Saturday, 5 May 2018

City Living, Past, Present & Future

I love predictive text: the algorithm on my phone has taught it to anticipate my words, thereby saving me the tiresome task of typing my full name and lots of other obvious stuff besides. However, I am not sure when or how it learnt to suggest the word ‘Richard’ after ‘cliff’. It’s not as if I’m a fan. The place we are staying in overlooks a flat roof where a family of seagulls has nested and, while watching the youngsters stretching their wings, I typed a note into my phone thus: “Are seagulls aware of the difference between a parapet and a cliff Richard edge?” Whether they are or not is of academic interest, since it is apparent that seagulls do not care. However, without the building (there being no cliffs in the vicinity) there would be no nest.
The appropriation of our buildings by wild creatures is an unintended consequence of urbanisation – a subject that currently fascinates me. I am staying in the Sicilian fishing port of Sciacca, which is halfway between two of the Mediterranean’s most significant and extensive archaeological sites – the Valley of the Temples to the east and Selinunte to the west – both of which were founded by the Greeks between 600 and 400 BC. The Valley of the Temples is actually a misleading description, since the temples themselves sit high on a ridge, where they were visible to sailors from the sea; but the city they served, Akragas, on the slopes of said valley, was once the fourth largest in the world. Nothing remains of it, save the outline of a few streets, whereas the main temple, Concordia, has survived almost intact. Likewise, at Selinunte, the city of Selinos boasted 100,000 inhabitants and was, at its peak, one of the richest and most powerful cities in the known world. All that stands above ground now is a fragment of a temple (reconstructed in 1958) and parts of its defensive walls. There is also a musealisation (a novel word for my algorithm) of a religious sanctuary. A musealisation is an arrangement of ancient stones set out by archaeologists in an interpretation of what might have been there. I would have liked to see a musealisation of an ordinary, humble dwelling but perhaps that is deemed too mundane to draw the crowds.

It seems that these ruined cities were victims of their own success, sacked by covetous invaders, though it is true that earthquakes, the silting-up of ports et cetera also contributed to their downfall. On a less epic historical scale, the modern, hill-top town of Favara (near the site of Akragas), whilst never in danger of being sacked, did suffer economic decline in the latter part of the 20th century – a common fate of towns dependent on industries that disappear. Two of its residents, however, aim to kick-start a renaissance. They have bought a block of run-down dwellings in the centre and turned it into an arts-cum-creative complex which hosts events, exhibitions and workshops. The morning that I visited, there were just a few other tourists but, by lunchtime, the place was overrun by boisterous Italian families (it was a public holiday), which may be evidence that their plan is working.
The main exhibition there featured the work of Japanese architects who are preoccupied with resolving a particular problem of urban living: lack of affordable space for housing, especially for singles. Miniaturisation is one solution, but it comes at the cost of social isolation so, to counter this, they are experimenting with purpose-built shared houses which minimise bedrooms but make the most of communal spaces to encourage sociability and creativity. It may be reminiscent of student accommodation but they are optimistic for its future. They have even coined a word for their vision of modern urban living – “co-dividuality”. It’s an adventurous concept but my algorithm just cannot get the hang of it.

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