Desire Paths that go through the landscape | ISMAEL TEIRA


Ismael Teira, “El deseo de atravesar el paisaje”. Photography on steel panel. 53×80 cm. Deputación da Coruña.

Sometimes, common, pedestrian citizens – and on foot – show their discontent with the imposed path and demand to improve it. A good example for this are the paths of desire, which are, definitely, visible and passable traces of such an abstract thing as desire. These trails are usually determined by an objective and based on creating an efficient path, while involving visible imprints of a citizen’s gesture, as they shorten, reject and even improve the marked path. One of the largest photo archive of “Desire Paths”is available on Flickr, with photos of more than half a thousand trails – mostly shortcuts – located by users in different parts of the planet, thus configuring an interesting album in a collaborative way. For George Redgrave, promoter of the group, the key is that these trails are made against the will of any authority that would like us to go through another less convenient way. We will focus on two examples: Detroit and Valencia.

Detroit, in other times the fourth largest city in the U.S., a symbol of vanguard and future, capital of the motor industry and idyllic image of the American dream, has gone to put the nation on wheels to almost come to a sudden stop. It is estimated that there are more than 200,000 empty lots that could accommodate up to three times its current population. Some people see the salvation in urban agriculture, returning to convert the damaged areas of the city in fields and farmlands, as they existed before the industrial boom. For Rebecca Solnit, Detroit is a cautionary tale about the industrial cities built in the manner of boomtowns that emerged during the “gold fever”. “Most of mining towns were intended to be ephemeral. People thought that Detroit would be forever”[1], concludes the author. James Griffioen, who developed in the city the project The Disappearing City, in an article entitled Streets with no name[2] talks about the desire paths that have become to sprout in many green areas of the ramshackle Detroit as a clear evidence of how concrete is not able to impose its will on the human desire. It is at least curious that in the “capital of the engine” a large number of citizens travel on foot to meet their needs.

It should be noted the role of walking as a gesture of resistance. For the journalist Antonio Fraguas walking is an act seemingly useless and fruitless in mercantilist terms, since it doesn’t generate consumption or expense; but it is, however, “an act of reflection and of subversion in a world saturated with consumption and carbon dioxide”[3]. Eduardo Hurtado [4], in regard to the vagrant birds of Wandervogel, considers that the aforementioned German movement was a romantic reaction to the capitalist liberalism of that time that made walking something unproductive, to turn it, in this way, into a criticism of capitalism. Michel De Certeau says that “trailblazers in the jungles of the functionalist rationality [ …] trace ‘indeterminate trajectories ‘, that are apparently meaningless, since they do not cohere with the constructed, written and prefabricated space through which they move”[5]. Applying this to the issue before us, the impetus that initiates a path of desire arises from the utilization of a fissure, a crack in the system. It is interesting – and the author himself, in fact, does it so – to compare the act of talking to the one of walking, given that the second one is to the urban system what the enunciation is to language, and just as the speaker appropriates and assumes language, the wayfarer appropriates the topographic system. Walking is a spatial realization of place, and in that place there is an order with possibilities and prohibitions, that the walker updates, moves or even reinvents, “since the crossing, drifting away or improvisation of walking, privilege, transform or abandon spatial elements”[6]. That’s why walking must be considered as a daily practice of opposition and a potential act of resistance or rebellion.

But there is another modality of desire paths not less interesting: those intended to the pleasant journey, oblivious to rush, and even more similar to the paths that may arise in a forest or a completely natural environment. In Valencia, as in many other cities, there are functional roads or shortcuts, but we will look at the extraordinary condition of a specific area of the city.

When due to the great flood of 1957 it was decided to divert the Turia river to other bed, a large surface area that crossed the city from west to east was released. The first decision taken was to build on the old riverbed a great urban motorway that would connect the port with Madrid. It generated a huge citizen opposition, organized around a civic campaign under the slogan “The Llit del Turia is Nostre i Volem verd” [The bed of the Turia is ours and we want it green], claiming anxiously for the creation of public parks and green spaces. According to what Miguel Angel Villena wrote in an article of 1987, “Valencia is a city that barely has half square meter of green area per capita, against the recommendations of the international agencies that talk about ten”[7]. At the end of 1975 the effort to pave the old riverbed was ceased, in favour of the construction of a large urban park that meant the citizen’s victory.

This is an artificial place, domesticated, limited; in some way, also safe and, due to its deep-set, closed. Enclosure has always been, as Javier Maderuelo[8] points out, one of the essential characteristics of the garden, where two spaces coexist: the real and the symbolic; one marked by the contingencies of the physical world, and the other dominated by desire, perhaps the desire to go through the landscape, because throughout almost all this park – and especially some of its stretches – a great path of desire, which runs longitudinally in parallel generating an alternative to the marked or official itinerary, has been eroded. It’s a path surrounded by greenery, trees and diverse urban flora that seems to be searching for the encounter with nature; that is to say, a road that we can define as the effect of the desire when crossing the landscape.

Of course, it’s not necessary to have the existence of a painting or a photograph to be able to talk about a “landscape experience”, since there’s a possibility that – as pointed out by Federico Lopez Silvestre – “the landscape could be more the fruit of the route than of a snapshot, more an experience than a thing or an idea”[8], but without ignoring the gaze – which is indispensable for the existence of the landscape – both the one of the romantic observer in the distance in front of a nature that crushes him, or better, the one of the planeswalker field that passes through. As Otto Friedrich Bollnow wrote, “the walker is no longer separated from the landscape, which is no longer a panorama that parades around by his side; he really walks through it, becomes a part of it, it is assimilated by it”.[10]

Last November 21st, the exhibition “Líneas del Deseo” curated by Lorena Muñoz-Alonso and Bárbara Rodríguez-Muñoz, has opened in the Espai Cultural Caja Madrid in Barcelona.


[1] SOLNIT, Rebecca (2007). «Detroit arcadia: Exploring the post-American landscape». Harper´s magazine, july 2007. [Consulted on: June 25, 2012].

[2] GRIFFIOEN, James (2009). «Streets With No Name». Sweet Juniper, june 2009. [Consulted on: June 27, 2012].

[3] FRAGUAS, Antonio (2012). «Una vuelta a las andadas». El País, 18 de marzo de 2012. [Consulted on: March 24, 2012].

[4] Information about the project Errar Europa, a critical analysis of Europe starting from the act of walking, can be also found here. Eduardo Hurtado is also the author of Caminar como práctica de resistencia.

[5] DE CERTEAU, Michel (1988). The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press,pp. 34

[6] DE CERTEAU, Michel (1988), op. cit., p. 98.

[7] VILLENA, Miguel Ángel (1987). «Verde que te quiero verde». El País, 3 de marzo de 1987.[Consulted on: June 27, 2012].

[8] See MADERUELO, Javier (Dir.) (1997). El jardín como arte. Huesca: arte y naturaleza. Actas del III Curso. Huesca: Diputación de Huesca, p. 103.

[9] LÓPEZ SILVESTRE, Federico (Ed.) (2007). Paseantes, viaxeiros, paisaxes. Santiago de Compostela: Centro Galego de Arte Contemporánea, p. 211.

[10]BOLLNOW, Otto Friedrich (1969). Hombre y espacio. Barcelona: Editorial Labor, p. 108.