Viewing entries tagged
historic preservation

Resurrecting Ancient Cities from the Dead

Ankor Wat Temple Complex, Cambodia.   Photo by Mitch Sutika Sipus 2013.
Yesterday I read the recent National Geographic article on the new possibilities to re-introduce extinct species of animals into the world via genetic engineering.   The idea is to utilize DNA from animals that have died as a consequence of human intervention, such as the passenger pigeon, to repopulate the planet.  Some researchers felt an ethical obligation to pursue the de-extinction of these animals, others note that due to environmental change, the native habitats of these species no longer exists and that repopulating the species might only lead to its eventual disappearance, again.

I found the article compelling, but it immediately made me question the ability to regenerate ancient cities from the dust.   Rather than continually build new towns on the outskirts of today's cities or struggle with creating a sense of place in newly constructed environments, could we resurrect old settlements to connect the old with the new?  Do archaeological sites of vast cities such as Pakistan's Mohen Darjo or Cambodia's Angkor Wat need to remain isolated like museum specimens? 

I recall last year on a visit to Istanbul, Turkey the amazement that the historic fabric of the urban landscape was so neatly woven into contemporary living.   There was little distinction between old and new, tourist zone and local habitation, business and residential.  Unlike other ancient cities, such as Amman Jordan where the architectural heritage of the Roman Empire sits isolated from the urban core, Istanbul neatly integrated the past and the present.  By resurrecting ancient cities from the dust, we could potentially create more urban environments as harmonious as Istanbul.

Human settlements rarely pop up by accident.  So often they arise when one form of transportation intersects with another - such as a road and a river - and their lifespan is interconnected with the regional economic geography.  By resurrecting a settlement, we could theoretically guarantee a particular type of economic and social success and likewise project a lifespan for the settlement based on our understanding of that settlement's history.  

In this manner,  we would have the choice to utilize or negate previous assets and obstacles to the settlement based on archaeological evidence and historical research.  In settlements that consist of multiple layers of archaeological evidence, diligent mapping of the spatial allocation of artifacts and digital reconstructions might facilitate the conceptual rebuilding of historical events so as to better understand the spatial failures and advantages of previous civilizations.  With a rough map of resource allocation and planning from multiple civilizations, we could better engineer a new city from the old.  

Is this feasible?  No idea.  But if we can resurrect extinct animals, as far back as Mammoths, then why not resurrect civilizations?  

What ever happened to the Russian Culture Center in Kabul?

Russian Culture Center in Kabul 1982 - 2012 (Source)
For the first year I lived in Afghanistan, I would often drive past a massive bombed-out concrete structure of juxtaposing angles and bullet-riddled walls.  Everyday I thought about how I would like to explore this monstrous building, but put it off for another time.  Then last summer I passed by the building on Darulaman Road and saw it being raised to the ground.  I ran up to the entrance and asked the construction workers if I could take some photos and they looked at me with suspicion and told me to leave.  I expected to see an article in the New York Times or elsewhere about the loss of this iconic building, but no one wrote anything.  Nine months later, it is about time someone wrote an obituary for the Russian Culture Center of Kabul.

Destruction of Russian Culture Center, Kabul Afghanistan.  Photo: Sutika Sipus 2012.

Russian Culture Center, Source Unknown
Sadly I did not know the center very well. The old one was torn down with the intention to build a new Russian Culture Center. The original was greatly scarred by bullets and bombings from the 1990s.  It was also famous as a place for opium addicts to convene.

Often when driving past, I had the same taxi driver who grew up in Kabul then spent much of his adult life abroad in Russia.  I asked him if it was safe to explore the premises, and he told me that there are many drug addicts in the building but they are probably harmless.  I then asked him if there were any risks from landmines or other unexploded ordinance and he paused, smiled, then laughed.  After catching his breath he said "you have no need to worry about landmines, all the drug addicts would have cleared them!"  It took me a moment to realize that he meant all the landmines were gone because of the addicts who walked on them.

