There is something of “a sonic axiom,” Clayton writes: “Amplified music sounds terrible in empty rooms. The less stuff there is in any given space, the more sound waves will bounce around the walls and ceiling and glass, losing definition as they both interrupt and double themselves. The resulting audio is smeary, muffled, and diffuse. However, when the same space fills with bodies moving around, those waves are absorbed, dampening those irksome reflections and allowing us to hear the sound more powerfully and in far greater detail.”
The effect is such that “the only thing that could make [music] sound better is people.” Bodies make music better—a second sonic axiom, as well as an optimist’s call for more social listening. In other words, your music will sound better the more people you experience it with. Hang out with others. Be bodies. Share.
In any case, Clayton’s piece went online a couple weeks ago but I find myself thinking about it almost daily, as the acoustic effects of the coronavirus lockdown become clear in cities around the world.
“As the pandemic brought much of the crush of daily life to a halt,” the New York Times reported, “microphones listening to cities around the world have captured human-made environments suddenly stripped of human sounds.” To put this in Clayton’s terms, cities are now spaces without bodies.
Think, for example, of Francesca Marciano describing “the new silences of Rome” in an age of coronavirus, or the New York Times itself pointing out how, in Manhattan, “the usual chaos of sounds—car horns, idle chatter and the rumble of subways passing frequently below—[has] been replaced by the low hum of wind and birds. Sound levels there fell by about five decibels, enough to make daytime sound more like a quiet night.”
There is an interesting paradox at work here, though, in terms of a widely reported belief that birds appear to be singing louder than ever before: birds are actually quieting down now, as they have less competition to out-sing. As the NYT writes, this is “because they no longer have to sing louder to be heard over the racket of the city, a behavior, known as the Lombard effect, that has been observed in other animals, too.”
I’ve written at length about sound and the city elsewhere, but one of my favorite pieces on this was a short profile of acoustic engineer Neill Woodger, then-head of Arup’s SoundLab, published in Dwell way back in June 2008.
There, Woodger made the point that, as we transition to electric vehicles, which will remove the sound of the internal combustion engine from our cities, we are being given a seemingly once-in-a-lifetime acoustic opportunity: to redesign urban space for sound, highlighting noises we might want to hear—birdsong, bells, distant train whistles—and helping to excise those we do not.
The coronavirus, it seems, has inadvertently set the stage for another such sonic opportunity. Our global urban lockdowns have all but stripped our cities of “bodies moving around,” in Clayton’s words, such that our streets now sound quite eerie, as if replaced by uncanny muted versions of themselves, or what Marciano calls “an atmosphere of peaceful suspension, as when it snows and everything is wrapped in cotton wool.”
Much has been made of how temporary design interventions in response to COVID-19—things like wider sidewalks, outdoor cafes, streets liberated from cars and opened up to children, families, and the elderly—might become permanent.
In this context, what permanent acoustic shifts might we hear coming from all this, as well?
2. Amazon wants to put robots in every home. “The retail and cloud computing giant has embarked on an ambitious, top-secret plan to build a domestic robot, according to people familiar with the plans. Codenamed ‘Vesta,’ after the Roman goddess of the hearth, home and family,” the robot “could be a sort of mobile Alexa,” Businessweek speculates, “accompanying customers in parts of their home where they don’t have Echo devices. Prototypes of the robots have advanced cameras and computer vision software and can navigate through homes like a self-driving car.”
3. A woman in Austin, Texas, went missing in 2015. Without monthly payments, her house was eventually seized and sold by the bank—but the home’s new owners found the skeletal remains of a body inside one of the walls back in March. It was the missing woman. “In the attic, there was a broken board that led down to the space” where the skeleton was found, a coroner’s spokesperson explained. “Law enforcement thinks she may have been up in the attic and fell through the attic floor.” Horrifically, whether she was killed by the fall or remained alive, trapped inside the wall, is unclear.
4. At an event here in Los Angeles a few weeks ago, artist and writer Julia Christensen drew my attention to officially recognized “former constellations,” or named star groups that are no longer considered referentially viable.
5. The Roman monetary system left a planetary-archaeological trace in Greenland’s ice sheet, according to Rob Meyer of The Atlantic. “A team of archaeologists, historians, and climate scientists have constructed a history of Rome’s lead pollution,” Meyer explains, “which allows them to approximate Mediterranean economic activity from 1,100 b.c. to 800 a.d. They found it hiding thousands of miles from the Roman Forum: deep in the Greenland Ice Sheet, the enormous, miles-thick plate of ice that entombs the North Atlantic island.” With this data, they have “reconstructed year-by-year economic data documenting the rise and fall of the Roman Republic and Empire.” Oddly enough, this means the Greenland Ice Sheet is a landscape-scale archive of Roman financial data.
6. Speaking of economic data mined from indirect sources, “satellite imagery that tracks changes in the level of nighttime lighting within and between countries over time” might also reveal whether countries are lying about the strengths of their economies. According to researcher Luis R. Martinez, “increases in nighttime lighting generally track with increases in GDP,” and this becomes of interest when lighting levels don’t correspond with officially given numbers. Of course, this is not the first time that satellite imagery has been used to estimate economic data.
7. “Today our experience of the night differs significantly from that of our ancestors,” Nancy Gonlin and April Nowell write for Sapiens. “Before they mastered fire, early humans lived roughly half their lives in the dark.” Cue the rise of “archaeological inquiries into the night,” or what Gonlin and Nowell have evocatively named the “archaeology of night.”
8. There was an amazing article by Jake Halpern published in The New Yorker two years ago about Nazi gold fever in Poland and the incredible amount of amateur detective operations there dedicated to finding an alleged buried fortune. It’s a wild mix of abandoned WWII bunkers, secret underground cities in the forest, and urban legends of untold wealth. It turns out, however, there is a (vaguely) similar obsession with lost or buried gold in northwestern Pennsylvania: “For decades, treasure hunters in Pennsylvania have suspected that there is a trove of Civil War gold lost in a rural forest in the northwestern part of the state,” the New York Times reports. “The story of the gold bars was pieced together from old documents, a map and even a mysterious note found decades ago in a hiding place on the back of a bed post in Caledonia,” the paper explains.
9. People are drawn to forests for all sorts of reasons. As Alex Mar wrote last autumn for the Virginia Quarterly Review, the Slender Man phenomenon—that inspired two young girls to try to murder a classmate—also had a forest element. “Girls lured out into the dark woods—this is the stuff of folk tales from so many countries,” Mar writes, “a New World fear of the Puritans, an image at the heart of witchcraft and the occult, timeless.” Mar points out that, after the attempted murder, the two girls began heading “to Wisconsin’s Nicolet National Forest on foot, nearly 200 miles north. They were convinced that, once there, if they pushed farther and farther into the nearly 700,000-acre forest, they would find the mansion in which their monster [Slender Man] dwells and he would welcome them.” The whole article is an interesting look at childhood, folklore, and the sometimes dark allure of the wild.
10. More treasure hunts: is there a cache of buried armaments, stolen from a National Guard armory in 1970, hidden somewhere in Amesbury, Massachusetts? According to a commenter on the Cast Boolits forum, William Gilday, who once “led an assault on a National Guard armory in Newburyport” and who spent nearly half of his life in prison for killing a police officer, confessed on his death bed that he buried guns and ammunition stolen from the armory somewhere in his hometown of Amesbury. “It’s one of those ‘what if’ things,” the commenter continues. “I’ve known about the confession for years, and I walk my dog in the ‘suspected’ vicinity just about every day. The problem is that the ‘authorities’ claim that everything that was stolen was recovered. But, a few weeks ago, I emailed a local radio talk show host who was involved in the death bed confession and I asked her if she thought that stolen items really had been buried in my town and she replied, ‘Yes…do you know where they are?’”
