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Camera Obscura

Updated: Dec 28, 2021

Patrick Geddes (1854-1932) was a genre-bending practical activist, who shaped cities from Edinburgh to Tel Aviv. His work, which stemmed from a distinctive model of nature and society is relevant to contemporary challenges. Throughout his frequently bizarre career, he would build on metaphors from biology and evolution, creating urban environments unlike anything that had been planned before.

Designing for sustainable urban growth is the central challenge of our time. Every major city in the world is facing a housing crisis, with informality the default condition - over 85% of new homes are built illegally. Whilst the population of cities are increasing rapidly, densities are declining due to uncontrolled urban sprawl. This creates vast under-served communities, and a host of environmental and socioeconomic issues. Geddes' life and work, detailed below, is n underappreciated starting point for exploring these challenges.

Initially trained as a biologist, he attracted the praise of Charles Darwin who wrote: "Permit me to add that I read with admiration your researches on the presence of chlorophyll in the animal kingdom". While studying in Mexico, Geddes fell ill and experienced a week of total blindness. Confined to a room and unable to see, he used a window as a mental map - or what he would soon call a "thinking machine". Each pane of glass stood for a distinct concept, and he labelled the connective metalwork to structure his thinking. When his sight returned, Geddes headed back to Scotland to began his life an urban theorist.

Starting in the cramped tenements of Edinburgh's Old Town, Geddes' highlighted similarities between restoring a neighbourhood and reviving a plant. Both need the proper circulation of light, air and water to thrive. Through small, precise interventions, planning can transform overcrowding into livable density, without mass displacements. This was a remarkable contrast to the slum clearance practiced at the time, through razing housing in favour of arterial roads.

His most prominant thinking machine was a sciological laborotory, built in Outlook Tower. Each floor represented a different scale of analysis, from local to global, which Geddes filled with maps and models to illustrate the relationships between visitors and their context. A visit would culminate at the Camera Obscura, a mirrored lens which offering a bird’s eye view of Edinburgh. It survives as a museum of optical illusions, embedded in the crumbling walls of Edinburgh Castle.

Robert Sampson notes that “what poor residents want most is not to move, but simply to have their communities revitalised". The conservative surgery pioneered by Geddes created a revitalised urban fabric, now recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At the same time, he built the first self-governing student halls and delivered a Botanic Gardens for the city.

The Governor of Madras, impressed by regenerative efforts in Scottish slums, invited Geddes to India. This would spark a furiously productive late career, where Geddes surveyed numerous cities across the subcontinent and across the Middle East, as well as becoming the Chair of Sociology at the University of Bombay. Wherever he was commissioned, he broke with Victorian tabula rasa tradition. Instead he created sensitive plans, a product of immersing himself in the community for which he was designing a habitat.

Nature, previously seen as the antithesis of intelligent urban design, is now acknowledged as the starting point of great human architecture. The Biomimicry Institute urges cities to "rethink designs and decision-making, by looking to nature as model, mentor and measure". Geddes transcended conventional academic boundaries, using a interdisciplinary approach that was well ahead of its time. In his view, "the only use for a watertight compartment is on a sinking ship". If we are going to float above the waves of climate emergency, social division and mass migration, we must enrich our growing cities through contact with other bodies of knowledge.

'Thinking machines', condense complex thought into physical form. We can use cities in the same way, provoking examination of shared beliefs about justice, society or the good life. As Robert Park noted, urban life “magnifies, spreads out and advertises human nature in all of its manifestations.” Cities embody the values the inhabitants cling to, and shape their identity. Far richer than an agglomeration of buildings, they can be understood as frozen politics.

Today, the closest thing we have to the Outlook Tower may be a half-built skyscraper in Venezuela. Torre David, built in the heart of Caracas' banking district, was abandoned in 1994, then occupied at the height of the global financial crisis. An improvised home for 800 families, it was described by Urban Think Tank as "a laboratory for the study of informal vertical communities". Torre David stands as a stark repudiation of a real estate economy, which fails to deliver for locals. As capital and power fluctuate in Venzuela, the squatters have documented an often violent cycle of evictions, resquatting and community building. The building is currently unoccupied, but provides a visual provocation for thinking about what the city is for.

What is built, rebuilt and preserved is the physical artifact of what, or who, is prioritised.

Geddes didn’t get everything right, and urban success is hard to maintain. Edinburgh's Old Town has degraded into a grim pedestrian circuit of tartan shops and short-term lets, with tourists outweighing residents. That said, much of his eclectic output has been validated by modern practice, with increasingly urgent dialougue between natural sciences and urban thought.

Having swapped his microscope for the town plan, Geddes forged an intellectual path which would only be followed decades later. This unjustly obscure thinker invented the term "act local, think global", now a rallying cry for sustainable urbanism in emerging conurbations. In fact, he invented the word 'conurbation' as well. Furthermore, he built practical examples, which continue to deliver for the inhabitants of cities where he worked. These examples merit reexamination by anyone seeking the inspiration required to secure a sustainable urban future.

"If my tale requires a moral… mine is simple enough. Ramble and roam; yet not as a mere tourist. Observe and understand how people live and work. Get into active survey of the real world around you. And be seeking out, and finding out what your life can best do to help out in that to be of service to it"

Patrick Geddes

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