Pirkko Saisio’s Concrete Night (1981) and the suspect “realism” of the concrete high-rise suburb in literary fiction

I’m participating in the 21.9. ALUS symposium “Large-Scale Housing Projects as Productive Space in Literature and Culture” at the Tensta konsthall, Stockholm, Sweden.

I will present a paper on Pirkko Saisio’s Concrete Night (1981) and the suspect “realism” of the concrete high-rise suburb in literary fiction.

The starting point of my presentation is the observation that the novel has been widely read as a “realistic” depiction of the high-rise suburb, and consequently, as providing reliable insights into the supposed social and moral state of depravity in these environments. But a closer examination shows that this realism is far from accurate. The environments of the novel cannot be placed on any actual map of Helsinki, and most of the descriptions of the surroundings provide a reflection of a troubled, hypersensitive mind, rather than a detailed depiction of space. The evocation of the high-rise suburb thus has to be set against a complex cross-examination of the naturalist and symbolist undercurrents of the novel, as well as against the overall poetics and ethos at work in the oeuvre of Saisio.

Very much looking forward to the full program and to having a symposium in what promises to be a fascinating venue in an urban peripheral environment – the Tensta konsthall. Many thanks to Lydia Wistisen of Stockholm University for bringing this all together!

More information can be found here.

Program:
9.00–10.00 ALUS members meeting (closed)
10.00–10.15 Welcoming
10.15–10.45. Erik Stenberg & Erik Sigge (KTH Scool of Architecture): Structural Systems of the
Million Programme Era: People, Factories, and Housing
10.45–11.00 Coffee and refreshments
11.00–11.30 Lieven Ameel (University of Turku): Pirkko Saisio’s Concrete Night (1981) and the
Suspect “Realism” of the Concrete High-Rise Suburb in Literary Fiction
11.30–12.00 Caroline Merkel (Stockholm University): Suburbs as Creative Space in German
Literature
12.00–12.30 Hanna Henrysson (Uppsala University): The Hochhaus Experience: Coming of Age
in West Berlin’s Gropiusstadt
12.30–13.30 Lunch at Tensta konsthall
13.30–14.00 Jason Finch (Åbo Akademi University): Myth and Materiality in The Pruitt-Igoe
Myth
14.00–14.30 Alexander Scott (University of Wales Trinity St David): From “Corbusian
Piggeries” to “Toytown Cottages”: Urban Regeneration, Housing Policy and Responses to Post-War Modernism in 1980s Liverpool
14.30–15.00 Coffee and refreshments
15.00–15.30 Lydia Wistisen (Stockholm University): The Million Program in Swedish Teenage
Culture
15.30–16.00 Roundtable discussion
16.00–17.30 Showing of museum collections and walking tour
19.00– Dinner (for invited guests)

Ways of Telling the Future – limits to scientific texts and fiction for describing climate change?

The New York Times recently published a piece where scientists are asked to comment on climate fiction and to assess to what extent these depictions of the future are realistic.

image source: NYTimes / Jordin Isip

The short piece feels strangely inadequate and limited for a variety of reasons, the first reason being, perhaps, that literary fiction is exactly defined by not having truth-value in the referential world. If the starting point of the article is flawed, the researchers interviewed seem to point at that in their own answers, for example when one answers that “Humans are able to probe these issues in ways that are different through the lens of fiction.” What the article does, then, is have scientists tell us what literary fiction can do, by asking of literature what science can do.

The best point of the article comes in the end, when “Dr. Foley [executive director of the California Academy of Sciences] said that if he ever wrote a novel, it would be one in which “we all do the slow, hard muddling work of just pitching in, but no hero rides in on a spaceship to save us all.” It would be a terrible novel, he admitted. “No one would buy it, and Hollywood wouldn’t make a movie, but it’s the one I want, and it would surely save the world.””

The article is enlightening for the most part by the very questions it asks, emphasizing the difficulties we continue to have in imagining futures emanating directly from our current choices, and the way in which different kinds of texts are able to envision different aspects of such futures, from accumulating effects, numbers and figures in scientific data, to the “qualia” of what change feels like in literary fiction. Questions that are at the heart of much current work in the environmental humanities, and also in my current research project “Narratives of the Urban Waterfront in Crisis.

Narrating the Waterfront in Crisis – Florence 27-28.6.

Presenting today a paper on narrating the waterfront in crisis at the University of Florence, at the conference “cross-disciplinary perspectives on urban space”. Full programme can be found here. Abstract below:

Narrating the Waterfront in Crisis

Juxtaposing Narratives of New York’s waterfront under threat in Literary Fiction and Planning
Lieven Ameel
dr., docent, university lecturer in comparative literature
University of Tampere, Finland
lieven.ameel@uta.fi

Urban studies has recently seen the emergence of a new paradigm: that of the resilient city, with its focus on urban readiness for disruptive change. The crisis-awareness in urban theory is aptly mirrored in contemporary city narratives, from literature to the big screen, in which urban dystopias as well as more subtle depictions of a city in crisis proliferate, attuning the public to unsettling possible futures and alternative storyworlds. Narrative is a key concept for how people make sense of the possibility of future threats, and for how urban policy projects action in the face of such threats. Following what has been called a ”narrative”, ”deliberative” or ”communicative” turn, city planners are increasingly making use of techniques from literary fiction, projecting scenario’s, and acting as curator’s of sorts between different story lines (Ameel 2014; Cohen 2008, 111-115). This paradigm shift in urban planning simultaneously highlights the importance of incorporating local voices and cultural stories into planning and policy, as well as foregrounding the communicative aspect of planning for the future.

In my paper, I will examine narratives of the New York waterfront from two distinct, but intermingling perspectives. First, I will look at how narrative fiction frames the experience of a waterfront in crisis, and how it presents the possibility of alternative futures. Ben Lerner’s novel 10:04 (2014) and Nathaniel Rich’s Odds against tomorrow (2013) are particularly revealing texts, but I refer also to other relevant novels such as Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City (2009). Second, I will examine how, in the department of city planning’s comprehensive waterfront plans (1992, 2011), the simultaneous possibility of alternative storyworlds structures the way policy is shaped. I am interested in particular in the concept of temporal orchestration, which organizes the elements of the plot around the reader’s interest in alternative storyworlds (Dannenberg 2008).

Sources:

Ameel, Lieven 2016 (forthcoming): “Emplotting urban regeneration: Narrative strategies in the case
of Kalasatama, Helsinki.” In Rajaniemi, Juho (ed.) DATUTOP.
Cohen, Philip 2008: “Stuff Happens: Telling the Story and Doing the Business in the Making of
Thames Gateway.” In Cohen, Philip & Rustin, Michael J. (eds.): London’s Turning: Thames Gateway: Prospects and Legacy. Aldershot: Ashgate, 99–124.
Dannenberg, Hilary P. 2008: Coincidence and Counterfactuality. Plotting Time and Space in
Narrative Fiction. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

New Critical Geographies Volume out – narrativity as tool

Not entirely related to issues of urban studies, but a new volume of ACME is out, with some interesting avenues of research into narrative and spatiality. The article “Using Narrativity as Methodological Tool” by Eeva-Kaisa Prokkola offers one part of the story how narrative analysis gained ground in geography and the social sciences. It’s a rather shortish article however – more concrete narrative analysis, and more extensive examples of specific methodological tools and their application could have further strenghtened the (very valid) case for narrative-oriented research into questions of (critical) geography. Promising approach nonetheless.

http://www.acme-journal.org/volume13-3.html