(06) THE AMNESIC CITY
by Raffaello Rosselli & Elsa Dominish

On the coast of the Ligurian sea, the town of Pisa was the base of a successful maritime republic in the Middle Ages. Through war and trade on the seas, the city accrued great wealth and power; with this the city grew intricate buildings and great monuments. The construction of the Cathedral of Pisa became a symbol of the city’s influence and progress. Set within the centre of the great square of Piazza del Miracoli, the cathedral is first viewed at a distance, and accessed down a central axis. This accentuates the buildings symmetry, imposing proportion and geometrical clarity, evoking a sense of divine perfection. 


Cathedral of Pisa Photo: Markus Brunetti

But this perfection is just one layer. Up close, the cathedral is revealed as a patchwork of the past, the building composed from mismatched ancient artefacts — columns and capitals, mixed stones covered with indecipherable fragments of Roman inscriptions and Moorish ornaments. The bricolage is prominently displayed, integrated into its walls and structure, offering a complexity greater than could be envisioned in plan. Sourced from ruins, disasters or spoils of war, these artefacts, referred to as spolia, are preserved in their re-use — offering archaeologists the opportunity to observe the interconnected nature of ancient pasts that would otherwise be lost.


Wall detail of Pisa Cathedral (Photo: Wikimedia)


Architecture exists as an imprint of the ongoing history of human civilisation. As generations are born and die, their buildings endure. But these buildings do not stand still, they are destroyed, repurposed or modified, becoming a complex spatial codex to understand the past.
        Creation and destruction are a natural process of a city. War, natural disasters and neglect were once the main drivers of destruction. Cities would be repaired or rebuilt from the rubble of these events, stitching in a trace of the past into the future.
        Today, the relentless desire for newness is the greatest contributor to the destruction of cities. Buildings are consumed like products, bought and sold at high rates. The economic success of a city is measured in large part by the size of its construction industry. This in turn causes the artificial quantities — productivity and growth — to become the legislative mandate for the future of the city. Knock-down and rebuild is seen as a sign of progress. Each site graded back to tabula rasa and built with new materials. Any relationship to a sites history is lost, as a continuous condition of erasure is perpetuated.  
        This fixation on the new, creates an amnesic city that is constantly forgetting its past. With continuous growth, buildings are now merely a commodity and fashion, traded in with its tenants.
        In order to fuel this insatiable appetite, buildings are designed for shorter lives, not built to age. These buildings never get the chance to accrue the value that comes with age, instead their value is only in their ‘newness’ — in the scarcity or expense (real or apparent) of their materials. But this newness is always losing a battle against time.
        China’s recent hyper-development exhibits an amplified pursuit of newness and a consequential erasure of the past — where towns are erased and new cities built in a single gesture. While most have traded the past to capitalise on this development, Wang Shu’s architecture responds to this process of erasure. Not seeking or able to stop development, he employs the ancient practice of wapan — stacking building remnants into new structures. Although in outcome similar to the use of spoila in ancient Europe, the technique of wapan was born out of necessity and urgency to rebuild after disaster. 
        His work, the Ningbo history museum, is a sited within a sprawling new metropolis. The building’s fabric is constructed from the ruins of local villages demolished to make way for the city it inhabits. These ruins are dry stacked at the whim of the workers in sedimentary layers, creating a complex patchwork. This modern spolia displays the erasures that are so often swept under a carpet, sent to landfill. These walls are not just a reaction to the amnesic cities that surround it, but also have a value that no machine can fabricate, a history.
  Ningbo Museum (Photo: Wikimedia)

Wall detail at Ningbo Museum (Photo: Wikimedia)


Emerging as an economic superpower after decades of hardship, China has put the value of newness above all; this relentless pursuit for the new and the fast pace of development has created amnesic cities. China has demolished 40% of their traditional villages within the last 20 years, the village once abundant is now scarce. The objects in these villages are becoming rare — as no machine can manufacture historicity, an objects uniqueness cannot be replicated.
        Once newness gave an object its value, but now we are in a time where anything can be mass-produced. A new object is easily manufactured and replicated in abundance. The economics of supply and demand predict that in an amnesic city, where objects with history are scarce, their value will increase.
        In the same way that the Pisans valued historical artefacts and Wang Shu values the traditional Chinese village, the principles of spoila or wapan can be applied today. The creation and destruction of buildings leads to vast amounts of materials in landfill, much of which could find a new life. This can create a form of architectural expression and historical connection - weaving in history (ancient or recent) into our amnesic cities.
        Landfills which are a place of forgetting, now become a mine for memories. Filled with things that we once wanted and now do not want, their objects are artefacts with a value due to their uniqueness and a past that cannot be mass-produced.


Elsa Dominish is a specialist in the social and environmental impacts of resources, from mining to end-of-life. Elsa undertakes research to promote a circular economy and improve the sustainability of supply chains for food, textiles, electronics and buildings, at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney.

Raffaello Rosselli's practice redefines and reimagines materials. His design process explores the nexus between history and materiality, and experiments with neglected and waste materials. Raffaello won two NSW architects awards for the Beehive and was shortlisted for the Dezeen emerging architect awards in 2018.


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