The city as a narrative dispositive

1. The city and its imaginary: from the urban as spatial form to the urban as a signifying whole

Since its appearance in the second half of the XIX century, the metropolis has not been limited solely to the physical space occupied by its buildings, streets and squares – however enormous, crowded and complex that space may be. Neither the city and its more simple and ordered form can be reduced to the spatial extension defined by its walls. One could think as a prerogative of the homo sapiens the capacity to transform an activity at first simple and natural as inhabiting into an articulated form – stratified of meaning, values and functions of a social, political, economical and cultural nature.

Thanks to the collective and public aspect of the urban, the activity of inhabiting confers to the city that surplus of values and meanings that distinguishes it from its mere spatial extension, and from the physical forms that occupy it. And it is starting from this public and collective nature that the term metropolis, as well as that of city, acquires an extension so vast to be able to denote the activities, functions, behaviours, habits that manifest themselves in that space – but even the social and cultural meanings, the aspirations and hopes that spreads from it, as well as the fears, tensions and conflict that tear it apart. In this sense the sociologist Albert Abruzzese talks of verbal dispositive (2002) to define the word metropolis and the laceration it produces within the modern individual and collective imaginary. For this reason, when talking of urban space it must not be understood solely the territory upon which buildings, streets, squares and parks extend themselves, but also – and most of all – the totality of the practices, meanings and representations arising from its material plane. We can thus imagine the urban space as an immense machine producing forms, significations, symbologies, narrations, images, concepts and practices starting from the complex network of relations that gives life to it.

The proliferations and production of meanings within the urban space calls into question a kind of investigation that considers the city as a communicative dispositive and that analyses its languages and writings by means of a semiological approach. An investigation that ultimately will have to address the study of the effects and repercussions of the dispositive on the inhabitants and users of the urban space[1]. The theme of the city as a signifying whole – that is its capacity to generate language and writing, articulating thus meanings, symbologies, narrations and representations – represents a leitmotif that extends itself from the reflections of George Simmel (1990), passing through the work of Walter Benjamin (1927-1940) and Henri Lefebvre (1969).

It must however be noted that a similar approach is present also in the thought of Kevin Lynch, one of the most influential architects and urban planners of the XX century. In his The Image of the City (1960) Lynch introduces for the first time a concept as essential as it is revolutionary for any investigation, being it of a scientific or of a social nature, concerning itself with the city and its communication: the idea of imageability. Imageability is defined as «the quality that endues a physical object with an high probability to evoke a vigorous image in every observer» (Lynch 1960: 31). When it is referred to the urban environment, the adjective acquires a stronger meaning:

A highly imageable – conspicuous, readable, visible – city, conceived in this sense, would present itself as well formed, distinct, remarkable; it would invite the ear and the eye to a higher attention and participation. The grasp of the senses on a similar environment would be not only simplified, but even extended and deepened. Such a city could be known, during time, as an highly continuous system provided with many interconnected distinctive parts. An attentive and experienced observer could absorb the new impulses of the senses without breaking apart its fundamental image, and each new impulse would retouch many previous elements. He would be well oriented, and could comfortably move himself. He would be deeply aware of its own environment”. (ibid.: 32) The imageability of the urban form is at the centre of Lynch’s study for the image of the city depends on it; and the image of the city is that mental form (visual and spatial, but also historical and chronological) by means of which any person relate himself to the urban space, allowing him not only to move through it, but also to get to know it deeply and develop an awareness of it – of its physical and architectonic forms, its economical and social processes, its past stories and future possibilities. The image of the city assumes in this sense a highly political value. It is by means of it that single individuals and social groups define their strategies, prefigure common purposes and recognize themselves through cultural identification processes.

