In the world, various inertias or habits of different ethnic people generate the distinct understanding about architectures, landscape and environment. And people who have different vocation and education understand architecture and space differently. Mike Parker Pearson and Colin Richards (1997:1) claimed in their book named Architecture and order that ‘concepts of ‘weighted’ space, in terms of boundaries and paths of movement, are bound up with classifications of people and notions of cleanliness, dirt and purity.’ In other words, there are some connections between people’s habits or inertias and architecture and space. Winston Churchill said about these connections that ’first we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us’ (Architecture and order: approaches to social space, 1997:2). In the 19th century, with the technology and the accelerating industrialization, the relationship between people and space was also changed. And at the same time, the changes deeply affected the people's understanding and transformation of urban space. Because of this, a particular type of individual called “flâneur”, representing spontaneity and a challenge to the established order, emerged. Their main interest was the micro-scale aspects of street life, rather than the official public city. Through the analysis of the flâneurs, the understanding of urban space may be re-examined and re-positioned.

“‘Flâneur’ is a word understood intuitively by the French to mean "stroller, idler, walker." He has been portrayed in the past as a well-dressed man, strolling leisurely through the Parisian arcades of the nineteenth century--a shopper with no intention to buy, an intellectual parasite of the arcade. Traditionally the traits that mark the flâneur are wealth, education, and idleness. He strolls to pass the time that his wealth affords him, treating the people who pass and the objects he sees as texts for his own pleasure. An anonymous face in the multitude, the flâneur is free to probe his surroundings for clues and hints that may go unnoticed by the others.”

(, 2005)

structure from the 19th century

Space can become a specific place for people’s life and experience rather than a stationary or purely material aggregation. It is just the interaction between people and such space and places that contributes to the materialization and significance of the space as well as causes people’s self-cognition and their cognition of the world. However, the acceleration of people’s movement in the city makes people’s experience of the urban space or architectural space become an exclusively visual and abstract activity separated from their bodies as well as an pre-designed activity or an activity with specific purpose. People and the space become more and more alienated from each other. Meanwhile, the lack of the interactive relationship between people and the space becomes a main problem of modern space.

In the 19th century, the large-scale and machine-oriented industrial production accelerated the gradual expansion of urbanization. In this particular historical context, people had experienced new social phenomena and relationships as well as realized that they had become the new modern subject. Such new social relationship and social order created a new space form, the core of which was no longer religion. Meanwhile, economic activities nearly became the most important behaviors of daily life; the social space was also reconstructed according to modern or large-scale and machine-oriented production modes. Therefore, the city was fundamentally changed on the aspects of scale, dimension as well as space pattern. The backyard gardens of town house, open squares, parks and markets in Middle Ages gradually disappeared, which were replaced by wide and straight commercial streets.

Arcade (Figure 1) is a new kind of architectural form created with such modern technologies as iron stands and glass, according to the demands of modern cities. During the heyday of the glass arcade in 1830, such commercial buildings spread over every commercial city in Europe. Walter Benjamin(1999) pointed out in The Arcades Project that: the whole Continent of Europe can be re-mapped taking Moscow, Naples, Paris and Berlin separately as the corners of east, south, west and north of European arcade. For people in 19th century, the familiar urban space had been shattered thoroughly by the new experience. In the uniform urban space, the boulevard provided a much broader space and the movement speed of people also became faster. The interaction between people and the space as well as between people and other people both became more frequent and shorter.

