Kevin Lynch, Henri Bergson and the Image of the Cinematic City
During the 1950s, Kevin Lynch conducted empirical research in three American cities with the aim of considering ‘the visual quality of the American city by studying the mental image of that city which is held by its citizens’. The result of this research was The Image of the City (1960), an enduringly influential text in the fields of urban planning and environmental psychology. The characterisation of urban experience outlined by Lynch is one in which an ‘environmental image’ of the city is developed by the individual out of the perceptual input through a process of filtering and limitation. These passages in Lynch strikingly echo the theory of perception outlined by Henri Bergson in Matter and Memory (1896) where, in a bid to negotiate the pitfalls of both idealism and realism, he posits a perceptual process geared towards action and not speculation, and consisting in the ‘suppression’ of certain elements of the object and a corresponding ‘isolation’ of others.
If the Bergsonian character of Lynch’s environmental image merits consideration on its own terms, parallels between the process of artistic production and the ‘real’ experience of the city as described by Lynch also prompt questions about conventional critical approaches to the representation of the city within cinema. Drawing cinematic examples from repeatedly utilised locations within the city of Los Angeles, this paper will consider the possibilities of an approach to the cinematic city that is concerned not with the representation of the city (in a mimetic sense) so much as it is how the city is perceived, imaged, in a given series of works. This is to ask: what is the environmental image that is the product of these works? And if, in Lynch’s words, ‘a selection, an organisation and an endowment with meaning’ is taking place, then according to what criteria?