A Semester Without Wayfinding

For my last blog entry of the semester, I wanted to write something a little more creative. I thought I would talk some of the emotional side of wayfinding. We have spoken a lot about wayfinding on the scale of buildings and campuses, and perhaps less about wayfinding in an urban environment as it impacts the individual (besides the case of Venice, of course). There is a Gene Tracy essay published on Aeon in 2015 called “Sky readers” that talks about what happens when humans lose the sky. For most of our history, Tracy says, navigation by stars was non-negotiable. Knowing where we are in the world (and later, where Earth is in the universe) is integral to the human experience. Tracy even pinpoints navigation as key to the development of the self:

“The development of our sense of spatial relationships – the ongoing discovery of where I am – is deeply entwined with memory formation. Neuroscience studies reveal that this is because forming the knowledge of place, and building that sense of our relation to other parts of the world, requires the brain to combine several different sense modalities. Hence information must be stored and then retrieved from memory, sifted and examined, and the brain’s theory of where we are in the world constructed. Combine this with the fact that it is through memory that the I endures, that memories are most effectively formed when there is some emotional charge attached, and we can see why our sense of place can be so entangled with our sense of who we are, why to be at no place is akin to being no one.”

For the past five years of my life, the formation of who I am as a person has been able to develop through my spatial experience in the world. I didn’t know my home city until I started driving and had to figure out how to get myself around. This was the first time I learned how to read a map. Later, when I moved to Valencia, Spain, I had my first real encounter with a city on foot. I got lost after my bus stop and was an hour late to my first day of class. That evening I got lost a second time trying to find my apartment. Finding my way through the city, paying attention to colored awnings or outdoor furniture or street names, was the first time I ever felt like I knew a city — or at least a part of one. I had routes programmed into my mind and legs, could list metro and bus stops in order, and felt like I had achieved something by gaining enough knowledge to live and move comfortably in the city.

When I moved to Shanghai for college, I started the same process. Like the LED-covered Dubai building Goffredo described, Shanghai defies permanence. Because so much of life takes place on the street — cooking, clothes washing, majiang — the landscape changes constantly. City blocks are razed and rebuilt within weeks. And as a foreigner with no Mandarin background, signage on buildings that would otherwise be helpful in creating a memory map become, in Chinese characters, a rainbow of unknowable information. Neighborhoods are impossible to define, and landmarks  In exchange for feeling somewhat mixed-up almost all the time, the foreigner’s mind in Shanghai is constantly stimulated and challenged without ever seeking it out.

Despite possessing some of the most appallingly unhelpful subway signage I have ever encountered (but hey, New Yorkers are proud that their public transportation is confusing for outsiders to navigate), New York was a combination of the two. There is enough life embedded in its gridded streets to allow for a degree of serendipity in the wayNew York is explored. In all of these places, the process of finding my way has been exhilarating and fulfilling.

It has taken me some time to unpack what it is that makes the wayfinding experience in Abu Dhabi and on the Saadiyat campus so different from other cities.  On campus, the lack of proper signage and oriented maps amplifies the fishbowl effect; the feeling of being an outsider overwhelms any sense of pleasure in feeling lost. After a day or two, it’s easy to find one’s way around the whole campus, and maybe even get tired of its predictability. In the city, the prominence of cars from place to place makes it difficult to have the organic wayfinding experience that is provided by pedestrian travel. For someone here for a short time and traveling primarily by cab, it is difficult to string together a map of the city from various highways. In my mind, Abu Dhabi exists as a collection of disjointed microspots to which visitors drive, enjoy, and leave. The in-between — the navigation — melts away, and part of the city is lost.

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