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Saturday, February 5, 2011

Spiro Kostof and the Ruins of Cities

Spiro Kostof was a noted architectural historian and expert on the urban form. I first became acquainted with his work as a student in the University of Michigan, when our textbook for History of Architecture was Kostof's A History of Architecture. However, as a student in Bezalel, where there are a surprising number of classes about urbanism, I also read through his landmark pair of books, The City Shaped and The City Assembled. Spiro died in 1991, while the latter was still being prepared, and his assistant, Greg Castillo, completed the book.

In The City Assembled, the fifth and final chapter, "Urban Process," deals with the role of ruins in the development of cities. This treatment of ruins, in the broader concept of cities, is interesting on a number of levels. During our presentations we have received a number of comments about how it would be interesting if we focused on the life-cycle of buildings. Kostof takes this line, and shows how buildings and their ruins go through phases and contribute to regeneration of cities. This is especially true when huge disasters strike, like the 1666 fire in London or San Francisco in 1906. But in such instances, ruins don't really remain as ruins for long, and the whole city is rebuilt en masse. A future post will be dedicated to the ruins of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

One interesting test case that Kostof discusses is World War II. He writes:
"Of all the dozens of cities devastated by the Second World War, almost all chose to rebuild. It was rumored that Polish leaders considered relocating Warsaw, and the Soviets debated moving Stalingrad. St.-Malo gave some thought to leaving its rubble as a war memorial, and rebuilding farther south on the mainland. But practical reasons and local national symbolism won out in the end."(Kostof, p. 251)
Cassino in Italy was moved after 1945, and its ruins were declared a national monument, though Kostof notes that the remains were so thoroughly leveled by bombs that they are hardly recognizable. At one point, in the 4th c. BCE, even Rome considered relocating to Veii, partially because its ruins were considered "polluted."

Perhaps the most interesting section is where Kostof deals with Damnatio Memoriae, when a structure is destroyed as an attempt to erase or curse the memory of a previous regime. Usually these sits are either redeveloped in a manner that emphasizes the new order, or the existing building is given a new use. There are a number of famous buildings constructed on the ruins of previous structures that were destroyed for this reason. Most famously, the Colosseum in Rome is building on the site of Nero's Golden House. Kostof does not, however, list a third option - leaving the site as a ruin indefinitely. (p. 254)

Kostof also points out that in war, it is often prohibitively difficult to completely destroy a city and leave it razed to the ground. Even when histories describe cities as being completely destroyed, there are often ruins remaining, which can then be redeveloped or rebuilt. This is almost always true, with a few exceptions: Carthage in 146 BCE (which, even then, was rebuilt a century later by Julius Caesar), the Czech village of Lidice, and various cities conquered by the Mongols. The Nazis attempted to do this to Warsaw, with partial success.

Kostof discusses archaeological strata, when remains from various layers exist underground. (p.250) This is an interesting model for ruins, and from a historical point of view, it does a good job at preserving sites in a stable climate for future historical study. However, it has two main shortcomings - the site is not visible, and thus does not accomplish what is presumably one of the main goals of historical preservation, and it does not preserve buildings as living sites with day-to-day functions. This begins to touch on bigger issues with Historical Preservation, a movement which is basically not interested in either history or preservation.

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