so a key focus for many of the authors is the symptomatic spatiality of modern urbanism represented in and by selected sites (more ...). Against the ‘modern’ propensity of urbanists to treat the city as a metaphor for the condition of society as a whole we present analyses of urban spaces and places which are more particular and partial in scope. At the same time, we recognise the important role of the city as an imaginary totality which compellingly symbolises generalised social issues – often configured around the meanings of nationhood, citizenship, and ethnic/racial relations (more ...). Such broader issues come under analysis here as distinctive thematic and topical resonances that recur in the essays – and are in part identified via the navigation ‘pathways’.

Through the provisional legibility provided by representation the making of urban space becomes available for analysis. In City Sites, the study of selected modes and forms of representation illuminates the processes of this ‘making’. Our analyses of urban representation do not seek to ‘prove’ theory, rather to supplement it (and, at times, test it) by providing analytical foci presaged by the cultural work of representation.

 

Space and Vision

Urbanism privileges, even as it distorts, vision and the visual. The twentieth century has witnessed a proliferation of new visual technologies, forms and texts that have affected the ways in which the urban landscape is represented and inhabited. Visual representation may be said to bring the city into focus: it frames recognition of urban forms (architectural syntax, street signage); it offers legibility through the reproduction of what is seen (in maps, plans, guides, and images); it unites aesthetic and spatial apprehension of the urban scene (levels, planes, perspectives); it mediates scopophilic and voyeuristic desires (to look, to be seen); it technologises the act of seeing (the fusion of the eye and the camera lens) (more ...). The new forms of visual representation and apprehension have been credited with accentuating the growing abstractions of space in this century and inaugurating the ‘society of the spectacle’ in urban form. The design and building of the cityscapes of New York and Chicago at the turn of the century, for example, encoded new visual understandings of urban space as spectacle – the expanding production of monumental buildings visualised progress itself and popularised the visual delights of the panorama (more ...). Attention to the visual components of urbanism is essential to an understanding of how cities frame and are framed by representation.

It would be possible to write a history of urban space by tracing the history of different forms and modes of visual representation. This might show us, for example, how the rationality and formal logic of one-point perspectivism gives way to the immediacy and dialectical logic of photographic seeing, and further show us how these different models of vision have worked to structure the position of the viewing subject in relation to urban social reality. However, visual experience is not reducible to a formal typology of ‘ways of seeing’. There are multiple modes of vision and scopic regimes active at any point in history, constituting a contested terrain of visual theories and practices. In City Sites, authors have contextualised their examinations of particular forms of urban vision (reminding us that the operations of the eye are not only biological and formal, but also cultural and ideological) and foregrounded the social and ideological conditions of visibility in representations of urban space. In so doing, they draw attention to ways in which space and vision modify each other in producing partial perceptions of urban life. Vision may be ubiquitous but its workings are not all transparent.

Some essays examine selective representations concerned centrally with issues of vision and visualisation and consider how space is not simply an issue but also a practice in visual arts and culture. Painters and photographers reconstruct and redefine space in their creative activities, illuminating its constructedness as a component of vision and visibility, while filmmakers have long recognised the plasticity of space and cinema is commonly cited as ‘the modernist art of space par excellence.’ Painting, photography, cinema, and architectural plans all disseminate certain techniques of visualising and seeing the city, imaging it in both familiar and unfamiliar forms (mapping transitions in physical and mental space, locating and dislocating the viewing subject’s relation to the city as a space of representation). Throughout City Sites, there is evidence of the imbrication of space and vision, the coming together of sites of the urban and sights of the city, and the struggle for legibility this can entail.

To close we should perhaps remind ourselves that theories of urban space are also inseparable from the multimedia practices of writing about urban space discussed earlier. This theoretical excursus, the essays on the 3 Cities web site that act as critical intertexts to this section, and the essays in City Sites which occasion these reflections are the product of a complex collaborative endeavour that is itself a theoretical, as well as methodological and practical, project.

As Peter Hales, reviewing the project commented:

The 3 Cities project is an innovative and important one. It brings together scholars, theorists and interpreters who might otherwise not have the opportunity to form the sort of critical mass that comes to represent something like a theoretical ‘school’ or even movement of sorts. The team from Birmingham and Nottingham have succeeded in this bold venture, and they’ve done it across continents aswell …The body of project material affords the opportunity for a new school of urban analysis to come to the fore, a ‘school’ which combines the work of English theorists, from Tagg and Burgin back to Berger and Lees, and forward to the present with the work of American scholars from a variety of disciplines loosely grouped as American Studies and informed by a disputatious but comprehending relationship to French poststructuralism and Italian romantics like Calvino. (Hales, 1999).


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