concept: City Reservoir, City Centers and Cultural Production

City Reservoir, City Centers and Cultural Production

The goal of City Reservoir is to enhance the intellectual and existential aspects of city life, while raising an awareness of ecologies of the immaterial. The concept seeks to highlight the importance of those aspects of the city that are often overlooked by other contemporary forms of urban entertainment and cultural production, aspects of an immaterial ecology.

The work began in 2006 after discussions among Adeola Enigbokan, Gabriel Park and Jana Leo on changes taking place in New York City. Trips to the library and subsequent research on the origins of the US National Park system led to a hypothesis on the idea of  the city center as a protected site, as a city reservoir with a status that had more in common with natural ecologies than with listed buildings or neighborhoods. This hypothesis was later tested in the reserva ciudad Matadero project for Madrid in 2009 where a number of the ideas and components of the current proposal were developed and conceived. The City Reservoir project seeks to extend these preliminary investigations on a more international scale in hopes of further articulating and understanding the meaning of cities now.

Concept 1,  city reservoir
If a ‘National Park’ is a designated tract of land meant to preserve the landscape’s natural beauty by protecting nature from further exploitation, then the designation, City Reservoir, might be interpreted as meant to protect mental activity, to prevent ‘the civic’ from being subdued, and to prevent cities from becoming simply places for consumption: the city seen as an international civic plaza rather than a place that is just crowded; an intellectual park, containing the one and the other in all its chaos and its freedom!

Concept 2, mental city
What is accepted is that cities become desirable when they are viewed as being commercial and service centers for a broad population. But it is not recognized that mental and abstract activities also define the city. Besides, being places of opportunities (better jobs, education, better living conditions, education, access to all) and entertainment, cities are places for thinking, (humanism in its wide spectrum: memories of past events, records of achievements, the spread of new ideas, places for sharing experiences) and experiencing (encounters among individuals, being part of something big). Cities are also the ‘mental reservoir’ of a country and the world. Since these reservoirs are always at risk of extinction, they need to be preserved. This intellectual life can be understood as part of that which is immaterial or unseen within the urban landscape. This culture of experience cannot be commodified or sold through the packaging of tourism, but rather is a slow unfolding that becomes present through an awareness of the subtle shifts of a city’s daily changes that build upon each other and can only be measured and revealed as registers of difference.

Concept 3, preserving a city
Two kinds of preservation come to mind: historical rehabilitation and the nature reserve. What remains are physical things: a forest, a building, a group of buildings, a tree as a natural monument, a waterfall, a beach. Yet where a nature preserve or reservoir seeks to maintain and propagate communities of species and their interactions (one could not imagine preserving a type of bird without also protecting its entire habitat) historical preservation is more often focused on singular objects. There are no models to maintain the existence of things that have no material, concrete existence such as participation in a square, the city environment, the degree of civility — those things that are linked to the architecture that supports them.

Concept 4, ecology of the immaterial
If we apply ecology to cities, the result is that cities, beyond being economical-socio-cultural centers, are site’s for an inquiry into the nature of civilization. Ecology has been applied to the material but not to the immaterial. Classifying trash to facilitate recycling or replacing plastic bags with longer lasting ones does not have its equivalent in an immaterial ecology: replacing fashion and trends with long lasting principles; argumentative thinking that takes away the residual. Thinking is classifying and deciding, paying attention to what is really crucial in human existence. It involves rejecting words that do not involve meaning and instead using an argumentative discourse.  Ecology is applied to reducing the use or creation of wasteful objects, but not to making thoughts that will clarify existence or bring progress. Ecology is not only about subtracting but adding. We try to reduce our trash but we trash others.

Concept 5, the image that the city project
A city contains life, has a social structure and different communities. A city is comprised of both
material elements (architecture, monuments, urban structure, landmarks and educational resources) as well as immaterial ones (atmosphere, stories, myths). Through books, movies, songs and images, a city is shared with others who don’t necessarily live there. What is shared is mainly the abstract element of a city: its projection. However, more effort goes into the development of the physical elements of a city than its projection. The consequence is to offer a reduced version, a stereotype of what a city is.  In order to think about the image that a city projects, it is necessary to support practices that offer a complex approach (arts, literature and architecture) rather than those that give a simple reading (publicity, TV, big production films). City Reservoir reflects on the destabilizing effect of tourism for the city: historical centers and monuments are preserved without putting the same attention to the daily rituals of place. This project includes the ethnological heritage and integrates residents with the tourists, avoiding the arrogant simultaneous contempt for the tourist and their exploitation. We are all tourists.