11. “A dispute between Serbia and Kosovo has disrupted the electric power grid for most of the Continent, making certain kinds of clocks—many of those on ovens, in heating systems and on radios—run up to six minutes slow,” the New York Times reported back in March. “The fluctuation in the power supply is infinitesimally small—not nearly enough to make a meaningful difference for most powered devices—and if it were a brief disturbance, the effect on clocks might be too little to worry about.” But this six-minute lag is enough to cause subtle effects in people’s lives. A bad first novel could be written about slow clocks, distant political disputes, and some sort of disastrous event—a missed train, a skipped meeting—in the narrator’s personal life.
12. The above story reminds me of the suspicion last year that Russia was using some sort of large-scale GPS jamming device in the Black Sea. “Reports of satellite navigation problems in the Black Sea suggest that Russia may be testing a new system for spoofing GPS,” David Hambling reported for New Scientist. “This could be the first hint of a new form of electronic warfare available to everyone from rogue nation states to petty criminals.” The reason I say this is because you can easily imagine a scenario where someone is driving around, totally lost, receiving contradictory if not frankly nonsensical navigation instructions, and it’s because they are an unwitting, long-distance victim of geographic weaponry being used in a war zone far away.
Color Space focuses “on working with new digital scanning techniques to draw space through the lens of color,” the accompanying text explains. “Relying on the camera as a simple perspective-machine, spatial coordinates and RGB values are combined to produce digital environments that connect color and space in a form of architectural pointillism.”
For example, Vobis writes there, Giorgio Vasari once “characterized a fundamental split between drawing and color in artistic production, linking disegno to Apollonian rationalism and colore to Dionysian intuition and lack of control. Disegno has been taken up as the primary mode of architectural design ever since”—but color, reduced now merely to “a surface treatment,” Vobis adds, “deals directly with regions and gradients, fields and potential environments. By reconsidering colore in conjunction with disegno, fresh possibilities for architecture arise.”
[Image: Veduta dell’Anfiteatro Flavio detto il Colosseo (1776), by Giovanni Battista Piranesi; courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art].
While going through a bunch of old books for another impending cross-country move, I found myself re-reading an interesting detail in The Colosseum by Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard.
In a discussion of that ruined megastructure, now symbolic of the entirety of ancient Rome, Hopkins and Beard point out that the colosseum was once home to a rather unexpected ecosystem, a displaced environment that did not correspond to the natural world outside its crumbling walls.
“For whatever reason—because of the extraordinary micro-climate within its walls,” they write, “or, as some thought more fancifully, because of the seeds that fell out of the fur of the exotic animals displayed in the ancient arena—an enormous range of plants, including some extraordinary rarities, thrived for centuries in the building ruins.”
The idea of entire landscapes, even alien ecologies populated with otherwise unrecognizable species, lying hidden in the fur of exotic animals, gradually encouraged to flourish by the weird winds of an architecturally induced micro-climate, is absolutely fascinating to contemplate. You could think of them as animal ballast gardens, stuck like burrs on the unseen surfaces of the everyday world, waiting to prosper.
The Anthropocene is much older than today’s conversations seem able to admit; it began in patches, sprouting here and there in the broken stones of old buildings, transported across continents one seed at a time until the entire planet now is ablaze with artificial landscapes, a planet out of joint.
[Image: Inside Tadao Ando’s studio in Osaka; photo by Kaita Takemura, via designboom].
Somewhere, despite the weather here, it’s spring. If you’re like me, that means you’re looking for something new to read. Here is a selection of books that have crossed my desk over the past few months—though, as always, I have not read every book listed here. I have, however, included only books that have caught my eye or seem particularly well-fit for BLDGBLOG readers due to their focus on questions of landscape, design, architecture, urbanism, and more.
For previous book round-ups, meanwhile, don’t miss the back-links at the bottom of this post.
Daniel Jütte’s The Strait Gate seems largely to have slipped under the radar, but it’s my pick for the most interesting architectural book of the last year (it came out in 2015). It has a deceptively simple premise. In it, Jütte tells the story of the door in European history: the door’s ritual symbolism, its legal power, its artistic possibilities, even its betrayal through basic crimes such as trespassing and burglary. He calls it “a study of doors, gates, and keys and a history of the hopes and anxieties that Western culture has attached to them”; it is a way of “looking at history through doors.”
Jütte describes locks (and their absence), city walls (and their destruction), marriage (and the literal threshold a newly joined couple must cross), medicinal rituals (connected “with the idea of passing through a doorway”), even the doorway to Hell (and its miraculous sundering). You know you’re reading a good book, I’d suggest, when something pops up on nearly every page that you need to mark with a note for coming back to later or that gives you some unexpected new historical or conceptual detail you want to write about more yourself. An entire seminar could be based on this one book alone.
Witches of America is simultaneously an introduction to alternative religious practices in the United States—specifically, contemporary paganism, broadly understood—and a first-person immersion in those movements and their cultures. As such, the book is a personal narrative of attraction to—but also ongoing frustration with—the world found outside mainstream beliefs or creeds.
As such, it ostensibly falls beyond the pale of BLDGBLOG, yet the book is worth including here for what it reveals about the spatial settings of these new and, for me, surprisingly vibrant communities. There is the abandoned churchyard in New Orleans, for example, now repurposed—and redecorated—by a group of 21st-century acolytes of Aleister Crowley; there is the remote stone circle built in Northern California by what I would describe as a post-hippie couple with access to land-moving equipment; there is the otherwise indistinguishable collegiate house in central Massachusetts where future “priests” train in the shadow of New England’s peculiar history with witch trials; there is the corporate convention center in downtown San Jose; the overgrown tombs of the Mississippi Delta, where we meet a rather extraordinary—and macabre—burglar; there is even what sounds like an Airbnb rental gone unusually haywire in the hills of New Hampshire.
While descriptions of these settings are certainly not the subject of Alex Mar’s book, it is nonetheless fascinating to see the world of the esoteric, the otherworldly, or, yes, the occult presented in the context of our own everyday surroundings, with all of their often-mundane dimensions and atmosphere. This alone should make this an interesting read, even for those who might not share the author’s curiosity about the “witches of America.”
The Work of the Dead looks at the role not just of death but specifically of dead bodies in shaping our cities, our landscapes, our battlefields, and our imaginations. The question of what to do with the human corpse—how to venerate it, but also how to do dispose of it and how to protect ourselves from its perceived pestilence—has led, and continues to lead, to any number of spatial solutions.
Laqueur writes that “there seems to be a universally shared feeling not only that there is something deeply wrong about not caring for the dead body in some fashion, but also that the uncared-for body, no matter the cultural norms, is unbearable. The corpse demands the attention of the living.”
Graveyards, catacombs, monuments, charnel grounds: these are landscapes designed in response to human mortality, reflective of a culture’s attitude to personal disappearance and emotional loss. While author Thomas Laqueur’s approach is often dry (and long-winded), the book’s thorough framing of its subject lends it an appropriate weight for something as universal as the end of life.
Andrea Wulf’s biography of Alexander von Humboldt has justifiably won the author a series of literary awards. Its subject matter is by no means light, yet the book has the feel of an adventure tale, pulling double duty as the life-story of a European scientist and explorer but also as a history of scientific ideas, ranging from the origins of color and the nature of speciation to some of the earliest indications of global atmospheric shifts—that is, of the possibility of climate change.
Natural selection, cosmology, volcanoes—even huge South American lakes full of electric eels—the book is a great reminder of the importance of curiosity and travel, not to mention the value of an inhuman world against which we should regularly measure ourselves (and come out lacking). “In a world where we tend to draw a sharp line between the sciences and the arts, between the subjective and the objective,” Wulf writes, “Humboldt’s insight that we can only truly understand nature by using our imagination makes him a visionary.”
You might recall seeing Stefan Helmreich’s work described here before—specifically his earlier book, Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas—but Sounding the Limits of Life is arguably even more relevant to many of the ongoing themes explored here on the blog.
