When I arrived in Edinburgh on 11 January, I brought with me many questions. Not the least of these revolved around how I would as an urban studies student and visual artist engage with the urban environment effectively and critically. Is it possible to understand a city – how it operates on the ground, day-to-day – and the people within it in only a few short months? How complete a picture can one person get of how a city functions? How complete can our cartographic imaginations, to borrow David Harvey’s terminology, become in the time that we have to create them? Simply put, can I make Edinburgh a home?
These questions, among others, guided my time in Edinburgh as a student seeking to authentically engage in and experience this new culture and community. The artist in me went wild with the visual aesthetic of Edinburgh, and my urban studies senses were excited by the case study Edinburgh provided. Here, I wish to reflect on my time in this fabulous city, the ways I engaged with it, some of the visual components and projects undertaken,
Edinburgh is a fascinating city because of the juxtaposition of its medieval Old Town and more recent New Town. While not as modern or industrial as its rival Glasgow, contemporary chains like Tesco sit next to centuries-old churches or university buildings across the street from traditional bars and pubs, creating a dynamic cityscape of old and new. Upon arrival, I immediately noticed the pedestrian-friendliness of the city, enabled by its relatively small size, ever-present sidewalks, closes connecting streets through narrow stairways, and cobblestone streets that sometimes feel much better suited for carriages and horses. The vaults underneath the city are architectural curiosities, remnants of planners’ rather successful (depending on who you ask) attempts to level an extremely hilly city. It is a city steeped in history, with stories ranging from King George visiting in 1822 and kicking off the tartan rage to grave robbers and the Black Mausoleum in Greyfriars Kirkyard.
My first few weeks in Edinburgh felt like a whirlwind of trying to do everything ‘Scottish’ I could. Within the first day of being in Scotland, I had tasted haggis, neeps, and tatties (and discovered I love it!); visited Finnegan’s Wake for a night at the pub with live music; and realized that grocery shopping here is incredibly different from that to which I was accustomed in the States. As a student of this course, my first encounters with the city were unguided, a mad scramble to see all the places on my list: Edinburgh Castle, Calton Hill, Arthur’s Seat, Holyrood, the Royal Mile… I felt pressure to do that which I ‘should’ do as an exchange student with limited time (and knowledge) yet apparently unlimited access to this new environment.
After visiting London and spending a fantastic week meeting fellow students through the Christian Union’s ‘Something More‘ missions week, I realized that Edinburgh is not fully realized through its tourist attractions and public spaces alone. Though undoubtedly an important part of the cityscape, I encountered my Edinburgh in the private or semi-public spaces of my weekly routine: the library, my classes and other academic spaces certainly, but even moreso in friends’ flats and local churches. My concept of the city became more about the individual experiences and interactions than the general understanding of the entire area.
Upon reflection, I realized this is how we experience spaces and come to claim cities as our own. The urban environment begins as an alien agglomeration of disparate spaces and places, one which requires our full attention while erasing our individuality and replacing it with (potentially comforting or liberating) anonymity. As our mental maps assemble, our perception of the city becomes more holistic and individual; having walked and spent time in Edinburgh, landmarks both famous and personal help us locate ourselves within an otherwise peculiar assemblage of buildings, people and ideologies.
Illustrating My Edinburgh
Key to understanding and reflecting upon these changes in my understanding of Edinburgh were my sketches and drawings completed throughout the semester. Art is one of the primary ways I process and engage with the world around me. Drawing various places in Edinburgh and visually recording my experiences was a unique way to force myself to spend more time in tourist areas I may have otherwise brushed past with only a quick glance and perhaps a photograph. Places like Edinburgh Castle that could have been just a tick off the list became instead sites of deeper involvement. The process of drawing an architectural space is intense and deliberate, and I have done more architectural renderings here in Edinburgh than in previous semesters.
Edinburgh Castle particularly fascinated me, and I took time to draw it on two separate occasions. My first engagement with the castle involved me sitting on the wall in the parking lot, drawing for about an hour and a half, seeking to gain a simple architectural understanding of the overall structure. As seen in the image at left, I wanted to capture as much of it as I could (before my fingers froze in the cold January morning air). Sitting still in a place normally reserved for cars parking and pedestrians moving; watching people move in and out of the castle, taking pictures, being tourists; and gazing intently with an artist’s eye at this aged structure were all important aspects contributing to my understanding and feeling of this castle. I have yet to go in it, yet I feel as if I know it because I have spent so much time with it, even if only externally, and I have recorded this experience in my own hand.
