Sunday, December 13, 2009
Die mythisch verloren stadt!
These revelations have brought about the vindication of one Sir Percy Harrison Fawcett, a debonair adventurer extraordinaire from Victorian England. He spent his formative years at the turn of the 20th century studying the historical accounts of the Spanish Conquistadors and their search for the City of El Dorado. He pursued a popular idea of the time that claimed a mythical city of fabulous riches existed deep in the heart of the Amazon. In the prime of his life he took off into the jungle Aguirre-like with his son and some hired help and was never heard from again (apart from a few letters sent by dispatch). The jungle ate him and over time he was both lionized as a courageous hero and a crazy man who died running a fool's errand. As time went by and biological theories evolved the idea of an inhospitable Amazon fit nicely into theories of both biological and environmental determinism. The City of Z was rarely considered. Until it was found!
The late historian Gunther Barth has a whole chapter in Instant Cities titled "Reluctant Citizens". His point was that the creation of city in the case of San Francisco and Denver was initially a side effect, that the city building was a process of amalgamation, a bunch of people in close proximity doing what they came to do. City-as-side effect is not an anomaly in of itself, (see Barth's chapter "Variations of a City Type" for his explanation on the city-as-emporium typology), but as a residue of the pursuit of riches, bigness, and autonomy it is an American phenomenon. In the post-Colombian history of the Americas the mythical American City- the place of riches, bigness, and autonomy- has been reborn in various locations. First it was the golden cities of the sixteenth century, New York in the 1700's, San Francisco and the West in the 1800's, Los Angeles in the 20th century (it will likely be a Brazilian city soon). It is this myth and its myriad variations and iterations that sucked conquistadors into the jungle, drew Europeans to New York, pushed Americans out west, drove Mexicans to the North (explored in the most troubling and twisted of ways by Bill Vollmann in his recent book).
The myths of a city serve a particular purpose, be it economic, political, social, or otherwise. The can be affected from without or propagated from within. But these myths attract people, money, and power and the contribute to the settlement patterns and shaping of the environment. The American City myth is a good one- it may never die.
I'm not sure of the influence of a city's mythology on the design of its public spaces. The germane nature of mythology in the making of some cities suggests a close yet indeterminate relationship. The most interesting waterfront park to open in New York in the recent boon is the above East River State Park. Like most other waterfront parks in the city it is a former industrial site that was cleaned up a bit and surrounded with the ubiquitous New York City park fence. Some of the industrial relics were preserved, in this case a concrete pad and some low muscular walls. The designers' description states simply that "RGR used existing concrete walls and platforms as a starting point for the scheme. The plan included re-grading of the site to create graceful slopes of grasses and wildflowers." I think the designers are being modest. Three of the characters in the mythology of New York City- the skyline, the river, and the bridges- are very present and the designers showed great restraint in engaging them in a subtle and direct way. It is totally devoid of ostentation. It is not ecstatic, precious or over-programmed. It is unique in the city.
Anyways, it is all well and good that the more robust and vital the mythology of a city, the more times it can reinvent and revive itself. Of course, if an immigrant wave arrives on its shores with a particular resistance to pathogens cultivated through living in filth, the city and its indigenous population might be in trouble. I myself have been drinking from East River, just so I don't meet the same fate as the people of the City of Z when New York reawakens and the new wave arrives.