In his analysis Lynch decomposes the environmental image into three levels: identity, structure and meaning. Identity (or individuality) is what allows us to discern the image’s object as an individual being; structure is the spatial or schematic relation that the image’s object entertains with the observer; meaning is instead a kind of rather different relation that the object (and its parts) entertains with who relates to it, a relation of a functional, but also emotional and cultural, nature. The intersection and superimposition of these three levels define the degree of imageability of a given city, and thus its image. Lynch concentrates however on identity and structure, putting aside the analysis of the meaning level.

This latter level constitutes in fact a too complex field of investigation, which exceeds the competences of the urbanistic or architectonic discipline. Moreover the meaning level, even if is included in the planning of the urban space, will be naturally modified and extended by the use and experience that thousands of people will make of it during time, as well as by innumerable variables (psychological, cultural, ideological, etc.).

It is easy to see how the image of the city and the imageability of which Lynch talks about are concepts closely related to the proposed idea of the city as a narrative-communicative dispositive: in both the approaches the urban spaces goes beyond its simple physical-spatial connotation, expanding itself and including the images and the imaginaries that single individuals and entire communities are projecting upon that space, and in which behaviours, opinions and identities find their motivation. The city, or metropolis, brings with itself a double value: as a spatial entity designates the physical territory that hosts it and gives form to its physiognomy, while as an image it refers to the complex of mental images that inhabitants and social groups form of that space. This rigid separation is valuable for the purposes of the analysis, but actually the two plans intertwine with and define each other: the space, through its forms and its architectonic styles, its volumes and its empty spaces, shapes the image and the imaginary of the city, which on its turn gives back to the territory an inner symbolic plane and a narrative coherence. And it is exactly thanks to this signification plane that the city can be understood, lived and fully experienced by its inhabitants.

From here follows the necessity to start a research able to analyse first of all the modalities in which territoriality and imaginary relate with each another, that is analyses how buildings and streets take part to a signification process[2] able to produce narrations and representations, reflections of hopes and fears (utopian and dystopian images) traversing the urban social tissue. And secondly a research addressed to the languages and writings stemming from the relation between city and citizenship, as well as to their importance for the survival of the city itself and its community.

2. Environmental communication and urban literature

Within this investigation it is possible to distinguish two polarities describing different forms of language and writing of the city, as well as the kind of role they hold in urban life. The first pole is the one that can be defined as prescriptive, while the second will be called creative pole.

Prescriptive polarity refers to all those dispositives, processes and communicative artifacts, operating within the urban space, which transmit orders, define hierarchies, impose some behaviours while forbidding others. «In the form of meanings, simultaneities and meetings, in short in the form of urban language and writing, the city transmits orders. […] it refracts these imperatives in a style, although very few original urban life exists. This style characterizes itself as architectonic» (Lefebvre 1968).

Is it possible nonetheless to see how the city’s prescriptive orders and procedures are not embodied solely by its architecture and urbanistic design, but permeate as well the graphical artifacts crowding and occupying vast portions of its surfaces, spreading the prescriptive message at the practical and material level (as can be done by traffic signs), as well as at the symbolic and cultural one (considering how a century of urban commercial communication shaped behaviours and veritable social rites connected to the consumption of goods).


Figure 1. American poster of the 1930s. Advertising, by means of a language that narrates and unfolds phantasmagorical worlds irradiated by the new industrial society’s wealth, orientates behaviours and opinions of the metropolis’ inhabitants creating thus a new urban subject, the consumer.

The prescriptive polarity is contrasted by the creative one. Before analysing the latter is however necessary to introduce a new hypothesis, by means of which evaluate and study the signifying whole constituted by the urban. A new perspective that defines communications, narrations and representations of the city as literary forms.

