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The Stuff of Cities: Resources and Waste in the Urban Landscape

Rebecca Williamson, University of Cincinnati, Summer Fellow 2011

This summer's research is part of a larger project exploring how residents and rulers of European cities in the period before the Industrial Revolution viewed movement of resources and waste, and how their understanding affected perceptions and choices regarding the urban landscape. It is about the way pre-industrial societies came to think about the possibility of modern infrastructure, so that when the technical means became available, they were able to implement ambitious schemes.

Well before the great infrastructural operations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, collective living had become an aesthetic and political challenge. Piranesi's eighteenth-century etchings of sewers evoke the physical grandeur of past constructions. Francesco Milizia, Piranesi's contemporary, argued that the unadorned sewers were beautiful constructions, far superior to the overdressed Baroque. His argument went beyond form to observe the political achievement of collective action to produce a shared benefit while elevating the most banal of functions.

This investigation examines the relationship between designed interventions and the political, economic, and scientific assumptions that they reflect. It probes the structures of thought that brought the modern city into being and exposes dilemmas encountered along the way: tensions between individual and group, between planning and improvisation, and between movement and stasis. It addresses contemporary attitudes toward the environment indirectly, reflected in the mirror of the past, so that the present can be seen as if at a distance.

The fellowship at Dumbarton Oaks has provided an opportunity to situate my research through a review of both older and more recent literature related to the topic, ranging from historical studies of Roman and Medieval urban space to recent writing on environment, urbanism, and ecology. It has been a time to examine the significance of the work beyond its scholarly, historical content, and to assess its relationship with current practices and problems. The result is a more rounded sense of the context of the study, which I intend to publish in book form in the near future.