cities as palimpsests

The title of this post pays homage to the writer and photographer, Teju Cole. His talk at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, called The City as Palimpsest, is a treasure trove of insights and apt descriptions, and palimpsest is such a great metaphor for what fascinates me in landscapes and cities, that I am truly delighted to have hit upon this great artist.

The primary meaning of palimpsest is a manuscript page, either from a scroll or a book, from which the text has been either scraped or washed off so that the page can be reused, for another document. But the faint remains of older layers of writing can often be deciphered. Interestingly, more recently the term has acquired technical meanings in fields like architecturearchaeology, and geomorphology as a label for an ‘entity’, a landscape, a building, etc. which in its present form carries the traces of its past. But it is most commonly used as a metaphor these days the way Cole does.

Cities are eco-systems like any other environment, in constant change, the physical infrastructure itself, its use over time, from early morning through late night, the seasons, slower processes like slumming or gentrification, and other ‘historical’ transformations. Teju Cole writes about particular cities, New York, Brussels, Lagos, but that doesn’t matter because cities to him are like human characters and like those differ in countless ways but also have a sameness at core that is equally defining.

The many layers that our build environment contains are partially visible, but also require all kinds of pre-existing historical and other knowledge to resonate with us (including the unconscious variety that translates into experience without ever revealing its source). Cole talks about these in language that strikes a chord with me. He says stuff like nothing is ever the first erasure on any site, evoking the image of the past before the past and the one before that past, the silliness, or is it perniciousness, of pinning down one past as the proper, legitimate, most important one, or structures are their own memorials, which immediately transports me back to the kind of chilling undertone that grandeur of the Angkor Wat variety has when one realizes the slave labor society that it was build upon.

As an aside: one mostly doesn’t realize that, which is why dictators are so spot on when building follies-on-blood in order to immortalize themselves. Whatever contemporaneous scathing commentaries suggest, over (usually surprisingly short) time the tragedy turns into whispers that are easily drowned out by the triumphant effect grandiose architecture has on our primate emotions. Nation-building historical whitewashing and tourism industry interests do the rest.

There is one matter that I thoroughly disagree with Teju Cole about: the place of nature in this perspective. He self-labels as a city-boy and prefers the urban landscape to the outdoors. A bit of rural hiking and camping, fine, better even a city park to temporarily escape hectic city life, but please, not too much nature. I think it is intellectually more productive to think of cityscapes as just ‘another kind of’ landscape, another kind of ‘natural’ environment. He does talk of cities as eco-systems, but doesn’t seem to take that metaphor seriously. And that is a pity because he would be in good company: someone like the great Jane ‘urban planning’ Jacobs, in her later work on economies moved explicitly in this direction.

The mirror-image of this is that it is very revealing to apply a metaphor that so aptly fits urban environments to natural landscapes: they are as much palimpsests as cities. Cities versus nature is a conceptual boundary that can be hugely helpful but it is never a good idea to not look beyond such limitations. Way too much to be found at the other side,


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