In his new book, Helmreich outlines a kind of acoustic ecology of the oceans, placing deep-sea creatures and shallow reefs alike in a world of immersive sound and ambient noise, now all too often interrupted by the deafening pings of naval sonar. He also uses the seemingly alien environment of the seas, however, to expand the conversation to include speculation about what life might be like elsewhere, using maritime biology as a launching point for discussing SETI, artificial digital lifeforms, Martian fossils (from Martian seas), and much more.
It’s a book about how our “definition of ‘life’ is becoming unfastened from its familiar grounding in earthly organisms,” Helmreich writes, as well as an attempt to explore “what life is, has been, and may yet become—whether that life is simulated, microbial, extraterrestrial, cetacean, anthozoan, planetary, submarine, oceanic, auditory, or otherwise.”
I had been looking forward to this book, exploring the relationship between mapping and the world, ever since reading an op-ed by the author, Greg Milner, in The New York Times about “death by GPS.” Milner’s book is specifically about the Global Positioning System and its power over our lives: how GPS shapes our sense of direction and geography, what it has done for navigation on a planetary scale, and even how it has transformed the way we grow our global food supply.
Design theorist Benjamin Bratton’s magnum opus is a fever-dream of computational geopolitics, “accidental megastructures,” cloud warfare, predictive mass surveillance, speculative anthropology, digital futurism, infrastructural conspiracy theory—a complete list would be as long as Bratton’s already substantial book, and would also overlap quite well with the utopian/dystopian science fiction it often seems inspired by.
In Bratton’s hands, these abstract topics become, at times, almost incantatory—as if William S. Burroughs had taken a day job with the RAND Corporation. As information technology continues to exhibit geopolitical effects, Bratton writes, “borderlines are rewritten, dashed, curved, erased, automated; algorithms count as continental divides; (…) interfaces upon interfaces accumulate into networks, which accumulate into territories, which accumulate into geoscapes (…); the flat, looping planes of jurisdiction multiply and overlap into towered, interwoven stacks…” He writes of “supercomputational utopias” and the “ambient geopolitics of consumable electrons.”
It’s a mind-bending and utterly unique take on technology’s intersection with—and forced mutation of—governance.
Jonathon Keats’s new book simultaneously attempts to debunk and to clarify some of the cultural myths surrounding Buckminster Fuller, a man who described himself, Keats reminds us, as a “comprehensive anticipatory design scientist.” For fans of Fuller’s work, you’ll find the usual suspects here—his jewel-like geodesic domes, his prescient-if-ungainly Dymaxion homes—but also a chapter about Fuller’s work with and influence on the U.S. military in an age of nuclear war games and “domino theories” overshadowing Vietnam.
Art historian Jessica Maier’s book suggests that changes in the way the city of Rome was mapped over the centuries simultaneously reveal larger shifts in European cultural understandings of space and geography. Her argument hinges on a sequence of surveys and maps chosen not just for their visual or cartographic power—which is considerable, as the book has many gorgeous reproductions of old engraved city maps, views, and diagrams—but for their influence on later geographic projects to come.
Broadly speaking, the documents Maier discusses are meant to be seen as passing from being artistic, narrative, or abstractly emblematic of the idea of greater “Rome” to a more rigorous, modern approach based in measurement, not mythology.
This widely accepted historical narrative begins to crumble, however, as Maier puts pressure on it, especially through the example of Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s etching of the Campus Martius. This is an image of Rome that “was neither documentary nor reconstructive,” Maier suggests, and that thus had more in common with those earlier, more folkloristic emblems of the city. In today’s vocabulary, we might even describe Piranesi’s Campus Martius as an example of “design fiction.”
This is a remarkable and often beautifully written history of modern Jerusalem, as told from the point of view of its architecture. Jerusalem is a city, author Adina Hoffman writes, that “has a funny way of burying much of what it builds.” It is a place of “burials, erasures, and attempts to mark political turf by means of culturally symbolic architecture and hastily rewritten maps.” The book, she adds, “is an excavation in search of the traces of three Jerusalems and the singular builders who envisioned them.”
Indeed, the book is structured around the lives of three architects. The story of German Jewish designer Erich Mendelsohn—probably most well-known today for his futurist “Einstein Tower” in Potsdam—looms large, as do the lives of Austen St. Barbe Harrison, “Palestine’s chief government architect,” and the “possibly Greek, possibly Arab” Spyro Houris.
Hoffman’s work is a mix of the archaeological, the biographical, and even the geopolitical, as individual building sites—even specific businesses and kilns—become microcosms of territorial significance, embedded in and misused by nationalistic narratives that continue to reach far beyond the boundaries of the city.
City of Demons looks at three cities—Antioch, Jerusalem, and Milan—in the context of early Christianity, when the streets and back alleys of each metropolis were still lined with temples dedicated to older gods and when alleged opportunities for spiritual corruption seemed to lie around every corner. Historian Dayna Kalleres writes that the cities of late antiquity were all but contaminated with demons: imagined malignant forces that had to be repelled by Christian ritual and belief. Cities, in other words, had to be literally exorcized by a practice of “urban demonology,” driven out of the metropolis by such things as church-building schemes and public processions.
While the book is, of course, an academic history, it is also evocative of something much more literary and thrilling, which is a nearly-forgotten phase of Western urban history when forces of black magic lurked in nearly every doorway and civilians faced security threats not from terrorists but from “the marginal, ambiguous, and protean,” from these hidden demonological influences that the righteous were compelled to expunge.
City of Thorns looks at the Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya through various lenses: economic, political, and humanitarian, to be sure, but also ethical and anthropological, even to a certain extent architectural.
While author Ben Rawlence’s goal is not, thankfully, to discuss the camp in terms of its design, he does nevertheless offer a crisp descriptive introduction to life in a sprawling settlement such as this, from its cinemas and police patrols to its health facilities and homes. “Our myths and religions are steeped in the lore of exile,” he writes, “and yet we fail to treat the living examples of that condition as fully human.” The camp, we might say in this context, is the urbanism of exile.
I went through a nearly three-year spate of reading law-enforcement memoirs and books about urban policing while researching my own book, A Burglar’s Guide to the City. The excellent Ghettoside by Jill Leovy came out at the very end of that peculiar literary diet—but it also showed up the rest of those books quite handily.
Ghettoside is bracing, sympathetic, and emotionally nuanced in its week-by-week portrayal of LAPD homicide detectives investigating the murder of a fellow detective’s teenage son. Much larger than this, however, is Leovy’s dedication throughout the book to sorting through the overlapping mazes of media disinformation that have turned “black-on-black” crime into nothing more than a dismissive explanation of something genuinely horrific, a way to paper-over “racist interpretations of homicide statistics,” in reviewer Hari Kunzru’s words. More damningly, Ghettoside insists, this ongoing wave of murders and revenge-killings is not some new urban state of nature, but is entirely capable of being stopped.
Indeed, Leovy clearly and soberly shows through years of L.A. homicide reporting that today’s epidemic of violence primarily targeting African-American males is due to a failure of law enforcement—or, in her words, “where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic.” Yet the answer, she explains, is more policing, not less. As an endorsement of effective, community-centered police work, the book is unparalleled.
No matter what side you think you might be on in the growing—and entirely unnecessary—divide between police and the populace they are hired to serve, this is a superb guide to the complexities of law enforcement in contemporary Los Angeles and, by extension, in every American metropolis.
Christopher Marcinkoski’s book is a fascinating exploration of the relationships between “volatile fiscal events” and “speculative urbanization,” with a specific focus on a cluster of failed urban projects in Spain. Marcincoski defines speculative urbanization as “the construction of new urban infrastructure or settlement for primarily political or economic purposes, rather than to meet real (as opposed to artificially projected) demographic or market demand.”
Although the author jokes that his book is actually quite late to the conversation—discussing the spatial fallout of a global financial crisis that was already five years old by the time he began writing—it is actually a remarkably timely study, as well as a sad assessment of how easily architectural production can become ensnared in economic forces far more powerful than humanism or design.