Benjamin was the first to point out how, between the XIX and the XX century, literary forms and processes started to lose their traditional traits – the literary work as an auratic, exclusively textual work, entailing a rigid separation between the author and the reader and an intimistic and reflexive fruition. The German philosopher sees the communication starting to invade the city’s spaces with posters, banners, shop windows and flyers, as a new literary form able to shake and activate the collective forces inhabiting those spaces. The act of writing has started to overflow from the quiet horizontality of the book to end up occupying streets, squares, walls and banners. The texts (but now also the images) are reproduced in large quantities on different support formats and spreaded in a new urban context that hosts hundred of thousands of people. We are facing the transformation of the urban space into an immense communicative machine that imposes its own literary work through the most varied forms of medium, and starts to involve its inhabitant also in the production plane. In the eyes of the philosopher, the writing and literary processes and products manifest themselves in the form of fragments presenting themselves through media which are not considered textual or literary (shops’ banners, posters, postcards, sandwich men, etc.). The new languages and writings of the urban visual culture define therefore a new kind of “literary style”, that first of all presents its transmedial character. This means that the action and the effects of a representation don’t exhaust themselves with the representation itself: on the contrary the message will tend to pour, and modify, itself on other supports and media. Moreover, this new literariness emerges from a kind of communication that is produced and used collectively. The new processes of writing and reading abandon the quietness and intimacy of the studio or of the bourgeois living room, to appear within the new urban scenery – a stage hosting hundreds of thousands of readers. Thus the fruition doesn’t happen by means of an identification of the observer in the work, but opens itself to comments, opinions, critics, simulations, and therefore to further – and potentially endless – reworkings and rewritings. Finally is evident how the literary dimension acquires a value also at the praxis level. As a matter of fact the new effectiveness of this urban literature realizes itself through a «clear alternation between action and writing» (Benjamin 1928); which make so that the production of representations possessing a literary stature will always tend to have a practical outcome, since writing always entails an effect on material reality. The transmedial character, the collective dimension and the centrality of a direct relation with the practical-material plane represent the most important points, which introduce the most noticeable discrepancy with traditional literary forms. It must be pointed out in this respect how the necessary premise for the collective production and the practical dimension of urban languages and writings is precisely the form of the simultaneity (Lefebvre 1968: 101) permeating the modern city and metropolis.

Is it now possible to place in this perspective the two opposing – but not necessarily separated – polarities introduced before. If prescriptive communication surely holds at least two of these characteristics (collective fruition and practical outcomes), the creative one, in addition to possessing a strong bias to transmediality, presents a fourth characteristic that distinguishes it from the messages, narrations and representations aimed to impose behaviours, conducts and opinions in their users. To be really effective, any information aimed to the transmission of an order, a norm or a command must not allow any modification, nor leave space for interpretations, judgements or rewriting attempts. These are instead the presuppositions of any communicative form that can be placed in the creative polarity – and which are guaranteed by those productive and receptive processes allowing and supporting the feedback proliferation. Urban literature doesn’t solely take form in the messages and representations aimed to impose orders and behaviours, but on the contrary is based on an enormous substratum composed by the languages and writings forming themselves, more or less spontaneously, thanks to the city’s simultaneous character.

The city can then be read as a volume of codes and immutable norms, irrevocable and univocally interpretable, or as an immense book, resulting from a collective writing that never ceases to reread, modify, expand and reinterpret itself. Which of these two meanings corresponds to the true image of the city largely depends on the degree of simultaneity present in the given urban space. Is indeed thanks to the simultaneity that a message acquires a literary potential, which realizes itself when it demonstrates to possess a proclivity to go beyond the limits imposed by a medium or a specific context, in order to reappear through different manipulations, rewritings, recontextualizations.

