What if the city were an ocean, and its building ships?

Tim Ingold

University of Aberdeen

The question of my title was inspired by a recent exhibition of work by artist David Lemm at Edinburgh Printmakers, on the theme of wayfinding and mark-making in the city. Lemm had superimposed schematic icons pointing to details of buildings (e.g., railings, lintels, steps), that could be seen from different locations, on old nautical charts. The exhibition led me to reflect upon how we think of buildings in relation to the ground of the city, as superstructure on infrastructure, placed upon the ground rather that sunk in its depths. Indeed it led me to reflect upon the ground itself, for on David’s charts, the parts of buildings not only appeared disconnected from one another. They also seemed to float like bric-a-brac upon the surface of the ocean. What if the ground of the city were like the ocean? Is it at ground level, rather than above or below, that the city has to contend with the forces of disintegration? For the mariner, the ship is a point of stillness in a turbulent world of sea and sky, and his attention is directed not to the surface but to currents below and winds above. How might we think of buildings and of the city differently, if we were to imagine the ground, likewise, to heave with the swell of the elements, and of buildings to converse with the earth and with the sky? And what if our city maps were more like nautical charts, indicating depths and cardinal directions rather than surface features and their layout?