Guide Psychogeographique de Paris by Guy Debord from the Drawing Matter Collection

On Arrows

Hamzah Al Asadulloh

The simple stroke of an arrow contains a multitude of meanings. Ideas of transformation is a familiar concept to chemists who use arrows to signify change in chemical reactions, highlighting the process of change and movement of individual particles and elements. For spatial practitioners, so much of what the arrow accomplishes relates to the idea of movement. In his drawing Traffic Study project, Philadelphia, PA Louis Kahn dismisses the road as three-dimensional space, reducing it to pathways of movement in space through his use of pointillist arrows. In his world, the city is a simple series of movement—of objects, bodies, ideas.

Indeed, this is the city as we know it. Movement is the constant state of the city, perpetually reinventing itself through its people, facilitating the slow ebb and flow of its physical and ideological densities. Complex lives moving from one geographical point to another can be easily illustrated through simple notational flicks of the arrow. The arrow no longer represents mere process, but the act of becoming itself

In Guy Debord’s Guide Psychogéographique de Paris, bright orange arrows bridge fragmented islands of Paris. The idea of dérive encourages oneself to aimlessly move through the city and allows for serendipitous understandings of it. At a glance, these arrows seem clinically diagrammatic, banal demonstrations of flat relationships between neighbourhoods. A closer inspection reveals the temporal nature of these arrows as true representations of movement between urban space as we truly experience them, and the urgency of direction both urban and human. Like Kahn, Debord considers the city as a composite of movements which can only exist through human activation and navigation. The city is at all times an endless stream of movement.

This same spirit (misguidedly) helped build the proposal for the City of London’s Pedway Scheme. At a time when the car craze was taking over the Western world, it was considered as an ideal: pedestrians were removed from main roads to avoid car accidents. The walkways of the Pedway Scheme were largely elevated and planned to be integrated into and through buildings in the City. It was the perfect mid-century vision of the metropolitan. By the end of the century, the project had failed miserably owing to an endless list of bureaucratic factors. Pedestrians had no interest in spending extra effort meandering between buildings four meters above ground through dead spaces. The surgical removal of people—the primary movers of the city—from the city itself had proven to be a failure.

Moving further west towards Trafalgar Square, then Mayor of London Ken Livingstone along with Norman Foster have perhaps learned the tragic lessons of the City. The North Terrace of the Square was pedestrianised to form a cohesive corridor, taking into account the movement of people from either side of the Square and facilitating much greater pedestrian density. This intricate theatre of horizontal east-west movement at the foot of the National Gallery served as the fundamental principle for a project I conducted while studying at the Royal College of Art. The objective of the project was to interpret publicness as a series of spatial and temporal experiences. Through arrows, the spatial trajectories of pedestrians at the North Terrace were approximately mapped out to construct a unique portrait of urban movement, allowing the arrows to animate the drawing.

Honouring these trajectories, the eventual design intervention emphasises the dynamism of urban movement through diverging twin ramps which converge briefly at the centre. By centring the subtle relationship between bodily mobility and the public realm, the arrow comes to life in its architectural form. This is the Semiterranean Perspective, a cryogenic sculpture of movement that materialises the arrow as a terrestrial limb of the city.

In his competition entry for the Parc de la Villette, Cedric Price considers the movement of people as a foundational component of the proposal. A series of geometric circulation lines run through the drawing, minimalist arrows anticipating the vast array of urban movement. Borrowing Price’s words, we can interpret arrows to represent “a filigree of voluntary movement and self-choice activity.” From their simple two-dimensional forms to the diverse ideological interpretations they help realize, arrows will continue to be instrumental in the building of our cities.

 Parc de la Villette competition entry by Cedric Price from the Drawing Matter Collection

© 2021 Hamzah Al Asadulloh All Rights Reserved

© 2021 Hamzah Al Asadulloh All Rights Reserved