Child running home in the destroyed city of Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina in the hot summer of 1995. Photo by Thom Hoffman.
Destroyed city of Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995. Photo by Thom Hoffman.

When Cities Fall: Urban Histories and Political Memory

Our experience of the present is shaped by our understanding of the past. By ignoring the urban narratives of  monuments, structures, city parks, memorials…what messages are we missing for the present? 

 —

“The city does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.”

-Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

 

The importance of observing and thinking critically about the built environment and its place within our culture is an underrepresented field that deserves more attention. Through investigation of our urban past, we gain access to an untapped reservoir of answers within cities (both past and present) that are able to speak to us both as a collective society and as individuals. To quote an authority on architectural and urban history, “Architecture is a medium of cultural expression only to the extent that we are able to absorb its messages. The way we interpret the culture of a period or a nation through its architecture may tell us as much about it as about ourselves.”

 

 

People gather to look at the damage caused by explosions at judicial buildings in Benghazi July 28, 2013. Photo by Esam Al-Fetori.
People gather to look at the damage caused by explosions at judicial buildings in Benghazi July 28, 2013. Photo by Esam Al-Fetori.

 

In a Fall 2012 Vanity Fair article, a journalist shadowed Barack Obama and detailed his day to day routines as President as well as cataloguing Obama’s process of preparing public responses to conflict. Libya’s then Socialist Leader Qaddafi had just threatened to attack Benghazi, and Obama was put in the position to decide whether or not America would intervene. Obama consulted his top experts in the Situation Room. In addition to Biden and Gates, this included Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (on the phone from Cairo), Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, White House chief of staff William Daley, head of the National Security Council Tom Donilon and U.N. ambassador Susan Rice. One of the many questions Obama asked his team of expert advisors was, “What happens to the people in these cities when the cities fall? When you say Qaddafi takes a town, what happens?” Preparing a response to Qaddafi’s threat to “cleanse Libya, house by house”, might have benefited from revisiting the architectural history of Herzegovina, in which the ex-Serbian President Milošević led deliberate attacks on Bosnian homes in the name of ethnic cleansing, thus the invention of the term, “domicide”.

 

People gather for a demonstration at Taksim Square in Istanbul June 29, 2013. Photo by Osman Orsal.
People gather for a demonstration at Taksim Square in Istanbul June 29, 2013. Photo by Osman Orsal.

 

More recently, the riots and protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square have demonstrated the importance of public space to a city’s health and wellness. Even Stalin understood the sacredness of a city’s square, when he famously scolded his right hand advisor for presenting a plan of a reconstructed Red Square in Moscow that called for the demolition of a cathedral. “Put it back, Lazar”, he insisted. Aside from looking towards the past, perhaps we should consider what the present and future roles of public squares in cities on the verge of revolution are, especially those in the Arab world: Tahrir Square in Egypt, Change Square in Yemen, Bouazizi Square in Tunisia, and so many others.

 

The importance of the built environment needs to be not only considered in its past histories, but in its present monuments as well. Design observation offers an urban mindfulness that grounds us, forces us to actively look, and engage with our surroundings. Georges Perec, a great writer and believer in all that is routine, advised in his writings that we don’t give enough attention to what is truly daily in our lives. In “The Species of Spaces”, Perec was commissioned by an architect to explore ways in which we occupy space. “The problem isn’t so much to find out how we have reached this point, but simply, to recognize that we have reached it, that we are here.” My hope is to inspire a sort of architectural mindfulness, in which everyone, not just those involved in the design profession become more intimately involved with the observance of the details of their city.

 

Consider also the implications of architecture and memory. For when we observe the face of a city, we trace it into our minds, and the images of its skyscraper limbs and topographic curves are etched onto ourselves forever. Think of observing as a form of cognitive writing, and if we never record, we will never remember. I will close with the final passage of Perec’s, “Species of Spaces”, and hope that it will inspire a deeper desire to observe the architecture of whatever space you may find yourself in.

 

 

The Srebrenica and Potocari memorial for the Srebrenica dead in Bosnia.  Photo by Peter Nicholls.
The Srebrenica and Potocari memorial for the Srebrenica dead in Bosnia.
Photo by Peter Nicholls.

 

“Space melts like sand running through one’s fingers. Time bears it away and leaves me only shapeless shreds. To write: To try meticulously to retain something, to cause something to survive; to wrest a few precise scraps from the void as it grows, to leave somewhere a furrow, a trace, a mark or a few signs.”

No Comments

> Submit

Select filter(s):
02_smaller

Ispirazione

In amber morning light I boarded a vaporetto and floated down Venice’s Grand Canal. Bit of a switch from Dallas.

 

> Read More

Opening_Night_HEADER

The Art of Assemblage

 

“Nature uses only the longest threads to weave her patterns, so that each small piece of her fabric reveals the organization of the entire tapestry.”

 

-Richard P. Feynman

 

We enter a fabric womb, a cave-like space of soft stalactites that brush against us, shifting and pooling us into groups. We’ve stumbled into the world that is Give, an installation by artists Bird Feliciano and Juliana Raimondi.

> Read More

391957_10151098224905378_953405842_n

Contributor Profile: Arianne Gelardin and Jacob Palmer

 

Arianne Gelardin and Jacob Palmer are co-curators for StoreFrontLab‘s Season 2: City Making Series.