The movement speed is greatly promoted because of the boulevard occurrence. From the pleasant sensation that the carriage is running on a perfectly straight road to the anxiety caused by the quick driving of automobiles, modern people have experienced the unprecedented speed state. With the change of movement speed and the re-integration of space, people are much more likely to watch the scenes in the car, but need not interact with the space environment by moving the bodies or to touch the bodies of pedestrians. Therefore, the eyes become the major organ that obtains the information for people, while other sensory experience becomes slow and vestigial. The sensory experience of the human body also becomes weak as well the methods to understand the urban space also turn into a singular understanding of space. Under such situation, watching becomes the major method for people to obtain external information. Jean-Michel Rabaté (1997:163-164) mentioned this method of watching as ‘image-repertoire’: when the unfamiliar scenes in the street are scanned, the eyes will filter all the visual information and simplify it into the simple representation. For example, with such image repertoire of representation, we will quickly determine the development state of the city through the style of buildings in the city. Since 19th century, the modern people have been adopting such watching method. Although it can help us obtain the information in the minimum duration according to the images, the interaction between people and space as well as among the people will gradually stop and the whole city will be a picture of still scenes. The environment stimulates people, but does not need the feedback from people. However, the relationship between bodies and the space breaks at this point.

From flâneur to walker in space: rethinking on flâneur in the city

 A British sociologist named Elizabeth Wilson (The Invisible Flâneur, 1992:6) has pointed out that in the 19th century emergence of new forms of urban space is the root causes of generation of the ‘flâneur’ group. The flâneur appeared in the street of Paris mainly pay more attention to street landscape and their main interest is details of life in the street, rather than those so-called public spaces created by Ottoman. There are three main features for this group: firstly, wandering around in the city all the time; secondly, keen observation of people and events happened in the street; finally, allow people to observe them curiously, but don’t interact with these observers. In terms of flâneur, they are only as strangers of a city and do not contact with people around them and places where they are. On the one hand, they are attracted by the new urban landscape and attempt to interpret the meaning of the unknown. On the other hand, due to disappearance of the old space and behavior, they try to find the lost sense of location but cannot find easily. Additionally, with the physical space and social space changing constantly, they cannot feel and understand a city clearly as well and their understanding of a city has always represented a kind of messy, discontinuity and unconsciousness. However, the flâneur’s method of understanding the urban space-in the walk, accepting the new information on a city through the interaction between people’s body and the urban space, is a very good approach of experiencing and understanding the space.

When people walking in the street, their activities themselves can be passing through somewhere quickly, strolling in the path, purchasing goods in retail outlets, visiting the commercial windows and visiting some city's monuments or buildings. These movements with different purposes and interactions with the urban space extend the meaning of space when people go into it and increase its uncertainties. Obviously, this meaning’s extension and uncertainties challenge alienation and loss of mobility of the urban space at the same time. Therefore, the way people perceive the urban space also is beyond the semiotic analysis and interpretation. In fact, the same principle can be used in understanding architectural and interior space and the movement and interaction without purposes make space into a kind of structure which can be interpreted and understood. According to Phenomenology of Perception theory, British sociologist Sennett based on ‘flâneur’ idea was trying to re-establish the relationship between the body and space in vision, hearing, tactile, smell and the way they are interconnected in order to break the traditional dualism of cognitive style. In fact, in terms of flâneur, there are two factors in the key point: the first one is the interaction between people’ body and the space; the second one is the movement without any purposes. It is these two factors that make the communication between people and space become more playful and uncertain. Therefore, based on the situation, re-recognition of the space can be possible.

The contemporary practice about flâneur

Facing such a situation that the acceleration of people’s movement in the city lead to the lack of the interactive relationship between people and the space, many contemporary architects or artists have started to address the constantly changing social structure and cultural system through the unique understanding of buildings and space provided by a revised understanding of the role of the flâneur simultaneously satisfy the demands of the modern social groups on the variety and flexibility of urban space as well as increase the communication between people and the urban space. 

The first example designed by Edward Janssen, a The Dutch artist. It is called “RANDOM CITY WALK” (Figure 2 & 3) which is designed for bUG in Luneburg in September 2001. In this practice, the designer placed himself as a stranger to explore an unknown urban space by walking through the city without any aim. The walk relates to the classical Situationist approach (Derive), where the walker was guided by just his own personal preferences. During their work, an electronic device randomly guided them. Independent from subjective decisions it leads to an objective free of contextual borders. And then, when they changed direction, they created a mark. At every mark they collected and projected images, they also performed and collected sounds. By collecting and rearranging experiences, different city-scapes were developed to provide them with a view of Lünebourg. Actually, the mirrored trolley created by Edward Janssen built a bridge which connected the view of city and the observer together. In the meanwhile, he addressed an audience, recounting precisely what he had been observing. This work re-built the cognition of a urban space through using random walking and the mirrored trolley and in some extend it reflected and admitted the flâneur’s method which used as a tool to understand unknown urban space.

