Roundabouts and City Limits: The Agency of Visual Phenomena

This contribution proposal is based on a photographic campaign I have conducted over the last years on the borders of the Paris metropolitan and more specifically on the science campus located on the agricultural plateau of Saclay. It is supplemented with an analysis of both implicit and explicit roadbuilding normative standards I am now conducting as first step of my PHD research. Like most of the most of the traffic devices that modern road design practices have introduced in the non-dense urban territories, the roundabout is often regarded as being an impediment to urbanity. Indeed, considering its formal aspect, the roundabout implies intense and discontinuous land consumption. Associated with strict programmatic zoning and separation of traffic flows, it generates spatial and programmatic segregation. Considering its functional aspect, it increases fluidity and security of car traffic flow, precluding sensory interactions with the surrounding context. Beyond its material and technical rationality, the roundabout is implemented with untouchable ornaments, often considered as kitsch. Its esthetical aspect is thus based on top-down territorial branding strategies. Being composed of a highly visible green space, it also has a strong non-urban connotation. However, its ancestor, the “rond-point”, was formerly used in forest landscape design to articulate the collective hunting practices and visual sequences of bridle paths. Then it became the backbone of city’s extension plans for the “embellissement des villes”, during the first modernity of the 18th century. Today, even if the modern roundabout has little to do with what the traditional public square used to be, it is still a landmark for the driver: it signals the exit from the highway network, the entrance in the urbanized area and the immediate proximity of industrial and commercial zones. Despite its triviality, the roundabout is thus related to the expression of city limits, which are not any more embodied in a single unitary device. Which role does the roundabout play then in the spatial, social and symbolic emergence of urbanity? To understand and evaluate the monumental dimension of such a traffic device, it seams necessary to consider not only the material aspects, the social uses or the discourses that underpin its design, but also the dynamic interactions between the user and the built environment. Herein, the sophisticated visual phenomena generated by the roundabout are quite informative. Making the car flow rotate around an inaccessible platform that is vegetated as an idealized piece of nature, this perfectly circular device disorientates the driver and immerses him into the road network. We can observe then how the roundabout involves a special cognition of the urban footprint – usually symbolized by a circular surface in the European culture, as opposed to its supposedly natural limit. In this purpose, we will make a comparison with another circular device that belongs to the spectacular domain: the painted panorama in the 19th century, which played an important role in the evolution of urban and territorial representations at the time of the mergence of metropolises, during the first industrial revolution. The aim of this proposed contribution is to consider how the visual phenomena generated by the technical and normed roundabout device contribute to the current redefinition of the “urban” and the “natural”. It also aims to discuss about the agency of what may be called the urban landscape or image, compared to the one of the physical built environment.

Presented at:
Agency/Agents of Urbanity International PhD Colloquium, Lausanne, Suisse, June 2015

 Record created 2017-03-19, last modified 2018-09-13

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