Posts Tagged ‘sustainable urbanism’

Ciudad Perdida: The Urbanism of the lost city

March 15, 2013

A year ago I was teaching a class about cities, about urbanism. The perspective of that class was the history of ideas about modern city planning from the 1890s through the rise of modernism and sprawl in the 1950s to the Jane Jacobs revolution in the 1960s and its continual reverberations to the present day. We read Glaeser, whom I have reviewed before in this blog, and we tended to think of cities in their modern iteration, as large megalopoli built on huge freighters, large trucks, mile-long trains and cars more numerous than bubbles in a champagne glass, their profiles distinguished by skyscrapers recognizable from miles away, their plans defined by a radical manipulation of the natural landscape. Something entirely different from the cowering walled cities of the medieval world. Something defined, as Le Corbusier was wont to do, by fast and effortless modes of transportation.
LA aerial bS
Los Angeles, a couple weeks ago

Think of the postcards of skyscrapers from the 1920s, always with planes flying around them, cars and trucks bustling at their bases, dirigibles docked on their masts. The modern city was about effortless transportation and commerce, about erasing barriers to speed, whether vertical or horizontal. The skyscraper and the highway, massive and modern.
swfc view hand

So it may seem odd that I am thinking of this having just returned from an arduous six-day trek into the Colombian jungles, up and down the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, in the Tayrona National Park, to the heritage site of Ciudad Perdida, which of course means Lost City. Trudging along jungle paths with all of your gear in a backpack, passing through indigenous villages far beyond the reach of cell phones and the internet, despite constant rain and humidity and insects (ticks especially – they love me – I am a tick magnet), as far as I have been in a dozen years from civilization, sleeping in hammocks, washing in cold water and cooking by wood fires….
Trail 52 river b
Buritaca River
Trail 20 huts
indigenous village
Trail 43
backpacking up the trail to Ciudad Perdida
Trail 8 cook

This is surely the opposite of urbanism, yes? No. At the end of the third day you climb the 1280 stone steps from the Buritaca River to Ciudad Perdida, an amazing collection of stone terraces and building foundations dating back to the 6th century AD and representing about a thousand years of habitation and rebuilding. The jungle swallowed this city, built by a group we call the Tayrona, but over that millenium this was a city in more than just name, for it had those essential qualities of urbanism I mentioned above.
CP 16 main axis best
The main axis or “chapel” area at Ciudad Perdida
CP 55 grdg stones
detail of flag stone

What these people did was level a section of the rough mountain, build stone walls and fill them with rammed earth, then finish it with huge flagstones. Then atop these terraces which flattened the incredibly jagged and heavily sloped terrain, they build round stone foundations for houses. We have no idea what these houses looked like, but there were hundreds here. Most importantly, the Tayrona connected these flagged terraces and circular foundations up and down the mountainside with a surfeit, a positively luxurious quantity of stone staircases, connecting each platform and house not essentially, but in manifold fashion, to the others. There are sometimes five or more walkways leading off of a platform or terrace.
CP 39 terraces houses
This is a modern house of the shaman or mamo, but it gives an idea
CP 42 pathways
CP 76 nice platform
CP 64 stairs main

These might look like rustic stones, but their function is urban. They make transportation in a jungle, along a jagged mountain, easier. There are no wheels or pack animals, so the stone stairs and pathways create the most efficient and speedy and luxurious method of moving people and goods possible in this environment. The city was built and rebuilt, with terraces covered by another terrace, as seen here:
CP 51 jail

The main axis of platforms shown above has been cleared, but the terraces continue into the jungle and more are being discovered. Conservation has included repairing many of the terraces and staircases, but there are always more, because this city was continually being built and rebuilt. We savor the nature here, with more bird varieties in this one national park than all of the United States and Canada, not to mention frogs and snakes and even jaguars and puma.
CP 61 best

