Complete texts

The Viewing Effect

Once the demolitions were complete, the remaining city gates (there are four in Bruges, one in Maastricht and nine in Bologna) began a new cycle. Once separated from the ring of the wall, annoying because of their construction was based on the exercise of control and perceived as a constraint, the gates remained, a non-functional leftover. With the loss of function, the spatial theme also collapsed and the buildings lost their semantics. Often right in the middle of the busiest traffic intersections (Bologna), they were shifted to the edges of the thoroughfares (Bruges). Traffic circulated more and more around them rather than through them.

The iconography of the printed (post)cards is associated with this phase. The assignment for the visual record was to redefine the gates. In fact, Verbrugge had tried to do the same thing a hundred years earlier. But at that time, the loss of function was not such an extreme phenomenon. The gates no longer had a military purpose, but they did still exert control, as movement and transport were still passing through them. Verbrugge interpreted all that by seeking out a harmonious integration of the gates between water and flora. His city gates did not shut out things rural, but were a part of the rural landscape.

The iconography of the printed cards negated the gates as things in their own right and made them the object of an entirely new perspective, that of the display (of the same order and value as Benjamin’s definition of the ‘exhibition’). The image made it abundantly clear that the gates could be looked at, observed. The vantage point was wide. It copiously showed the structures and growth around the gate. Growth around the monument (for this is what the gates had now become) became an exposition space. The recent reconstruction of the Porta Galliera in Bologna convincingly brings this museum-like presentation up to date. In the same way that a city was once presented on a scale to its patron saint, so today does a kind of museum space slide in place around the functionless gate.

In Maastricht, in an extremely radical manner for the 1880s, a comparable ‘observation’ effect was generated between the two bastions, Haat en Neydt and the Vijf Koppen. Victor de Stuers, although so sympathetic to the cause of preserving patrimony, carved a fantasy gate into the old wall. This Poort Waarachtig (The ‘True Gate’, identified on a printed card from Liege as ‘old’) became a playful (and clearly rather kitsch) mediaeval fantasy intended to brighten up the route from a well-heeled neighbourhood outside the city into the city centre. There could be no more poignant illustration of a radical disappearance of military history or the three-dimensional theme of the walls. This 19th-century fantasy is also found at the centre of one of Maastricht’s historically and semantically richest areas, the Nieuwstad. Here we also find the Jeker delta, an area where the demolition stopped, and which once housed the city’s underbelly – its slaughterhouse, pesthouse, blood pit and leather tanners. The way the firm of Werry-Beck in Liege visualized the Poort Waarachtig speaks volumes. It is a crystal-clear visual statement. The new city gate can be seen both as an empty symbol and an aesthetic pirouette. Charm was primary and their contemporaries were clearly able to give that charm visual expression. It certainly was something of a smear on the culture of conservation, but on the other hand, it gave the preservation of monuments a kind of solidity. This was not an operation carried out without a sense of values – fortunately – but was itself a cultural choice. Conservation can also be a method that violates the past: violence as a sign of vitality.

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