You Are the City / Petra Kempf

Observation, organization, and transformation of urban settings.

“Although we will never fully comprehend the entire complexity of a city in one moment, we can understand the urban construct through the interaction of its parts”

The people from Lars Muller Publishers always keep in surprising us with their creations. In this case we are talking about a kind of book… which is not really a book but a series of transparent sheets which allow us to perceive the urban phenomena by isolating and superimposing individual components in order to have a personal interpretation of what the city is (that’s the reason of the title).

The publication offers an original approach to the study and comprehension of the complex urban systems, networks and connections. In words of the publisher it is “a mapping tool that creates a framework for understanding the continually changing configuration of the city. With transparent slides, the tool allows one to superimpose various realities like layers and build new urban connections. It invites readers in short to immerse themselves in the complexity of our cities”.

The author of this remarkable publication is Petra Kempf, a New York based Architect and Urban Designer.

While discovering the pleasure of playing and overlay transparencies we can expose relationships between agents interacting in the city, this multilectic approach (as opposed to dialectical concept) to the urban phenomenon is a game, best enjoyed if played on the desk, with a light source that allows us to superimpose the figures while discovering different urban trajectories. In times of highly complex multimedia presentation efforts such as Kempf’s work become a pleasant contemplating piece that combines touch, sight and imagination.

You go through the book in exactly the same way you get into any city: with no specific order. You can arrive by a main street or a secondary road, you may use a plane, a car or a ship, you can do by walking or in public transportation: the perception of the urban framework is always different, but the whole may be always the same.”Kempf’s particular species of drawing is notable for it’s willingness to engage both action and representation” as Keller Easterling quotes on the Epilogue at “You are the City”. In this sense, the attempts of materialize through ethereal layers the networks and relationships occurring in the city are done with no rigid academic pretentions and that’s the original approach of the author’s drawings.

The simple dynamics of the piece is explained in a small brochure, a kind of booklog where a series of three essays and some user guidelines explains the concept of each one of the 22 transparent index cards and the way they are organized into four operational categories:

  • Cosmological Ground: Articulating the stage for urban intervention. It is a base, which provides the space for dreams and desires and a point for departures and arrivals.
  • Legislative Agencies: Political, economic and social entities create guidelines and rules for their internal an external existence.
  • Currents, Flows and Forces: Emerging and disappearing according to the agents acting in the city. They contribute to define and redefine the perception of boundaries.
  • Node, Loops and Connections: Joining different points into the urban fabric. These vector of movement are viable communal spaces-they are the seedlings for new loops and connections.

We can found some previous traces of Kempf’s work in her portfolio titled Met(r)onymy 1 , is a series of hand drawn abstract diagrams of urban movement, transportation, and form on overlaid sheets of translucent vellum.

(Petra Kempf micro-interview)

We had the opportunity to get in touch with Petra Kempf and she kindly answer for us [via e-mail] these questions:

Ethel Baraona [dpr-barcelona]: There are lots of technical and digital ways to represent cities and mapping new urban plans, but you used a simple traditional way to reproduce the city just with 22 sheets of clear acetate and this is enough to represent all the concepts you want to show in the book. So, what do you think about all these new digital technologies to make data visualizations and what do you think about the future of mapping techniques?

Petra Kempf: I agree, there are many ways to represent cities and each of the mapping technologies available certainly have their value and importance. However the technologies that are currently available, are mostly based on numbers and facts, not personal experiences. But to really experience a city one must be part of it. This is an analog process, by which we engage with a city’s intricate fabric. To re-create that analog process, in this project, I needed to use a tool that helped me simulate that experience. The limitations and computational restrictions of a computer program did not allow me that opportunity.

I appreciate that you used the word ‘simple’ to describe the method of drawing. Albert Einstein wrote once that if one is not able to describe complex things in a simple way, one has failed the purpose of communicating altogether. I believe he is right about this. These simple analog drawings are intertwined with a complex body of text; of language, of ideas. The mind, the body, and the human experience reside in the drawings through the text. I mean to suggest, through the text and the drawings, an engaged human experience. Do the drawings stand alone? Yes, but perhaps there is also a certain kind of silence, of contemplative thought required by the participant to see them or read them. Nevertheless, the drawings are intertwined with my thoughts, my text on the city.

Ethel Baraona [dpr-barcelona]: The sheets are a tool to observe the dynamic structure of cities as urban constructions. What do you think about mapping human flows in the cities? Do you think it’s a difficult task? But in the end, aren’t we humans who conform the cities as living structures?

Petra Kempf: Mapping human flows in cities is a daunting task. I have mixed feelings about mapping these flows, since it could easily shift into ‘the big brother is watching or tracing’ the flows of people. Examples are already at hand with tracing people through their mobile phones, personal GPS security devices, ISP addresses, debit cards or passports. I think one needs to be very diligent with this subject. When I think of mapping human flows I think of Michel de Certeau or Henri Lefèbvre, to name just two. They thought of the urban inhabitant as someone who could never be traced, since he/she always slips away from the ‘official’, traceable path. In this way each individual creates their own path, which can not be traced—even though they shape the city and the city shapes them.

More info:

Lars Müller Catalog


About this author
Cite: Ethel Baraona Pohl. "You Are the City / Petra Kempf" 30 Sep 2009. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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