The archaeology of today’s urban regions need not be excavation-based. One trick allows the illusion of memory through photographic tools.
Here are three photographs taken just yesterday, at an under-leased, small suburban mall awaiting reinvention. A mixed use redevelopment lost momentum with the recession, and what is left is an in-between place.
In this venue, imagery of the in-between collapses time, and enhances empty—and lonely—spaces, suggesting ghosts of strollers and shoppers from not so long ago.
I suggest that local photographs can accentuate, in your midst, an Ostia Antica—the ruins of the abandoned seaport of ancient Rome—now isolated from the sea.
This is important, because accelerating history through imagery can add to our sense of immediacy, in search of the best ways to reinvent the urban, suburban and exurban environments around us.
Last September, in reclaiming the urban memory, myurbanist profiled legendary photographer Burton Holmes, his dramatic imagery, international travelogue presentations and the implications of his work for today’s urbanism.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Holmes’ urban chronicles also had a domestic element, which centered on the New York skyline, and his classic, breathtaking city view.
Bearing an apt explorer’s moniker, his New York apartment on the west side of Central Park was called “Nirvana”. Not unlike his depictions of urban scenes abroad, Holmes once described–and photographed– the “wondrous” perspective on city life looking out from his home base:
Some day I will attempt a lecture on New York City, a subject no lecturer possessed of half an eye or half a tongue could really fail to put across to an audience.
Thinking thus, I gaze from my own apartment windows which look down on Central Park. I see beyond that spacious playground…
Who in all the world could not be thrilled by such a sight as all this.
–Burton Holmes, as quoted by Genoa Caldwell in The Man Who Photographed the World, 1977
Under copyright of the Burton Holmes Historical Collection (BHHC), here is Holmes’ photo, surveying Central Park South, and, by special permission from BHHC, newly enhanced with dimensions of music and motion.
Our goal? To complement Holmes’ already remarkable words, images and urban portrayals, in order to further focus the senses on all that a city can be.
Often, to evoke the vision of an urbanist future, we reflect on images of public spaces borne of a sociocultural tradition from another place or time.
But with such indiscriminate references to walkable and compact, mixed use experiences, are we asking too much to bring the presumed richness of an evolved, world city to every American urbanist’s back yard?
A 2009 myurbanist entry contained video walks through Rome’s Piazza Navona and Campo di Fiori at night. Here’s another video of Campo di Fiori, and a link to the story of the place:
A former field, the location of gallows for minor offenses, a juncture of streets devoted to trades, a market by day and a haven of night life: do we do injustice to rich history by assuming we can recreate the physical form produced by this “back story”?
Six years ago, while on sabbatical from my law firm, I made a presentation that asked Cornell University students studying in Rome to reflect on the context of what they had learned.
The issue of context graced the handout, just as it graces the dilemma of imposing patterns from another history on an American urban pattern.
As noted, this dilemma may yield more questions than certainty in changing times, and a salient portion of the handout asked the students to consider the dilemma, described as follows.
Rome contains some of the world’s most successful “public spaces”. Assume you are an American planning director who receives a request from a city council member who has just returned from a trip to Rome. The council member wants to pressure local mall redevelopers to create a space reminiscent of Campo di Fiori at the center of a 1960’s era shopping mall which is subject to pending development approvals for a multi-million dollar renovation. What features can you insert in the development agreement draft to attempt such ambiance? Can successful public spaces be successfully legislated?
How would you respond to this question today?
A summary of the referenced handout appears below.
In 1992, while living in Connecticut, I documented the landscape of the evolution of agrarian New England to the once self-contained mill/factory town. This morning, it was time to use some of the footage in today’s context and ask some questions.