environments as palimpsests

The title of this post pays homage to the writer and photographer, Teju Cole, whom I  came across in my daily grazing of the digital pastures I use to hook up with the rest of the world. His talk at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, called The City as Palimpsest, is a treasure trove of insights and apt descriptions, and palimpsest is such a great metaphor for what fascinates me in landscapes and cities, that I am truly delighted to have hit upon this great artist.


Cities are eco-systems like any other environment, in constant change, the physical infrastructure itself, its use over time, from early morning through late night, the seasons, slower processes like slumming or gentrification, and other ‘historical’ transformations. Teju Cole expresses this sense better than I can by far. He writes about other cities, New York, Brussels, Lagos, but that doesn’t matter because cities to him are like human characters and like those differ in countless ways but also have a sameness at core that is equally defining.

His Harvard presentation is a long sit,  so let me introduce the person Cole with a shorter piece, that has the bonus of starting off with some nice rhythmic sounds:

(it’s got a second part that is really worthwhile, so go your gang)

Anyways, the primary meaning of palimpsest is a manuscript page, either from a scroll or a book, from which the text has been either scraped or washed off so that the page can be reused, for another document. But the faint remains of older layers of writing can often be deciphered. Interestingly, more recently the term has acquired technical meanings in fields like architecturearchaeology, and geomorphology. as a label for an ‘entity’, a landscape, a building, etc. which in its present form carries the traces of its past. Cole’s uses it as a metaphor, and, as he says in his presentation, that usage may actually be more common these days than its original meanings.

The many layers our build environment contains are partially visible, but also/often require all kinds of pre-existing historical and other knowledge (including the unconscious variety that translates into experience without ever revealing its source), to resonate with us. Cole talks about these (and tries to capture them in his photographs) in language that strikes a chord with me. He says stuff like nothing is ever the first erasure on any site, evoking the image of the past before the past and the one before that past, the silliness, or is it perniciousness, of pinning down one past as the proper, legitimate, most important one, or structures are their own memorials, which immediately transports me back to the kind of chilling undertone that grandeur of the Angkor Wat variety has when one realizes the slave labor society that it was build upon.

As an aside: one mostly doesn’t, which is why dictators are so spot on when building follies-on-blood in order to immortalize themselves. Whatever contemporaneous scathing commentaries suggest, over (usually surprisingly short) time the tragedy turns into whispers that are easily drowned out by the triumphant effect grandiose architecture has on our primate emotions, nation-building historical whitewashing and tourism industry interests do the rest.

Let me give you two illustrations of palimpsestic views of cityscapes:

Manhattan’s skyline as a memorial to the last ice-age:

The famous Amsterdam canal district (grachtengordel) as a frenzied building site:

Back to Cole, he is very much the novelist, using art to explore his personal preoccupations or fancies, and very much appeals to me when he says that your work will show you who you are. He didn’t set out to work on cities, he turned out to produce stuff about cities and now that his latest one (a non-fiction book about Lagos) is again about a city he realizes that he has learned something about himself. We discover ourselves in our actions, we write to find out what fascinates us, in my trade it is referred to by some as self-signalling. The subjective is explicit in his reading of the city, which includes a belief that spaces retain the memory of things that happened in them. I can go along with that, more as another metaphor of the effect an environment has on the observer than in the more literal sense that I understand him to take it. We all come to any scene already filled to the brim, and what we experience is infused with what we brought along. So while the city is a palimpsest for all, the specific ‘underwriting’ of the palimpsest varies for each of us.

There is one matter that I thoroughly disagree with Teju Cole about: the place of nature in this story. He self-labels as a city-boy and prefers the urban landscape to the outdoors. A bit of rural hiking and camping, fine, better even a city park to temporarily escape hectic city life, but please, not too much nature. I think it is intellectually more productive to think of cityscapes as just ‘another kind of’ landscape. Although he talks of cities as eco-systems, he doesn’t seem to take that metaphor seriously (yes, ‘metaphor’ because anything involving our species requires taking the mental into account, and as we don’t – yet? given our level of understanding we might equally profit from exploring the anthropocentric mirror-image and analyse landscapes as if they were cities – there is more to cities than a nature-lens can reveal). I’m inspired by people like Lynn Margulis, so no wonder, but I can also point to someone like the great Jane ‘urban planning’ Jacobs, who in her later work on economies moved explicitly in this direction.

Running cities and running trails may experientially differ, but also shares a common core. Cities and landscapes are both species of environment. That palimpsest has acquired technical meanings in both build environment and natural environment disciplines is a telling indicator of that. For those who run to connect with their environment and make it their own, which is admittedly a subset of runners out there, this shared identity can make for uncannily similar experiences despite the very real differences.


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