Miren Jaio, 17927 – Centralia (2008)

From ancient times, notions of order, utopia and urbanism have gone hand in hand. When designing new forms of socio-political order, therefore, utopian projects have seemed to need the anchorage in space of an urban order. It thus comes as no surprise that the beginnings of urban thinking can be situated in the ideal cities of Plato and Aristotle, direct forerunners of the utopian projects of the Renaissance.

“He who knows a utopian city knows the rest, similar as they are to one another, as the nature of each place allows.” Thomas More, the least explicit of Renaissance utopians as to the form the cities of the island known as Utopia should take, was at least clear on one extreme: all cities were the same because they all followed an established order.

After the 16thcentury, the New World became an experimental field in which new ideas in urban planning could be tested. As More had indicated, the form of these newly laid-out cities was similar. The “Ordinances on the Discoveries, New Population and Pacification of the Indies”, enacted by King Philip II in 1573, regulated the construction of cities following a single model – the grid plan.

The grid plan, which organises street design in right angles through the use of two perpendicular axes, has been one of the most often-used during the history of urban planning. Some scholars assert that this type of plan lacks an ideology and that any meaning attributed to it depends on the concrete use made of it. Nevertheless, the geometrical order that common living spaces are submitted to by the grid, together with the spatial legibility that this order leads to, reveal a clear intention: the imposition of control. The fact that the origins of the grid plan can be found in a military structure, the castro or temporary camp used by Roman legions, supports this thesis.

The submission to order in utopian projects is not free of paradox. True though it may be that imagining a desirable future will involve planning it, the discipline of prospection – attempting to dominate uncertainty and the imponderable, might not be the most adequate tool for such an exercise. Perhaps the horizon of utopia should be placed beyond what is certain and ponderable; maybe it should “get over the need for order.”(1)

Isidoro de Sevilla states in his Etymologiesthat the Latin term civitas designates a plurality of human beings united by social ties, whereas urbs defines the fabric or material structure of the city. Over time, civitas has metonymically taken on the meaning of urbs. Ironically, parallel to the semantic displacement of the term civitas, the meaning of the reality it originally denoted, the public sphere, has fallen away.

North American cities illustrate this exhaustion of communitarian existence. The model they follow is a dynamic development of the grid plan. In a sort of Tetris game, this development is marked both by the disappearance of the centre and by unlimited growth. Disquietingly similar to mechanisms of capitalist production, the result of this development is a space dominated by a “material structure” (or urbs) that denies the complexity of difference in the name of legibility, a space where meeting points are displaced to the confluences of lines of transition, the corners of street crossings.

The aim of Christian religion, to look for an order and spiritual solution to the life of the individual, is manifested directionally inside the Christian temple: its entire liturgy is carried out in the sanctuary, which is oriented towards the East – the point towards which both bodies and the gaze are directed. The design of the internal elements of the building – architectural, iconographic or decorative – aims to emphasize this direction.

The outer architectural elements of the Christian temple do not in principle reveal its interior. On the contrary, the buttresses of Romanesque churches do act as a reverse reflection of their inside. Solid, opaque structural elements allow the thrust of the vaults to be discharged. These elements allow the vaults to play their intended part in the iconographic program of the church interior as representations of the celestial dome, generating an airy, expressive space.

Several implications derive from this structural function with respect to the church interior and exterior. On one hand, the buttresses, which cut the central nave with its longitudinal structure into rhythmic vertical segments, act as a counterpoint to its internal directionality. On the other hand, these supporting elements signal the exceptional character of the temple. In medieval towns, in the middle of buildings which grew in clusters, supporting each other, the church was often the only one which stood alone. Buttresses allowed the temple to exist as a singular reference and accentuate its isolation from its surroundings.

The great challenge in Romanesque architectural construction was to successfully raise religious buildings with a dome. Time and time again, barrel vaults collapsed. Reconstructing the coverings of churches became a habitual business in the Middle Ages. But the new domes often fell in again, and builders often ended up choosing to substitute them for wooden roofing. After this final reconstruction, the buttresses, devoid of any function, remained stuck to the wall like dead arms.

A news item in the newspaper El Paísfrom May 16th, 2007: “On the night of January 25th, 2005, the twelve families […] had to leave with nothing but the clothing on their backs […] ‘preventive’ eviction owing to a ‘falling in of the tunnel of line […] where work was being carried out’.After forty-eight hours, the earth had swallowed a garage which was wall-to-wall with this building, and the Calvary of the Carmel district began.”

Another news item, “The Treasure of the Carmel district” in the business newspaper Expansiónfrom May 5th, 2008: “The Carmel district is currently one of the few in Barcelona where new groundspace – one of the greatest needs of the Catalan capital – is being generated.”

There appears not to be a logical causal relationship between the two stories: one fine day, the ground falls in the Carmel district in Barcelona; three years later, “new groundspace is being generated.” Might it be possible for new groundspace to be developed out of destroyed land? Is groundspace an inexhaustible natural resource able not only to regenerate itself but also to reproduce itself? How is it possible to go, without any transition, from “the Calvary of the Carmel district” to “the treasure of the Carmel district”?

Our everyday experience of space as a three-dimensional reality is limited by the horizontal plane laid out by the ground we stand on. This plane conditions our perception of reality: we see and understand what lies on top of the ground. What is underneath it we simply take for granted.

The grid plan is ideally designed for a stable, flat, regular and unaccidented terrain. The term “accident” when applied to an urban plan refers to any unforeseen element that disturbs order and interrupts the integrity of the design. This would be the case with geographical accidents. Thus, in a whimsical aberration of logic, a gradient would be considered as fortuitous in orographics and, to continue with the argument, in urban planning, its predecessor.

A fracture in the supporting plane, the ground, would be another example of an accident. This would be the case with the collapse of buildings in the Carmel district in Barcelona, and also in the North American town of Centralia, Pennsylvania. In each of these examples, the whimsical reason the ground opened up below peoples’ feet was not a result of natural causes but instead, more or less directly, of human intervention.

The dominion of fire was a hugely important matter in prehistoric times. Fire, as an agent of destruction and source of life, gave heat during an age characterised by extreme temperatures; it allowed food to be cooked and was used to drive away wild animals and to attack enemies. The use of fire required knowledge: not only was it necessary to learn how to make it, but also how to control it, both to keep it alive and to put it out.

Since then, fire has been a reality that, like water, air or earth, beyond its concretion, is perceived in absolute, transcendental terms. The volatile, uncontrollable character of fire has contributed to the fact that, in its almost unexplainable presence, it becomes difficult to separate its symbolic from its material nature.

As a drop of water is to water, so the flame is the most concrete and reduced expression of fire, as well as one of the most typical forms for symbolizing it. Lit in the commemoration of a fact, a person or an idea, the mission of the eternal flame is for its presence to keep memory perpetually alive. This image of the eternal flame is an idealisation: it may be easy to cause a fire, but the nature of it is to go out sooner or later. (2)

If the flame is the most concrete, reduced expression of fire, then the latter, considered in absolute terms as an inform, unlimited, inextinguishable substance, offers a certain resistance to being represented. The natural phenomenon of subterranean fire is possibly the closest image of fire in the moment before its representation.

Under the place where Centralia, Pennsylvania, was built, burns an underground fire that was accidentally started. The history of this town, established in the mid 19th Century on top of a coal deposit, whose population fell from over two thousand inhabitants at its moment of splendour to nine in 2007, is a sad one. In the 1960s most of the companies that exploited its underground and open-pit mines closed. In 1962, as the Wikipedia page dedicated to the town explains,(3) waste in the municipal landfill, located in an old strip mine pit, was set fire to. The fire spread to the abandoned coalmines Centralia is built on. In 1992, the State of Pennsylvania successfully reclaimed its rights over all the properties in the area. The residents of the town, evicted as a result of this legal decision, failed in their attempts to have it revoked. In 2002 the US postal service cancelled the Centralia postcode, 17927.

The underground fire in Centralia has condemned it to abandonment. Photos of the town show streets with no houses, uplifted pavements and roads traversed by smoking cracks. Such traces make it hard to imagine an articulated narrative of a hundred and fifty years of life: economic interests, the arrival of people and work to the mines, the construction of buildings and life together, the economic crisis, unemployment, people leaving, decadence and decay, the fortuitous accident and the fire, the abandoned town, the demolition of the buildings, ruin, economic interests once again, and still the fire… This stratigraph of different times in the history of Centralia ends up precipitating into an image that can only be defined as an entropic ruin.

Entropy is a concept from classical physics which expresses the capacity for transformation of energy: the higher the entropy within a system, the lower the amount of transformable energy contained in it. The attainment of a maximum degree of entropy means that a state of equilibrium has been reached in which further energy transformations are no longer possible.

Directional character is a constant element in religious cults: the static direction of bodies(which face a fixed point in the temple; towards a fixed point on the horizon) and the movement of bodies in a certain direction (on a pilgrimage to a holy place, and once there moving together in circles around it).

Moshing is a dance in hardcore subculture that consists in dancing and jumping, where bodies crash into one another creating a movement reminiscent of “microorganisms.”(4)
This ritualization of dance as multidirectional chaos might be interpreted as a reaction to a certain totalitarian, alienating reading of collective movements. However, moshing, with its controlled staging of aggression between bodies, is still a variant of the directional movement of crowds. Because what generates the crowd is the continuance of a shared action, static or moving, and the conscience of marching together.

“Poetry […]arrives to offer itself even to those who do not want it; it gives itself to everybody and is different for each person […]. Because this gift of poetry is nobody’s and everybody’s. Nobody has deserved it and everyone finds it one day.”
María Zambrano, Filosofía y poesía, Madrid, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2001.

In an essay written in exile, Zambrano recognises the fragmentary, indeterminate complexity of the object of the poem, the group, a fragile reality made up of individual subjects. The “everybody” is made up of many distinct bodies she says; not everybody reaches the poem, nor does everybody deserve to do so; not everybody desires it, one day, they will.

The poem, the “gift” that belongs to everyone and no-one, is also an inform nature which “longs for unity and revolves against it”; which “lives in dispersion and is afflicted”. The poem, the song, are made of trembling and of explosions of light, of a simultaneity of different times that brings about an estrangement in its speaker and in its receiver.The poem, with its ever-new repertory of gestures, creates the new multitude and holds within it the promise of utopia.(5)

“Hence the trembling that remains after all good poems and that unlimited
perspective, the wake all poetry leaves behind it and which takes us after it; that open space surrounding any poem”.

1) As Richard Sennett indicates in Vida urbana e identidad personal(Barcelona, Ediciones Península, 2001), “Marx, in his 1844 manuscripts, understood this; ‘Being free in a post-revolutionary world’, he writes,‘is getting over the need for order”.
2) On the extinguishable nature of fire see Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984.
4)Belsito, Peter and Davis, Bob, Hardcore California. A History of Punk and New Wave,San Francisco, The Last Gasp of San Francisco, 1983.
5)The book Filosofía y poesía is animated by a double spirit: the communitarian and the personal utopia. In the 1987 prologue, Zambrano writes that she wrote it “in that Mexican autumn as a homage to the University of San Nicolás de Hidalgo, a direct descendent of Humanities studies, founded by don Vasco de Quiroga not far from the shores of the Patzcuaro river, who went there from Spain, to the region of the Tarasco Indians, to found Sir Thomas More’s Utopia of the Christian Republic”. Further on, she reveals that this book realized the utopia that she, a woman, could teach philosophy at a university and write on philosophical matters.