Lebbeus Woods was both a friend and a personal hero of mine; his blog, which lasted from 2007 to shortly before his death in 2012, has now been collated, edited, and preserved by Princeton Architectural Press, with more than 300 individual entries. While primarily text, the books also includes several black-and-white images, including pages from his otherworldly sketchbooks. Thoughts on “wild buildings,” war, borders, September 11th, the now also deceased designer Zaha Hadid, and Woods’s own intriguing mix of cinematic/fictional and analytic/documentary modes of writing abound.
I’ve written about Dutch photographer Gerco de Ruijter fairly extensively in the past—most recently in a piece about “grid corrections”—so I was thrilled to see that some of his aerial work has been collected in a new, beautifully realized edition. It collects photos of stabilized coastlines and tree farms, grids and borders.
“Is the wilderness wild?” an accompanying text by Dirk van Weelden asks. “Cities and industrial farming make it seem man is in perfect control,” van Weelden continues later in the essay. “The reality is far more interesting. (…) The truly uncontrollable forces of nature are mutation, chance, hybridity, and contamination,” all subjects de Ruijter’s photos document at various scales, in every season.
In the guise of what looks—and even, to some extent, physically feels—like a textbook there is hidden a fantastic study of how buildings relate to their surroundings.
More precisely, Caroline O’Donnell’s investigation of “architecture and site” hopes to reveal how, during the design process, the context of a building affects that building’s final form. Questions of autonomy (do buildings need to reflect or refer to their settings at all?) and generation (can the essence of a site be “extracted” to give shape to the final building?) are woven through a series of essays about ugliness, architectural history, colonialism, monstrosity, and more.
John Thackara is already widely known for his advocacy of “sustainability” in design—a word I deliberately put in scare-quotes because Thackara himself would prefer, I presume, a term more like transformative or even revolutionary design. That is, design that can flip the world on its head, not through violence, but through unexpected and strategic solutions to problems that often remain undiagnosed or overlooked. This new, short book looks at everything from mass transit to internet access, clothing manufacture to desertification, aging to fresh water, seeking nothing less than “a new concept of the world.” “The core value of this emerging economy is stewardship,” he writes, “rather than extraction.”
This book, crisply designed by Shaz Madani, documents an exhibition and debate series of the same name hosted by the Museum of Modern Art. Presented here as a combination of short essays by various authors—myself included—and provocative design objects, products, and public events, the aim is both to startle and to moderate. That is, the book seeks to bring together conflicting sides of often quite fierce arguments about the role of design, including how design can be used to mitigate or even, on occasion, to perpetuate violence. There are 3D-printed guns and a short history of the AK-47 alongside examples of prison architecture, classified surveillance aircraft, slaughterhouse diagrams, and border walls, to name but a few.
Finally, although I have mentioned it many times before, I do also have a new book of my own that just came out last week, called A Burglar’s Guide to the City; if you’d prefer to sample the goods before purchasing, however, you can check out an excerpt in The New York Times Magazine. But please consider supporting BLDGBLOG by ordering a copy—not least because then we can talk about burglary, architecture, and heists…
The show “explores Roman infrastructure and ingenuity, all below ground level”:
We journeyed via the icy, crystal clear waters of subterranean aqueducts that feed the Trevi fountain and two thousand year old sewers which still function beneath the Roman Forum today, to decadent, labyrinthine catacombs. Our laser scans map these hidden treasures, revealing for the first time the complex network of tunnels, chambers and passageways without which Rome could not have survived as a city of a million people.
The results, as usual, are both breathtaking and bizarre.
The surface of the city is scraped away, a kind of archaeological dermabrasion, to reveal sprawling networks of knotted masonry and old corridors spliced together in a translucent labyrinth less below than somehow in the city.
Indeed, the pamphlet itself is as much architecture as it is archaeology—perhaps even suggesting a new series of historical site documents someone should produce called Pamphlet Archaeology—looking at wells, baths, cisterns, and spherical refrigeration chambers, in various states of ruin.
All of these are representationally difficult spaces, Ray explains, either curving away from the viewer in a manner that is nearly impossible to photograph or presenting constrictions of perspective that make even wide-angle photographs inadequate.
Ray writes that the spatial complexity of the buildings, quarries, basements, and other excavations that she explores are, in a sense, an entirely different kind of space: knotty, interconnected, unstable. “They were also spaces,” she writes, “which seemed to have the ability to ‘flip-flop’ in and out of multiple spatial or constructional readings.”
What appears to be near is revealed to be far; what seems far away is suddenly adjacent.
Ray uses the metaphor of a “hyper-camera” here in order to draw comparisons between her composite photography and what she calls “a kind of cubist multiple view,” one where “the frame might succumb to the taper of perspective into deep space, or it may counter it, or build it into something else altogether.”
“In these composite views,” she adds, “the photograph can record the enactment of space as one maneuvers or roams through it with the eye or body.”
While Ray’s photographic approach is technologically, materially, and even visually very different from the work of ScanLAB, the two projects share a great deal, conceptually and methodologically. In fact, if many of the above quotations were applied, instead, to the images seen in the present post, they would seem to be the appropriate descriptions.
[Image: In the ruined basements of architectural simultaneity; ScanLAB Projects and the BBC].
ScanLAB’s laser work seems to fulfill many of the promises of Ray’s composite photography, offering multiple, overlapping perspectives simultaneously whilst also eliminating the problem of the horizon or ground plane: you can thus look straight-on into the basement of an ancient structure without losing sight of the upper floors or chambers.
The city is split in two, made into an architectural section of itself that is then animated, made volumetric, turned into Ray’s “enactment of space as one maneuvers or roams through it with the eye or body.”
The show airs tonight on the BBC. Check out ScanLAB’s website for more info, and definitely consider picking up a copy of Mary-Ann Ray’s book; it remains one of my favorites and has actually become more, not less, topical since its original publication.
Describing the origins of Rome, a city built on the Tiber River, Highet writes that the landscape there was once as wild as any to be found on earth—indeed, offering evidence that writers seem consistently to fantasize of finding a new tropics in the very ground of Europe, Rome was founded in “those early idyllic days, when the Tiber was as primitive as the Upper Amazon today.”
Highet goes on to describe the city’s long-term devolution into the “heap of ruins” it became in the Middle Ages, a city “earth-choked, mutilated, silent,” one where weeded streets were lined with “the titanic palaces of later monarchs—arches which now look not so much like relics of human architecture as fragments of mountain-ranges into which dwellings have been built.”
“In those days,” Highet writes, a variant form of “primitive” landscape emerged, one in which forests returned and plants ran riot, when “Rome was a place of grassy ruins and elegant palaces and whispering melancholy churches, little changed from the strange half-visionary city immortalized in the engravings of Piranesi: tall pillars standing among rocks and mounds which prove to be the fallen walls and earthquake-shattered arches of some vast mansion; huge fields in which a few peasants stand gossiping while their goats scramble among carved pilasters, and which are at a great distance revealed as being, not fields, but the overgrown floors of temples and baths; lonely obelisks once designed to perpetuate some Roman glory, and now purposeless, mighty circular tombs converted during the Middle Ages into fortresses; hills which covered buried palaces.” The ruin, here, “earth-choked, mutilated, silent,” could thus be seen as a vertiginous act of misrecognition: architecture mistaken for the surface of the earth.
Even the supersized spatial affectations of someone like Emperor Nero, Highet continues, could not ultimately resist the inhuman pull of insects and vegetation that settled onto Rome: “so many centuries after Nero shocked his contemporaries by insisting on making a private landscape in the midst of a crowded metropolis, the ruins of his palace have gone back to nature. Bees hum through the roofless corridors; flowering weeds flourish among the imperial brickwork; from the sunlight above we hear the voices of children running and laughing on the grassy slopes.”