2.1. I am a man!


Figure 2. Ernest C. Withers, I Am A Man, Sanitation Workers Strike, Memphis, Tennessee, March 28, 1968

Is therefore possible to see how Memphis in February 1968 was an urban territory permeated by a high degree of simultaneity, although in the form of the strong racial tensions that were tearing apart the social tissue at that time. The 11th of February, when almost 1300 workers of the medical sector started a strike, they adopted the slogan “I am a man!” as the symbol of their battles. Even if it seems difficult, at first sight, to consider a bare phrase as a literary work, actually it deserves more attention. If the subject at issue is urban literature, then it must not be referred first and foremost to the pure textual form of the slogan, but instead to the complex of manifestations and expressions that it has each time adopted, as well as to the processes that brought to those expressions and naturally to its material outcomes within the urban context. “I am a man!” possesses an history of its own which is rooted in the end of the XVII century, when the British entrepreneur Josiah Wedgwood created the motto “Am I not a man and a brother?” to direct the attention of the white Anglo-Saxon high society on the theme of the abolition of slavery. Wedgwood’s phrase, accompanied by the image of a black man on his knees and with chained wrists, has been reproduced in industrial quantities on cameos, medallions, bracelets and other fashion accessories, but even on enormous posters placed on the cities’ walls, becoming in short time a well-known and popular symbol of the struggle against slavery. About a century later the slogan – in the form “Am I not a man?” – was used once again by the slave Dred Scott during the court case Dred Scott v. Sandford, to demonstrate his right to be a free man. Prior to arrive on the lips and posters of the striking workers of Memphis, “I am a man!” had played a main part, though under different forms, in some crucial moments of the history of Afroamerican people’s rights – within context as distant in time as culturally different, and giving life to different results and consequences.

When it is recovered once again in the union struggle of Memphis’ Afroamerican workers, the urban context of that American city reinforces its communicative power. The transmedial attitude is thus implemented thanks to the graphical appearance with which the message is represented: “I am a man!” is printed upon posters and panels raised by hundreds of people, and carried by as many sandwich men; the pictures of those posters and of those men travel all around the States by means of the press and the television. Thanks to this urban writing action – represented by means of a clear and defined visual identity – the message enhances its capacity to affect the popular urban imaginary of that age. To the slogan is in fact recognized the merit to have functioned as a bridge between the claims of the unions and the then rising movement for the civil rights, drawing thus the attention of the national media.



Figure 3. The poster used during the Memphis strike


Figure 4. The Withers’ picture printed by the French artist JR over the surface of a building in Washington D.C. (2012).

But as was said before, the literary effectiveness doesn’t exhaust itself in a single context: the four simple words become the titles of many songs, theatrical works, books, and of a documentary. During the Arab Spring of 2011 the slogan is even adopted in the context of the uprising North-African countries, translated as “Ana Rajul” [3]. One of the most recent re-elaboration processes, of literary rewriting, is that of American artist Dread Scott, who in a 2009 performance wanders for about one hour in Harlem – the historical Afroamerican neighbourhood of New York – carrying a panel on which the phrase “I am not a man” is printed, in order to bring the attention back on the scourge of racism still tearing apart American society.

I Am Not a Man

Figure 5. The artist Dread Scott during his performance “I am not a man”, Harlem, 2009.

In the “I am a man!” case, the thematic core of the communicative and narrative process (what we could define as mythopoetic process) is represented by the claiming of a universal right and the struggle against North-American racism; urban territory is not directly present in the message’s content. Nonetheless it remains a good example of what is to be intended as urban literature, and of how this unfolds itself in the collective imaginary. The literary work of “I am a man!” has been indeed capable to trigger further writing and communicative processes, and most of all to modify behaviours and opinions giving form to a new cultural frame, in which the same rights and deeds of white citizenship are applied to the Afroamerican population. Hence the urban territory is present and active in the processes of production, fruition and rewriting by virtue of the simultaneity that permeates it.

Once the meaning of urban literature has been clarified, we can proceed to the analysis of how this new language can take part to the analysis and planning of the communicative forms which are closely related to the city, to its spaces and functions. We will then try to define a new perspective for environmental communication, in which wayfinding is conceived not only as an active and semiotic form of relation between the person and the space, but also and most of all as an active form of relation between a collectivity and the urban territory, in its twofold value of physical space and signifying whole.

