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Landscapes of Pre-Industrial Cities

Posted On August 10, 2017 | 16:30 pm | by baileyt | Permalink
The 2017 Garden and Landscape Studies symposium

On May 5 and 6, Dumbarton Oaks hosted the 2017 Garden and Landscape Studies symposium, “Landscapes of Pre-Industrial Cities.” Organized by Georges Farhat, of the University of Toronto, and Garden and Landscape Studies Director John Beardsley, the symposium set out to examine processes of urbanization in pre-industrial environments, questioning longstanding definitions of urbanism and ranging across continents and centuries in search of a renewed understanding of how early urban environments formed, developed, and interacted with the natural world.

The symposium began with opening remarks by Beardsley and Farhat. Describing our historical moment as an urban one, with half of the world’s population firmly ensconced in cities, Beardsley suggested that “one of the great challenges of our age” will be the managing of these cities, and the social and spatial inequity their forms produce, into the future. Farhat argued that the phasing-out of traditional conceptions of urban landscape, premised as they often are “on late Western divides, like rural and urban, that prove less and less applicable in our age,” has generated a need to interrogate these outmoded theories, to determine whether they might be tweaked and salvaged—to examine, for instance, if and how “nature-culture binaries might remain efficient” to address developing urban landscape regimes.

The symposium, divided into six thematic sections, kicked off by examining “Invisible Ecologies.” In his talk, entitled “What Constituted Cahokian Urbanism?,” Timothy Pauketat, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, examined the pre-industrial landscape of the titular Pre-Columbian site, one of the few large urban sites in North America. Pauketat argued that the environment of Cahokia, as experienced by its residents at the time, could best be understood as an “affective field” of natural materials and phenomena that pulled its human inhabitants into strange new relationships.

Located across the Mississippi River from the modern location of St. Louis, Missouri, Cahokia was ascendant during a medieval warm period. Its inhabitants lived in a “muddy, pernicious climate, where rain fell in torrents and without cessation.” Their lives were richly interwoven with the natural world: “the auditory effects of frogs” in the surrounding marshland, the frequent environmental signs that harbingered rain, the haloes that hovered round the moon all contributed to a pre-industrial landscape that, in the words of Pauketat, “embodied non-human agencies.” Ultimately, Pauketat posited that the materiality of the city—made of wood, not stone—might indicate its extemporality. In other words, the relatively porous city of Cahokia, home to insects and waterfowl and amphibians whose numbers rivaled its human inhabitants, might have been intentionally fleeting. “It might have been made to be forgotten, and left behind,” Pauketat explained. Such an inbuilt mechanism, he closed, would have acted as a “material dimension of the short-term prophetic movements” that periodically reoriented the spiritual aims of the city and its inhabitants.

Suzanne Preston Blier, of Harvard University, continued the day’s proceedings with a similar emphasis on materiality. Her talk, “Walls that Speak: Landscape Factors in Early West African Urban Centers,” looked primarily at the emergence of planned walled cities in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Nigeria, particularly the ways such cities conformed to preexisting landscapes and incorporated them into their eventual designs. While we customarily think of walls as defensive entities, Blier argued that what was held inside the walls of West Africa was ultimately more important than what fell outside of them. Proceeding from several case studies, including later developments in Ketu, a site located in the modern-day Republic of Benin, and cities in the Kingdom of Dahomey (which existed from around 1600 to 1894), Blier analyzed the complex inward divisions along political, economic, and religious lines that arose behind city walls and ordered life within them. Dwelling on Ile-Ife, in Nigeria, Blier traced its development, including its planning by King Obalufon, the production of Ife glass in the fourteenth century, and the environmental factors, like the large hill it rests on and the marshes that surround it, that altered its development. After noting the tendency within similar cities to divide the walled-in space according to sovereign deities or the movement of annual ceremonies, Blier closed by proposing a shorthand definition for urbanism: “the encoding of a belief system in spatial form.”

The complexity of internal ecologies was likewise a theme pursued by Priyaleen Singh, of the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi. Her talk, “The Weave of Natural and Cultural Ecology: Ekamrakshetra—The Historic Temple Town of Bhubaneswar, India,” examined the evolution of public space over hundreds years at the site of Bhubaneswar in east India. Initially developed from the sixth to ninth centuries CE as a pilgrimage center, the greater part of the town’s present urban form descends from this period. As a result, the “sacred geography” of the space—its arrangement of temples and stone water tanks—came to determine the arrangement of social life. “Temple festivals guided the community life, in fact the temples were the epitome of social and cultural life,” Singh explained. “The open-space systems” where socializing took place “were informed by and structured around the temples.”