Highet was writing nearly half a century ago, but it’s still accurate that, as he writes, visitors to the city are able to “feel the ephemeral happiness of summer flowers and summer birds all around, to enjoy the fresh warm air and the genial quietness, and to reflect that below, buried beneath the very roots of the trees, clogged with hundreds of tons of earth and fallen masonry, shrouded in the darkness of many disastrous centuries, there lie some of the foundations of our world”—foundations built and implanted when the region was “Amazonian” in its humid and unsettled wildness.
The Crypta Balbi is a relatively recent, low-profile addition to Rome’s museum compendium. It’s billed variously—and confusingly—as a museum of archaeology, a museum of ancient Rome, and a museum of the Dark Ages. All of these descriptions are, in fact, cumulatively accurate, because the site is actually a city-block-sized core sample of Rome, threaded through with staircases, tunnels, and elevated walkways for visitors.
Crypta Balbi is located in an irregular pentagonal plot in the Campus Martius, an area that, unlike many regions in the ancient city, remained largely inhabited through the Middle Ages. In fact, according to Filippo Coarelli’s authoritative Rome and Environs: An Archaeological Guide, the Campus Martius was originally supposed to be kept free of buildings altogether and “reserved for military and athletic exercises.” However, historian Suetonius describes the city’s gradual encroachment, explaining that: “During his reign Augustus often encouraged the leading men of Rome to adorn the city with new monuments or to restore and embellish old ones.”
[Image: A satellite view of the city-block core sample, via Google Maps].
As a successful military general and favored member of Augustus‘s entourage, L. Cornelius Balbus the Younger stepped up to the plate, building a theater and attached crypta—a rectangular porticoed walkway where the theater’s scenery could be stored and around which the public might stroll, protected from the elements. Apparently, the Balbi Theater’s grand opening in 13 BC took place during one of the Tiber’s regular floods—meaning that it was, briefly, only accessible by boat. Nonetheless, the Theater and Crypta thrived, and they are depicted intact on a chunk of the Severan Forma Urbis, an amazing 60′-x-43′ incised marble map of the city created for public display in 203 AD.
Eventually, Rome’s earthquakes, fires, barbarian raids, and radical population shrinkage (from a million people in 367 AD to just 400,000 less than century later) combined with architectural re-use and the passage of time to take their toll. There isn’t much of the original Crypta left to see—a reconstructed stucco arch, and the massive travertine and tufa walls that now serve as foundations for modern houses in Via delle Botteghe Oscure and Via dei Delfini.
[Image: A fragment of the Forma Urbis, showing the Balbi Theater. For more on the Forma Urbis, visit the seemingly great but non-Mac-friendly Stanford Digital Forma Urbis Romae project].
However, layered above the Crypta’s original floor plan are traces of this city block’s shifting usage—a condensed narrative of Rome’s destruction, accretion, and evolution. It is this series of transformations and reuses of both the Crypta and the urban space it occupies, rather than the fragmentary ancient ruins, that the museum aims to make visible. Like a series of stills from an impossible time-lapse film, the visitor who descends to the basement or climbs to the third floor can see this awkward cuboid chunk of city ruined, reshaped, reused, and reoriented over two thousand years of urban history.
Equally amazing are the expansive historical detours prompted by even trace elements in the urban core sample. For example, as early as the time of Hadrian, a “monumental” public latrine was inserted into a section of the Crypta. From the quantity of copper coins that fell, and weren’t worth recovering, archaeologists have extrapolated the amount of coinage in circulation in Western Europe during the latrine’s life-span. (Astonishingly, it was only in the 19th century that small change was to be this common again in Western Europe).
[Image: Museum display panel diagramming five distinct road levels wandering across the Crypta’s ruins (apologies for the quick snapshot)].
Two centuries later and a few feet higher, two graves bear witness to a city in ruins between the 5th and 7th centuries, as the prohibition against burial within city walls lapsed, and the dead were buried singly in abandoned buildings or beside roads. Ironically, in a museum that preserves the urban structures of each era equally, during the medieval period the Crypta actually housed one of the city’s largest lime-kilns, where the marble inscriptions, statues, and building blocks of classical Rome were brought to be crushed and melted down into lime (a key ingredient in the cement needed to build the city’s new Christian architecture).
In the 1940s, the convent that had occupied the site for the past four hundred years was demolished for a planned new Mussolini-era construction, which thankfully never materialized. Finally, in the 1980s, the Soprintendenza archeologica di Roma authorized the excavation of the abandoned city block; and, in 2002, the northwest corner was opened to the public, even as work continues on the rest of the site.
Aside from the execution, which is excellent, the very idea of a museum built into an urban core sample—a stratigraphic investigation of the shifting use of space over time—is incredibly exciting to me. Imagine a similar hollowing-out of urban space in Istanbul, Cairo, or Paris—residents as disoriented as tourists as they clamber through the hidden foundations and forms woven underneath and around their own city.
In New York, this might even be an idea whose time has come: as The New Yorker pointed out in December 2008, the expiration of a residential construction tax-abatement law encouraged builders to dig foundation trenches early, so as to secure better financing, but the subsequent recession has put many of these projects on hold, semi-permanently.
“What will become of the pits?” asks Nick Paumgarten, speculating that they could turn into “half-wild swimming holes, like the granite quarries of New England” or even “urban tar pits, entrapping and preserving in garbage and white brick dust the occasional unlucky passerby.” These are both attractive ideas, but with a little expenditure on zip-lines, elevated walkways, and interpretative signage, visitors could circulate around several millennia of Manhattan’s history, from the collision of the North African and American continental plates to the tangled evolution of New York’s water mains, via retreating glaciers and the housing bubble.
Meanwhile, back in Rome and less than a mile away from the Crypta, engineers have teamed up with the Soprintendenza to sink several new urban cores, this time in the guise of excavating the elevator and escalator shafts for a new subway line.
Angelo Bottini, director of the Soprintendenza, can hardly hide his excitement, telling the Wall Street Journal that, under usual circumstances, “We never get to dig in the center of Rome.” Sadly, it seems as though most of the finds will be documented and then destroyed, due to a shortage of museum space and the already astronomical construction costs (an estimated $375 million for one mile of track in the city center).
But how amazing would it be if the new subway station walkways and escalator shafts could themselves become Crypta Balbi-like museums of buried stratigraphy? Rome would be riddled with urban cores, awestruck tourists ascending and descending through sampled spatial histories across the city. Meanwhile the Sistine Chapel lies miraculously empty…
The speakers covered a lot of terrain—so, instead of a full recap of the event, the following list simply explores some of the broader ideas, responses, and questions about urban agriculture that stood out from the day’s presentations.
1. Becoming public policy The event was introduced and moderated by David Barrie, a sustainable development consultant, who framed the day as a collective opportunity to brainstorm ways in which urban agriculture could be moved from mere “sustainable accessory” to become a standard practice of both everyday life and city design. Interestingly, Mark Brearley, Head of Design at Design for London (DfL) and the day’s first speaker, provided confirmation of Barrie’s diagnosis, confessing that food production was a recent add-on to many of their open space projects. Why? “Because people were asking us about it,” he said.
Brearley’s presentation was an overview of DfL’s hundreds of urban regeneration and infrastructure improvement projects; these are, in themselves, interesting but, in aggregate, somewhat exhausting. However, as an office of the London Development Agency, working on behalf of the Mayor of London, Brearley was able to provide a fascinating insight into some of the current institutional priorities that need to be satisfied before urban agriculture can become a standard part of London public policy. For example, DfL’s main interest in food production today is in terms of its “public engagement potential” and their primary stumbling block is how to measure the scaleability of local initiatives. Any London-based urban agriculture projects hoping for a mayoral blessing, take note!
