Memories of A City

Impressive portal city for the local memories and narratives of different areas in Amsterdam:

Geheugen van West” and “Geheugen van Oost“, literally, the memory of respectively West and East (administrative areas in Amsterdam)

With stories, pictures, archive data, and an easy, interactive platform.

Many stories present perspectives on the city with immeasurable value, and with an enormous richness of detail – from a tram accident in 1957 to more recent reports (from 2013) on engaging locals in planning.

Begs the question to what extent, and how, such rich information and the user base of the website are used in the planning of Amsterdam.


Cambridge Companion to the City in Literature out in October

Thrilling! The Cambridge Companion to the City in Literature is out in October. Can’t wait to get my hands on the volume.


And hard to believe – since the book can not be bought yet, only pre-ordered – it is already on GoogleBooks?!

With articles on “The city in the Literature of Antiquity”, a contribution by Bart Keunen and Luc de Droogh on “The Socioeconomic Outsider”, texts on the Urban Sublime, the City of Modernism, Urban Dystopias, Urban Pastoral, and much, much more.

Favourite quote (so far):

What is a city? The question is foundational in a double sense: it is a question about the origins of social and political life, and it is also a question that haunts the very beginnings of the western tradition of thinking about the nature and goals of collective life.” (Balasopoulos 2014: 17)

The city, the literature it has spawned, and the thinking on the human condition and its social and political underpinnigs, have been firmly entwined since time immemorial, as this volume once more illustrates. Which brings me back to what I wrote in this book:

“Within Western history, the city has been a potent image for as long as written literature has existed. From the very first preserved texts, one can find city images in all their ambiguous complexity: as nodes of creative and destructive energy, as beacons of utopian possibility and of moral warning. As Burton Pike points out, “[w]e unthinkingly consider this phenomenon modern, but it goes back to early epic and mythic thought. We cannot imagine Gilgamesh, the Bible, the Iliad, or the Aeneid, without their cities, which contain so much of their energy and radiate so much of their meaning” (Pike 1981: 3). In the forms of the metropolis and the capital, in particular, the city has become a powerful artefact of the human cultural imagination, endowed with complex powers of representation, and evoking a plethora of images. In the history of the novel, cities have played a particularly crucial role (Bradbury 1976/1986: 99), and the development of literary movements such as realism, naturalism, symbolism and modernism is intimately intertwined with the history of the cities that helped shape them (see Bradbury 1976/1986; Williams 1985; Wilson 1995: 153; Hirsh 2004; Brooks 2005: 131).” (Ameel 2013: 35 / Ameel 2014: 17)

Towards new City Imaginaries

Important article in the Guardian here, advocating a new imaginary on cities, by

Ewald Engelen, Sukhdev Johal, Angelo Salento and Karel Williams.

The article provides a provocative, re-evaluation of Jacobs and Raban, but also of Glaeser, Florida, and Sassen.

Is the city of the “creative class” about culture, or is really about keeping the middle class in?

Several of the insights presented shed light on current developments in my home city, with relevance for similar international projects: Guggenheim Helsinki, but also the complex waterfront development I’m currently working on.

Favorite quote:

“Increasingly, the dreams of urban prosperity through competition have served to legitimate hugely costly – and publicly subsidised – spatial urban interventions in prestige redevelopment. Real-estate investments to keep the upper-middle classes in the city, to accommodate a growing army of international students and young service workers, to attract major corporates and financial service providers to business parks, to persuade the hypermobile cosmopolitan ‘creative class’ to nest locally.”


Narrative approaches to the city

Reading through an interesting contribution to the theory of narrativity and the study of city & city planning: Bond & Thompson-Fawcett’s article “Multiplicities, interwoven threads, holistic paths: The phronetic long-haul approach” in the volume Qualitative Urban Analysis – several other articles in the volume offer insights in the use of narrative approaches for multidisciplinary research.

