The Voyeur Stands Where She’s Most Familiar (#SisTulisThesis)

At the start of my PhD journey, I encountered Michel De Certeau’s seminal piece called Walking In The City that very much spurred me into the direction my research went in. I even adopted walking as one of my main methods during my year-long fieldwork in Kuala Lumpur City. What I neglected to share in my PhD Thesis which I’ve submitted for examination more than 2 months ago is perhaps something I’ve taken for granted at the time of doing my PhD. Only now, in this post-thesis-writing calm and after ample time and space from my PhD, do I get to linger on my experiences before and after the fieldwork.

De Certeau began the essay with a beautiful description of the view seen by a person standing on top of the World Trade Centre and looking down to New York below. Somehow, in a weird dreamlike manner of imagination, I managed to imagine myself standing atop KLCC Twin Towers and looking down into Kuala Lumpur City every time I read the first few sentences of the essay. It is as if, to make sense of this description of a city, I can only gather views from the city I am most familiar with.

The featured image on this post is of a view from atop Wisma Central, a building next to KLCC Twin Towers. Although I didn’t get access to the tallest building in Malaysia, I felt that this view is close enough to what the designer as a voyeur god would imagine. I also brought some interlocutors who weren’t from architectural backgrounds and take note of their reaction to the view. That’s part of my research, of course.

This view of Kuala Lumpur skyline from the top of a building became synonymous to the opening description of De Certeau’s essay. It became part of my introduction chapter. It became inspiration to explaining how architects see the city because, as I found out in my fieldwork and as I espoused in my PhD, this view doesn’t stop while architects are on the ground. This view remains even while we meander along the streets with the other pedestrians or even as we drive down the traffic-heavy streets of the city.

Is the reason why I have always been able to easily attach a view of Kuala Lumpur City to De Certeau’s description of how a voyeur sees is because of how much internalised the architect’s way of seeing is in me? I believe it is partially so. I might also have been homesick. I might also be comfortable visualising my familiar city instead of a city I’ve never been to. But I’ve seen photos of New York. Isn’t that enough? What made me latch on to KLCC Twin Towers so strongly? Is it because of how often I’ve been into Kuala Lumpur City with the architect’s gaze that has made it more familiar than any other cities in the world?

De Certeau further described how this voyeur is able to see everything and therefore read the city as if detached, lifted above and away from the streets but receiving a holistic view in exchange. Does this mean that we simplify the complexities of the city into patterns of buildings and designs? Surely, that is what I remember how architecture design is taught to handle site analyses; fit them into one scheme. Fit them into one city, one holistic view.

We take it for granted that we view the city so differently from the people. While they view it as it is, as they are situated and as the perspective from that viewpoint allows them at that moment, we who are trained in architecture school view the city as if we are flying, as if we are further than the spot we are at the moment, as if we can cut through concrete and buildings, as if the view is in 2d… It never stops. It’s something we are obviously proud of, being able to see the world in so many different angles and ways, and it’s also something we are obviously unaware of, being unable to see the world as how the people of city see it and experience it.

Our magical powers can be our own weakness if we are unable to realise that being without magical powers can be a strength wizards can’t fathom. At least, that’s what I learned from Harry Potter books and anthropology (or as the wizarding world would call it, Muggle Studies.)

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