2. Food is a design tool The second speaker was Carolyn Steel, author of the excellent book Hungry City: How Food Shapes Our Lives. Hungry City traces how food has shaped both the city and its productive hinterland throughout history, from the Sumerian city of Ur to today’s London via the markets and gates of ancient Rome. Steel provides a wide-ranging historical look of food production, importation, regulation, and culture, before putting forward her own intriguing and potentially revolutionary proposition: what would happen if we consciously used food as a design tool to create a “sitopic” city? Steel’s coinage here, sitopia—from “sitos” (food) and “topos” (place)—is derived from her realization that “food shares with utopia the quality of being cross-disciplinary… capable of transforming not just landscapes, but political structures, public spaces, social relationships, [and] cities.” And because “food is necessary,” a sitopian city (unlike its utopian cousin) would remain tied to reality and of universal relevance.
The quotations above come from Steel’s book, however, rather than her lecture; twenty-five minutes was enough time to provide fascinating examples of food’s role in shaping cities and urban life, but, sadly, not enough to explain (let alone explore) further thoughts about food’s use as an urban planning tool. More to come soon, I hope, on this topic…
[Image: Ebenezer Howard’s original scheme for the Garden Cities of To-morrow shows a landscape reimagined in terms of food production and supply. As Carolyn Steel explains in her own book Hungry City, Howard’s plans relied on land reform that was never carried out, and the garden cities of today (Letchworth, Welwyn, etc.) are, as a result, little more than green dormitory suburbs].
3. Partnerships as infrastructure Anna Terzi, who runs London Food Link’s small grants scheme for Sustain, was the day’s third speaker; she described one of their current projects, demonstrating how key insights from both Mark Brearley’s and Carolyn Steel’s talks might look in action.
Sustain (a nonprofit alliance for better food and farming) is currently poised to create borough-wide institutional change by partnering with Camden Council and Camden Primary Care Trust (part of the National Health Service). This alliance—with its intriguing implication that the National Health Service might be the one institution with the most to gain by promoting urban agriculture—speaks to the impact of creating new interest groups for locally grown food. By partnering with institutions responsible for dealing with established urban challenges—issues such as public health, economic growth, community engagement, waste, and environmental sustainability—groups like Sustain have the potential to take urban agriculture from decorative hobby to investment-worthy infrastructure.
The Camden partnership’s report (still in draft stage) aims to outline a relatively coherent and holistic food program for the borough—a plan that promises to use food to reshape at least this part of the city, in terms of promoting social enterprise, meeting infrastructure needs, and reducing health inequalities.
4. Mapping and visualization tools The last two presentations of the day agreed that successfully producing food in the city requires a detailed resource inventory combined with effective promotion efforts. Mikey Tomkins, a PhD candidate at the University of Brighton, described systematically mapping the rooftops, grass patches, vertical faces, and vacant lots of Elephant & Castle—whereupon he discovered that 30% of the area’s food needs could be met through the cultivation of found space alone.
Architects Katrin Bohn and Andre Viljoen, creators of the uninspiringly named CPUL (Continuous Productive Urban Landscapes), emphasized the need to think about spare inventory in terms of population and three dimensionality (their Urban Agriculture Curtain filled a display window one floor above us). Their research techniques included the accumulation of census data and questionnaires combined with GPS mapping and site visits in order to analyze a landscape’s food production capacity.
Both Tomkins and Bohn & Viljoen also showed several projects intended to help people read the city in terms of food, using tools as diverse as “edible maps” of London and visual analyses of urban agriculture in Havana, to installations and public events, such as the Continuous Picnic. This was a day-long event, part of the 2008 London Festival of Architecture, that included an “Inverted Market” (bring your own locally grown fruit and vegetables to be admired, judged, and then prepared), as well lessons in “Community Composting”; a giant public picnic then spread throughout Russell Square and Montague Place, with connecting corridors between.
Meanwhile, for his Edible Maps series, an example of which appears below, Tomkins targets a new type of urban resident: the “food-flâneur,” who, map in hand, “could start to picture… the grassed areas around housing, the corners of parks, or the many flat rooftops of this quarter of Croydon spring into life with psychogeographic food.”
Another example of urban agriculture as an opportunity for community activation was Croydon Roof Divercity, Tomkins’s collaboration with AOC (previously discussed, along with other AOC projects, on BLDGBLOG here).
[Image: From Mikey Tomkins’s series of Edible Maps, this guide represents the area around Surrey Street car park, site of Croydon Roof Divercity, in terms of inventory and potential yield].
5. Easy, cheap, and somewhat under control Both Anna Terzi and Bohn & Viljoen recognized the difficulty of maintaining urban agriculture projects, once the initial novelty has worn off. Bohn & Viljoen are currently working on a twelve-step program to prevent relapse, while Sustain are offering ongoing practical and financial support to new food growing spaces in London through their Capital Growth initiative.
Throughout the morning, David Barrie repeatedly registered his concern that urban agriculture needed to be economically viable, not just an upscale $64 Tomato lifestyle choice. Several of the presenters added a layer of nuance to Barrie’s formulation, noting that cheap food has simply had its costs externalized and hidden (Carolyn Steel) and that organizations like the New Economics Foundation are developing the much-needed tools to measure urban-agriculture-created value, such as increased community engagement and environmental sustainability, which is currently perceived as intangible and qualitative (Katrin Bohn). Mikey Tomkins argued against an economics-based one-size-fits-all approach to urban agriculture, explaining that the scale of a food growing project determines its possible benefits. Thus differentiated, food gardening generates educational and quality of life outcomes and should be measured accordingly, while market gardening creates recycling benefits, and urban agriculture can be evaluated in terms of yield.
Finally, the elephant in the room was the degree of coordination and regulation needed to transform London into a food-producing landscape. In an environment where, as Carolyn Steel said, the supermarkets where Londoners buy more than 80% of their groceries refused to participate in consultations with the Mayor’s London Food Strategy, it seems unlikely that sustainable food production and distribution will become the norm without legislative intervention.
In her book, Steel quotes Cassiodorus, a Roman statesman who wrote: “You who control the transportation of food supplies are in charge, so to speak, of the city’s lifeline, of its very throat.” At the moment, Steel tells us, roughly 30 agrifood conglomerates—unelected, and with no responsibility other than to their shareholders—have almost unfettered control over London’s food supply. Until that changes, urban agriculture can’t help but remain “at the artwork stage”—an inspiring, attractive, and completely optional extra.
Over the past two weeks, in two separate cities, multiple sightings of IDEO-like user-generated adaptations have reframed the motorbike as an intriguing addition to the emerging category of street furniture.
[Image: Photo by Lucy Crosbie, used under a Creative Commons license].
The first example was spotted outside Richard Rogers’s Channel 4 building in London, where a cluster of bike couriers had put their feet up onto their bikes’ handlebars, tipping their helmets down over their faces, and allowing the seats to form a gently curved cradle for their spines. They thereby squeezed in a quick nap between jobs.
Then, last week, as the streets of Trastevere overflowed with Romans celebrating the Festa della Repubblica, an unlucky Vespa parked next to a bustling enoteca was claimed as a bar stool and drink stand by several different groups over the course of the evening.
In both cases, the bikes suddenly appeared remarkably well-designed for their off-menu functionality: the hammock-like seat cushion and broad, flat rear looked purpose-built for backs and beer, respectively. In fact, with just a few adaptations and some thoughtful urban planning, their potential as mobile street furniture could be taken to the next level.
Simple additions—such as a gently vibrating seat cushion to work out muscle knots while couriers are snoozing, or flip-out cup holders behind the seat of the Vespa—combined with reserved parking spots for motorbikes outside bars and popular brunch spots, would surely enhance city life.
Ambitious entrepreneurs could carve out a seasonal niche by deploying a fleet of specially customized motorbikes as on-demand mobile seating. Perhaps tourists visiting Rome for the day could even rent motorbikes in a shady side-street so as not to miss out on their expected siestas. And, particularly in London, where dedicated outdoor beer gardens—a losing proposition for at least three hundred days of the year, but the most desirable real-estate in the city on those few hot, sunny days—smart publicans would eagerly pay to rent a dozen Vespa bar stools for their clientele to enjoy.
