Wednesday, August 10, 2011

On Walls

Years ago now—many—I happened to rise very early and, turning on the television (something very rare, but it happened that morning) I chanced across a lecture broadcast by the University of Missouri aimed at distant learners who rose before the light to get an education.

The professor used photos and art to illustrate changes in architecture over long historical periods in Europe, specifically walls: their absence, appearance, rising height, growing thickness, and flourishing infestation of metal and out-jutting rock-work on top to deny access to those who would enter uninvited. Over time, centuries. The lecture also featured windows in the same way. The professor showed a Roman villa circa 40 AD with a stupendous, generous frontage reminiscent of trophy homes in a modern suburban super-rich neighborhood—and then progressed forward in time. Windows at first grew smaller; next they acquired iron bars; next they appeared ever higher up, beyond the reach of a tall man’s outstretched hand; next, up there, they narrowed, ever more, until at last they had become mere slits sufficient to spy attackers and to aim arrows at them as they advanced. Thus these architectural forms evolved, from imperial Rome to the High Middle Ages, when architecture began very gradually to change again. Windows opened, as it were; and walls diminished.

I watched in absolute fascination. Of course, of course, I kept saying to myself—delighted by the obvious. Slowly but surely architecture will reflect the actual state of society. When cracks appear in the social order, life goes right on, but increasingly those who are able to enclose themselves do so ever more.

Years later—not quite so many viewed from today—a conference took Brigitte and me to Anaheim. Yes, we visited Disney Land. And after that, on a whim, we decided to drive south to San Juan Capistrano using I-5. Along the way we saw many, many walled and gated communities atop flat rises in the landscape, clearly visible from the highway, not least their gates. Seeing them I remembered that lecture, heard by pure chance. And I thought of it again today thinking of the riots in Britain.

The picture I am showing, from Wikipedia (link), was actually built in the early sixteenth century in Santo Domingo, the Americas—but it has such a wonderful name, Fortaleza Ozama, that I could not resist.

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