The Death of an almost eternal city comes with its recognition for UNESCO, or so say the residents of the city of Split, Croatia.
In my previous posts on the series Space in and out of Time I commented briefly on the phenomenon that this specific city of cultural significance exhibits and this time I would like to focus a bit more thorough on the lessons and threats that this precedent teaches and predicts.
The city of Split was founded in 305 AD when Roman emperor Diocletian built a fortress for his retirement years. Ever since the inhabitants of the area have found shelter within the walls of the fortification and continuously changed it – through its long history the city has been part of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Republic of Venice, the Croatian Kingdom, Italy, Germany and up to contemporary Croatia, all through the ages inhabited by people from many nations and tribes. Architecturally, each one of those periods in the history left a mark, curiously interweaving with previous ages. Walking around the town today, visible scars of every generation are carved in the white stones of the building, and there is something poetic and beautiful about it. But all poetry ends in recent years when the city is discovered by mass tourism as a trip highlight.
The old town of Split, including everything within the walls of the Diocletian Fortress was declared by UNESCO a World Cultural Heritage Site in November 1979. This faithful recognition brought a lot of innovation and positive development in the region – cleaning up of the underground spaces, previously used as garbage dumps and a lot of scientific and conservation work was done on the structures. However, it also put it on the map for the general public to discover and along with that came also aggressive merchandise and private corporations. Since then the city is flooded with exterior air conditioners hanging from the walls, plastic chairs on every free spot and huge and shiny shopping windows. And most devastating of all, as I would argue, is the consequence of most of the genuine residents moving to a different part of town, often with regret and despair.
Local inhabitants play a crucial role in the preservation and simultaneously the development of architectural heritage. Their personal engagement with their surrounding, gives them a unique sensitivity and conciousness how to treat their homes. For they know that the life of this home is supposed to last longer than their own. A strong public opinion in Split has already prevented much damage when for example in 2007 a petition was issued and won by the public against the construction of 20 new buildings and a garage within the boundary of the old town.
The treasure that the fortress holds within its walls today consists not solely in the immensity of the preserved structures, but rather in the precious example it gives for a building and area, inhabited by people of different ethnic groups, social status, national heritage and most of all separated by so much time, can share a single space out of time, and in this way continuously write history in architecture, filling it with life.
In an essay called Give me a gun and I will make all buildings move : An ANT’s view of Architecture, Bruno Latour and Albena Yaneva seek for a theory for how a buildings “flight” and life can be measured and studied. A very interesting parallel is drawn with the way we study the flight of a gull : such studies were only possible after the invention of the so-called “photographic gun” which would allow to photograph a sequence of a bird in flight – for learning about flying from a dead bird is not possible. Only a living bird can fly. Likewise I argue that one can only learn about a building or a city as long as it is still leading the life it was destined to. A static exhibition of a city is not a city, an isolated view of a building doesn’t represent its architecture.
To quote again the director of Venice Biennale Paolo Baratta as he said “We live with our memories, but survive thanks to oblivion”. That survival is now hanging on a thread for the city of Split.