In each case, the motorbikes would be gone by the time pedestrian and vehicle traffic started up again—their mobility ensuring that streets and sidewalks remain uncluttered at peak flow.
It would only be a matter of time before low-platform flat-bed trucks had rentable sofas installed in the back and were then parked at scenic overlooks, while empty lorries were re-purposed as hammock dormitories, circling airport terminals to snap up jet-lagged travelers intent on maximizing layover time. The first international Mobile Street Furniture Conference in Milan would be swiftly followed by the creation of an industry-sponsored urban planning lobbying arm, high-profile design contests, and premium membership schemes, allowing unlimited worldwide street furniture rental…
This is Part Two of a two-part interview with Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at Cambridge University and general editor of the Wonders of the World, a new series published by Profile and Harvard University Press. Part One can be found here.
In this installment we discuss cultural authenticity and the rise of archaeo-tourism; China, the pirating of ancient history, and plaster casts of statuary; A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum; the little-understood lost lifestyle patterns of the pyroclastically entombed Pompeii; and the urban military spectacles of imperial Rome.
• • •
BLDGBLOG: I’d like to ask you about different cultural attitudes toward copying and historical reproduction. There’s an essay by Alexander Stille, for instance, called “The Culture of the Copy and the Disappearance of China’s Past,” where he describes how meticulous copies are often used in China as stand-ins for ancient artifacts – without that substitution being acknowledged. Stille writes that, in China, copying “is a sign of reverence rather than lack of originality.” Do you foresee any sort of interpretive conflict on the horizon between these different cultural notions of authenticity and the past?
Mary Beard: This idea, of the meticulous copy being used as a stand-in for the ancient artifact – and that, somehow, this substitution can be its own historical object – well that’s one we actually find our own past. It’s not just a Chinese thing.
I’ve been thinking recently about the role of the plaster cast, and about collections of plaster casts; and, in a sense, it seems to me that the cult of the plaster cast, in seventeenth to early mid-nineteenth century Europe, had much in common with what Stille’s describing in China. Now – and I mean since the total commitment within modernism to “authenticity” – we regard plaster casts as cheap and perhaps awkward copies of the original. But, certainly, in the eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, plaster casts were the object that provided people with “real” connection with the classical world. The plaster cast was, in a sense, the fount of classical art and classical knowledge, and people like Goethe were inspired not so much by what we would think of as the authentic marble object, but by looking at plaster casts.
At one point in the Parthenon book – I mention it just very briefly – there was a moment, in the 1930s, when the British Museum had got all of Elgin’s marbles there, but the bits they didn’t have they filled in with plaster casts from Greece. It wasn’t that the casts were actually valued the same, but that viewers could happily see these things, side by side, in order to experience the Parthenon sculptures.
I think it’s actually quite moving sometimes, reading people’s accounts of Greek and Roman sculpture in the eighteenth and nineteenth century – because they’re describing plaster casts using a language which we would not now use for copies. They’re not framing it as a copy – they’re framing it as if it was it – or at least as if was sufficiently like the “real thing” to be able to prompt some of the same language and emotions.
[Image: A view of the Elgin Marbles, via the Wik].
BLDGBLOG: That seems to be as much about the desire to encounter the thing itself as to use convenient stand-ins for that thing, when “authenticity” is simply too expensive to afford.
Mary Beard: That’s partly it – but one thing that’s curious is that the modern city of Rome produced and displayed loads of plaster casts until quite recently (and there is still a great collection in the University gallery in Rome). They went in for making plaster casts of sculpture when they’d got the real stuff sitting right there in front of them. “Authenticity” is always a trickier idea than we think it is – which is, I guess, one of the things that “post-modernism” has been about telling us.
BLDGBLOG: Do you see educational value in things like merchandising, then? Do souvenirs obscure the past or give people access to it?
Mary Beard: I tend to be pretty laid back about it. I mean, I can do the argument about commodification if you like. I can say: goodness me, what you are doing? You’re re-presenting a tawdry cheap object, to make a vast amount of profit, and it’ll be bought by somebody else in the belief that, somehow, they have just bought into cultural property. I can do the gloomy side of it.
But I think it also goes back, more positively, to the idea that these objects are sort of shared. How do you share a monument? One of the main ways that you share a monument is by replicating it and letting people own the replica. It’s a way that people can feel they have a relationship to the original. That’s been going on since antiquity itself. One of the things that’s quite extraordinary is the number of relatively small-scale replicas there are of the cult statue of Athena from the Parthenon – hundreds of them.
Of course, in some ways, you say, tourists are being palmed off with plastic souvenirs instead of with knowledge – and, of course, some of these things, the middle class cultural critics can say, are horrible and cheap, and people think they’re buying culture when, in fact, they’re buying a nasty little replica. Obviously there’s an ambivalence there, but it never seems to me to be wholly bad.
You know, you have your photograph taken at the Colosseum next to somebody dressed up like a gladiator. Is that a terrible bit of exploitation because you’ve just paid a ridiculous amount of money? Well, that’s exactly what it is in one way – but it’s also a way of writing yourself into the history of that site, and saying “I was there.”
[Images: Tourists having their picture taken “next to somebody dressed up like a gladiator.” Photo by Robin Cormack].
BLDGBLOG: For a lot of people, there’s also a sense of irony there – in the idea that you’d get your picture taken next to a gladiator. It’s like a joke: look at me, wearing shorts, standing next to an Italian guy dressed like a gladiator.
Mary Beard: Yes, that’s right. I don’t think one’s capacity for self-ironization is necessarily incompatible with the idea of ownership. When I buy my ouzo bottle shaped like the Parthenon, it’s another way to the same end.
We tend to think that tourists are dupes being flogged crap which they don’t realize is crap. Actually, I suspect that most people, like you and I, do realize that it’s crap. The point is to buy crap, because that’s part of what the deal is – that’s the transaction which you’re doing.
I suppose it’s all part of what I’m thinking in general: people are much smarter about their engagement with these places than we often give them credit for. They/we have quite a highly developed sense of what the touristic game is all about. I might be an expert when it comes to the Parthenon, but I go to hundreds of places where I know nothing at all – but I still know what the contract is, between the tourist and the monument.
BLDGBLOG: This changes the subject a bit, but I understand you’re also writing a new book about Pompeii. Is that for the Wonders for the World?
Mary Beard: I am writing a Pompeii book, and it’s for Profile and Harvard, like the Wonders. However, it’s not in the series because it’s going to be rather longer than that – and there’s a practical consideration here. If you’re going to tell your authors not to do more than 50,000 words, then you can’t have the series editor deciding she wants to do 100,000 words!
I suppose I’m trying to do some quite specific things. I’ve worked on and off on Pompeii for 20 or 30 years, and it struck me that, apart from the study of volcanology (where everybody will talk till the cows come home about “pyroclastic flows” and all that), by and large there’s an increasing gap between what academic studies of Pompeii are doing and the kind of stuff that popular books on Pompeii feed people. I wanted to see if I could close a bit of that gap between what people normally get given, if they’re not specialists, and some of the ways of thinking about the city that are current within academic debate.
I think that one of the problems about going to Pompeii, once you’ve done your first wander round it – and, even now, it’s gob-smacking to go to the ancient town – there’s a question of: what do people look at? And how do they look at it?
I think, as we were saying before, tourists are pretty canny – but their canniness and sharpness is often crushed by the sense that there is a particular set of questions that are somehow the right questions to ask. I suppose I want to help people see that their puzzlement about how this town worked – their puzzlement about the city – is legitimate. You know, they should go on asking those kinds of questions.
There is a huge distance between us and what went on in this town (whatever that was); yet, on the other hand, there is a dialogue that you can have with it. It’s a dialogue which is, in part, mediated by novels and films and so on – Last Days of Pompeii and the like. And that is something we have to work through, not against. It’s that way of thinking I’m interested in exploring.
BLDGBLOG: You’ve written on your blog about Pompeii’s ancient traffic patterns, and about some more mundane questions, such as how Pompeii actually functioned.
