Image courtesy Richard Ingersoll.

The Dis[re]membered Body


Richard Ingersoll, Nomads in  Sprawltown

February 2, 2012


Like every lecture nowadays, the speaker begins hunched over a cinderblock media counter checking to see if his technology is compatible with the space. Wearing mostly black and bedecked in a small beret, the Montevarchi, Italy based architectural historian and professor Richard Ingersoll commands the attention of around 50 students and visitors who stare down at him from the blocky bare wood of the New Soft Room at the Architectural Association’s London office.


London’s milieu of human and small engine traffic makes the backdrop for Ingersoll’s new verbal afterword to Sprawltown, his 2004 book which treated sprawl as an opportunity for designers’ changing engagement with the landscape of metropolitan conurbation. Ingersoll is searching for the dignity of both the person and the place in the worked city space through the stencil of the nomad. This new frame, however, is slightly unclear. In the lecture, Ingersoll moves between three flows: sprawl, nomadic and refugee housing, and cultural tourism. From this, I understand his goal to be the reclamation of land and spaces that have been taken over for purely commercial, uncreative purposes.


In Sprawltown, Ingersoll described sprawl as a verbal explosion in five senses. The first is changing weather where sprawl is an unpredictable vane. The second is the dismembered body, the idea that sprawl is subjunctive and irregular from the ideal view of the centre city. Then, there is the postcard city, where he explains the strange sycophantic relationship between tourists and terrorists. I wish he would expound on this in detail as it presents a truly interesting possibility for urban studies. He is right to say in his fourth thesis that sprawl needs a city to exist. This last example plays off his final thesis of jumpcut urbanism, that power play of touristic work that is a long journey with a destination in mind. Jumpcut is a powerful avenue for this design debate and is a central, but unmentioned, focus of the rest of the presentation.


How does this equate to the experience of the nomad? Nomadism is about gestures to the land such as restoration and conscientious objection when circumstances appear or become too severe. Architecture for Humanity presents a point of strong reference for Ingersoll and he goes through several slides illustrating the nature of temporary housing, focusing on the systems designed by Shigeru Ban for displaced victims of the 1995 Kobe earthquake and the Shiyuan earthquake of 2008.


L: Haiti earthquake housing by David Sacca, image by Michel Redondo. R: Princezengarten, Berlin, image by John Ulmson.


Disaster architecture and nomadic living share the quality of being inherently open source and so highly communicable and low-cost. This is a model that scares most planners and it is interesting to see what place it will have in Sprawltown’s next edition. Housing standards are always a social construct and seem to develop into a contract that divides the local inhabitant from the habitus of the refugee or visitor.


Ingersoll launches into a languid and typically enchanting depiction of the challenge of tourism and cultural production in cities with historical foundations like Florence and Venice. I recall my 2004 visit to the town centres of San Guistino and Florence and feeling for the emptiness of the side streets. The character of the town centres’ holy tourism meant the local people had been put aside for primitive coin-operated lighting and vending machines for candles and matches. This religious architecture that in Italy, like in England, is a public-private commons has been appropriated in a way that Garrett Hardin would have understood as overexploitation.


Image courtesy Richard Ingersoll.


This vision is of course a fragmentary one. I found Florence to be hardly emotional about my experience. In 2004 the creative production of the city seemed to have narrowed itself to a bookbinder with an Adana press churning out flower-covered hardbound journals made of thick leaves of recycled brown paper. I was more taken with the slow sojourn of the itinerant labourers sprawled in the alleys. In the last days before the advent of cheap mobile internet, they had made the laziness of waiting into a science. I wonder what the internet has done for the heroin addicts at the railway station—the only ones who got any humour from the presence of tourists in Florence. 


The contemporary nomad is a curious construct. Illustrated by cartoonist-inventor Steven M. Johnson in the 1984 book What the World Needs Now, Mr. Johnson describes a new class of nomads as technological wunderkinds who move from city to city selling their computational and creative expertise as day labourers. Johnson, before many others, seized on the lack of filial piety in the modern nomadic experience, something Ingersoll could learn from.


If Ingersoll is advocating anything, he is seeking to put sprawl on its head and enable creative and cultural workers to move back into the cities he loves by taking advantage of the tourist and turning that visitor into a citizen—at least temporarily introducing production to spaces mainly dedicated to the commercialization of leisure.


Temporary environment under a Parisian underpass. Photo by Richard Ingersoll.


Ingersoll makes five new points for discussion that will no doubt feature in future urban design debate. In doing so he is trying to turn the tables on cultural policy and replace it with architecture for humanity. Redistributing the tourist gaze is by far the most exciting. The quality of new or redefined looking as an habitable cultural experience may be his best launching point for new dialog; second and third, create more democratic attractions and integrate tourism with daily life. I wonder if this means bringing more local school children into the Uffizi during the spring and summer months or getting tourists to use AirBnB when looking for bedrooms. 


Ingersoll’s other points require more collective action than what designers can muster on their own, and show why Ingersoll is deserving of a wider audience. Creating incentives for production is already being done and mostly badly, focusing on historical recreation rather than neighbour-led social production in old structures. Although English attempts at this can be successful, they tend to be commercial in the extreme.


Occupy Florence, November 2011. Photo by Richard Ingersoll.


Finally, demand responsibility from suppliers! The length that one can go in demand means it is certainly possible for this to take place. However, the illustration he gives of a World Wildlife Fund bird sanctuary in Tuscany (Oasis in Florence) is difficult to translate—it can be seen by request only and is privately managed. The supplier cycle needs to be continuously evaluated to make sure all types of industries are making social and resource investment in their community. I took Ingersoll’s example of the bird sanctuary as an example of what social activists could do, and later learned the inference to birds as the original nomads. I can appreciate both points.


At the end of the lecture, a question came from a Venetian about how one should go about repopulating her native city. Ingersoll had visited on the fact that tourists outnumber residents there 500 to one and the population had dropped to 60,000 today. The answer to the question of reasserting culture and finding uses beyond the tourist season is still a very open question. We still do not have the technology to successfully negotiate with many places.



Steven M. Johnson:


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