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The City Gates as a Spatial Theme (1)

So what had that function been? The wall comprised a compact and unassailable division between inside and outside. The purity of this black-and-white contrast is one of the strongest imaginary mechanisms of the walls. This makes the impurity of the countless combinations that can be attributed to the gates all the more striking. Here was endless negotiation between inside and outside, during military operations, but equally so in their function as a place for the levying of tolls. There was simultaneous opening and closing of routes going in and routes going out, of passage through and of standing still for checks and controls and then release. The affective colouration that the city gates assumed is extraordinarily diversified.

The gates crystallized people’s ambivalences towards the walls – the very fact that the city was enclosed by the wall. Because of this, it was a zone of spatial and affective turbulence. The unequivocal division between intra muros and extra muros became the ambiguous opposition of going in and going out, between being taken in and being closed out, being shut in and being let loose, between banishment and royal welcome. Countless variations can be thought of, variations that in wartime were reduced to a finite number of fundamental situations: forcing the gates or mounting a concerted attack by breaking through them from within, defending or opening the gates. [9] This is the stuff of archetypical scenes of military tactics covering thousands of years, the epitome of the idea of the walled fortress and the gateway to the city, in which extreme actions and objectives confronted one another in unambiguous, crystal-clear fashion.

In reality, the gates were a far more prosaic construction. They were a place where people supervised and kept things in restraint, a place to exact levies and enforce restrictions, where not the hero but the bureaucracy held sway. Power was always in the centre, delegated out to the gates. In the course of the 19th century, the gates to more and more cities gradually became increasingly dysfunctional urban objects: an obstacle. In photography, but indeed, also in other types of prints, we see no sign of any thrilling theatre of action, but everything that might indicate devaluation. When, in the 1860s, the gates of Maastricht were demolished, or when, shortly after 1900, the walls around Bologna disappeared and only the gates remained standing, the cities’ inhabitants felt not loss, but liberation. The pedestrians along the gigantic construction sites that such demolitions entailed, where hundreds of hectares of new ground was now being generated, were being set free. Citizens, speculators, factory directors, banks – all were elated by the development. Only an extremely small literary elite (Schaepkens and De Stuers in Maastricht; Rubbiani in Bologna) signed their names in protest, supported the taking of photographs to record the event, and mourned the inevitable, the necessary.

The walls were not intended as prison walls, keeping in their inhabitants, but as walls against intruders. It was not keeping in, but keeping out that was the first, primary force of the three-dimensional theme of the fortifications that encircled our cities. The city gate did not fatally slam shut behind your back, but slammed in your face when you wanted to come in. The dynamic of the walls aimed outwards. From the top of the walls, people did not generally look inside the city (that was an aesthetic use), but outside (this was their functional use). The outward perspective meant to keep it all out, even the view. What lay behind the walls was hidden and meant to be kept hidden, a military secret. That the walls were centrifugal is evidenced in the way they developed, after 1500, into ever more forward-thrusting fortifications, as we see in Maastricht, a very good example of an important fortified city.

The gates, in contrast, were the vulnerable beach in the defensive project of the walled city. They were constructed and expanded into massive and ingenious locking mechanisms. The two facades of the gate – facing the city and facing the fields – indicated two different agendas. The façade overlooking the fields spoke the language of defence: it was built outwards, aggressively. So what language did the city side speak? Indeed, the inside façades were not defensive, so what were they? They were a part of the city, façades alongside other façades, the solemn face of a government edifice. Twice, in the late 18th-century prints of Bologna by Pio Panfili, we see how, from the piazza, an entire street courses up to the façade of the gate. It does not permit us to see that the city stops there. It accentuates no awareness of enclosure, but of unbroken continuity. From the inside, the city can only be seen as a city. As radically as – from the surrounding fields – the walls distinguished and divided inside from outside, so radically did the city gate negate all of that from the inside, did they indeed declare that there was the city and nothing but the city. It was as though here, the city folded back on itself, like a wave. This makes crystallization possible – urban, aesthetic, intellectual, as well as political. The walls made the city conscious of itself (reflexive).

Nineteenth-century iconography preferred the views facing outwards, over the fields, and consequently the defensive, most visibly evident military side of the gates (for every three images of the façades inside the city, there are four images from the outside). From the inside, the façades of the Gentpoort and the Kruispoort, in Bruges, for example, make real urban statements. Here, the city gate is a triumphant mirror of urbanity. In Bologna, it was no different with the Porta Galliera and Porta Lame. There, the gates were an arch of triumph, a palace. But the 19th century no longer understood it that way. By then, the gates inspired people only as a military fantasy, not as integrators of urban life.

On the outside, they created discontinuity. On the inside, they generated reflexive integration, and therefore continuity. That motion also became increasingly harder to achieve during the course of the 19th century. On the contrary, the more the walled fortifications lost their military purpose, the more the spatial theme veered from defensive to oppressive. When the walls no longer protected you, you felt they were grasping and gripping on to you. The protective armour had become an oppressive straitjacket. That shift depended on a single, fundamental factor (according to Carlo Cesari): the expanding development of the city. A city that had stable or stagnant populations and industry did not feel the straightjacket and therefore kept its walls.

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