Mary Beard: Yes, that’s right – you know: where did people go to the loo? Why is there so little “stuff” there? Why was so little found in Pompeii? Well, that really is interesting – and that is what archaeologists are sometimes honest enough to worry about. Where do these stairs actually go? Did anything happen up there? How many people lived here?
So you want to say to tourists: your questions aren’t foolish. We don’t know what the upstairs was like. Estimates of the population of Pompeii vary by thousands, according to whether you think all the slaves lived up there, squashed together in dorms, or whether there were some elegantly spacious master bedrooms, or whether it was mostly storeroom. We really don’t know. We don’t even know how Pompeii related to the sea!
But I think there is a very difficult trade-off here. In the end it’s a terrible downer for people always to say, “We don’t know, we don’t know, we don’t know.” You’ve got to tell them something that we do know!
I suppose I want to write a book that doesn’t fob people off with simplifying stories that I know not to be true. I think that’s the nasty power relationship between popular books on the ancient world and their readers: an author, who knows how complicated it is, tells the ignorant reading public a simplified story that he or she doesn’t really believe. That then makes writing – and disseminating what you know about the ancient world – an act of bad faith. So you want it to be good faith – without saying: the conclusion of this book is that we know nothing.
BLDGBLOG: [laughs] That reminds me of Robert Irwin’s book, where he begins with two full pages’ worth of incorrect “facts” about the Alhambra.
Mary Beard: Yes. Jolly good.
[Images: A Triumph through the streets of Rome following the sack of Jerusalem. For more on Roman Triumphs, don’t miss Mary Beard’s forthcoming book; for more on the sack of Jerusalem, grab a copy of Simon Goldhill’s The Temple of Jerusalem].
BLDGBLOG: You’ve also got another forthcoming book, published by Harvard, about the Roman Triumph – about Roman military processions. Could you tell me more about that? Is it similar in tone to the Wonders of the World series?
Mary Beard: In a funny way, although it’s a longer book, and it’s heavily footnoted, it’s written partly for the same kind of audience. It’s for the specialist as well as the intelligent ignorant.
What the book is saying is: look, here is a Roman ceremony which, much in the same way as these monuments, has been reworked and reappropriated throughout history. You know, Napoleon does the Triumph, every blasted princeling in the Renaissance does a Triumph, Mantegna paints the Triumph – it’s still a cultural form that we share with the Romans. So how can we make sense of it? Particularly now, how do we think about celebrating military victory – and what form is possible, legitimate, in bad taste, in good taste…?
This relates, of course, to how we now package the Romans. Certainly for the last hundred years or so, they have been seen as the poor relations of the Greeks: Greek culture, we believe, was intellectual and self-reflexive, whilst the Romans were thugs who built roads and won battles. It’s a convenient dyad for us but, in many ways, it undermines and disguises so much of what’s really interesting about Roman culture.
One of the things I’m wanting to say about the Triumph goes like this. Here you’ve got the most fantastic parade ever of Roman wealth and imperialism. The Romans score disgustingly big victories, massacring thousands, and they come and celebrate it in the center of the city, bringing the prisoners and the spoils and the riches and all the rest. At one level, this is a jingoistic, militaristic display that would warm the heart of every European dictator ever after – but, at the same time, scratch the surface of that. Look at how the Romans talked about it. That very ceremony is also the ceremony in which you see the Romans debating and worrying about what glory is, what victory is. Who, really, has won? It’s a ceremony that provides Rome with a way of thinking about itself. It exposes all kinds of Roman intellectual anxieties.
For example, there are constant anecdotes, which I think are very loaded anecdotes, about how risky a celebration it is, and how the celebration can always go wrong. There’s one General, Pompey, in the sixties BC, who decides to outbid all of the previous triumphant Generals. Instead of having his chariot yoked to horses, he decides to have it pulled by elephants. It looks fantastic – it looks kind of divine (that’s how the god Bacchus drove his chariot) – until he comes to go through an arch and the elephants get stuck in the arch. So he reverses a bit, and he tries it again – and they still can’t get through. They finally have to unhitch the elephants and bring up the horses – and you think: why is this anecdote being told? Not only is this obviously a humiliating moment – wouldn’t you feel a real fool if it happened to you! – but it’s also being told as a way of saying, remember, glory has to be carefully negotiated. Where is the boundary between glory and foolishness?
Another question is: who do you look at when you’ve got this great procession? Who’s the star of the show? Is it the General in his chariot? Well, sometimes it is – but sometimes it’s the victims. Sometimes military victory makes stars of the defeated. That was also a problem in the gladiatorial arena: who was the star? Well, it was the gladiator, not the emperor. In the Triumph those exotic but pathetic captives regularly stole the show, or were said to, and Roman poets and historians recognized this, and wondered about it, and played with it, and they turned it into a metaphor just like we do. And that is so topical today. Take Saddam Hussein’s execution – you know, what was the upshot of those films? Who won?
Militarism often goes hand in hand with everything which undermines militarism. The Romans were actually – if you know how to read them right, and if you’re not expecting them to be Greek and to talk about it in the same way – they’re actually looking at the nature of military victory, and military display, and they’re wondering about it some of the same ways that we do.
So that’s what the book is about – or, at least, those are some of the questions that have driven it.
[Images: A poster for 300 and scenes from 300 and Gladiator].
BLDGBLOG: Finally, could you talk a bit about the present state of pop cultural knowledge about the Classical world, from the film 300 and David Beckham’s new tattoo to cable television documentaries? In the most general sense, are these things useful for teaching the Classics?
Mary Beard: I’m very keen on it, of course. I have to be. Partly, you know, if you’re a classicist teaching Classics at a British university, self-interest is a factor here. All these things, from Gladiator on, have been a tremendous recruiting ground, and so we go around talking about whether Gladiator’s true or not, and 300, and all the rest – and encouraging people to get interested in “real” Classics that way (there, I’m talking about authenticity!).
More generally, though, one of the things that these movies and so on remind us is that classical culture simply isn’t the bastion of elitism that it’s often made out to be. Certainly in the UK – and, I expect, it’s largely the same in the U.S. – the study of Classics, as an academic discipline, is thought to be the upper echelons of privilege and elitism. To some extent that’s true – and to some extent it’s unfair. What that view overlooks is the fact that there has been enormous amounts of mass engagement with ancient culture from the end of the 19th century onwards. Books like The Last Days of Pompeii, or Ben-Hur, sold fantastic quantities. They were absolute bestsellers, in the way that Gladiator is a bestselling movie.
What’s interesting though is that every generation has always claimed that it was the first to rediscover the Romans for themselves, and for mass culture. You can see that very clearly with the Broadway musical, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. It was a fantastic success, but it sold itself in very similar terms to Gladiator – that here, for the first time, the wee masses were going to see Rome as it really was.
So what interests me, beyond the hope that this brings other people into Classics, is the idea that Classics is a subject which is actually quite democratic. It isn’t only this kind of toff, upper-class subject it’s often thought to be. Every generation enjoys rediscovering it – but, each time it comes around, we claim that now, for the first time, we’ve got privileged knowledge which we’re going to share with you all over again. In fact, there are hundreds and hundreds of movies, and hundreds of novels, and thousands of cartoon strips about the Romans. They never go away – but we always think that it’s us that got them first.
In the UK, when kids discover Asterix the Gaul – a wonderful cartoon series about plucky little Gauls fighting the Romans – each 10-year old finds it anew, and rediscovers the Romans for themselves. Which is just how it should be.
[Image: The Colosseum, photographed by Robin Cormack].
• • •
I owe a huge thank you to Mary Beard for taking the time to have this conversation, and for following up with images and with edits to the transcript. For more Mary Beard, meanwhile, don’t miss her blog, A Don’s Life; her essays at the London Review of Books; or The Roman Triumph, due out this Autumn. Finally, titles in the Wonders of the World series now include: