What is love in the city?
And how is it expressed in the commons of the city – shared spaces, resources, principles?
Let’s put on a pair of pink rose-tinted glasses and go for a walk hand-in-hand around Berlin’s Schöneberg district to ‘feel the love’ in its streets.
In the world of urban research and critical practice, it is somewhat unusual to take an emotional perspective on the city, and even less usual to take an approach which deals with one of the happier and more positive emotions that one can experience rather than the darker, more negative ones. This odd blind spot in the perspective of the urban investigator does not however reflect a lack of valid potential for finding new and valuable insights hiding through the lens of affirmative emotional experience, instead it perhaps illustrates more accurately the complexity of trying to shape those perspectives into something which could form the basis of rigorous scholarly investigation and radical action for change.
One of the startling difficulties in exploring love in an urban environment is to define how it should be characterized and interpreted in the context of space, place and community. Can you sense love flowing through a neighbourhood? If so, how? By what means and through which indicators should it be detected and measured?
Is love visible architecturally, experienced through through municipal resources and services, mediated by public art or simply present in the faces and movements of local inhabitants?
Does a community love collectively? And if so, what kind of love does it openly express?
A quick check on Wikipedia gives us some starting points to consider on our emotional safari:
“Love encompasses a range of strong and positive emotional and mental states, from the most sublime virtue or good habit, the deepest interpersonal affection and to the simplest pleasure. Most commonly, love refers to a feeling of strong attraction and emotional attachment...human kindness, compassion, and affection, as ‘the unselfish loyal and benevolent concern for the good of another’”
Though love may initially appear to be a positive emotional experience, it can also have a darkside. In Greek mythology, Aphrodite, the goddess of love, had a vengeful rage when betrayed which lead her to curse various people to terrible fates, including incest, murder, infidelity and suicide. In more modern readings, love can also be interpreted as the basis for manic obsession and even addiction.
Keeping all this in mind, what would be some useful concepts of love to consider while out looking for it in the city?
Searching for Love
Ancient Greeks philosophers thought a lot about love and ultimately identified various distinct forms of loving that humans can experience, including: familial love (called 'Storge' in ancient Greek), friendly love (Philia - also known as platonic love), romantic love (Eros), guest love (Xenia - e.g. hospitality), self love (Philautia) and divine/spiritual love (Agape).
Though these definitions have been radically expanded upon by other cultures and in more recent periods, they form a useful foundation on which to begin understanding how to identify loving gestures and actions.
To explore how these concepts of love translate in the urban environment, I went on a series of walks with Tesserae founder and urban researcher Lorenzo Tripodi in which we tried to identify acts and expressions of love in the commons of Berlin's Schöneberg district.
We chose a route around the neighbourhood which seemed appropriate to our theme.
Traces of some of the forms of love that the Greeks identified are immediately visible in Schöneberg.
The presence of a large concentration of families in the neighbourhood, particularly those with young children, is immediately clear through the plethora of children’s care and play spaces, as well as through a range of family care services providers in the area.
These spaces not only represent a type of familial love, a desire for family members to engage with each other and take responsibility for each other’s well being, but also reflect a form of social care and commitment, in which resources are distributed and made accessible for the benefit of the broader community. These support structures perhaps connect to another distinct form of love, a kind of altruism or good will, charity even, a love for fellow humans (love thy neighbour?) resulting in an offer of support and solidarity. The concept of offering a 'helping hand' to those in your community fits in with the Greek's concept of Agape, divine love, and is commonly practiced by many religious groups around the world. In fact, a number of the children's care spaces in Schöneberg are run by local churches.
Further expressions of a desire to offer support, generosity and the redistribution of resources for common benefit are also visible elsewhere in the neighbourhood.
Various indications of compassionate comradeship, a friendly form of love between equals (Philia), were visible throughout Schöneberg, including signs of partnership, acceptance, equality, inclusion, friendship and bonding.
Through independent acts of decentralized beautification and the autonomous creation and upkeep of common local facilities, the Schöneberg community not only expresses an offer of friendship to its fellow neighbours, but by extension also engages both in a type of self-care (self-love or Philautia) and an offer of hospitality to people visiting the neighbourhood (Xenia)
Romance, Eros as the Greeks knew it, is a form of love that can both be sexual and affectionate, enduring and fleeting, complex and transactional, and all of these aspects are reflected in the Schöneberg landscape
I personally particularly appreciate the fact that in the last picture above, which shows the doorway to the Club King George burlesque venue, another small example of support and inclusion is visible – a special extra bell for wheelchair using guests!
One key form of loving emotional expression that is highly present in Schöneberg is empathy. It takes many forms in the neighbourhood, including some of the examples we’ve seen above already, but none are more striking than the outpouring of grief and compassion that can be found in the monuments of remembrance and mourning present in the district – particularly those which commemorate the marginalization and murder of Jews during the second world war. These are numerous and spread liberally throughout the neighbourhood, and form a subtle background discourse that brings important context to the present day architecture of the area, as well as serving as magnetic poles around which remorse and mourning can circulate and find meaningful orientation.
This short survey of Schöneberg has provided me a valuable insight both into the neighbourhood and into a new filter through which to examine and demarcate the urban fabric – that of loving emotion.
Although the perspective of love did not reveal any features of the neighbourhood that would have otherwise remained totally unseen (i.e. previously invisible architectures or histories), it did succeed in highlighting a set of otherwise imperceptible relationships, bringing many disparate aspects of the district together into a new and unexpected constellation. There are few other processes of enquiry which would have found unifying connection between holocaust memorials, a burlesque dance venue and patches of urban gardening. Mapping emotional activity through a built environment whose primary concerns are practical, residential and commercial has revealed a hidden network which, while at first subtle, resonates strongly within its surrounding environment and has a significant and profound effect on shaping one’s psychogeographic experience.
In order to make this kind of urban reconnaissance easier in future, I have tried to collate a set of keywords that can be used to approach and examine city spaces through the lens of love (I have highlighted the ones which I found most useful):
Care, Duty, Commitment, Loyalty, Support, Charity, Generosity, Benevolence, Sacrifice Selflessness, Inclusion
Solidarity, Partnership, Acceptance, Warmth, Bonding, Friendship
Random Acts of Beauty, Environmental Care, Community Care, Social Care, Kindness
Sex, Sexuality, Eroticism, Playfulness, Intimacy, Lust, Passion, Affection, Romance, Joy
Empathy, Compassion, Remembrance, Grief, Mourning
As I touched on briefly earlier, love is not only always a positive experience or emotion. Grief and mourning resulting from loss and tragedy express a kind of sunken love, weighed down by sadness, but love can also find negative expression in passionate anger, rage, obsessive craving and addiction.
Additionally, there are still further, more modern philosophical definitions of love beyond those defined by the Greeks which I have not explored at all.
In continuing this work it would be useful to delve into some of the other peripheries of love and see what new insights they might reveal when applied to urban environments.
In the mean time, the work that has already been done here could now be used as the basis for proposing a new category within Tesserae’s urban reconnaissance toolkit, as well as exploring what other emotions could also be added in the future.
Author: Ben Sassen
Thanks to Lorenzo Tripodi for contributing to the ideas in this article, for taking the photographs and for joining me for walks around Schöneberg.