Foundation and Place Making for a Unique City Walk
— by Sara Keller
A Unique City Walk
In the framework of our recent City Walk, Erfurt revealed new thought-provoking places for our discussions on religion, urbanity and their reciprocal formations. This 4th “Religion and Urbanity” City Walk was a unique edition in many regards. First of all, it resulted from the efforts of local urban and academic actors, who helped to adapt the walk to the current sanitary restrictions. Through the division of participants into smaller groups, we could ensure better and safer conditions; discussions were also facilitated, thus giving more attention to the input of participants and allowing for a real exchange of ideas.
Secondly, the walk was part of the DFG program “DFG2020 – Für das Wissen entscheiden” (DFG 2020 – Deciding for Knowledge). The program aims to communicate the DFG’s conviction about free and knowledge-driven research: Our society will be able to face the challenges of the future if we “Decide in favour of Knowledge”. Living together in more urbanized contexts belongs to these challenges, as does understanding and reflecting on shared memories, or repositioning religious matters within more global issues. For these reasons, our “Urbanity and Religion” group was happy to participated to the program. The City Walk was announced on the “DFG2020 – Für das Wissen entscheiden” website.
A place and its materiality
“Foundation and Place Making” as a theme for our new walk encouraged us to define what a place is and how it takes shape. Place has long been understood through the lens of its materiality, yet this perspective can be enriched with a larger understanding of spatially defined meaning(s).
The visible and tangible reality remains an essential entry to understand and define a place. On the cityscape level, the development of materiality-oriented disciplines such as heritage studies and management, architecture, urbanism and urban landscaping, archaeological investigation etc. facilitate the discussions on space and space making. These fields of investigation are further enriched by the recent exponential development of modern technologies in topography, cartography and archaeology. Computer assisted techniques and GIS systems are allowing increasingly more precise historical reconstructions, 3D drawings of past, current or designed places, deep mapping etc. This results in an ever sharper spatial understanding, including natural environments, historical developments, current challenges and evolution potential. Topography, density, perspectives and axiality, dimensions, play of light, textures and mobility belong to the elements that shape a place and create a multi-sensorial atmosphere.
From this immense field of research, it is evident that foundation, perceived as the origin of the place making process, is not a “0” point followed by a linear expansion. It is rather a long process of construction, deconstruction, reconstruction, transformation and addition. Standing in front of the town hall of Erfurt, the starting point of this walk, one may think about the foundation of the place. The main landmark of the Fischmarkt is indeed an imposing monument dated to 1875. Yet another town hall stood earlier in the place of the neogothic construction: The initial Rathaus was erected in the 13th century, partly destroyed in 1830, then completely removed in 1869-70. Can 1875 be fairly remembered as the foundation date of the Erfurter Rathaus?
Epigraphical and historical documents from a broad space-time frame are often mentioning “foundations” that are today identified as repairs, extensions, redesigning or reinterpretation of an existing place/monument. This is particularly evident for city walls that need recurrent repairs, often mentioned as rampart foundation in related inscriptions (Keller, Etude archéologique (…) d’Ahmedabad, 2009). The usage of terms referring to the concept of “foundation”, usually emphasising the input of a donor, should not be mistaken for a strict ex nihilo emergence.
The idea of a place emerging from the void is thus problematic. It is evident that every building and settlement developed on prior territorial occupation. If not sedentary, the origin of the place would be transitional with nomadic and seasonal occupations, maybe traced on existing animal tracks and land usage. In “Cities. The first 6000 years”, Monica Smith offers stimulating insights into the early days of the city and its development from seasonal meeting places such as fairs, sites of festivals and pilgrimage places. Ex nihilo foundations, as in a place with no prior human occupation, are attested (for instance early medieval European monasteries, which territories were gained with great deforestation efforts), but they certainly did not exist on the scale we might imagine. Foundation, by contrast, is generally a revival of an ancient land appropriation, while place making also means place breaking. Place making is a long, and also ongoing, process of spatial appropriation and reshaping.
Early foundation ceremonies are significant in this regard. If we look for instance at the foundation process of the Gothic choir of the Erfurter Dom, we can follow a long succession of foundation and consecration ceremonies marking the progressive construction of this part of the monument. In the late 13th century, the early wall choir located between the Romanesque towers was replaced by a 7/10 polygonal one that was consecrated in 1290; in 1349 this first Gothic choir had been demolished and the start of the construction of a new choir was celebrated by an inscription that is still visible today above the crypt door. The crypt was consecrated in 1353, while the “Weihe” of the new choir took place between 1370 and 1372. The entire consecration history of an important religious building such as the Erfurter Dom can count dozens of liturgical events, marking the work progress and the setting up of the inner space, like individual chapels.
