Blog some bookmarked pages: The City Shaped

So I’ve been working my way through the late Spiro Kostof’s monumental study The City Shaped over the last few weeks, as I’ve found the time, and it’s been one of the most voluptuously enjoyable reading experiences I’ve had in years. If Kostof’s prose is occasionally a little turgid, the payoffs are both genuine and reliably regular. The book has already blown my mind once, and continues to stop me in my tracks every few paragraphs, so I can have another swallow or two of coffee and ponder what I’ve read.

This is not to say that it isn’t also, on occasion, fairly depressing. There’s a specific historical example — or, I guess, set of examples — that Kostof uses to challenge the notion that there’s a useful distinction to be made between planned cities and more “organic” processes of urban structuration. It’s what happens in city after city in the few centuries following the fall of Rome:

The background for the urban retrenchment and readjustment in post-Roman Europe is well known — depopulation, reduced circumstances, and a social revolution that consigned towns built for a pagan culture…to the monotheistic religions…

With the impairment of municipal controls in the post-Roman city, natural movement soon carved shortcuts through the large rigid blocks of the grid. Tracks skirting or crossing the ruins of those public buildings for which there was no longer any use also crystallized into new streets. (p. 48)

“Impairment of municipal controls”! Yeah: otherwise known as “having anyone who might stand in their fur-swathed way being put to the sword by barbarians.” Here’s the motif again, in these comments on the “superimposition of a medieval agrarian settlement pattern over a Roman grid” at the German town of Grier, a few pages later:

By the 12th century a greatly contracted Trier had redrawn its defensive perimeter, excluding about a third of the area formerly enclosed. The great Roman public institutions…thermae, amphitheater, and forum — were abandoned, their ruins appropriated for private use. (p. 50)

In reading these simple, flat, declarative statements, I can’t help but translate them into more visceral terms — and truly, the world implied by them could not possibly be less pretty. Outside the city gates, The Road; within, a bleak bürgerlich peace, imposed and maintained by a brutally patriarchal familial order. For centuries. The sheer human waste involved reminds me of that ultimate dork-elegiac image of my childhood: the Rick Sternbach illo, in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, of the Roman starship launched by a culture that had never sacked the library at Alexandria.

This was Christian Europe. Elsewhere, of course, there was the superimposition of a different structuring logic, no less inimical to any notion of a public sphere. From pp. 62-63:

Neighborhood cohesion based on kinship, tribal affiliation or ethnicity was strong enough…to re-arrange an inherited pre-Muslim grid of Greco-Roman origin, and fuse and invert its [public-facing modular elements] into exclusive superblocks…

How was this privatized urban order wrought? The main thing to remember is that city-form was allowed to work itself out subject only to the respect of custom, ownership, and the Muslim’s right to visual privacy. You were not told what to do, what kind of city to design; you were only enjoined from doing things that threatened accepted social behavior. The concern for privacy, for example, determined where doors and windows would go on building fronts and how high buildings would rise. Visual corridors were consequently avoided, whether at the fine scale of a cluster of houses, or in the broader sense of urban vistas. More basically, this concern asserted itself in the introversion of the house, the appearance toward the street being unimportant.

Sure, the language verges on loaded here. Even putting that to the side, though, I’d be a lot more comfortable with this thought of designing for privacy if I didn’t primarily understand it to mean a proprietary concern for the visibility of women, and the concomitant “promotion of virtue and the suppression of vice.”

Medieval Islamic urbanism had some fairly impressive provisions, and in its later stages at least gave rise to by far the most cosmopolitan cities the pre-modern world would ever know. But living out one’s life in a world built on bonds of “kinship, tribal affiliation or ethnicity” sounds nightmarish to me — as nightmarish as anything cooked up by medieval Christendom, if not more so, and I’m a man.

What’s clear to me is that, as both Islam and Christianity literally and physically turned away from Roman notions of public space, a broad sweep of the world that had once been knit together shattered into ten thousand mutually incommunicant particles. Provinces into towns and bishoprics; towns into isolar, fortified blocks; streets into passages. And free citizens into, at best, villagers — unless you happened to be female, in which case you became something with the status and value of property.

For, again, a thousand, maybe fifteen hundred years. Call it forty generations.

I already knew this story, and so did you, but Koslof’s immensely thorough and detailed review of the physical evidence brought the human cost home to me in a way few other texts ever have. Whatever you think about Empire — and in its current incarnation, I cannot possibly be numbered among its fans — it’s sobering to be reminded of what generally comes in the wake of its passing.

• Further reading:
– The wonderful “How to Build a City: Roman Operating System,” in the Harvard Project on the City volume Mutations. (On p. 3, this PDF offers a brief taste, but believe me, it’s worth digging up the full text.)

3 responses to “Blog some bookmarked pages: The City Shaped

  1. steph says :

    (At the risk of being nit-picky, and while vociferously assuring all and sundry that it would never occur to me to defend Christianity, and that I’m in two minds about posting this) Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that this was Europe as it was before the recovery of classical values which occurred in the late 13th and early 14th centuries? I think that there’s a convincing argument to be made for the synthesis of Christian and classical (Ciceronian ideals of subordinating private interests to the public good, not to mention post-Augustine Aristotelianism. Renaissance humanism, in short) ideals as being greater than the sum of its parts, under the circumstances. And of course, there’s an inherent difficulty in referring to Christianity as a monolithic entity, as any Gascon mercenary would have assured you, shortly before being sent to his final reward at the hand of someone who was being paid by the Pisan city-state. I suppose what I’m asking here, in a roundabout way, is whether there’s a serious argument to be made that a continuation of the Roman empire would have produced a better (in the sense of more people leading longer, healthier, more free lives) world, two thousand-odd years hence, and along the way, *or* that Roman cities were far superior to everything that followed for the next 1000-odd years (that is, post-4xx AD up until 14xx AD), and that a great deal of the unpleasantness of that millennium could have been mitigated if it hadn’t been for Christianity and the structures (or perhaps: strictures) it imposed, in order to maintain its power.

  2. AG says :

    The first part, absolutely fair comment.
    What follows, I’m not so sure. (I mean, it’s still fair comment, but I’m not sure how to evaluate that claim on its merits. Not that you’re even making a claim, so much as posing a question. You know what I mean.)

  3. N. Freeman says :

    I suggest turning to Henri Pirenne’s Medieval Cities for the story of the slow recovery of urbanism, which was slower, earlier, and more halting than a view centered on Florence in 1500 would suggest. Pirenne is also convincing about the continuity between Roman life and post-Roman life in most, if not all, of the European Roman cities.

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