Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Urville - curating an imaginary city.

Urville is the creation of the extraordinarily talented Gilles Trehin. Gilles is autistic and has been working on Urville since he was 15 (he is now in his early 40s), designing his imaginary city in beautifully detailed drawings and creating the history that goes alongside it. I have always been fascinated by imaginary cities (it's a subject I expect to revisit often on this blog) and Urville is the most detailed I have discovered, so for museeme I wanted to pay homage to this great achievement and talk a little about how I feel it is both a creation and a curation.

One of the first things I find interesting about Urville in this context is that it is an imaginary city situated in real history. Whilst the physical site of Urville is an island in the meditterranean off the coast of France, the written history is situated very much within the history of France. In this way the city works as an imaginary forum in which to curate the events of French and world history in a new way. The events of history take on a new light in an imaginary realm - we can see how Urville was affected by the French Revolution and WW2; we can see how its buildings reinvented themselves after stock market crashes; we can see how the high rises were affected by September 11th. In this way the fictional city is both acting as an archive (the drawings and designs almost like complex shelves) for real happenings, whilst addressing the issues that affected real cities and their planners post global events.

The city is divided into many areas, and the drawings have been divided into groups for each area in the book version of the project published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. The text that accompanies each drawing is interesting in that whilst describing events (more on that later) a lot of the text comprises of lists of dates and people that have been involved in the particular building or area illustrated. Whatever the reasons behind this, where I find it interesting is again in how this makes the city function as an archive - the imaginary buildings have almost been catalogued by their history and who has been involved with them. One could also see the buildings themselves as items in a collection created by Gilles. In this way I think Urville functions both as an imaginary and a multi-layered archive of real and imagined history, the history of each building and that of those involved, and as a catalogue of the work produced. We are even told what archaeologists might find if they looked under the city - again another layer of potential curation.

This idea of a multi-layered curation of imaginary place is continued for me in how the text tells of any film or book that may have been inspired by something that happened in a certain building or area. In this way the history of the city goes beyond trying to catalogue a physical history to a creative history, from building, to event, to inspiration, to art work. We are aware of imaginary works of art that in themselves also curate the city in our imaginations - curating the curated. We can never see these artworks or read the books set in Urville, but just the knowledge of their imagined existence somehow adds something to our understanding of the city. We know that it is a city that has the potential, just like a real place, to affect the world in many ways.

In the introduction to the Urville book, Uta Frith says that autistic artists are often seen as having an "obsession with the physical world and a neglect of the social". This could be seen in Urville in how the hundreds of people drawn are anonymous like mini statues or that residential areas are not really dealt with - we just see lots of buildings that we guess must be flats and no low rise or townhouses, but I would say that Urville doesn't so much neglect the social as see it through cultural and civic terms. There are enough public squares to make Richard Rogers dance for joy (in many ways Urville looks like his dream city...) and, particularly interesting for this blog, a museum for virtually every aspect of life it is a city of/for curators! We might not see the textile workers, bankers or fisherman and know what they get up to at home, but they each have their museums or, in the case of bankers,  monumental or iconic buildings. Museums also spring up to commemorate historical events, including social history - e.g. a factory might close and its building be turned into a museum about what was made there, in a way socially archiving the city's structure as it changes. It's almost as if the buildings are curating themselves! There are also social aspects in terms of how cultural events are archived - from the grandness of World's Fairs (another future topic) to a yearly Armenian music festival, as well as food and flea markets. Again these can be situated in real social history - he talks of Nirvana and The Pixies. Gilles's attention to detail is extraordinary. Having read the book I feel I know as much about his imaginary city, as I do about many real cities, in some ways making it just as real in my head in terms of how i archive city experience. I have a list of what I'd like to see and do there. I have imagined versions of real cities all over the world based on reading and images, and Urville is just as clear to me.

Dream versions of real cities is one of my pet subjects, and something that continually arises in my own creative work. Urville really fascinates me in this way, partly because as mentioned it is situated in the context of real French history, but also how for me it functions as a dream version of Paris, just as say Calvino's Invisible Cities are all a form of Venice. I know Paris fairly well and it keeps appearing to me as a kind of phantom city as my mind travels around Urville. I don't know whether this similarity is conscious or not - it doesn't really matter - but if we do acknowledge this similarity then it seems to me that Urville could also be seen as a curation of an imaginary Paris - a secret exhibition within Urville for those visitors who have some knowledge of the French capital. Yet unlike Paris, Urville is an island, and I love how in some drawings Gilles has included giant sailing boats, giving the city another level of imagination in that we can imagine where we would sail to from it - we are aware of a world beyond even when immersed in such detail.

Gilles also deals with dream as in utopian views of Urville in the area Cite Utopique. Drawing on a lot of the ideals that led to post world wars estates in many cities, Gilles has included one here, creating an idealised city in intention within his own imaginary city, also curating city planning movements as he does so. Many planning and architectural styles are included in Urville and these are catalogued, including the large 19th rebuild of Urville (echoing Haussmann and Paris) and the current trend for giant towers.

I could go on, and maybe I am stretching things too far, but I not sure it matters. Surely one of the interesting things about imaginary cities and any attempt to analyse them is their ability to trigger an infinite number of ideas that cannot really be proven. The creator might have intended one thing, but then no matter how much they are catalogued they to an extent take on a life of their own. The one thing I am sure of is that Urville is a staggering achievement and one I am sure I will visit in my imagination again and again.

The book version of Urville can be bought here .
Visit Urville at .
I have pasted some images below, but I apologise for the lack of accompanying text and close up detail. I recommend you buy the book!

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