By Meredith Vaga
The fundamental building block of the city is the line. This has been expressed classically through the erection of a wall at the city limit. The line, however, pervades all aspects of the city by marking out every internal layer, from the facade to the street and to the invisible boundaries of districts. In this way, it can take many forms.
The notion of the city as comprising of abutting, and oftentimes polarizing, elements can be traced back to the prehistoric shift from a hunter-gatherer to agrarian society - or the domestication of the landscape through agriculture. When palaeolithic humans transitioned from hunter-gatherers to cultivators of the earth, their relationship permanently shifted from that of existing alongside nature to that of shaping and controlling the land. Consequently, the idea of ownership quickly became paramount.
The primary motivation for establishing these initial settlements was a practical one: palaeolithic hunter-gatherers lived an uncertain life, one whose best chance of success was a scarcely populated area, with (ideally) fewer than ten people inhabiting any given square mile. Roughly fifteen thousand years ago, as the world began to warm up at the beginning of the transitional Mesolithic Age, the more favourable climate conditions led to increased human populations and an abundance of new plant and animal life; the warmer earth also resulted in the decline of the existing colder climate animals who prehistoric humans had depended on as a key food source in their survival. As these compounding conditions made hunting even more unreliable, the first instances of permanently settled hamlets and villages, usually clustered around a new, abundant maritime or tuber-based food source, began to crop up. This basic change in lifestyle precipitated the clearing and cultivating of the freshly settled land for the purposes of harvesting a variety of plants, and the domestication of both working animals and guard animals/pets such as the dog. Together, these changes signaled the beginning of the Agricultural Revolution and the Neolithic Era. For the first time in human history there was an elemental separation between the land inhabited by humans and the wilderness beyond.
The changing food supply was not palaeolithic humans’ sole motivation for claiming parcels of land; prior to the move towards agriculture and these permanent hamlets, there had existed a long history of prehistoric meeting places to which humans regularly returned. Such spots were founded in specific natural sites that were believed to hold a unique quality or function for the people using them. The places ranged from an especially fruitful spring returned to annually, to a secluded cave where different nomadic groups met to engage in trade. As these sites evolved, many started to emerge as shrines and were used for ceremonial purposes beyond their initial practical ones. Prehistoric shrines memorializing the dead became key places and points of pilgrimage to which people ceremonially gathered and periodically returned to communicate with, and to appease, their ancestors. These ceremonial spots holding both the physical remains and the spiritual presence of ones own familial line were then places over which one could claim ultimate ownership.
Within this context, it seems that the establishment of both fixed meeting places and permanent dwellings were predicated on the notion of possessing distinct portions of the landscape. Following this line of reasoning, the impetus of the future city appears to be founded on the dual needs for ceremony and practicality, which necessitates a shift towards territorial control.
Once prehistoric humans had made the break from their nomadic past, they had to go about articulating the edge of their new and different territory. This necessity again had dual purposes: practically speaking, whole swathes of land were now being claimed by different bands of people and the limits of settlements were quickly becoming areas of contention. Physically demarcating their boundary through the erection of walls or other built elements served to protect and defend a groups’ perceived territory. Culturally speaking, the symbolic definition of the urban boundary served to affirm the separation of the civilized city from the natural wilderness, with the implication being that the city functioned at a higher order than the lawless, savage outside. It was necessary to physically and symbolically leave behind elements of the natural world in order to carve out a discrete urban enclosure.
Through this need to physically and culturally define what constituted the urban realm, all cities created a condition of disjunction as they became inherently man-made ‘built’ places separate from the natural wilderness. With the city rooted in a rejection of what is perceptually ‘wild’ or undesirable, these places emerge as unsettled zones held in tension by the ongoing suppression of the world existing beyond their borders.
The perception of the city, however, has vacillated between that of a sacred place embodying the ideals of civilization to that of a profane place embodying the base aspects of human nature. As such, the division inherent to all cities is not just a division on the urban periphery at the deliberate boundary between the city and nature, but is a core division between what is perceptually ‘civilized’ and what is perceptually ‘wild’ within the city itself. These overarching internal divides will always manifest as a materially perceptible division particular to each physical urban place.
If the underlying tendency towards division can be traced back to those primordial foundational moves, the specific conflicts within an urban site are expressed through the resulting byproduct of ownership. However, the city is not solely an autonomous personified organism. Cities persist through ongoing habitation by people. The way in which humans appropriate and self identify within their collective cities gives definition to this serious and pervading dispute as to who owns what part of the physical land, from meagre houses or properties up to neighbourhoods, districts and whole cities.
On an elemental level, recalling the base human instinct to survive, ownership becomes about establishing roots and claiming a lasting part of the world for oneself; to foster a tangible sense of belonging and connection within a larger generational thread. On the other hand, looking at cities as composed of complex societies, the concept of ownership has evolved to be expressed through a collective desire for power, capital and control.
Given that the city is based in opposition, and accepting that the conflicting nature of humans will render the tensions specific to their unique urban congregations, there are then at least three fundamental ways in which these schisms are expressed. The site-specific separations will ultimately be based in either a socio-economic division, an ethnic or religious division, or a division based on incompatible political ideologies. Due to the way in which people tend to congregate towards groups based on perceived similarities, the friction in defining these overlapping zones is exacerbated by the fact that each specific group is as much claiming ownership for themselves as withholding and rejecting ownership from their perceived ‘other’.
Some physical examples of this within the city include: religious and ethnic persecution such as with the historical Jewish walled districts, or xenophobia to the degree of physically severing ones city to prevent access or association with the ‘enemy’; socio-economic differences between the extreme poverty and isolation of poor districts and slums against affluent areas such as gated communities; and politically, the repeated examples of power struggles on various urban scales, most famously the iconic example of the Berlin Wall physically bisecting the city in the twentieth century, creating a literal microcosm reflecting both sides of the Cold War.
Culturally, divisions within cities can always be perceived through clashes between groups of people, both the powerful and the disenfranchised. These can be seen through permanent interventions including the literal marking of territory through art, architecture and other physical methods of denoting ones presence, be it the classic expressions of statuary and monuments to the underground and potentially subversive expressions of graffiti and guerilla art. Additionally, there are abundant temporal expressions of conflicts including; parades or demonstrations, spontaneous riots or planned occupations, and, in the most antagonistic cases, warfare.
While the city is defined by its boundaries and borders, the city was founded in duality. Although edges are conventionally seen as the extents or limits of property, they alternatively can be understood not as the point at which something stops, but rather the point from which something begins. The edges of a boundary are then simultaneously lines of separation and veritable centres for the two sides they necessarily determine.
In this way, looking at the boundary as a center calls up the idea of a threshold, a place that both facilitates the separation defined by the wall or barrier in which it lies, while, by physically allowing passage between the two halves, conversely functions as a meeting point where the two sides converge. Consequently, herein lies an opportunity for the fractious city to forge connections between its contentious landscape, whether it be an individual moment or a collective shift towards reconciliation. These in-between threshold places existing within the borders thus have the unique power to gather disparate people and transform or reconcile seemingly insurmountable fundamental clashes through a paradoxically fractious and neutral presence within the divided urban world.
Meredith Vaga focuses on questions of urban and cultural heritage, identity and design. Recent work has centered on examining the conditions of divided cities and the built places in-between. She holds an H.BAS and a Professional M.Arch from the University of Waterloo and is an architectural designer based in Toronto, ON. www.mvaga.ca
Featured illustrations by Daniel Rossi.