The afterlife of cities

When cities are deserted, their existences can be traced back by the types of earths in the ground for centuries. Geologists call the type of earth created by human settlement dark earth. Dark earth is rich in charcoal and botanic fibres, the left overs of human settlement. Often it is also a sign of the direct effects of urban decay, when former houses or temples are abandoned and then reused by rural communities as hen-coops or dumps.

yonaoshi – the cleansing disaster

In japanese culture, sisasters are commonly interpreted as a call and chance for renewel. The then governor of Tokyo Shintaro Ishihara published a statement only two days after the Tsunami of March 2011 calling “the disaster a punishment from heaven because Japanese have become greedy. […] We should avail of this tsunami to wash away this greed. I think this is a divine punishment. ” Shintaro was a controversial figure, an extreme right-wing politician, but also a popular literary author and former film maker. He later appologized for the statement and in 2012 resigned as governor of Tokyo. Still, this concept is quite popular among japanese who are also very much accustomed to natural disasters. It is called yonaoshi (世直し) which translates as world renewal or great revolution.

Sources from: Christian Rumrich, Sichtbares und Unsichtbares, in: Mensch. Natur. Katastrophe. Von Atlantis bis heute. Mannheim: 2o14

Giant Catfish

Japanese culture has a long history of natural disasters, mostly earth quakes. Also the so called Triple-Disaster of 2011 was caused by an earthquake, which caused a Tsunami and then the explosions at the Fukushima atomic plant. In Japanese culture the catfish symbolizes the unstable ground the islands are built on. According to mythology a giant catfish, called Namazu () or Ōnamazu () , lives underneath the island. the god Takemikazuchi holds it down with a heavy stone. When the catfish is released, he stirs violently and earthquakes happen. There is a whole genre of woodprint images called namazu-e depicting scenes from japanese life and politics always featuring one or more catfish.

Atlas of Mediterranean Liquidity

A project of speculative mapping and audio art about sea level rise in the Mediterranean: Link

Divide the Seas!

To counter the global sea level rise, several initiatives have formed to block seas off from the global water flow. The idea behind it: If you control the global water flow, you could control the sea level locally without having to tackle the problem globally. Of course, from a political point of view, this is a case of eco-protectionism taken to the next level. It would create an unprecedented case of separatism, a whole area shutting itself off from global interdependency that is essential to what human culture is – an interdependent global network.

About these plans, one scientist from the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research said: “See this as a warning. What we’re saying is: Here’s a plan, a plan we don’t want. But if we end up needing it, then it’s technically and financially feasible.”

See the article from the New York Times from 2020.

Physico-Theology: Disaster becomes beautiful

In her essay on the motive of Mount Vesuvius, Valerie Hammelbacher traces the beginning of the image of disaster in art history back to the Britsh enlightment and the philosophy of physico-theology. More often referred to as natural theology, this school of thought challenged the prior concept of natural disaster as divine punishment and instead tried to find scientific explanations while maintaining the idea of divine power. Thomas Burnets treaty “The Wisdom of God manifested in the Works of Creation” (1691) ushers in the age of physico-theology. According to Burnets and his colleagues, any natural phenomenon is logical, useful, immaculate and thus beautiful. This includes a disaster like the eruption of Mount Vesuvius which could now become a topic for fine arts. Consequently, natural disasters were a popular, technically challenging yet rewarding motiv for painters in the following decades. In his painting from 1780 English painter Jospeh Wright of Derby (1734 – 1797) depicted the eruption of Mount Vesuvius as a sacred epiphany.

UK; 18. Century; Christian; Philosophy; Painting; Vesuvius

“Why did he burn the churches down?”

Divine punishment is an ever recuring theme in urban disasters. However, sometimes the situation does not quite fit the morals. In 1906 an earth quake hit the San Franscisco region. Fires broke out in the city, 3.000 citizens lost their lifes and 80% of the city’s buildings were destroyed. One of the buildings that were saved was the warehouse of Hotaling & Co., a local liqour company. Hotaling printed a postcard with the image below on one side and this short poem on the other:

If, as they say, God spanked the town
Because it was so frisky,
Why did he burn the churches down,
And saved Hotaling’s whiskey?

USA; 20. Century; Christian; Advertisement; Text; City: San Fransciso

Der Bergsturz by David A. Schmid (1806)

Painting of the Goldauer Bergsturz, a massive landslide that destroyed the town Goldau in the Swiss mountains, by sixteen year old swiss artist David Alois Schmid (1791 – 1861).

Switzerland; 19. Century; Christian; Painting; City: Goldau

Calcadas Portuguesa

All along the Portuguese coast city squares are adorned with these types of pavements that resemble ocean waves. The Calcadas Portuguesa depict different motivs but the waves are a recurrent feature.

Portugal; Christian; Architecture

Lisbon after the destruction

After the famous earthquake from 1755 that destroyed much of the city and could be felt all across the Mediterranean and Europe, the people of Lisbon had to rebuild the city. Portugals prime minister Sebastia Jose de Carvalho e Mello (1699 – 1782) was particularly influential in modernizing the old city. He conducted a survey among local priests to find out as much as possible about how people experienced the disaster. He also changed the layout of the city significantly.

This map shows Lisbon before the disaster:

This is a plan for the new Lisbon after the earthquake by architects Eugénio dos Santos and Carlos Mardel: