How do we create and keep a city identity?

What makes Rome not to be Paris, or how come that Venice is so different from Milano, why we like to visit London but we hate Coventry? These are questions that we ask while we meditate on cities geography. We might never think of them in other context, we might not realise that we like visiting different places for a new experience or we like going in the same places just because the repetition of our visit reconstructs the same feelings all the time.

Living or just visiting a place gives you a sense of identity of what that space represents, enabling you to understand the core values of the architecture and why was build in that way. Also in our time, the identity of a city is very often shaped by media, we can recognize New York from a picture, or a movie, but maybe, never be in familiar terms with Conakry.

Going back to the title, how can a city create and keep an identity? In order to answer to this question, I will like to extrapolate from Judith Butler’s concept of gender performativity. If she uses it with the function of understanding gender and how is constructed, we can apply it in the comprehension of how cities identities are build.

Basically performativity means repetition, we reiterate our gender character all the time by the way we walk, dress, speak, act etc, actions that conclude into a formation of identity. In the same way Butler speaks about bodies we can discuss cities. The way in which a city is constructed, the way hoses are arranged, how is decorated, what cultural activates develops, how it smells, what colors are used for government buildings, how the people are dressing etc, creates that city identity. Also the act of repetition and the mark of history can be seen as embedding for its identity.

This act of performativity can be very easy spotted in Hollywood cinema and the construction of cities identities. We all have ideas of how Los Angeles looks like even we never been there, just because we constantly have seen movies shoot in the city and they repeated the same set of values and images almost all the time.

If in Butler’s view performativity has the function of stabilizing identities and betraying anxiety in identity, I believe that cities are the same. This is why, now, we see that every major city tries to be unique and construct buildings that fit the city landscape but in the same time they are matchless.

Stopping the performativity can create anxiety, this can be portrayed very easy in architecture fails as we can see in the pictures bellow, in which we can ask why on heavens name are this buildings here.



Butler J. [1990)(2007), Gender trouble, Routledge: London.

Eduard Claudiu Vasile


One thought on “How do we create and keep a city identity?

  1. As a Californian, I would suggest that the role of the media in shaping a city identify is actually twofold: 1) creating how the rest of the world imagines a cit; 2) how a city’s identify is created within its own region through empirical experience of its residents. When I travel, I am shocked by the false impression Hollywood creates of Los Angeles around the world. To many Californians, L.A. is perceived as a sprawling concrete mess, congested with freeway traffic, bad air, crime in concentrated areas, with rampant homelessness and drug use in the streets. I frequently attend meetings in downtown L.A., and it is nothing like the glamorous image presented in the movies, it is actually very seedy. The media portrays an image of glamor, Hollywood, wealth, fancy cars, etc., but the camera does not show the huge amount of traffic right next to the Baywatch beaches, or the 50 homeless people sleeping in the park across Ocean Ave. from the trendy bistros and expensive wine bars in Santa Monica. That is the magic of cinema, you can bring any story to life, making it look ‘real’, creating a false impression of reality when so desired.

    I think an identify of a city is very contextual, based on the context of the viewer and the venues through which an identity is perceived.

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