Whats your religion? and: where do you come from? These are questions that you very often hear or ask yourself. And you can be sure that, when you meet a person for the first time he or she will check out if “everything is there”. To know about a persons background and history as well as about his functionality is not enough. What makes a person special is what makes him special, different, his or hers creativity.
This insight is also valid for a place or a city that you think is attractive. The attractivety has to do with the story the place has to tell, it’s history, with it’s functionality but also with what makes the place special. Every person and every place or object needs all three aspects: history, functionality and creativity.
I learned this reading this article by Waldemar Herngreen. Originally it was printed in a Dutch magazine: De Blauwe Kamer. I had it translated in English.
The country, the barracks and the city
Ever since Adam, Eve and the Serpent, no one has been able to make any real sense of the world. You can only perceive a small fraction of all the things in existence, not everyone perceives the same things within the spectrum of existence, people perceive things that only exist because the people perceive them, people can give a thousand different names and meanings to perceptions and associate them in another thousand different ways. The world consists of a thousand riddles, a thousand stories, a thousand partial solutions.
So what, as a human being, do you do about it? Ever since Adam, Eve and the Serpent, people have been trying to find their way through the mist of time and space with three archetypal approaches. The country way, the barracks way and the city way.
If you follow the country way, then life is all about survival in a world full of dangers. You see demons from the corner of your eye, although when you look closely there’s nothing there after all. But you still know they could strike any time. The world is complicated and puzzling, a mystery, and that’s no fun at all. Riddles are encountered every day and are part of nature. You have to placate nature with rituals, with totem poles and dances of death, with sacred objects – and just hope that it will help. Words, signs, symbols all refer to ungraspable, threatening realities. In order to escape destruction you have to remove everything from your environment, from nature, which endangers your survival – but you never know if nature may ‘strike back’. As a consequence, utility and danger are inextricably bound together. As humans it’s essential you stick together: one organic group, constantly struggling in fear and reverence to stay one jump ahead of fate. This is the cautious, often suspicious way of the country, which is also the way of many environmental organisations.
The second approach is the way of the barracks. Perils are warded off with clear and simple knowledge. Meaning and function are one and the same. If you can’t see it with a steady gaze then it doesn’t exist, isn’t allowed to exist. Mysteries and riddles are there to be solved. The world is one-dimensional and consists of known facts, clear objectives and tried and tested techniques. Ambiguity is dangerous nonsense. The spatial environment is the sum of precisely definable production methods and equally precisely definable ecological, cultural-historical and recreational goals, linked to concrete, catalogued elements. If you maintain this situation, then the landscape will be orderly and in order. That’s the philosophy of the barracks, and it’s the philosophy of the office and of management too, along with most members of government, civil servants and consultants involved in spatial planning. We need the barracks philosophy, otherwise the lights would go out and the land would be flooded. We can allow the barracks to determine the conditions for real life, but we must be very careful not to let it determine real life itself.
The third method for dealing with the mysteries of existence is the way of the city. The city acknowledges the things you can only see out of the corner of your eye, but instead of being a threat these things are viewed as opportunities and enrichments. It’s only in mysteries and ambiguities, in stories and poems, in art and play, that human existence really blossoms. This is how the city deals with the mysteries of the world, with the city’s own stories and with the stories of the country and the barracks. It’s only the city that has the ability to play. It’s only the city that values things that don’t directly relate to survival, to warding off danger and to following clear objectives. The city likes the idea of ‘nevertheless’. That’s why the city is also the only culture that values elements and structures in the landscape which are not directly productive and which aren’t featured in the catalogues of ecologists and cultural historians. We’re talking about loose ends, about little hooks for the memory, about favorite corners. The country, the barracks and the city are eternal and ubiquitous, even if narrow-minded pundits with a barracks mentality are always trying to convince us of things like Zeitgeist and ‘national character’, and that you only find urban culture where lots of houses are clustered together (the morphological city) and that country culture only exists in the morphological countryside. Nothing could be further from the truth. Just as the country is eternally and ubiquitously present in the city, with small, closed communities in the greatest cities, with tribes living New York and rigidly orthodox Protestant villages in Rotterdam, so the city is eternally and ubiquitously present in the country as well.