The psychogeographers are colonising the Lea Valley, east London, in a way that the International Olympic Committee could only dream of doing. It began with Iain Sinclair’s book, Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, published at the beginning of 2009. In the book, Sinclair conducts an interview with another self-proclaimed psychogeographer, Will Self, about the wedge of park land driven into the dirty north-east of London – we know it better as the Olympics site. Self was clearly not impressed: ‘This is an idea of America imposed on human topography that is so much older and more ancient, confused and anarchic. It has the air of imposture.’ Following the real contours of the land is more rewarding, more intuitive, Self contends, than imposing a new human order on top.
Psychogeography is now very much a feature of the criticism of architecture. Still, it is worth remembering that the term was coined in the 1950s by the Situationists, a grouping of Paris-based radical intellectuals, as part of their strategy for imagining new architecture. The nineteenth-century poet Charles Baudelaire’s notion of the flâneur, a strolling, detached observer of society, certainly fed into the Situationists’ ideas. As did the interwar musings of the Surrealists, who introduced the idea of allowing the subconscious to control associations made during these perambulations.
Yet it was Guy Debord, the principal thinker among the Situationists, who loved to dream up terminology for the ephemeral. He defined psychogeography as ‘the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals’. Don’t be fooled by the quasi-scientific prose. Debord and his cohorts saw themselves revolting against the rigid, efficient ethos of Corbusian town planning. Psychogeography was posited as a technique which would contribute to creating ‘a city of modifiable architectural complexes’, their appearance changing ‘totally or partially in accordance with the will of their inhabitants’.
Yet although it was devised as a way of creating a new form of architecture, in which technology would play a great part in the postwar years, psychogeography now has a less utopian function: it is being used to criticise development per se. As the contemporary psychogeographer walks around an urban area today, taking in the detritus of an earlier period of industrial society, we get occasional glimpses of the author’s ideal world. And it is one which prioritises the primitive rather than the progressive. Sinclair, for one, refers to the ‘wilderness, wild orchards, allotments [and] back rivers’ of Hackney as ‘sites of unimproved imagination’.
There is a general antipathy to any kind of change in the Lea Valley among psychogeographers. Elsewhere, Self has written that the Olympic Delivery Authority ‘may make compulsory purchases, tarmac over the sports pitches, roust out the travellers’ encampments and tidy the urban detritus under their magic finance carpet, but very quickly it will all come tumbling back, the steely weeds of a city that has defied everything that God, men or even planners can throw at it’. In architecture, in the built environment, Self sees the hubris of mankind.