The City as Marvellous Exquisite Corpse
Neil Spiller, 15 March 2020
Let us not mince words: the marvellous is always beautiful, anything marvellous is beautiful, in fact only the marvellous is beautiful. André Breton, ‘Manifesto of Surrealism’, 19241
Exquisite Corpse is a Surrealist game that named itself; it involves sides of folded paper, on which several people contribute a phrase or drawing, none of the participants having any idea of the nature of the preceding contribution or contributions. The classic example, which gave its name to the game, is the first phrase obtained in this manner: THE EXQUISITE CORPSE SHALL DRINK THE YOUNG WINE.
These protocols of chance, disturbed context, hybrid formal juxtapositions and variable meanings are writ large in the contemporary city. Many hands, with many disparate aspirations, make our cities at many scales of operation, perceived and acted within by a myriad of contributors. Some of these actors know about the city’s semiotics, the majority not. The city is also a time machine: it stretches backwards and forwards in time. It is like looking at the night sky, the light of stars from different times converging on the retina simultaneously. The city bombards the eye and mind with differing times and differing philosophical understandings of humanity’s place in the cosmos. Cities have alternative realities, some drawn and mapped, some not.
The city can be read like a trillion parallel texts completed and composed in cahoots with the viewer. The great mother/lover, the Surrealist city is an analogue computer, churning out combination after combination of objects. Humanity’s passions nurtured and sustained by the flow of time, a succession of lives and capital across the city. This hallucinogenic space of reflection, poesis and desire, providing a cornucopia of new images and concepts, was complicit in the drafting of the powerful Surrealist city literature composed by Andre Breton (the so-called Pope of surrealism) and Louis Aragon. Their books are love letters to Paris. Aragon was the first to recognise the Surreal fertility of the city in his Paris Peasant (1924),2 the narrative of which involves a visit to the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. As the contemporary landscape architect and academic Ferdinand Magallanes has written:
‘For Aragon, Parc des Buttes-Chaumont was a site filled with abstract fictive possibilities and more concrete visible objects, such as oddly placed Greek follies, engineered bridges, and reconfigured artificial landscapes containing magical and psychoanalytical meanings. The animist qualities found in the park objects, the deaths produced from numerous suicide jumps off a bridge in the park, and its tormented quarried past were magical to the writers in reconfiguring a surreal place.’3
Breton contributed to this newfound urban oasis of possibility with his book Nadja (1928),4 which describes ‘André’s’ perambulations around Paris in search of intellectual, creative and emotional stimulation. He would know when he found it. Casting himself into the vortex of the city’s storm, he finds Nadja, the object of his desire and his interpreter in this unfamiliar terrain. Nadja, like the city seen through her eyes, is other-worldly. We find out she is mentally ill, an idiot-savant, sometimes cogent, sometimes delirious. Latterly she melts away, and the narrative is sustained by her absence; the prose, maybe even more surreal, defined by her loss. The last sentence of the book was to become a Surrealist saying: ‘Beauty will be convulsive or will not be at all.’
In his seminal essay ‘Soluble City’ (1978)5 , Roger Cardinal defined six Surrealist readings of the city: as dream, as love affair, as palimpsest, as poetic text, as psychic labyrinth and as a system of signs. These are not mutually exclusive, but simultaneous and concurrent. Like quantum fields of events, everything exists at once as potential readings until they condense, momentarily provoked by an observer, read and captured as a trace of another reality where the familiar rules are not obeyed.
Surrealist spatial aspirations, mnemonic sensibilities and an interest in the desiring, fractured Surrealist readings of the city have continued to underpin many of the most interesting architectural and artistic works of the last one hundred years. The contention of this short essay is that far from the Surrealist influence waning, it is actually growing stronger. Further, a Surrealist understanding of architectural space will enable architects to conceive and create architectures hitherto impossible within the restrictive confines of traditional Modernist architectural dogma, and simultaneously within the advanced technologies currently at the centre of the vertigo of the modern. As curator Ingrid Shaffner has written: “Working outside Breton’s jurisprudence, David Lynch’s ant’s-eye-view, Angela Carter’s violet pornography, Bob Dylan’s tombstone blues, and virtual reality could also be called Surrealist.” 6
The City, as we have yet again been reminded, in all its marvelousness, can also kill...
1 André Breton, ‘Manifesto of Surrealism’ , in André Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism, trans. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane, Ann Arbor, MI, 1972, p. 14.
2 Louis Aragon, Paris Peasant, trans. Simon Watson Taylor, Boston, MA, 1994.
3 Fernando Magallanes, ‘Landscape Surrealism’, in Thomas Mical (ed.), Surrealism and Architecture, London and New York, 2005, p. 222.
4 André Breton, Nadja, trans. R. Howard, New York, 1962.
5 Roger Cardinal, ‘The Soluble City: The Surrealist Perception of Paris’, in Dalibor Vesely (ed.), AD Surrealism and Architecture, 48, 2–3, 1978, p. 143–49.
6 Ingrid Schaffner, The Return of the Cadavre Exquis, The Drawing Centre, New York, 1993, p.45
Illustration: Vitriolic Column, 1986 Spiller Farmer Architects
This Column was generated in an Exquisite Corpse methodology, Spiller and Farmer working independently, without discussion. A form of automatic architectural composition, a microcosm of the city.