The Chinese character for city is the same as wall. All city building in ancient China began with construction of a defensive wall, usually made with rammed earth. Construction of a wall against uncivilized hordes (which later became Great) began as early as 221 BCE, but only between 1567 and 1570 was it reinforced and faced with bricks.
Human alliances developed into communities, with a mission to defend against the lawlessness of the wild lands. Utopian visions categorize nature as a place of beauty and fecundity, overlooking the practical matter of hazards found in the wild. Communities found it difficult to compete for food and safety without modifying the untamed lands, clearing the forests, leveling lands for terraces to plant and build, and altering natural watercourses to irrigate and drain grounds for their own purposes. For centuries, humans built city walls to exclude beasts and safeguard property.
We made enclosures to control what we wrested from nature, and to defy our enemies access to the wealth we kept close: home, garden, and store-room. In cities, this need was magnified to keep the entire population safe, and distinguish the people who belong from the outsiders. Only within city walls could places of civil discourse and representation exist, for trade and commerce with other citizens.
In the fields and forests beyond the walls, freed from the regimentation of the ordered city, were places of assembly for other matters: religion, music, dance, sacrifice, and feasting. Beyond the walls of ancient cities lay a permanent margin of agriculture necessary for supplying food to the city, visited daily by those who harvested the crops and orchards. When trouble came, the safety of the citadel was never far away.
In The Laws, Plato confronts the concept of city walls as the primary means of achieving safety. “How ridiculous of us to be sending out our young men annually into the country to dig and to trench, and to keep off the enemy by fortifications, under the idea that they are not to be allowed to set foot in our territory, and then, that we should surround ourselves with a wall, which, in the first place, is by no means conducive to the health of cities, and is also apt to produce a certain effeminacy in the minds of the inhabitants, inviting men to run thither instead of repelling their enemies, and leading them to imagine that their safety is due not to their keeping guard day and night, but that when they are protected by walls and gates, then they may sleep in safety; as if they were not meant to labour, and did not know that true repose comes from labour, and that disgraceful indolence and a careless temper of mind is only the renewal of trouble.”[i]
Walls are an expedient answer to the failure of diplomacy. In Berlin, Belfast, and Bethlehem, walls filled the gaps within discourse and cooperation. These are not walls that enclose people within a space for protection from without; these are walls that divide a populace in two, cleaving the city. This creates a vacuum at the borderline, with definite and consequential barriers to infrastructure, circulation, and visibility. Walls form obstacles to attraction and growth, shaping certain areas as geographic “backwaters” within the city and creating uninhabited places where troubles mount and dead ends strike the options from our journeys.
At first, barbed wire fencing established the border in Berlin, but East Germans found ways through the “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart.” Concrete wall segments were fabricated, 3-1/2’ wide by 12’ high, and incorporated into the field of conflict, sometimes linking hastily abandoned buildings. But as the Berlin Wall was fortified, East German authorities evacuated apartments adjacent to the wall; other buildings had their windows boarded and blocked. Rubble filled the no man’s land between the Berlin Wall and the hinterland (east) wall. Continuous sewer pipes beneath the wall were used as escape tunnels, until they too were interrupted with steel grates. The West Berlin subway system abandoned transit stops on the East Berlin side of the wall, resulting in “ghost platforms.” But the most reductive change was the clearing of “death strips” 20 meters wide or more. All that was left were streets for border patrols, land mines, and watchtowers; historic apartments and homes, some 300 years old, were destroyed, along with vegetation and trees. What was left was sand, intended to clearly mark the passage of any wayward citizen attempting escape. The wall stood from 1961 to 1989, the visible symbol of twenty-eight years of division.
Berlin above, Bethlehem below
Re-unification did not happen overnight, or without compromise. “To commemorate the origin of Potsdamer Platz, the Senate called upon the architects to reestablish the destroyed Baroque 19th century ground plan of the area, which had been characterized by a sequence of streets and public squares and a building height limit of thirtyfive meters. As to the protected Hotel Esplanade and Weinhaus Huth, that bore memories of the “legendary” first third of the 20thcentury, both buildings had to be restored and integrated into the new projects…. All companies were requested to respect the line of the Berlin Wall, that crossed all premises, in their development plans.”[ii] There remains a foundation pattern on the ground with brass plaques and a change in material crossing many public squares, the leitmotif of the joined city weaving across Berlin today. The empty landscape of conflict has not completely filled in. Hundreds of watchtowers were demolished, but five of the hostile monuments are still extant – enough to speak loudly of the fear and anger. Enough to inspire the next generation, in Bethlehem.
Rather than blockades, walls at contested boundaries must be replaced by seams, re-convening their importance as lines of exchange. Bachelard writes, “Outside and inside are both intimate – they are always ready to be reversed, to exchange their hostility.”[iii] Restoring the view from one “side” to the other, re-establishing continuity of infrastructure between political divisions, investing in fluid streets and public spaces, mixing activities and ages, ethnic and religious populations, will assist the recovery of cities in conflict. A wall will never broker peace.
Historically, city walls controlled access in order to make money and demonstrate the sinecure of security, but not necessarily to keep out undesirables. They established privilege, but not isolation or even protection. The articulated gatehouses, elevated walkways, and watchtowers were there to create a demonstration of force, not the actual exercise of force. City walls promoted commerce, which is why they were interrupted at every location that might provide income: ports, markets, and inns.
With the development of modern weapons and aerial assaults, city walls became useless for defense. At the same time, cities were expanding to make way for their growing population, with wide boulevards for new markets and more housing. The wall became an obstacle not from the outside, but to growth from the inside. They had to come down in order to re-establish trade beyond their borders, to extend their city’s control, and to comfortably house their people.
It is futile to wall away a city to make it safe. The danger is from within – human weakness compromises the most secure citadel wall. Eventually, the world beyond the wall can no longer be kept at bay; isolation is not as useful as foreign policy. Graffiti on the Berlin Wall read, “Irgendwann fallt jede Mauer” (Eventually every wall falls). Now, even the graffiti is gone.
[i]Plato, The Laws, Book VI.
[ii]The Politics of History and Memory at Berlin’s “New Potsdamer Platz”
Sybille Frank, TechnicalUniversityDarmstadt. Presented at 6th annual ICOMOS, Annapolis, Maryland, February 24-26, 2003.
[iii]Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, 218