My second drawing of Edinburgh Castle, at right, happened not too long after the first, during an early exploration of the city. This drawing reveals a deeper familiarity with the structure and a desire to portray a more emotive response to it. Including more of the surrounding landscape – the rock upon which the castle sits – and shadows that grant the building depth and weight allow the castle to be less of a distant architectural sketch and more of a portrait of the castle. This sketch moves me in a way the simple line drawing just cannot, which is fascinating considering the lack of people. This sketch is not about people interacting in a space but instead about the grandeur and stateliness of a structure as itself. People are often used to create empathy in a viewer; however, in this sketch, they would feel out of place because they are not the point.
As the semester progressed, my subject matter shifted. Though I was still noticing architectural spaces, they were no longer my focus, which had turned to the people within the spaces with whom I was interacting. Public spaces became less common in my routine and were replaced by smaller gatherings in private spaces. Being in familiar and intimate spaces trying to both illustrate and engage was a tricky balance, perhaps my most real encounter with internal dilemmas as an autoethnographer. Being both mindful and critically present is key to being an effective researcher and a successful urbanist; being able to multitask is apparently a prerequisite for fully being.
The shift from architectural renderings to more people-based and textual sketches is worth considering. When I first arrived, I needed to record what I was seeing around me because I had never seen it before; in other words, closely examining and drawing the spaces around me more speedily familiarized myself with the cityscape and its landmark features. As I grew in knowledge of the different places I encountered, my focus shifted from the surface appearance of a space and became more about its essence, generally manifested through the people occupying and using it, including myself. Text became an adequate replacement for sketches because it was more able to capture a feeling of a place than my quick renderings would allow. Not that the text became dissociated from those spaces – indeed, when I review my sketches, those that include placenames and do not, I immediately place the drawings in specific spaces. This immediate and inherent spatial association is key to memory and proves the inexplicable link between space and remembering.
Coming Home to Edinburgh, Going Home to Providence
Over Easter Break, I left Scotland for two weeks and travelled through Ireland and Wales. As my time of pilgrimage drew to a close, I found myself growing more excited to return ‘home’ to Edinburgh. In only a few short months, Edinburgh had become a place I call with confidence ‘home,’ and for many reasons. I know this city. I am not familiar with its political underpinnings or all of its social intricacies, but I know how to not get lost (vital to getting around a city), there are places in which I have beautiful memories (important for the feeling of home), and it is (by default) my home base in the UK for my time here. There are people here I care about and places that are meaningful to me. This is home.
It is also very different from home in that I have taken intentional time to understand more of the history of the area, which has greatly influenced how I experience the city. The Old and New Town, for example, are far more interesting to me and urbanistically significant because I can read them in their historical contexts. Experiencing Edinburgh with this additional layer raises questions of how I understand my ‘home’ in Providence in the States. I have been at university since the fall of 2014, giving me ample time to know Providence as a city. I have engaged with it through various projects, including doing research on busking on Thayer Street and graffiti mapping across the city, but it has not been my focus to understand the history of the buildings, the planning of the city, or to venture into many private spaces beyond College Hill. This is partly due to the size of the city and my heavy involvement at Brown, but I do wonder what layers would be added to my time as a student if I were to step more intentionally into the details that lay beyond Brown.
At Edinburgh, perhaps, it is much easier to engage in the city because the city is so compact. As my studies have shown, the layout of the city greatly impacts the way we experience it. Here in Edinburgh, I can walk wherever I need to go, whether I am visiting a friend, attending a Christian Union event, or grocery shopping. In Providence, I am similarly car-less, but the city is far more spread, so that even a grocery trip requires planning in the travel time via bus or bike. The comparison reveals the stark differences between a city planned for pedestrians (or horse and carts), as most European (medieval especially) are, and a city planned for automobiles, as most American cities are. Having had this experience in Edinburgh, it will be interesting to see how I operate in a car’s city once again.
Being an artist, an urbanite, a student learning how to engage with my surroundings in a respectful, critical way – these are all ongoing aspects of living in which I will continue to grow even as I leave Edinburgh and return to the States. This semester has been an incredible time of growth and learning as a person, artist and urban studies student, with my mind and eye becoming far more attuned to the processes around me and the different ways we engage with and influence them as they play out. My question at the ‘end’ of this is not how such a fabulous semester will conclude but, indeed, how it will continue.