3. A new paradigm for wayfinding

If we tackle the issue of environmental communication through the perspective of the city as a communicative-narrative dispositive, then the complex of the writing processes and the semiotic artifacts produced in order to provide an orientation within the urban space, can perfectly be considered as part of this urban literature. Besides, considering how it has been up to now considered and planned, wayfinding seems to have been placed side by side with a kind of communication dominated by the prescriptive polarity. This becomes clearly evident if we go examine the kind of relation that environmental communication is trying to entertain with its users. When communication designers and graphic planners are required to develop a system of urban orientation, this presents itself as a system of already given information that must be communicated, according to criteria of clarity, simplicity and accessibility, to a user. The user is a passive subject already in the planning phase. He is from the very start condemned to remain in a position from which he is not allowed to interact with the urban space and its forms. This is most of all due to the fact that the design of signage systems has flattened out itself on a functionalist paradigm.

Of course the value of such an approach must not be negated – that is the necessity to provide, within a space as chaotic and complex as that of the metropolis, an infographic system able to provide an orientation to those hundreds of subjects that each day must move themselves in a context they ignore. We are not attempting here to demonize a kind of communication and language that inevitably has to show itself as objective, rigid and categorical. Nonetheless such a communication tends to exclude other forms of language and writing, which are not primarily aimed to provide a spatial orientation, but rather a cultural and semiotic orientation through the different signification planes and the different narrations and representations composing the literary plane of the city. The goal is thus that of proposing a new definition of wayfinding and a new approach to the planning of environmental communication – not to replace the prescriptive and functionalist one, but to include new communicative forms oriented toward the creative polarity of urban literature. In order to do this, it will be necessary for the production and writing processes to take place in a collective dimension, and that moments of reflection, analysis, expansion and rewriting intervene in them constantly. In this sense the definition of wayfinding given by Passini – «the human skill to reach a destination in space within a new or already familiar configuration» (Passini 1981) – would be paralleled by an expanded version: wayfinding as the skill, owned by a community or by its single members, to recognize – in a urban territory scattered with many signifying fragments and traversed by a multitude of narrations and representations – constellations of meaning and narrative lines, but even also specific social and political dynamics through which that very community can then recompose the urban space in an meaningful image of the city. With this new definition, environmental communication would then abandon the functionalist approach, acquiring thus a central role in the social, cultural – hence political – dimension of the urban context.

4. The crisis of imageability in the contemporary city

Since the post-war period the urban territory has been the object of a privatisation process of its public spaces. The attention of many urbanists, architects, theorists and urban design professionals is concentrating on the so called gentrification and commodification phenomena, though which the urban surface is placed within the logic of free market and reduced to pure commodity. According to these analyses, the city’s territory is becoming a mere instrument for the investment of financial capital:

since urbanization depends on the mobilization of a surplus product, an intimate connection emerges between the development of capitalism and urbanization. […] urbanization has played a particularly active role, alongside such phenomena as military expenditures, in absorbing the surplus product that capitalists perpetually produce in their search for profits.” (Harvey 2008)

The function of urban spaces, and thus the function of the planning of those spaces, is not mainly that of finding new architectonic forms and configurations able to respond to the continuous needs of its citizens; it seems instead that the aim hidden in the construction and reconstruction of those spaces is the act of construction itself. The neoliberal city, which today appears as an immense and ever expanding construction site, is defined as unplannable by the Berliner architect Jesko Fezer. In this way what is undermined is the possibility to bring forth the double bond connecting the urban environment and the collectivity inhabiting it – bond through which the image of the city emerges as product and work (even in the literary form), and the community acquires a cultural and social meaning that establishes it as such. The neoliberal metropolis is hence experiencing today a post-political condition (Fezer 2010). Besides the ethical considerations – that can and must be made in regards to a tendency, that is becoming the norm, of the management and planning of the cities’ public spaces – in this context we have to analyse the consequences on the image of the city and on the chances to develop an environmental communication in the perspective of urban literature. As a matter of fact it seems that the depoliticization of urban spaces corresponds to a progressive loss of their imageability. These space, since are placed in a process of continuous construction-demolition-reconstruction, lose the capacity to evoke in the observer the vigorous image referenced to by Lynch. And, according to the architect’s analysis, together with the mental image, also the social and collective imaginary the community possesses of its own spaces is undermined.

