Metropolis and Lobby

by hannesfrykholmuma


In “The Metropolis and Mental Life” Georg Simmel states that he is set on understanding the conditions for the individual in the metropolis, rather than “to complain or to condone” over its multiple varieties and expressions.[1] He is an observer. This position centers on an understanding rather than a critical reading (as in revealing specific conditions that are not seen at first) or a projective discussion on how life in metropolis could be different. To be the observer is to consider at a distance, similar to the detached gaze of the flâneur. But is it possible to separate the act of understanding from the complaining voice of criticality?

Simmel describes the metropolis as a condition where survival is based on the individual ability to express him-/herself among the wide torrent of people and impressions.[2] For Simmel this condition is the psychological response to money as the “frightful leveler” of every expression and value. For the inhabitant of the metropolis, the nerves are worn out, giving way to an “incapacity to react to new stimulations with the required amount of energy” and to an “indifference toward the distinctions between things”.[3] In response to the anonymity and lack of historical forms of social control, the metropolis prompts (or even forces) the individual to express originality in contrast to the masses. This pressure for change can be conferred with the “projective city” as discussed by Luc Boltanski and Éve Chiappelo, where social relations are happening in temporary and shifting projects and success is based on being “prepared for change and capable of new instruments.”[4]

Simmel is unspecific about the spaces and forms where the plethora of individuality is expressed and produced in the metropolis. An example of such a discussion could perhaps be found in Sigfried Kracauer’s writing on the hotel lobby, partly inspired by Simmel.[5] For Kracauer, the hotel lobby of the modern city is a space where the traditional relations are detached for the “sake of a freedom that can refer only to itself and therefore sinks into relaxation and indifference.”[6] The lobby does not refer to anything beyond itself, and the “aesthetic condition corresponding to it constitutes itself as its own limit.”[7] In its internal logic, the lobby for Kracauer provides a safe haven away from the external expectations on the individual. Just like the metropolis in general has detached humans from the social control mechanisms of the historical village, the lobby allows for anonymity and indifference toward the strangers in the same room. In this sense the temporary congregation of the lobby is no different from a group of people waiting for the subway.

What unites Simmel and Kracauer seems to be a preoccupation with the surface of capitalism rather than the structural depths of it.[8] To look at the superficial, the conspicuous and the glamorous aspects of metropolis, is to consider how this physical environment and aesthetics generates particular conditions for living and particular forms of subjectivity.

Hannes Frykholm

[1] Georg Simmel, “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” in The Blackwell City Reader, ed. G. Bridge and S. Watson (Oxford and Malden, MA: Wiley, 2010), 19.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 14.

[4] Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism (London: Verso, 2005), 112.

[5] Siegfried Kracauer, The Mass Ornament: Weimer Essays (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995).

[6] Ibid., 179.

[7] Ibid.

[8] David Frisby, Fragments of Modernity: Theories of Modernity in the Work of Simmel, Kracauer and Benjamin (London: Routledge, 2013).