Concept 6, cultural tourism
When rethinking tourism, this project considers the tourist as an individual instead of treating tourism as simply an industry. Tourism as an industry shouldn’t imply industrialized tourism. Tourism should not exploit the tourist (who doesn’t come back) or/and the city (that stops being desirable). The principle is that if cities are rich on a cultural level, they will evolve into priority destinations.

Tourism in cities is often characterized as a visit to cultural locations, while forgetting about city life. Tourism is considered an activity with cultural value in itself. It is necessary to rethink the meaning of “the cultural”. Cultural is the group of actions that overlay a form of living, and not simply a list of events and activities. From the economic point of view, to increase tourism in a city, it is necessary to invest in the city as a whole and not only in cultural activities; in addition, when considering the balance, the negative consequences that tourism imposes on a city need to be subtracted from the direct income it brings. If tourism is only about expending and not about generating, the city, as the object itself of tourism, will be extinguished and tourism will become unproductive.

Tourism and art are two industries that depend on people. Paradoxically, the artist who once gave value to cities and attracted tourists, is pushed out of the city center through tourism’s consolidation.

The concepts above articulate a problem about the relationship between city centers and their immaterial cultural aspects. Through the project, we hope to propose ways of thinking about the city that bring forward these unseen qualities while also providing tools for transforming tourism into an integral and productive part of the immaterial functioning and development of city life. We would like to propose a potential engagement between city centers and tourist, inhabitants and users who moves beyond the traditional ‘consumption’ based model of culture, instead promoting a relational and ecological understanding of interaction.

Rather than proposing to stop development, business or cultural operations, our approach is to insert actions that rethink production and activate the city as a mental entity intensifying an immaterial or urban ambiance. These actions can be described as vehicles; they are pragmatic steps that work together to describe a process that articulates the idea of a City Reservoir ultimately proposing a reframing of cultural activity within the city center that could go on to influence thinking about urbanism, urban preservation and cultural tourism. Indeed, the City Reservoir would be on the same scale as a National Park. Part of the city would be marked as a national reservoir yet this zone would need to be marked differently than we mark pieces of land.

Vehicles. Carrying the concepts into practice
tours:  “I will be your eyes”, Walks with a photographer in Barcelona’s city center
The tours are a way to experience the city and an encounter with another person: an artist and a visitor. Tours also facilitate intercultural dialogue crossed with two categories, artists, and tourist. Last but not least, tours create the frame for intimate and safe encounters to happen (only two individuals unknown to each other, go on a tour). This is one example: “I will be your eyes” A photographer goes with a tourist or visitor and takes pictures of what the tourist requests. The act of photographing is broken into two: the mind (the tourist); the eyes, and the hand, the machine (the photographer).The photographer needs to make an image that fits the tourist desire but also that questions the practice of a tourist taking pictures like sweeping the floor. The photographer, often using a digital camera, might shoot many versions of the same image following instructions from the tourist. This “tour” is a remembrance of the custom among the rich to travel with a photographer who would take pictures for you. The walks create a context in which two strangers and two categories: tourist and resident relate to each other intensively. Tours are individuals, one photographer and one visitor.



Previous to the time of tourism and cultural production in cities, there was a time of occupation. This occupation is done differently in different cities. I have been tracing the way it have been done in the city of Madrid, in the late 1990´s under a major form the right party, marking the city by statues and in the late 2000´s filling up any public spaces with restaurant ands bars.


The Goya Effect-Filling up the city of Madrid with statues

Beyond the aesthetic and political implications of marking the city with this items, it is important to realize that part of the cultural budget was used for statues and that the architects commissioned to do then (there was no open competition for the statues) were working in Spain during the dictatorship. The last part of the project you can see stills from a video game to destroy the statues. This project was done in collaboration with Jaime Solano in 2000.

Don´t sell public space.
Plazas en Madrid. No se vende el espacio publico. In this blog you can see photos of the before and the after of six worst plazas in Madrid´s city center. Plaza Tudescos is serving now of parking to the police, Plaza Carmen and Plaza de España host trashy merchandise and Plaza Jacinto Benavente is covered with a chain of climate control restaurants.


© Jana Leo  New York-Madrid-New York  2008-2011