The Dutch collective Metahaven raised this question contrasting the concept of surface with that of territory. According to Metahaven the design’s main task (in the form of urban planning as well as of environmental communication) has been limited to the planning of the surface, instead of the territory:

The multiplication of surface, formerly called information overload, is the new reality of design. Its unit of measurement is virtual. Surface is not territory. […] surface in the generic sense means flat space to display. Surface is anorexic, hyper-thin architecture. Surface, representing no particular meaning or message, is the precondition for virtual capital, projected revenue and speculative value. Advertising surface in public space initially is merely an add-on to the already existing historical structure of a city. Gradually, surface replaces the primacy of historical structure and its territoriality.” (Metahaven 2008)

Territory is actual, geographically localized; is loaded with a history of its own, a semantic and syntactic depth – for these reasons it can easily elicit an image of itself, or become the place of a physical and symbolic confrontation. On the contrary the surface can be duplicated at will, is pure virtuality. Surfaces started gradually to replace the historical, social and cultural depth of the urban territory, and when this process is not enough the surface is created ad hoc – how it happens in the case of the gigantic commercial billboards raised from nothing. This progressive flattening of the contemporary city’s socio-cultural plane is limiting its imaginative and narrative possibilities, effectively inhibiting the verbal dispositive constituted by the urban. Is up to the designers – being them environmental communication designer and graphic planners, designer of the urban environment and architects, and in general whoever concerns himself with the formation and creation of new forms and expressions of urban social life – to give back to the urban space that depth of meaning which belongs to it. A possible path to take is that of adopting a literary approach to the planning of environmental communication; a communication able to provide the users of the city with the tools to orientate themselves through the multitude of fragments of meaning crowding it; a communication leading to the reconstruction of a collective imaginary of that city.



Figure 6. An example of commodification of the urban territory. In Manhattan, the fashion label DKNY has covered for nearly sixteen years the entire facade of a building with one of its advertisements, for a total space of about 700 square meters. The value of that surface amounted to 75.000 dollars per month, of which 2.000 were given to each tenant of the building whose window had been obscured by the gigantic poster.

5. Notes for a new wayfinding

Considering the premises – the inadequate imageability of the contemporary city, its post-political condition and unplannability, the growth of the surface at the expenses of the territory – it comes with no surprise that the most interesting proposals for an environmental communication addressing the creative polarity of urban literature come from worlds and environments often defined as subcultures, or operating at the limits of legality. The last generation of street artists – whose most famous names are Bansky and Shepard Fairey – showed an enormous capacity and skill to interpret the surfaces of worldwide metropolis as spaces of simultaneity, loaded with a high communicative and aggregative potential. Very often indeed the choice of the place in which the interventions are carried out is as important as the subject which is portrayed; in many cases the latter is defined precisely according to the specificity of the urban context that will host it. Avoiding to call into question the celebrities of street-art, environmental communication can learn much from lesser-known names too. One of these is that of artist Constantine Demner, and of her Walk intervention (2004). Walk consists in a single line, traced with white varnish on the sidewalks, forming a track long nearly two kilometres along the streets and sidewalks of Spitalfields, one of the historically most interesting areas of London.

