Complete texts

The Gate Versus the Wall (A Spatial Theme: 2

In the process of deciphering the body of 19th-century images of the fortified walls, the opposition of the wall to the gate and vice versa becomes increasingly striking. Both belonged to the same system, but they played very different and opposing roles within that system. The wall was meant to be an impenetrable barrier. The gate was a breach in that enclosure, one which could be opened and closed. At one moment, it had to be as much a barrier as the rest of the wall, but at the next, it had to do just the opposite, allowing everything to pass through. This explains the characteristic mechanics of the gates with doors, drawbridges and iron grating. It explains the installation of the more recent gates (as in Maastricht), with a dogleg in them, so that a single shot could not knock out the whole system at once. City gates were a true machine – a regulatory machine, like sluices, or indeed a camera. The building itself was constructed around that machine.

As a regulator of transitory movements, the gates turned on all kinds of hinges. The door – the drawbridge – made 90-degree movements between open and closed, between raised and lowered. It was the source of a plethora of turbulences between opposed powers and aims, and all of this primarily took place along the axis of the road over which the gate had been built.

Fundamentally speaking, the gate was in fact part of a completely different line, as a part of the closed circle of the wall. Each gate cut through that circle in order to provide access for one of the spokes of the circle. There was very little motion in the circle itself (in contrast to the later construction at the same locations of the ‘circolares’, the belt avenues or rings). The wall blocked off the outside, and it did not stimulate any significant parallel movement. The path through the gate was economical – it was the shortest way into the centre. Along it were shops and small businesses. Through it passed the transport of goods and people, into and away from the centre. Speed had priority. It is in fact no wonder that the braking or arresting function of the gates was an irritation. The circle, on the other hand, was quite another matter. It was not a short, but a long route. It went nowhere, was not directed towards any centre. It was a route for wasting time, for taking a walk. This is how the remains of the walls are used today, in Bruges, in Maastricht, in Ferrara, in Lucca. City gates were therefore also a pivotal point between gaining time and losing time, between the economical and the uneconomical trajectories, between the connections between things that differ from one another (a city centre and its outlying villages) and the continuous connection back to the same thing (the complete circuit around the city), the ultimate something caught up in aesthetic reflexiveness.

If, in the spatial substance of the wall, we take up a position on top or alongside that wall and allow the circle to dominate, we make a very specific choice. We turn the city gate into an aesthetic object. This is what Verbrugge did in Bruges in the late 18th century, what Charlier very recently did in Brugge Her-zien, in 1986, what Berssenbrugge did during the belle époque and what Schaepkens did in Maastricht in around 1850.

The gate therefore not only negotiated between inside and outside, but was also the juncture between circle and line, rapidity and slowness. The city gates were a place of spatial, military, economic and social turbulence. Here, where everything narrowed, things were jostled together. Distinct classes, actions and systems became interwoven. This controlling, supervising space was also (or indeed, because of this) a space of disarray. Different temporalities collided together. It took on a military, bureaucratic logic, again and again. To neutralize all this, the most radical of steps was necessary: dismantlement, demolition. Understandably, many cities chose the most radical solution, mercilessly eradicating the three-dimensional theme of the fortified walls from their cities’ vocabulary. What they gained in freedom (is this an equivalent for the urbanity of Baudrillard’s disastrous ‘libérations’?) was at the same time a loss of the turbulence. In its place came the ‘viewing’ effect.

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