Epigraphical and historical documents show that not only religious but also profane buildings were marked by series of rituals following the successive steps of the construction project: clearing up the ground and levelling, digging and constructing the foundation of the building, completing the construction or part of it, consecrating the place. Foundation rituals included, according to the historical and geographical context, deposits, sacrifices, elocutions, prayers and recitations, and other practices that aimed at pacifying the place and attracting divine favour in order to answer the transgression of disturbing the manifested world. The actors at the time were aware about the uncertainty of completing large projects, explaining the importance given to partial consecration ceremonies that were marking each step of the work.
Place making indeed derives from a long process of negotiation between economic, political and religious forces of the time. Our previous walks already gave us examples of monuments shaped by territorial concurrences, financial struggles and other social and political tensions. This new walk gave us also the occasion to discover how the expansion of the urban territory impacted the Neuwerkskirche (its name indicated that the church was initially located outside the city wall), beside religious administrative changes (organisation of the urban area into parishes), relocation of monastic communities and the transformation into a monastery church (late 12th centuries), and dramatic events (1291 city fire and plunder during the 15th and 16th centuries).
The social space
We also walked to the Small Synagogue that reminds us of how dramatic socio-religious events contributed to the repeated reconstruction of the synagogue(s) of Erfurt. After the 1349 pogrom, the monumental Old Synagogue never regained its religious function. Instead a new synagogue with mikwe was built along the Gera, south east of the Rathaus when Jews could finally return in Erfurt during the early 19th century. The Kleine Synagoge was inaugurated in 1840 but soon became too small for the growing community. A new building was founded in 1884 at the Kartäuserring, but destroyed in 1938. Today’s synagogue, reconstructed at the Kartäuserring in 1948 (the only synagogue construction of the GDR) inherits the long and crucial history of an essential topos of Erfurt.
These visits in Erfurt make it clear that a place means more than its material shell. Since the 50s, sociologists and theoriticians of geography have helped to recoin the term of “space” by freeing it from its “container” dimension. More than a measurable object with visible and tangible boundaries, the place is now understood as a bearer of meanings. Sorokin, Harvey, Schütz and Werlen, amongst others, have contributed to show that the space is a social construct, made of the meanings attributed by the society members. Donors, project designers, but also place users and visitors contribute to the creation of the space in so far as they attribute, confirm or propagate meanings attached to the place. Recent reflections by architectural firms and local urban actors show an increasing interest in the participation of the public, and especially local inhabitants, in the place making process.
Let us return to the Rathaus as an iconic place for Erfurt’s civic identity. Evidently, the shaping of the place goes back far beyond the 19th century and the construction of today’s Neogothic monument. It certainly even dates back beyond the 13th century and the construction of the first town hall. The city area known as Fischmarkt, where the town hall stands today, is linked to the economic development of the medieval town, a development that triggered the formation of a civic body. Far from the early religious foundations on the hills (Dom hill, Petersberg and Cyriaksburg), the lower city developed around the marshy river areas and its markets offering local commodities – fish but also grains, vegetables and woad. We already saw in our very first city walk how the woad market boosted Erfurt’s economy, transforming petty farmers and land lords into rich bourgeois. It is this trading and banking bourgeoisie that shaped the city council. As is to be expected, the town hall was built in the heart of the economic centre. More than a stone monument, the Rathaus represent the civic autonomy of Erfurt, as a meaning constantly reaffirmed by urban narratives and lived practices (organisation of processions, civic events, visibility of Ratsherren (councillors) in important civic and religious ceremonies etc.). For the geographer and KFG fellow Benno Werlen, it is the practice that creates the link between meaning and materiality. Place, after all, is the projection of our imaginaries into the physical world.
The importance of meaning, practice and narrative is particularly obvious in India where the essence of the place shadows its physical body. A modern concrete structure can be viewed as a millenary place, as long as it perpetuates the memory and practices of a past event or figure. This conceptual emphasis represents an enormous challenge for heritage actors appointed to protect the materiality of the place with regard to Western heritage protection guidelines. Sensible about the withering of extraordinarily rich landscapes, recent initiatives have understood that supporting the continuation of practices and of ancient building knowledge are more meaningful and respectful to the Indian cultural context (Keller 2009).
Meanings and sociocultural phenomena attached to a place shape its physical body and its atmosphere, just as the urban atmosphere impacts on the sociocultural life. Material and intangible are tightly entangled and reciprocally supporting and shaping each other.
Following Harvey’s theory of the “spatial fix”, a place is determined by the “fixing”, in the double meaning of the English term (remedy plus anchoring), of capital overaccumulation at a georeferenceable point. If place making indeed represents the crystallisation of capital, it also means the crystallisation of a multitude of intangible material including imaginaries, hopes, political agendas, communal narratives, individual cosmologies. Understanding a place means acknowledging the multiplicity of its dimension, the dynamism of its meaning and the individual participation to its formation process.
Sara Keller is a post-doctoral researcher in the KFG “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations”. She specialises in medieval Indian history, especially water works in western India.