The track is interrupted by a number of intervals in which a text, painted on the street, directly addresses the pedestrians. Some of messages are simple invitations to follow the traced track, others provide accurate information on the history of the building and places which are met along the track, while still other propose reflections on the experience of walking along the city. Demner discloses thus to the pedestrians the signifying level of urban space, highlighting the necessity to relate oneself to it as it were a book composed by various developing narrations:

I decided to place a narrative in the street; a narrative that could be read by a series of interconnected frames, placed in public space. These frames should work as an addition to the space itself – the creation of a structure that would allow the urban traveller to read a story set in his immediate surroundings without the need for any preparations such as carrying a guidebook or following a tour guide.”[4]



Figures 7-8. Some of Walk’s intervals, by Constantine Demner, Spitalfields, London, 2004.

In Italy too are present examples of communicative interventions carried out in urban spaces, useful in defining a new idea of environmental communication. The tiny town of Orgosolo, in Sardinia, has engaged itself in a gigantic collective work of visual writing started in the Seventies. Since then different subjects – mural painting artists and artisans, intermediate students, artistic collective and Italian politicians, but even also tourists coming from abroad – worked side by side to realize over 150 murals, veritable fragments of collective memory and social life. While the users of that urban space – being them inhabitants or visitors – move through it, they are always accompanied by a writing process, which narrates the antifascist Sardinian resistance and the feminist struggles, denounces the inhuman condition of the prisoners, or simply describes the urban and rural life of the city. But at the same time those very users can enter the writing processes, producing themselves further fragments of the immense urban literary work. In this way some German tourists, in order to thank Orgosolo for its hospitality, depicted on a wall a group of people chatting merrily with each other while sitting around a table.



Figure 9-10. Some of the Orgosolo’s murals

The Orgosolo case remains anyway an isolated and fortuitous example: the fruition and production processes have in fact reached a rather high degree of self-management, enabling an ordered and coordinated, but anyway spontaneous, writing process. It seems much more difficult that this can happen within much more complex urban spaces. Here in fact the writing process and the unfolding of mythopoetic communicative strategies happen by means of more violent modalities, on the one hand because these latter clash with restrictions and opposed interests, on the other because the themes, the points on which the narrations establishes itself, are very often conflictual issues, around which a discussion between the different social components is developed. Some months ago, in Bologna, the municipality decision to demolish the social centre Xm24 in order to make space for a traffic circle has been the pretext to revive the debate concerning the use and normalization of self-managed public spaces. Anyway a discussion that normally stagnates in the static opposition between two radical points of views – which thus doesn’t interest the greater part of citizenship – has been tackled making use of a transmedial, collective and highly involving communication, thus according to a definitely creative and literary approach. The starting point was the intervention of Blu, a street artist from Bologna, but internationally famous. During the second edition of “Bologna Brucia” the artist created, on a surface large nearly eight square meters, a fresco inspired by Tolkien but presenting many references to the social and urban reality, as well as to the most urgent issues, of the capital of Emilia. On the Xm24’s wall painted by Blu, two enormous opposing formations are about to face each other. In the foreground two figures, one with a tricolour stripe, the other wearing a sweatshirt of the social centre, fight against each other in order to get to the ring of Tolkien’s trilogy. The space is not enough to describe in detail the hundreds of figures, characters, symbologies and allegories crowding the scene. However it must be highlighted how the painted wall puts into practice a gigantic rewriting work that, making use on the one hand of an already existent and popular literary imaginary – that of Lord of the Rings – and on the other of the urban imaginary of Bologna – expressed by the architectonic symbols of the city, as the Torre degli Asini or the Fontana di Nettuno, as well as by the symbols of the urban life, like the Block Book or the Critical Mass – endues an empty surface with a cultural and semantic depth. The wall of the building located in via Fioravanti, in addition to having been transformed in a work of art with a great economical value – which renders its demolition a rather questionable act – represents and narrates the conflict between two social faction of the city, and between two ways to conceive its spaces and values.

