Armando Silva has a different way of looking at cities. “Ten years ago Bogotá was grey,” he will tell you, “but now it’s become more of a yellow.” The color does not indicate a current collective affinity in Bogotá for yellow paint. Assessed in a citywide survey, yellow is the collective chromatic impression Bogotanos have of their city.
And the change, from grey to yellow, marks an important shift in the collective attitudes and experiences that Bogotanos have about their city. To truly understand a given city, argues Silva, you must study the citizens’ collective emotions, attitudes, desires, and beliefs. Welcome to Bogotá imagined.
Yet, if you were asked to give a rough description of a city, you would likely begin by listing physical structures and spaces and not with abstractions like color. In Bogotá it would go something like this: the imposing mountains, Montserrat, the Colpatria building, ‘the North’, ‘the South’, Kennedy, Chapinero, Cuidad Bolivar, La Parque Nacional and 93 park. Then, you would mention the TransMilenio, and of course the city’s main industries. Finally, perhaps, you’d describe the city’s cultural locales and institutions: museums (El Museo Nacional and MamBo), universities (La Nacional and Los Andes), restaurants, theatres, sports venues, and so on. But here we begin to venture into specifics.
Nevertheless, you would have just described the city in terms of its urban landscape. The reason for this tendency, Silva explains, is that our understanding of “‘the city” has been monopolized by architects and economists.”
Armando Silva holds a PhD in Philosophy and Comparative Literature from the University of California, Irvine, where he studied with the late eminent scholar Jacques Derrida. Currently he is a researcher and Professor Emeritus at La Universidad Nacional, and professor at the University Externado, where he directs a doctorate program in social and urban studies. He is writes a much-read column for the Colombian national daily, El Tiempo.
Silva’s theory of imaginary cities started in the late 1980s with a study of graffiti, the subversive urban art that is literally projected onto the city. Currently his research model has been carried out by more than 400 people in 20 countries, including a comparative study of 13 major Latin America metropolises, the aim of which, explained Armando, was “to deduce the generic quality of contemporary urban culture.”
But Silva’s work is not merely concerned with producing academic literature. Photography, recordings of a city’s characteristic sounds, short films, post cards, and even abandoned furniture are collected as data by Silva. The culmination of one study “Imaginarios” bridges social research and art. It was presented in Kassel’s Documenta 11; considered a form of public art. “The imaginaries are qualitatively aesthetic. The presentation of their results should be, too.”
Silva has described his theory of imaginary cities as a “new anthropology of citizens’ desires”. Its focus is the imagined city, the psychological and symbolic conditions that make up the various shared urban experiences of a citizenry. In each city studied surveys are conducted consisting of universal and city specific questions. Data is collected on topics including citizens’ chromatic perceptions of the city, fears of the city and locations related to these fears, symbols of importance, and visions of the future. Though methods of the social sciences are used, analyzing the data is less scientific than it is interpretative and aesthetic.
What does it mean, then, that Bogotá is now perceived as yellow? For one, it shows just how much the ciclovia – the city’s Sunday cycle path- has shaped people’s view of the city. Bogotanos, whom Silva describes as “mountain people,” go out to exercise on Sunday as if they were on the beach, wearing less clothing and applying sun screen, something they didn’t do ten years ago. The Caribbean imaginary of Bogotá has been held by many Europeans and non-Colombian Latin Americans for a while. Yet, now it has been adopted by Bogotanos themselves, and not just on Sunday afternoons.
Bogotanos often underestimate the weather, not dressing warmly enough, and frequently leaving umbrellas at home. Though it continues to rain 185 days out of the year, Bogotá has heated up in the collective imagination. Profiting from this attitude, umbrella vendors as numerous as raindrops appear on Bogotá streets each time there is a downpour. Hence, a typical Bogotá household will have on average seven umbrellas.
The change in Color is also indicative of a city brimming with optimism (of the capitals studied, Bogotá is the one that most believes in its future). During the last decade kidnappings have plummeted. Today, with 16 murders per 100,000 people, Bogotá has a significantly lower murder rate than Rio (24), Caracas (55), Mexico (22). In spite of all this it has one of the lowest police presences of other capital cities in the region.
There is also a new culinary imaginary in Bogotá. While a city like Mexico has always had as part of its urban imaginary a strong olfactory association to food, Bogotá has not. Yet, this might change. During the last ten years Bogotá has seen a restaurant boom in the center and the north. Now a new restaurant opens every week. Like the ciclovía, the new imaginary draws people out of their homes making for a more robust nightlife.
While identifying imaginaries can be useful in measuring a city’s progress, it can also illustrate its problems. Silva described Santiago and Bogotá as two of Latin Americas’ most classist cities. When asked where Bogotá’s important city symbols were, most people, including lower income citizens, said the economically wealthier north and center. This demonstrates the effect that economic value has in determining symbolic value, and the resultant mental monopoly it creates. Likewise, when asked what part of the city smells good, many people said the Parque 93, despite its relatively small size and it’s proximity to some of Bogotá’s most congested streets.
Silva’s work shows the role that attitudes and psychology play in forming our shared experience of the city. As the capital continues to shape imagined spaces, the sociologist will launch this month two important works, Atmósferas Ciudadanas and Imaginarios: El asombro social to further help up get a grasp – and appreciate – the metropolis which works the subconscious of our everyday lives, and the one we can only imagine.