Redesigned after Indian independence by the German planner Otto Koenigsberger, the city “literally turned its back on the old town,” and assumed secularized Western forms. “The old town was based on human movement and scale,” Singh explained, “its open spaces blurring the boundaries of work and recreation.” Under the spatial regime of the new design, new road networks created barriers to water flow, frustrating the ecological balance the temple-based life had fostered. Public spaces were reduced to traffic islands; pools putrefied, and some of the abandoned tanks today face the threat of being replaced with parking lots. Arguing that “living historic towns and cities embody timeless concepts of sustainability” that are currently reentering scholarly and design vocabulary, Singh closed by advocating for the benefits of a socialist ecological perspective, one that recognizes the profound “synergy between natural and cultural ecology” and that is “worshipful, rather than religious, valuing nature and the options it offers for a better way of life.

Hendrik Dey, of Hunter College, the City University of New York, continued the day’s interest in the alteration of ceremonial space. His talk, “Landscape Change and Ceremonial Praxis in Medieval Rome from the Via Triumphalis to the Via Papalis,” uncovered the repurposing and restructuring of monumental corridors in Rome in the late antique and medieval periods. Around 500 CE, as Dey explained, “the bones of the ancient city [were] still there,” though they were occupied by a dramatically diminished population: “The built environment of Rome is so comparatively massive that it can be treated almost like a geographical factor, a natural occurrence.” The Via Triumphalis, or Triumphal Way, the central parade route in Rome, steadily accreted “a strange assemblage of monumental architecture,” porticoes and arcades that served to mask the decline tucked just out of sight. It was only in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries that the Via Triumphalis was abandoned as the central route for ceremonial processions in favor of the Via Papalis; the bulk of Dey’s talk was devoted to excavating the environmental and human factors, including increased flooding and human activity, that precipitated this switchover.

In the next talk, “The Phnom Kulen’s Capital: A Singular and Early Case of Urban Planning in Ancient Cambodia,” J.B. Chevance, of the Archaeology and Development Foundation’s Phnom Kulen Program, sought to uncover ancient landscapes near Angkor, the capital city of the Khmer Empire. While scholarly research has often focused on the standing temples of Angkor, most notably Angkor Wat, recent research, aided by technological advances including the LiDAR surveying method, has made a number of important discoveries, including an early urban network located on the top of the Phnom Kulen massif, roughly forty kilometers north-east of Angkor. While the agrarian plain of Angkor has long been subject to spatial modification, the mountainous terrain of Phnom Kulen, and its quickly abandoned development, has left researchers a unique snapshot of urban adaptation to a constraining environment. Chevance’s talk set out to schematize the more than twenty square miles of urban landscape left at Phnom Kulen, focusing on water elements within the landscape—the dikes, canals, dams, and ponds that allowed for the cultivation of rice and moved outward along a strict geometric design from the source of the Angkorian hydrographic network at Phnom Kulen.

Christophe Pottier, of the Ecole française d'Extrême-Orient, Paris, also discussed the Angkor civilization, aiming, like Chevance, to move beyond traditional conceptions of Angkorian urban environments that were evolved mostly by studying monumental remains. Likewise utilizing remote sensing techniques (aerial photographs, satellite imagery, and LiDAR), Pottier described recent research that has looked at the “human and environmental context” of the temples, that is, the networks of sites and infrastructure surrounding the temples that have, in the past, gone unseen and unconsidered. Within this larger spatial perspective, Pottier showed, new aspects of Angkorian civilization come under consideration, including habitat densities, hydraulic and agrarian systems, and pathways of production. Since the 1990s, when new surveying methods became widely available, a different narrative of Angkorian urbanism has emerged, one in which monumental temples appear as the spectacular outgrowths of a complex engineered environment developed over centuries yet always capable of altering itself and adapting permanent sites, like the temples, to its new form. Rather than exhibit a clear and periodic sequence of urban development, with large but fleeting secular and religious centers cropping up over time, Pottier contended that Angkorian civilization was typified by a “resilient” and large low-density urbanism.

Timothy Murtha, of the Pennsylvania State University, closed the first day of the symposium with a talk that considered the fluidity of the meaning of “urban.” “Landscape and City in the Ancient Maya Lowlands: Regionalism, Settlement, and Ecology” countered the “low-density” narrative of Mayan cities, with Murtha arguing instead that they are now largely considered urban—though he added that “what urban means in this context is highly debated.” As new urban models are developed by scholars, population estimates for the Maya continue to rise, though Murtha contended that normative conceptions of pre-industrial urbanism, which link population density to sustainability, shouldn’t define the way we analyze the Mesoamerican urban tradition. Describing his method as “landscape regionalism,” Murtha explained the importance of studying Classic Mayan cities, like Tikal and Caracol, with an eye for how region—the spatial patterns of land, water, and agrarian systems—is expressed within the cities. Ultimately, Murtha concluded, Mayan cities might best be described as “landscape mosaics.”

The symposium’s second day commenced with a pair of talks on the subject of water management. In “Monsoon Landscapes and Flexible Provisioning in the Early Historic Cities of the Indian Subcontinent,” Monica L. Smith, of the University of California, Los Angeles, discussed early landscape management practices in the monsoon belt of Asia. Focusing on three ancient sites—Kausambi on the Ganges plain, Sisupalgarh in eastern India, and Anuradhapura—Smith traced the ways in which knowledge of regular annual flooding (so-called “normal floods”) allowed for the development of distinct agricultural strategies. These strategies in turn produced an infrastructure comprised of both permanent and temporary structures; reservoirs were permanent, while land boundaries and bunds (embankments) often disappeared in the summer rains, and were continually being rebuilt.