As it was said before, the literary work, whatever its nature may be, acts as a cultural catalyst, giving life to different interpretations, rewritings, narrations and representations. A month after the realization of the murals, Wu Ming 4 – expert of Tolkien and member of the collective of writers Wu Ming – described the work of Blu to an audience of hundreds of people, opening the way to the many narrations that are hidden in the depth of that representation – a “socio-cultural wayfinding” operation, but also a comment and a practice of urban creative rewriting [5].

Figure 11. Blu’s mural on the wall of Xm24 in Bologna.



Figure 12. A moment of the event ““#OccupyMordor: il murale di Blu raccontato da Wu Ming”.

What has been tried with this article is to open the study and planning of urban communication to approaches and perspectives that take into account the cultural and social richness hidden within the walls and streets of our cities. The disciplines that deal with providing an orientation within the urban complexity cannot limit themselves to answer to the question “What is the shortest way to move from point A to point B?”, nor to think that the simplification of that complexity can be a valid strategy to render the city more usable and accessible to its inhabitants. Architects, urban planners and graphic designer should start instead to pay homage to that complexity, considering the city as an immense work in progress in which each path, street and angle possesses a depth of its own, an intrinsic meaning, an own history and, starting from these, endless potentialities and lines of flight. In this way the face of the contemporary city will start to lose the anonymity to which it has been condemned by profit-focused urban policies. The city would acquire instead a high degree of imageability, making it possible for its users not only to develop a spatial and cultural orientation, but also the awareness of one’s own environment necessary to the formation of a urban collective imaginary, by means of which that collectivity establishes and defines itself, and envisages an image of the future to which aspire.


1. The meaning of the term dispositive is taken from the reflection of philosopher Giorgio Agamben: «Further generalising the already broad class of Foucauldian dispositives, I will call dispositive literally anything that owns the capacity to capture, orientate, determine, intercept, model, control and assure the gesture, conducts, opinions and discourses of living beings» (Agamben 2006).

2. A process we could define as mythopoetic, aimed thus to the collective construction of narrations founding, and at the same time orienting, a community.

3. For the bibliographical references, please consult Wikipedia’s page!


5. The work of Blu can be visited and seen online to the following address: The audio recording of the event “#OccupyMordor: il murale di Blu raccontato da Wu Ming” is available on this page



Abruzzese, Alberto
2002 Introduction, in Valeria Giordano (Ed.), Linguaggi della metropoli, Napoli, Liguori.

Agamben, Giorgio
2006 Che cos’è un dispositivo?, Roma, Nottetempo.

Benjamin, Walter
1928 Strada a senso unico, Torino, Einaudi, 2006 (
1936 L’opera d’arte nell’epoca della sua riproducibilità tecnica, Torino, Einaudi, 2000 (
Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit).
1927-1940 I «passages» di Parigi, Torino, Einaudi, 2007 (
Das Passagen-Werk).

Frost, Malcom; Lewis, Angharad; Winterburn Aidan (Eds.)
2006 Street talk. The rise and fall of the poster, Victoria, The Images Publishing Group.

Jenkins, Henry
2006 Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, New York, New York University Press.

Lefebvre, Henri
1968 Le Droit à la ville, Paris, Anthropos (Italian translation
Il diritto alla città 1970).

Lynch, Kevin
1960 The Image of the City, Cambridge, MIT Press (Italian translation
L’immagine della città 2001).

Simmel, Georg
1903 Die Grosstädte und das Geistesleben, Dresden, Petermann (Italian translation
Le metropoli e la vita dello spirito 2010).

Periodical publications

Fezer, Jesko
2010 “Design for a Post-Neoliberal City”, e-flux, 17, June-August 2010, pp. 42-49.

Harvey, David
2008 “The right to the city”, New Left Review, 53, September-October 2008, pp. 23-40.

Passini, Romedi
1981 “Wayfinding: a conceptual framework”, Urban Ecology, 5, 1981, pp. 17-31.

Online publications

2006 Democracy and the Neoliberal City,
<> online the 30th of May 2013.

2008 White night before a manifesto,
<>, online the 30th of May 2013.