The meaning of a message, says William Mitchell, depends on the context of its reception. "Shouting 'fire' in a crowded theater produces a dramatically different effect from barking the same word to a squad of soldiers with guns," he observes. In Placing Words, Mitchell looks at the ways in which urban spaces and places provide settings for communication and at how they conduct complex flows of information through the twenty-first century city.
Cities participate in the production of meaning by providing places populated with objects for words to refer to. Inscriptions on these objects (labels, billboards, newspapers, graffiti) provide another layer of meaning. And today, the flow of digital information—from one device to another in the urban scene—creates a digital network that also exists in physical space. Placing Words examines this emerging system of spaces, flows, and practices in a series of short essays—snapshots of the city in the twenty-first century.
Mitchell questions the necessity of flashy downtown office towers in an age of corporate Web sites. He casts the shocked-and-awed Baghdad as a contemporary Guernica. He describes architectural makeovers throughout history, listing Le Corbusier's Fab Five Points of difference between new and old architecture, and he discusses the architecture of Manolo Blahniks. He pens an open letter to the Secretary of Defense recommending architectural features to include in torture chambers. He compares Baudelaire, the Parisian flaneur, to Spiderman, the Manhattan traceur. He describes the iPod-like galleries of the renovated MoMA and he recognizes the camera phone as the latest step in a process of image mobilization that began when artists stopped painting on walls and began making pictures on small pieces of wood, canvas, or paper. The endless flow of information, he makes clear, is not only more pervasive and efficient than ever, it is also generating new cultural complexities.
About the Author
William J. Mitchell was the Alexander W. Dreyfoos, Jr., Professor of Architecture and Media Arts and Sciences and directed the Smart Cities research group at MIT's Media Lab. He authored many books, including The World's Greatest Architect (2008) and Placing Words: Symbols, Space, and the City (2005), both published by the MIT Press.
"Mitchell is onto something that most architectural writers ignore: Design permeates our daily life, and it is changing, just as quickly."—Architectural Record
"Thank goodness, then, after all this architectural frottage in the agora, to find little that is frivolous and much that is inspiring in William J. Mitchell's new book, Placing Words: Symbols, Space, and the City. . . . The book is less about architecture as a practice than about the world in which they work. . . . It is the job of the architect, Mitchell's essayistic flights make clear, not merely to build but also to help us assemble an understanding of how 'we make our buildings, and . . . our buildings make us.'"—ID Magazine
"Here is a collection of essays—serious and witty—that engages, within their variety and validity, the architectural and cultural issues particularly significant for today, and begins with a profoundly relevant focus on the element of iconography: of words not as literature but as signs, within the context of space, to confirm and enliven our urban setting in our Information Age."
"William Mitchell is simply the most brilliant urban critic since Lewis Mumford and the most original media theorist since Marshall McLuhan. The combination is awesome: no contemporary thinker has a better grasp of the complex interactions between electronic media and the built environment."
—Mike Davis, author of Dead Cities and Planet of Slums