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Monumentalization

At the end of the 19th century, city gates – and not only the gates – were embalmed. The walled fortifications had once been built and later expanded as a part of the cities’ defensive military infrastructure. Policing, customs and toll collection were easily affixed to that system. In Italy, the demolition of the walls was only contemplated after an alternative tax collection system had been created. Until then, the city boundary was still the ideal place for levying taxes. But when military, police and financial authorities released their connections to the walls, there was no longer any resistance to the city’s desire to be free of them. The modern city was growing, and it no longer chose (pre-modern) concentration and densification to achieve that growth. The modern city opted for expansion and thinning out. The walled city was diametrically opposed to such expansion, for it stimulated ever more densification.

The gates themselves – images of Bologna and Maastricht taken from inside the city clearly show this – were the ultimate location for concentration and accumulation, with additions built on everywhere for the personnel inside the building and for the travellers who had to pass through it. Dubious transactions seemed to be objectified by those additions. The city gate was a restless space, the acme of the Romanesque structure. This was not only because of the fantasies of the ‘boys in armour at the city gates’, but later also because of the fantasy of freedom and escape that had developed in association with the gates. And it was this freedom that in turn generated crime and corruption. All of this lies in the imaginary pool at the foot of the gate.

Monumentalization presupposed demolition of the walls. The gate was freed from the system that had created it. What had once been a dangerous breach in the wall was now the only part of the wall that remained standing. The breach had become a construct. The fragile lock is a compact thing. All the added structures lost their meaning, for now, people wanted to keep the edifice as compact as possible. Bridges across the water, the advance gate on the other side of the water, the guard houses – everything was now cut away. What remained was a central mass that revealed nothing of the complex articulations that had once existed between the wall and the road. The density around the gate dissolved itself into spacious city plazas. The gates suddenly found themselves in open space, a kind of space that completely contradicted their essence. (The Helpoort in Maastricht is a single, powerful exception).

Monumentalization therefore had to do with isolation. People simplified, made overviews possible, cut away the trivialities of life. They constructed urban plazas, which is to say that they created open spaces at the behest of undisturbed visibility, places where nothing distracted one’s attention. They eliminated the semantics until almost nothing remained except something one could look at. This mental restriction and impoverishment was in fact also a form of miniaturization; the postcard was the ideal medium for this trend. It is not without consequence that we preserve something that no longer has a purpose.

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