The Siege Of A Fortress

Look­ing around enough in mil­i­tary his­to­ry makes you sus­pect that there is very lit­tle dif­fer­ence between an army and a city; that very lit­tle dif­fer­ence is sim­ply speed. The army is liable to believe that it can move at any moment; the city is liable to believe that it will always be right where it is. To under­stand an army in the com­mon-sense way, as a mat­ter of men fight­ing on the same side, is to be focus­ing at once too nar­row­ly and wide­ly. See the camp fol­low­ers, women and chil­dren, sur­round­ing the camp and almost dou­bling it. See the dis­sen­sion in the ranks – deser­tion, insub­or­di­na­tion, cracks in the great column. 

I spent a long time over the last few years try­ing to under­stand the sense that var­i­ous mil­i­taries had of the land­scape through­out his­to­ry. I impa­tient­ly scanned through Clause­witz, Machiavelli’s Art of War, and all Sev­en Mil­i­tary Clas­sics of ancient Chi­na. And just as you are doomed to fail in under­stand­ing the gar­dens of Tenochti­t­lan or Suzhou through the writ­ten sources left behind, you are doomed to fail in under­stand­ing how the gen­er­als of the past under­stood the land­scapes they marched through. This is not because they nev­er touch on land­scape in their trea­tis­es, but because they always treat it in pass­ing and with­out any sat­is­fy­ing system. 

You actu­al­ly under­stand the rela­tion­ship a gen­er­al might have had with land­scape best by read­ing long pri­ma­ry accounts of march­ing – for exam­ple, in Xenophon’s Anaba­sis. As Xenophon’s group picks their way through Turkey, you begin to see that nat­u­ral­ly enough, before the all-see­ing intel­li­gence of the mod­ern mil­i­tary, armies made do, con­fronting the vagaries of the land they encoun­tered with a reper­toire of habits and tech­nolo­gies that made them resis­tant and resilient. They did not have any great the­o­ry, or mod­el, of the land around them, because they were nev­er safe and remote enough to see it. And it is only until the days of Louis XIV, as the state hard­ens, along with its bor­ders, roads, and iden­ti­ties, that the land­scape hard­ens, in the form of his plans-reliefs, phys­i­cal mod­els that show his for­ti­fied cities in their topo­graph­i­cal context. 

I was try­ing to under­stand all this in order to bet­ter under­stand where cities come from, and how they choose to sit on the land. Because even if these mil­i­taries of the world had no great the­o­ry of the places they occu­pied, they nev­er­the­less occu­pied them. They cer­tain­ly under­stood how to crys­tal­lize peo­ple into space, and more­over how to make those human spaces recur, over and over again.

Of all of things I have seen and felt in the last few months, what I feel most pre­pared to write about in this space is the over­whelm­ing num­ber of ways in which the com­mon space of the city has been rewrit­ten. On one hand, the eeri­ness of the city at this moment is that it lacks ful­ly half its land­scape: the spa­tial den­si­ty of oth­er peo­ple in motion to nav­i­gate around. And when oth­er peo­ple do appear the cal­cu­la­tion of push and pull that accom­pa­nies them has total­ly changed; they are at once more wel­come at a medi­um dis­tance, and more unwant­ed at a close distance. 

Protest is its own lay­er over that basic sce­nario. Rarely in my life­time have protests seemed quite so vis­i­bly orga­nized in space as they are today – when, of course, they are often min­i­mal­ly planned or stage-man­aged. From the social­ly-dis­tanced crowd in Tel Aviv, to the deploy­ment of white pro­test­ers as a shield for black ones, to the stiff­en­ing of the Seat­tle protest into an autonomous zone, we can see a vari­ety of ways in which protest­ing peo­ple are artic­u­lat­ed in space to make mean­ing. As Black Lives Mat­ter” is paint­ed in two dimen­sions on the street, point­ed at the armored White House, one ver­sion of the city appears to be under siege by another.

Dürer’s wood­cut The Siege of a Fortress comes in two pan­els. To the right, giant for­ma­tions of fight­ing men, fizzing rid­ers on all sides, pro­ceed­ing down the cen­ter of a field, with burn­ing towns and placid trees scat­tered to either side. On the left, you can see the force they are address­ing: the giant hull of a for­ti­fied town, entrenched behind a dam­like wall. Hav­ing looked at and enjoyed many grand old por­traits of cities – from Franz Hogen­berg to Matrakçı Nasuh – I feel that Dürer’s pic­ture stands above them, as some­how one of the truest pic­tures of urban life I know.

If there are two ways of see­ing a city, I know per­fect­ly well how land­scape archi­tec­ture serves the root­ed city, the safe city, the state city. But I do not know its place in the trav­el­ing city, the flow­ing city, the insur­gent city. 

(June 2020)