> Read More

InvUrb1

Invisible Urbanism

Ian Quate at the opening of the summit. (Photo: John Parman)

How do you make yourself at home in a cauldron filled with demons? I’m quoting the founder of Soto Zen, but the question was also posed at a recent San Francisco summit. > Read More

photo_leahnichols_formatted

Contributor Profile: Leah Nichols

 

Leah Nichols is a San Francisco-based urban designer and art activist. She currently works at SITELAB urban studio, implementing public realm possibilities within a range of scales, from 28-acre mixed use developments to chain-link fence installations.

IMG_5113_copy_sm_formatted

Urban Symposium No. 1

The first Urban Symposium event, as a part of StoreFrontLab Season 2, kicked off with a full room of people, each with a party hat on and margarita in hand. > Read More

al-gs-trace

TraceSF launches City Makers salon

This month TraceSF introduces City Makers, a new salon series at StoreFrontLabHosted by Amanda Loper of David Baker Architects and Emily Gosack of Jensen Architects, City Makers grew out of a desire to hear more from the women at the forefront of City Making. John Parman, a founding editor of TraceSF, spoke with Amanda and Emily about the series, which opens on October 28 with  Laura Crescimano, a principal of SITELAB urban studio.

> Read More

MWprofile

Contributor Profile: Michael Willis

Michael Willis is a well-known Bay Area architect.

Berlin architect Professor Michael Braum led off the first day's session. Photo: Michael Willis

Knowledge City: Rethinking Heidelberg

Berlin architect Professor Michael Braum led off the first day’s session. Photo: Michael Willis

Heidelberg, one of Europe’s oldest university towns, is looking at its future. Here’s a firsthand account of what’s ahead and what it might means for university towns here. > Read More

Carlo Scarpa, Berkeley, California, 1969”, photo courtesy of the University of California Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.

Carlo Scarpa In Person

“Carlo Scarpa, Berkeley, California, 1969,” photo courtesy of the University of California Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.

 

When one turns the page of an architecture magazine and the work of Carlo Scarpa appears unexpectedly, a quiet inner thrill is felt. Since his passing in 1978, we seem increasingly moved by Scarpa’s caress of material, his strange but faultless sense of placement and proportion, the contemplative nature of his details. These appreciations are heightened by the knowledge that his output was relatively limited. > Read More

Max Levy Portrait for Trace SF_credit Rebecca Thaden Photography

Contributor Profile: Max Levy

 

A graduate of the University of California at Berkeley (1970), Dallas architect Max Levy, FAIA, established his studio in 1984. He is best known for designs that connect people with nature in both rural and urban settings. > Read More

IMG_Banner

Planned Growth or Unplanned Strife?

 

Will San Francisco follow through on its carefully laid plans to accommodate a growing population, or will it continue to fight the same battles time and time again?

> Read More

Hogan_headshop landscape

Contributor Profile: Mark Hogan

 

Mark Hogan AIA, LEED BD+C is a licensed architect in the states of New York and California. His primary interests lie in housing, sustainable urban design and in enhancing digital design workflows. > Read More

TPX_header

Urban Activation Device & TXP

Spanish art & architecture collective Todo Por La Praxis is seeking collaborators and participants for their experimental research on activating the urban void. > Read More

Figure 2_607x405

Save SLO County!

Heading into Paso Robles from the west, 2013

 

Will San Luis Obispo (SLO) County remain predominantly agricultural, or will it sink into the same morass of rural sprawl that took out Orange County? It could go either way, but there’s still hope if we act now. > Read More

Image courtesy of Southern Exposure

The Living Newspaper: Extra Extra

Image courtesy of Southern Exposure

Southern Exposure is launching a public art program, The Living Newspaper: Extra Extra, the first West Coast performance project by the artist Liz Magic Laser and her collaborators, the actors Audrey Crabtree and Michael Wiener. > Read More

Eyes on the River. Photo by Christopher Herring.

The Floods in Budapest

Eyes on the River. Photo by Christopher Herring.

The stone banks alongside the river contain the city. Despite them, here is the river, rising.  Silently, swiftly the waters swarm downstream; the swell of water does not much alter the river’s appearance.  You know there is more of it now only because benches, parks, and the bike road are being submerged.  It has not yet risen to the main city wall, about 20 feet higher; three more days of flooding expected.  

> Read More

Photo by Christopher Herring.

Contributor Profile: Elizabeth Snowden

Photo by Christopher Herring.

Elizabeth Snowden is a Berkeley-based writer and editor. A graduate of Bard College, she has edited catalogues raisonnés on Picasso and Gris for Wittenborn Art Books in San Francisco.

Joseph Kosuth reviewing plans for the art installations at the Dog House. Photo by pm cook.

Mr. Waka’s Dog House

Joseph Kosuth reviewing plans for the art installations at the Dog House. Photo by pm cook.

 

“Get out at the Sakuragaoka post office. Turn around and you’ll see a Lawson’s. Walk to it and then turn left. Walk up that street and you’ll see the Dog House on the right.” Typical Tokyo directions from the art impresario and entrepreneur Joni Waka. > Read More