Imagine the relief of arrival after travel in the days before printed maps and satellite navigation systems. Tramping along faded footpaths, directions were delivered by people with suspect memories, relying on landmarks in constant change: “the big tree” or a “red barn.” City gates were a welcome sight, validating the traveller’s ability to make the right decision when faced with uncertain choices, and perseverance against the dangers of the journey. Within their enclosure lay safety.
Gateways were built for defense, their narrow passages home to security with guardhouses built into the portal. At the walls of a city, limiting the points of entry cut down on the possibility of breach. Gateways were composed within the defensive wall, at the boundary of the mantled city, the urban swell pressed within, the unknown and unprotected on the outside. Gates were occasional and therefore special; as objects of extraordinary attention, they became decorated and unique, symbolic of their location, the goods they received, and the places they connected.
Locations for gateways did not always correspond with pathways marked by travelers. The axis mundi was the ur-gateway that connected the earth below with heaven above, but even tangible gateways were oriented to invite the local gods. In many cultures, gates would face east to the rising sun, toward hope or Hermes. In other cultures, the proper orientation was site-specific, defined by geomancy toward a mountain, or water, or to collect balanced chi. The gateway was a way of reconciling gods and man, and aligning their journeys to proceed together.
Gateways also make visible the limits of authority and control. Cities are repositories of power, and gateways are the stage-dressing of this power. By providing the triumphal arch and defining the processional route, the laudatory axis, and space for monuments and markers, they reinforce their position not just in the fabric of the city as a place for entrance and egress, but as the frame for an audience to come. Gateways concentrate the image of a city into a single, postcard view, and reinforce the importance of what lies within its precinct. They signify the importance of a city and the pride of its inhabitants.
The Jaffa Gate (in Arabic, Bab el-Kahlil or the “Gate of the Friend”) in Jerusalem once welcomed pilgrims to the Holy City, then formed their last impression as they left. The rigors of the trek – brigands! assassins! camels! – made arrival a vivid relief for pilgrims and traders. This gate is unique among Jerusalem’s eight gateways because the doors are placed at a right angle to the city walls. It may have been constructed in this way for defense, creating a non-linear path to repel battering rams or attacking armies, or simply to orient the gateway in the direction of Jaffa.
Gateways in Jerusalem and other cities were closed every night, and their opening each morning signified the beginning of a new workday. The narrow streets of old cities were as wide as the gates, but traditional masonry arches cannot span across wide modern boulevards. Newer gateways may be framed by a pair of objects (statues, banners, twin buildings, columns). In Rome, the obelisk, beloved marker of Pope Sixtus V, fixed the beginning of streets without obscuring the urban plaza, or the axis beyond. Only in St Louis is there an arch big enough to frame half a continent; only in Mumbai is there an arch to frame an entire sea.
Gateways define the human relationship to the civic terrain, to the center and the edge. But what happens when the edge has been overrun with sprawl, the boundary of within and without made meaningless by interstates? At what point do we enter the city? How do we encounter the edge? In the 1960’s the Mayor of Philadelphia warned, “From here on in, the frontiers of the State pass to the interior of the cities.”
Cities at the edge conditions are equally ready to claim their territory. Solana, developed outside Dallas, Texas in the permissive sprawl of the 1980’s, is no exception. Hoping to intercept tenants for the business park anchored by IBM and potential suburb-dwellers, they hired Ricardo Legorreta to design an interstate gateway of bright, stuccoed towers to arrest drivers’ attention, even at 70 miles per hour. The towers stand at the corners of a square scribed on the land with a water course, uniting the disparate business parks at each corner. The objects in the landscape are made of formal geometries, brighter than the cars speeding by, with saturated yellow, violet, and pink. The lobby of the IBM offices are washed in deep blue. Triangular walls and squared archways of terra cotta complement the natural elements of turquoise water, the dark cypress trees and grass lawns in an arid landscape.
Even the careful attention to the ground plane, the water and the lines of trees, cannot make walking from one set of offices to another plausible. The mile-long trudge is unrelieved by human activity or tree canopy. The era of remote offices at the edge of town has passed, and business craves interaction within the walls once more.
The gateways at the end of a journey are now embedded in a neighborhood, hidden behind unrelated functions, their material borrowed to build fresh monuments.
“If, despite the wishes of postmodern architects, the city from here on is deprived of gateway entrances, it is because the urban wall has long been breached by an infinitude of openings and ruptured enclosures.”[i]
The gateway to a city should be more than a freeway off-ramp, but the place where visitors realize they have arrived.
Gateways remain “the way in” – the vantage points from which we interact with a city, or
examine our relationship to the built and natural environment. We can develop tactile
urban places that no longer require the artifice of the boundary. In a culture and time when crowds can be sourced in a moment and the greatest threats come from within the city boundaries, it is not plausible to build gateways only for parades.
[i] Paul Virilio, “The Overexposed City” in Rethinking Architecture, 384.