Jordan Pickett, of the University of Michigan, next delivered “Hydraulic Landscapes of Roman and Byzantine Cities,” which looked at Roman methods of water management from the first to third centuries CE, before moving on to examine shifts in these inherited methods from the fourth through eighth centuries. As Picket explained, differing approaches to water management in fact signaled broader ideological shifts in governance and imperial self-perception. The freighting-in of distant spring water via visually imposing aqueducts, and its eventual public display in the form of fountains and baths, served as a manifestation of power and linked territorial hinterlands to the burgeoning cities in a plan redolent of the network of cities that typified the High Roman Empire. Late antiquity, however, saw a reversal of Roman hydraulic orthodoxy; as aqueducts became more difficult to manage with the broader collapse of imperial structure, cities began to rely on stored water, or were simply subjected to resettlement. These changes also saw a reversal in the hierarchy of water-source potability; where once aqueducts had “produced the miracle, or thalma, of flowing spring water where it did not naturally belong,” spring water lost ground to the rising importance of stored water.

In an elemental shift, J. Cameron Monroe, of the University of California, Santa Cruz, began the symposium’s section on urban forests. “Seeing the Forest for the Trees: Cities and Their Hinterlands in Tropical West Africa” suggested once again that the study of pre-industrial cities stands to benefit from an emphasis on the “broader constellation of settlements” that contribute to urban sites. Limning preexisting scholarly opinions that have posited sub-Saharan Africa as inherently unable to support autochthonous urban development, Monroe asserted that while the influence of external forces—Near Eastern and European contact—was undeniable and integral in the development of urban centers, deeply rooted archaeological evidence suggests that homegrown urban networks existed and contributed to urban development. Urban centers were profoundly integrated with rural hinterlands in a “dendritic pattern,” Monroe claimed, though research into these networks has been hampered by a relative paucity of sites because of dense vegetation and poor site preservation.

In “Xingu Garden Cities: Domesticated Forests of the Southern Amazon’s ‘Arc of Fire,’” Michael Heckenberger, of the University of Florida, proposed approaching the unique landscape configurations present in tropical environs by using the pioneering work of British urban planner Ebenezer Howard. Howard’s 1902 tract Garden Cities of To-morrow considered the city as an “organism,” or “organic form,” a conceptual tilt that Heckenberger believes works well with Amazonian urban environments, which, because of the aggressive and unceasing growth of flora, were not so much carved out of the surrounding environment as “woven” into it. Nature was not tamed, but nurtured, and the urban planning that resulted—dense networks of roads, for instance, that worked with and around the encompassing forest—enacted this shift. Heckenberger closed by suggesting that this pre-industrial approach to living with Amazonian flora could provide insights into modern dilemmas of biodiversity and sustainability as they pertain to the Amazon.

Jason Ur, of Harvard University, continued the reevaluation of early urban models in his talk, “Space and Structure in Early Mesopotamian Cities.” While the development of Mesopotamian urbanism has long been treated as a “classic” model standing in contradistinction to the diversity of urban forms present in other early cities, Ur contended that this view of Mesopotamia is deeply reductive. Drawing inferences from new research at sites in Syria and Iraq dating from the late fifth to the early first millennium BCE, Ur traced the transition from Ubaid village societies through more extensive and nonnucleated constructs to the initial strains of truly urban environs. While Ubaid sites are rarely larger than a few hectares and, like Tell Surezha, appear in field surveys and satellite imagery as “small vertical mounds,” other sites, like Khirbat al-Fakhar, extend beyond a core of mounds to take up roughly three hundred hectares. Questions of settlement density gave way to matters of urban planning as Ur analyzed the great Sumerian city-states where “powerful elite forces reacted to emergent forces.” A city wall commissioned by a king, for instance, was a response to emergent urbanism, while also further accelerating bottom-up urban growth.

Alan L. Kolata, of the University of Chicago, delivered the final talk of the symposium. “The Autopoietic City: Landscape, Science, and Society in the Pre-Industrial World” repurposed a term first introduced in the 1970s by biologists and used by them to distinguish between living and nonliving entities, applying it instead to cities. Centering his discussion on the indigenous cities of the Americas, Kolata contended that a city is “an open and self-reproducing system” that is nevertheless enmeshed in complex connective webs with its surrounding hinterlands and other cities. While his talk sought to examine the ways in which pre-industrial cities integrated natural resources and social processes of production on “an expansive, landscape-scale”—for instance, the reticulated canal and aqueduct system through which the Chimú maximized their economic production—Kolata ceded the occasional deficiencies of the autopoietic view. “Autopoiesis frames society in totally macro terms,” he explained. “The challenge for us in analyzing cities is to integrate or at least to juxtapose in productive ways the macrosociological features of urban life with the microrealities of lived human experience.”