“The tiny details, often reduced and overlooked in analysis, can reveal the depth of the meaning people have for places and spaces with which they identify. Narratives provide a means to make sense of and understand social phenomena and individual experience (Flyvberg, 2004a). Narratives carry a degree of explanation because they are recalled from memories of events and reconstructed in the telling (Czarniawska, 2004; Eckstein, 2003; Sandercok, 2003). The retelling of stories involves a process of framing, whereby events are characterised, segmented, categorised and ordered through a reconstruction (Bruner, 1990). A narrative approach is co-terminous with a requirement for thick qualitative data, through which the researched speak in their voices to tell their stories.

Via a polyphony of voices, narratives provide a lens through which realities, processes and events can be gleaned.” (Bond & Thompson-Fawcett, 2008, pp. 56-57)

As planning is increasingly conducted by using narrative strategies, the development of a narrative theory becomes crucial for an examination of how our cities function, and Bond & Thompson-Fawcett make an important contribution in this direction. What could be taken further: the development of concrete tools for an analysis. Narrative & literary studies offer promising avenues of research for such an integrated narrative analysis of planning. Something I hope to develop further in my research on narrating urban redevelopment. More about that here.


Bond, Sophie, & Thompson-Fawcett, Michelle. (2008). Multiplicities, interwoven threads, holistic paths: The phronetic long-haul approach. In P. J. Maginn, S. M. Thompson & M. Tonts (Eds.), Qualitative Urban Analysis: An International Perspective (pp. 51-78). Oxford: JAI Press.

Helsinki in Haydn’s Time

The Kamus quartet is organizing a fascinating series of chamber music concerts: Teema@Helsinki.

The series has a spatial theme, and is organized around central locations in Helsinki. The series starts Tuesday 7.10 with a Benjamin Britten concert at Suomenlinna.

I’m very much looking forward to introducing their Haydn concert at the magnificent House of the Nobility Sunday, 22.3, with a short exposé on Helsinki in Haydn’s time.



What makes a city remarkable? An Urban Planner’s Guide to Hki

Mikko Aho, director of City Planning for Helsinki, and also a member of the jury for the Guggenheim Helsinki Design Competition, writes about 7 things that make Helsinki remarkable here.


[Helsinki, seen from the sea. Photo: courtesy City of Helsinki Media Bank. Photographer: Mika Lappalainen]

Great that people from City Planning are actively engaging and reaching out to the (international) public. Aho’s text celebrates Helsinki’s link with the sea, and the multi-layered character of this city (that is much more rooted in a long and complex history than is often acknowledged). But could more be made of the complex cultural meanings of the waterfront? And would it be possible to engage more actively with such cultural narratives in ongoing planning projects?

See, also, in this respect, my contribution in the Finnish Kritiikin uutiset of 3/2012 concerning plans for the South Harbour development.

Amsterdam – a city novel?

What makes a city novel? A what are the distinguished characteristics of this genre? I hope to devote more time and space to this issue in the near future –  I’ve been working with it for some time now. Rather than a fully-fledged analysis, for now, some observations concerning one specific novel: Ian McEwan’s 1998 Amsterdam.
To what extent is Amsterdam a city novel – and does it make sense to approach it from the generic perspective of the city novel? Certainly, it is in a sense a tale of two cities, and like Dickens’s novel, it pits images of the continent with images of Englishness in a tale that is both highly entertaining and complex. London and Amsterdam, then, and the forcefield they emanate – certainly more than mere settings. The eponymous Amsterdam, in particular, to which all the action in the novel is eventually drawn in a series of intriguing doubles, enables and steers the plot development. But it also acts as the mirror image (or even source?) of the protagonists’ rationale of revenge.
Amsterdam, in the following quote, is conveyed as the epitome of rationality – but whose rationality, and to what purposes?
“While he was crossing the bridge it came back to him, what a calm and civilised city Amsterdam was. He took a wide detour westwards in order to stroll along Brouwersgracht. […] So consoling, to have a body of water down the middle of a street. Such a tolerant, open-minded, grown-up sort of place: the beautiful brick and carved timber warehouses converted into tasteful apartments, the modest Van Gogh bridges, the understated street furniture, the intelligent, unstuffy-looking Dutch on their bikes with thier level-headed children sitting behind. Even the shopkeepers looked like professors, the street sweepers like jazz musicians. There was never a city more rationally ordered.” (McEwan 155)
Whether or not one wants to approach this novel as (primarily) a city novel, it has, of course, a lot more to offer than spatialized (power) relations.
For a Girardian analysis of the novel, for example, see Hanna Mäkelä’s recent dissertation Narrated Selves and Others (2014) here.