Another example is the movie called Chungking Express (Figure 4) directed by Wong Kar-Wai. In the movie, he uses a camera to set up his own as a city walker who explores all aspects of the reality of urban space in the researchful method he is interested in. There are four main characters: a woman wearing golden wig, No. 223, No. 633 plainclothes policeman and a waitress that form a seemingly confusing story which shows the director Wong Kar-Wai's role as not only a film director but also a city walker. From the beginning of the movie, the movie describes a special scene: there are numerous buildings with vertical pipes, lots of prominent windows with iron grating and clothes hanging on the shelf in the evening sky, which represents local residents’ pigeon cage-like life style. The contrast between slum-like buildings in Tsim Sha Tsui and the elegant shopping environment or landmark buildings not only highlights a huge gap between daily living space and planning space (which has characteristics of capital globalization in contemporary), but also reflects the invalidation of traditional cognition of four main characters for unban space due to increasingly fast speed of changes of space.

There is the third particular example named as "a 30-minute straight line in Wuhan," designed by Chinese young architect named Juchuan LI, which represents the significance for urban space of pedestrians. In this work, the designer hanging on a small video camera whose lens is shooting at the ground, walked along a straight line in 30 minutes in the downtown area. And the camera recorded the whole process. Although this work is also related to other concepts, what interests me is the concept that shooting without pre-shooting and instinctive physical interaction with the urban space in order to strengthen the specific and historic existence of urban space in several specific time. In this project, although the way of shooting is fixed and the direction and time of walking is pre-designed, the video the camera records and the views which the designer has already seen in this journey cannot be controlled comparatively. In term of this meaning, its concept has its own special relationship with ‘flâneur ‘. So, this work reflects a critique and resistance for physical space and social space built in the rational method. 

Space Experiment

In the 19th century, with new urban spatial structure emerging, the relationship between people and urban space changed constantly. Obviously, the increasingly fast speed of movement of people in the space causes estrangement between people and urban space. The way to understand urban space becomes into pure visual experience and understanding of urban space only becomes an imagination connected by discontinuous fragments and images. In the meanwhile, these visual experiences are only reflected in the incomplete understanding of shapes, structures, colors and materials of buildings, but details and parts which embody the significance of urban life are ignored by most of people. 

Therefore, my practice based on rethinking on the characteristic of ‘flâneur’, is trying to build a special relationship which can address the estrangement between people and urban space. In general, my practice can be divided into two steps. The first step is to create a medium which exists between people and urban space and it can generate a particular interaction between them; the second step is to build a relationship between this medium and people and urban space.

In a city space, each component is very significant. According to the theory of ‘flâneur’, a comprehensive understanding of urban space is not a impression about several buildings or a few lines created by some writers, but to observe every element and event exists in urban space. These events and elements are not only those architectures, constructions and structures, but also include people’s activities, weather, every movement of people and so forth. Peter cook mentioned in the book called Archigram (1972:20) that ‘architecture is only a small part of city environment in terms of real significance; the total environment is what is important, what really maters. The object was to determine the effect total environment has on the human condition, the response it generates – and to capture, to express, the vitality of the city.’ Actually, in the urban space all are important. For instance, ‘The triviality of lighting a cigarette, or the hard fact of moving two million commuters a day are both facets of the shared experience of the city. So far, no other form of environment has been devised that produces the same quality of experience shared by so many minds and interests. When it is raining in Oxford Street, the architecture is no more important than the rain, in fact the weather has probably more to do with the pulsation of the living city at a moment in time.’(Archigram, 1972:20)

Consequently, in the first step, a reflective skin is made by reflective materials with various sizes and shapes. Its function is to generate a type of interaction and communication between the people wearing it and environment around him. Because each segment of the reflective skin is designed to adhere to the human body, so every fragment has various angles and can reflect events occurred in urban space. In this project, every piece is a representation of every detail of urban space. And, due to its character of reflection, it also can be considered as a information collector which collects and re-arranges every detail and event of urban space. Actually, these details could be everything exists in urban space. As a whole, this reflective skin represents flâneur’s realistic significance and spiritual extension in contemporary.

