Visiting a city of memories and clouds

Polina Chebotareva a été accueilli en tant de chercheur-visiteur au Cresson de janvier à février 2018. Polina est actuellement doctorante au sein de l’Aarhus School of Architecture (DK) et le sujet de son doctorat porte sur “Aesthetics as a catalyst of social change”. Inspirée par la méthode des parcours commentés (Jean-Paul Thibaud, 2001, Espace urbain en méthodes), elle nous livre sa rencontre avec les ambiances de la ville de Grenoble.

‘As this wave from memories flows in, the city soaks it up like a sponge and expands. A description of Zaira as it is today should contain all Zaira’s past. The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the Bags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.’ Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, Cities and Memory 3, p. 10

There are two significant encounters with ambiances that stand out following my two-month stay in Grenoble as a visiting researcher at the Cresson laboratory in the ENSAG architecture school. Although my research is not about Grenoble and its ambiances, these two encounters – and my subsequent reflection on them – will stay with me to inspire current and future research. As both artist Olafur Eliasson (2014) and scholar Paul Roquet (2016) argue, by becoming aware of the ambiances in our surroundings and registering our encounter with them, we can attend more carefully to the invisible forces moving through the air that define the city, our affect and actions.

The first encounter happened as I stood off the tram that had taken me from the city center to the center of ‘the new city’, La Villeneuve. Getting off at the Grand’Place stop, one must walk through the blue gates of a pedestrian bridge that leads to the tall buildings of La Villeneuve. The ENSAG architecture school is located at the foot of these man-built mountains. The architecture school was built as an integrated part of La Villeneuve and had, for instance, in its original design a lecture hall that was connected to the street outside and open to the public. Today, both the lecture hall and the other doors connecting ENSAG and La Villeneuve have been closed off. La Villeneuve was an ambitions urban development by l’atelier d’urbanisme et d’architecture (AUA). Built between 1970 and 1983, it was a project that wanted to re-imagine Grenoble, providing it with a new city center and a new model for social living. Today, it is a heritage-listed urban development known for its visionary conceptualization and contemporary controversies.

As I walked along the pedestrian bridge, however, I did not encounter this factual description. Rather, I felt as if I was entering a city of memories. It is hard to describe exactly what led me to this feeling. An ambiance is an affective experience of the totality of a situation. Perhaps it was the lack of sounds, smells and motion of social life in a place that was clearly designed for it. Closed off balconies, empty alleyways, abandoned shops. Artworks, integrated into the architecture, standing on their own, isolated, seemingly out of place. But also the mentioning of La Villeneuve in conversations by both familiar people and strangers, nearly always together with recalling a memory.

Apart from registering what makes up an ambiance, it is also interesting – and relevant for my research – to register the places of encounter in which I became aware of being in a city of memories. As described in the Commented City Walks method, developed by the researchers of Cresson (and described in English by Thibaud, 2013), an ambiance is most strongly experienced in the transition zone where it meets other ambiances. My encounters with the ambiance of La Villeneuve and ENSAG can all be traced to transition zones. For instance, the blue gates of the pedestrian bridge marking the change between the horizontal hassle on the tram tracks and the vertical stillness of La Villeneuve. And the fences in the interior courtyards and windows of ENSAG which mark the meeting points between the architecture school and La Villeneuve. And also the change of people’s gestures occurring somewhere between MC2: Maison de la Culture and Arlequin, and also between inside of ENSAG and the surrounding alleyways of Grand Parc and Les Cascatelles. These transition zones are not a strict boundary, but are more comparable to the fluid periphery of a cloud.

Grenoble is very much a city of clouds. Although all cities have clouds, my encounter with clouds as part of a city was more strong in Grenoble. Appearing against the backdrop of the surrounding mountains, the ephemeral materiality and temporarily of the clouds seemed to get strengthened by the immobile mountains. By blurring the horizon and making invisible the mountain peaks, the clouds created an aerial ‘transition zone’. Once the clouds had passed, and I found myself again on the other side of the ‘transition zone’, I was more sensitive to the mountains and their quality as part of Grenoble. It is the transition of the clouds that made me more aware of the qualities of the city. Similarly, the ephemeral city of memories appearing amid the man-built mountains of La Villeneuve and the transitions zones in which I became aware of the ambiance, enhanced my critical sensitivity to the other parts of Grenoble and their ambiances.

In my current research at the Aarhus School of Architecture (DK), I explore how becoming aware of the ambiance surrounding you can lead to a critical exploration of the environment and new ways acting and feeling. Especially in a time characterized by a de-sensitizing to our surrounding environment (Latour, 2016), it is more than ever relevant to re-think our relations to the environment. By designing two installations in collaboration with architects, I explore how urban and architectural design can help bring the ambiance to people’s awareness and, thus, mediate new relationships between individual and surroundings. From my stay in Grenoble and at Cresson, I will bring with me a higher design focus on the transition zones where several ambiances meet.

Read more and follow the research project here:


Calvino, Italo (1974). Invisible cities. San Diego, New York, London: Harcourt, Brace & Company.
Eliasson, Olafur (2014). A Conversation between Gernot Böhme, Christian Borch, Olafur Eliasson &
Juhani Pallasmaa. In C. Borch (Ed.): Architectural Atmospheres On the Experience and Politics of
Architecture. Basel: De Gruyter.
Latour, Bruno (2016). Sensitizing. In C. A. Jones, D., Mather & R. Uchill (Eds.): Experience: culture,
cognition, and the common sense. Cambridge, Massachusetts London, England: The MIT Press.
Roquet, Paul (2016). Ambient Media – Japanese Atmospheres of Self. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.
Thibaud, Jean-Paul (2013). Commented City Walks. Journal of Mobile Culture, 7(1), 1 – 32.

To quote this article : Polina Chebotareva «Visiting a city of memories and clouds», Le Cresson Veille et recherche (Hypothè, february 16th 2018. [En ligne]

Polina Chebotareva

Polina Chebotareva works at the intersection of psychology, art and architecture. Currently she is a PhD fellow at Aarhus School of Architecture. Her research by design project is titled ‘Architectural aesthetics as catalyst of social change’ and explores how the multisensory aspect of the built environment influences how one acts and what one perceives. Furthermore, the research investigates how an architectural design can shift one’s attention to stimulate new ways of seeing and doing. A central part of the research are two installations made in collaboration with architects. Outside of her research, in 2016, Polina co-founded the design studio Between Architecture and People (BAP Projects) where she applies her research to a psychology-based design practice on projects in architecture, interior design and urban installations. Prior to the PhD research, between 2012 – 2016, Polina worked at Studio Olafur Eliasson with concept and design development. In 2015 Polina received a Master of Science in Psychology from University of Copenhagen. Her research and design work is strongly inspired by her previous work experience and studies in the fields of psychology and art.

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