I also heard that one could find pieces of old film in the rubbles from the film library previously housed in the building.  Blown to bits, none of the film survives, but fragments are scattered about. 

At present there is nothing to replace the Russian Culture Center.  There are plans to construct a new version of the building on the same site, and the plans were to be completed by 2013, but at present there is only some modest construction on site.  If anything does get finished there, I expect it will be about two more years.  Of course who knows what will happen in Afghanistan, in two years, anything could happen.

Proposed Design for Future Russian Culture Center, Kabul Afghanistan.

Humanitarian Aid and Development as a Profitable Enterprise

Ikea as Humanitarian and Urban Planner?
Years ago, I was asked to write an essay for a class on Architectural Conservation.  We had a guest lecture by renown American architectural historian Patrick Snadon who discussed the issues of preserving ugly modernist buildings in contemporary cities, and we were asked to write a reaction to the topic.  My own paper focused on the economic issues in preserving American architecture, as so often city, state and federal governments are asked to inject funds to preserve historic sites when such funds simply never exist.  I suggested that preservationists could utilize more accessible tools, to perhaps utilize strategies that engage the private sector rather than the public.  Sports stadiums, football games, and city plazas typically have corporate sponsors, such as FedEx Field in Maryland and the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans.   Large, wealthy companies vie for the opportunity to sponsor popular sports facilities and in the end, everybody wins.

So why not do this with historic buildings or entire neighborhoods?  Why couldn't Procter & Gamble initiate a large-scale urban development effort?   Private companies have explored this in the past, such as when Walt Disney led the design and planning of Celebration, Florida.  Such actions would facilitate brand loyalty, the companies could plan to include programs to increase their recruiting pool - such as special academic programs in schools that focus on product design or computer programming - and governments are less strained.   Again, everybody wins.

Ikea's Town Plan, London UK
A few weeks ago I read about the massive retailer IKEA pursuing an urban development scheme in London, exploring town planning and development with real-estate company LandProp.  Although some may find it outrageous, I greatly applaud IKEA's interest in expanding their penchant for refined design and cost-cutting production into the domain of urban development. Notably, this new town will not include an IKEA retailer.  Around the same time, I also learned about a large grant from IKEA of 62 Million USD provided to UNHCR for development purpose in the Dadaab refugee camps.  So what does this mean?

Like the idea I had in grad school about corporations spearheading architectural preservation and urban development, I ask why can't this happen within humanitarian aid and international development?  Why is it the sole responsibility of cash-strapped governments and NGOs to aid those in need, to overcome poverty, and to develop sustainable economies of scale?  In many ways, the idea of doing this without financial stakeholders is absolutely ludicrous.  If a company such as Ikea were willing to invest in the reconstruction of a city such as Kabul,  the environmental development of Hargeissa Somaliland, or to invest in a neighborhood in Detroit, they could access a massive labor-pool, expand their customer base with deeply-rooted brand loyalty, and lock themselves into a more profitable future. 

What I think is critical, is that this process does not need to be philanthropic.  Not everyone needs to be the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  It could be a profitable enterprise.  The risk is that we would live in a world where every city, town, and street would be named after Gilette razor-blades, Ivory Soap, and CocaCola but then again, we already live in a world where professional sports and entertainment are dominated by the same vestiges of capitalism.  Buses and subways are covered in advertising, and movies feature endless product placements.  Would it actually be all that different?

So in the end, I ask if it is time to radically upgrade how humanitarian aid and development is undertaken.  If laissez-faire ideologies are going to dominate the global economy, then why not utilize their embedded leverage, to push for the expansion of corporations to integrate all facets of daily life.  

Admittedly the concept goes against my own personal sensibilities. Maybe its a bad idea, maybe it would create an international catastrophe of unparalleled proportion, but then again, maybe it could work.