In my work, man is an indispensable part. Actually, the wearer itself is an observer which can be considered as a symbol of a flâneur. At the same time, people around him are transformed into the observed parts, but, from another perspective, this reflective skin also confronts people around the wearer to become another kind of observers of urban space by the reflective function of this special suit. Additionally, this reflective surface makes the wearer become invisible object separating from outside of the world. In the process of observing and observed, people cannot occupy the position from where they are seen. However, people can imagine to do so, and this imagination plays a crucial role in how they experience themselves as visible beings.

And in the second step, the wearer who wears this reflective skin needs to walk randomly in a city. Obviously, the randomness and aimlessness of walking in urban space plays a very significant part in exploring and perceiving a city. In other words, it is the crucial spirit of flâneur and also is a very important method of understanding a city. Additionally, in this whole process of this practice, the camera is installed in this reflective skin and the lens is always shooting at the reflective skin to record the changing view of urban space. The camera can be changed its comparative position with the reflective skin to record different experiences. And the camera not only collects the visual signals but also the sound signals.


With increasingly fast speed of movement of people in the city, the lack of interaction between urban space and people becomes one of the most important problems. People even evaluate and measure quality of urban space by testing whether or not the way of entering through a space is convenient. The lack of contact with the urban space and other people inevitably influent people’s understanding and transformation of urban space. People in the space is difficult to determine their position, also it is difficult to determine style and character of a city. Although, in the 21st century, the influence of ‘flâneur’ is increasingly weak, the organization and understanding of details of a city and rethinking about the flaneur’s method of exploring a city still make people realize the significance of this problem and confront them to find better ways to understand the urban space comprehensively. However, because of accelerating urbanization, the results have their own limitations. But, from the angle of ‘flâneur’, a possible solution on the lack of communication between people and urban space can be proposed and rethinking about the ‘flâneur’ is also an indispensable step of understanding and transforming contemporary urban space.


Michael Parker Pearson. and Colin Richards. (1994) Architecture and order : approaches to social space, London: Routledge.

Morris, Desmond. (1977), Man-watching : a field guide to human behavior , London : Cape.

Peter Cook. (1972), Archigram, London : Studio Vista Publishers.

Janet Abrams. Peter Hall, editors. (2006), Else/where : mapping : new cartographies of networks and territories, Minneapolis, Minn : University of Minnesota Design Institute.

Fawcett-Tang, Roger. and William Owen. (2002), Mapping : an illustrated guide to graphic navigational systems / compiled and edited by Roger Fawcett-Tang ; essays by William Owen,  Mies, Switzerland : RotoVision.

Borden, lain., Kerr, Joe., Pivaro, Alicia., Rendell, Jane., Royal Institute of British Architects. (1996), Strangely familiar : narratives of architecture in the city, London : Routledge.

Colomina, Beatriz. (1994), Privacy and publicity: modern architecture as mass media, Cambridge, Mass. ; London : MIT Press.

Jean-Michel Rabaté. (1997), Writing the image after Roland Barthes, Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press.

Walter Benjamin. (1999), The arcades project, Cambridge, Mass. ; London : Belknap Press.

 Roland Barthes. (1990), The fashion system, 2nd edition, Berkeley, Calif. ; London : University of California Press.

Robert Klanten. and Lukas Feireiss. (2007), Space Craft: fleeting architecture and hideouts, Berlin : Gestalten.

Elizabeth Wilson. (1992), The Invisible Flâneur, New Left Review, January-February, NLR I/191 .


The Flâneur, [Online], Available: [2005].