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Friday, March 11, 2011

A Lesson from Pompeii

National Geographic (NAT GEO) network had a wonderful series of shows centered around the assumed notion of what would happen if all humans were to suddenly disappear from the earth (there’ve been other shows based on various notions such as “what would happen if we run out of oil”, etc… which is also a great watch). This particular episode about the disappearance of humans focused mostly on the repercussions of what we’ve done to the earth and how long it would take Mother Nature to repair herself.

During the show an interesting scenario was posed; “what if the world we humans leave behind is discovered later by another race, what would they learn about the human race based on what we left behind?”

This scenario seems farfetched until we take a look back at what happened in the city of Pompeii on August 24, 79AD, the day Mount Vesuvius ended the lives of thousands along the Bay of Naples. In this scenario humans did not simply disappear, they were consumed by poisonous volcanic fumes and buried under tons of toxic ash.

Accidentally discovered in 1599 during the process of digging a by-pass channel for the river Sarno and fully excavated beginning in 1748, one can argue that the city of Pompeii has been a revelation to a lost time and a sobering reminder of many things.

“Pompeii has proved to be a treasure trove to historians and archaeologists. The light it has shed on first-century life in the Roman world is profound. The amount of information it has provided to scholars of many fields is staggering.

Millions of visitors have come to walk its streets, to admire its delicate artwork and to peer into houses, stores and workshops still standing 2,000 years later and wonder what life was like back then.

One cannot go away from the place unmoved—at least I can't imagine anyone doing so. Pompeii is a sobering reminder of so many things—of the fragility and fleetingness of our existence, of how entire cities and civilizations can vanish, of how there, but for the grace of God, go all of us.

Perhaps most of all, it's a reminder of the folly of human beings in refusing to face up to unpleasant realities, of ignoring or misunderstanding the danger signs until it's too late.

Rich and poor, free citizen and slave, young and old—all met the same fate in Pompeii. The only ones who escaped were those who recognized the growing danger. For those who lingered too long, denying the seriousness of their plight or hoping that conditions would somehow change, the city became their tomb.”

Everything we know now about Pompeii and its residents was derived from the physical remains of its urban infrastructure, from the urban planning of the city to its variety of architectural hierarchy and choices in ornamentation and details all lead to academic conclusions about what the citizens of Pompeii valued and treasured, and essentially how they lived (“they way we build affects the way we live”).

And so I now pose this question, what will be said about us years from now based on how we’ve chosen to build our urban landscape and infrastructure? I merely bring up this point as we discuss ways of making a positive architectural and urbanism impact on the continent of Africa that we always need to keep in mind that places can tell stories long after we are all dead and gone. Africa is a place of immense history. Ours is a story that dates back, according to some historians, to the very beginning of time. It would be a shame to lose all our history by re-shaping our cities into images of other places. We really need to research our own histories, building traditions and urban cultures to see what we can learn and return to contemporary practice while building on our advanced technological knowledge. I’m not saying we need to re-design mud huts with thatched roofs and live in the past. What I am saying is there should be a way to honor our past while designing for a better future, and the way to do that is to research our past.

The greatest lesson we learn from Pompeii is that what we leave behind tells future generations what we valued the most and how we lived. Will our story be a love of automobiles over a sense of community? A love of material needs over the preservation of our environment? The value of the latest technological developments over time tested sustainable building methods? What will our story be? How is the way we’re currently building affecting the way we live? Some food for thought as we discuss how to make a positive impact on the Architecture and Urbanism on the continent of Africa.

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