CP 46 cirtcles

CP lichen stair

They estimate a population of perhaps 2000, and the number of terraces and rings (to support buildings) are in the hundreds at least. As you trek the three days up (and two back) you have a typically modern concern about the slash-and-burn agriculture which despoils the jungle, yet at its peak Ciudad Perdida was not surrounded by jungle but by farmed land. The jungle we see today, being destroyed for agriculture, is in fact a secondary growth: when the city was at its height this jungle was already destroyed for agriculture. It was urbanized, which is to say completely altered from its natural state.
Trail 40 indig

Trail 942 slash burn

Trail up i10 village

What Global Heritage Fund has done here through our Project Director Santiago Giraldo and together with the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History, is not only help conserve the site, but help build lodges along the way that provide for the tourists making the trek. They also provide development to the peasants and the indigenous, offering more efficient wood-burning stoves, septic systems, training, education and economic development for local communities. We have built one bridge over the sometimes unpredictable Buritaca River, which serves both the indigenous and peasant communities as well as helping the tourists make the trek with one less slog through the water.
Trail 29 bridge

You can support GHF’s work by donating here. You can also make the trek from Santa Marta through various approved outfitters, and savor a city that is in many ways like no other city – “Lost” perhaps, but sharing with all of our cities the basic tenets of human civilization in a form very different from what we are used to.

CP lodge Romauldo SGCP i main iBest

2015 UPDATE:  It turns out the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta isn’t the only place with lost cities.  Try the whole Amazon rainforest.

End of March

March 31, 2009

March is going out more lionine than lamblike and perhaps April will be less hectic – it looks like I am staying in town all month (unless you count two tours to Lockport and Joliet for AIC). Our Masters in Historic Preservation program has a lot going on this month, starting next Monday, April 6 when my seminar class presents our ideas for interpretation of the Armitage-Halsted district to Alderman Vi Daley, the CTA and members of the Sheffield community. This class has done a great job of tackling a range of interpretive elements, from website and brochure and banners to a couple of installations at the Armitage L station designed to get people looking at the amazing buildings of the Armitage-Halsted historic district, with their Renaissance (Baroque) inspired architectural details in metal, stone and brick. Here are a few samples of these delicious buildings:
I was one of the expert witnesses for the district when the Commission proposed it to the City Council back in 2002-03 and it is nice that Alderman Daley wants to promote it some more, because it is largely unmarked and it is special – only 18th Street in Pilsen and Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park comes close in terms of a 19th century commercial streetscape in Chicago. We have some neat ideas (I’m holding the surprise until later) on how to get people to LOOK UP and see the architectural sumptuousness circumscribing their everyday.
Then, a week from Friday, on April 10, we are having a lunchtime lecture at the School’s ballroom at 112 S. Michigan Avenue from Professor Fan Jianhua, who has been our key sponsor for the Yunnan Initiative in China, in concert with the US-China Arts Exchange. Professor Fan published our students who came to Weishan photographing in 2006 and promises to help again when we return this summer.
This last image is one Felicity Rich shot in 2006 – nice view to the North Gate building (1390, dude!) which is a national landmark in China, and rightly so – second largest gate tower after Tien An Men. And it is older.

So, then the following weekend we are doing our practice tours for our six neighborhoods – South Chicago, Auburn-Gresham, Quad Communities (Bronzeville), Pilsen, Albany Park and the Indo-American Museum. This is a project of the Burnham Centennial. These tours go live during Chicago Great Places and Spaces on May 16 so BE THERE!
albany park on lawrence
auburn gresham on 79th
pilsen 20th street
Pilsen Resurrection Project – former St Vitus
bungalows north
bungalows south

April 28 we are having the amazing Doug Farr of Farr and Associates – you saw his Zero Energy House on Channel 11 TONIGHT – speaking in the museum’s Fullerton Hall in conjunction with our evening green preservation class. Two nights later we will have our students’ thesis presentations and the awarding of their pair of Peterson prizes for measured drawings by Walker Johnson, FAIA. In between I have my three classes, a couple of meetings for our China Study Trip and a couple of Gaylord Building meetings.

Then in May it gets busy…