31 October 2008


marking our place on architectureSarah Zollinger
When we become lost in the cities we live in, we rediscover our place by responding to the stories that architects tell with our own marks — words and images that tell stories in the cities we inhabit. Writing one's name on a building claims space and makes place: it makes that building surface ours. Design cannot be spontaneous, but graffiti needs to be. Architecture may be hard and solid and slow, but writers move quickly. Writing names and identities onto the city is how we engage the slowness of architecture and put ourselves into the stories of the places we live.
Aldo Rossi's city is a collection of the architecture that makes it up: a human-built object, an assembly of artefacts; often a collection of the ‘nameless architecture of large cities, streets and residential blocks’1 — LA, Houston or Toronto—but when we look more closely a counter-definition starts to emerge. Lives lived within these architectures add layers to the palimpsest of a city. With architectures as repositories, cities are ‘the production and distribution of discourse, writing, including the bodily traces of a building's occupants, and its divisions of space, time and movement'.2 This ‘visual litter’ both private and commercial, is part of our dialogue with the city. Competing images and texts might seem entirely chaotic but ‘neither cities nor places in them are unordered, unplanned; the question is only whose order, whose planning, for what purpose, in whose interest’.3
When the modern city disregards the individual in an attempt to plan for the universal, graffiti, stickers and stencils are some of the ways that urban dwellers physically and visually make their individual presence known. This urban art is part of a long tradition of marking the places we live. It is the trace of people we know and things we can identify. Because of the marks made by others like us the city becomes ‘a place that we can identify ourselves within’. 4 Each mark is the trace of another person ‘…every graffito can … be seen and/or read as a miniature autobiography of a member of a society in the sense that the graffitist reveals a part of himself and his society in all that s/he writes’.5 This idea of autobiography is at the heart of graffiti and what makes it unique.
Graffiti is about naming: writing ones name in the city allows ‘an announcement of one’s identity [as] a kind of testimonial to one’s existence in a world of anonymity’.6 Whether it be to sign a contract, or write yourself a name tag, or tag a wall, ‘when one makes a mark, one leaves something of one's self behind’, claiming both identity and belonging.7 For urban youth in a culture of nameless-ness and identity-less-ness, graffiti is a route to belonging, not only in a group but also in a large and anonymous city.8 Naming and re-naming implies the creation, or re-creation, of self and serves as a means of empowerment.9 The subsequent marking of one's name on a public surface adds to this the physical claiming of space and the delineation of boundaries within the city. There is a sense of pride in seeing your name or the names of friends impacting the city. One belongs by marking one's presence.
In this, buildings, the collection of stories told by architects, become the backdrop. The anonymous walls of anonymous buildings become canvases where the average person comes in contact with the city and meets the moment when our lives can inscribe the rigid world that we live in. This is where the people that walk the streets make architecture human: flexible, changeable and where we urban dwellers, who live our lives in the shadows of buildings, push back at an unyielding architecture.

Zollinger, Sarah. 'Inscriptions: marking our place on architecture' On Site review, no. 19 Spring/Summer 2008
©Sara Zolllinger and On Site review

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