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)