Literary fiction as resource for historical studies of the city

Ed Taverne’s review of Friedrich Lenger’s Metropolen der Moderne. Eine Europäische Stadtgeschichte seit 1850 (2013) here at the blog Ruimtevolk (in Dutch) pays tribute to the way in which Lenger is not only using traditional historical sources to write his history of the modern city, but also literary fiction. Not, as Taverne points out, to merely illustrate the facts, but as sources in their own rights. Examples are Brigitte Reimann’s Franziska Linkerhand (1974) and Marc Bernard’s Sarcellopolis (1964).Reimann_Bernard

[Franziska Linkerhand, Brigitte Reimann (source: Aufbau Verlag); Sarcellopolis, Marc Bernard (source: Decitre) (source:]

Friedrich Lenger’s book has been published in English as European Cities in the Modern Age



The increasing interdisciplinary attitudes to the city, city history and urban studies is also evident – amongst many other examples – in the recent volume Tussen beleving en verbeelding. De stad in de 19e-eeuwse literatuur (“Between Experience and Imagination. The City in 19th century literature”), published by Leuven UP.


The urban vortex and “il vortice della mondanità” in La Grande Bellezza

In Paolo Sorrentino’s La Grande Bellezza (2013) – in many respects the movie equivalent of a full-scale city novel – the protagonist Jep Gamberdella describes his arrival in Rome, at age 26, as being hurdled down into the vortex of high society. Gamberdella talks of high society and worldliness, but he is in essence describing a founding scene from city literature: the arrival from a young man from the provinces in the disconcerting metropolis.


It’s fascinating how throughout the centuries, the arrival into the metropolis has been described (in literature, in particular) as a descent into a violent vortex or maelstrom. This experience is firmly intertwined with a sense of what it is to be modern. The image of the maelstrom is referred to on numerous occasions in Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, and Berman claims that to “be modern […] is to experience personal and social life as a maelstrom” (Berman 1982/1989: 345–346). Berman wants to describe the actual experience of modernity, but repeatedly turns to literary texts for his dissection of modern experiences. His analysis of Rousseau’s Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse (Julie, or the New Heloise; 1761), recounts such a sense of shock born from the confrontation with the city:

“This atmosphere – of agitation and turbulence, physic dizziness and drunkenness, expansion of experiential possibilities and destruction of moral boundaries and personal bonds, self-enlargement and self-derangement, phantoms in the street and in the soul – is the atmosphere in which modern sensibility is born.” (Berman 1982/1989: 18)

From La Grande Bellezza:

“Quando sono arrivato a Roma, a 26 anni, sono precipitato abbastanza presto, quasi senza rendermene conto, in quello che potrebbe essere definito “il vortice della mondanità”.”

(“When I arrived in Rome, aged 26, I rushed early enough, and almost without realizing it, in what could be defined as “the vortex of high society”.)

For the maelstrom in Finnish turn-of-the-century literature of Helsinki, see a brief introduction here; Ameel 2014: 51-52.


Helsinki Guggenheim

New article in the Guardian concerning the Helsinki Guggenheim.


(source: Next Helsinki)

No really new information on the Guggenheim project, though, it would seem that most of the arguments have been heard.

New, of course, is the interesting counter-competition by NextHelsinki.

The question I struggle with most, however: why are there so few voices that call for strong, innovative cultural arenas in the newly developing Helsinki waterfront – West Harbour, East Harbour, Kruunuvuorenranta?