connotation of 'architecture' and 'port' in our culture



Apr '15 - Jun '16

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    Niyati Soni
    Apr 22, '15 11:52 AM EST

    ‘Not until the city at length reached the dimensions of a metropolis was there any problem of congestion around the city’s gates, causing the trading population there to back up, with inns, stables, and warehouses of their own, to form a merchant’s quarter and entrepot, or “port”.’

    -          Lewis Mumford, The City in History, 1961.


    ‘….the best way to move something heavy from here to there was and is to float it there. This truth is as true now as it was in the days of Homer.’

    -          John Szarkowski, A Maritime Album: 100 Photographs and Their Stories, 1997.


          The role of ports in concept and development of the city, the story of ports – is that of civilization itself. ‘Metropolis’, ‘gates’, and ‘port’ reaffirm the centrality of the idea of a ‘port’ to civic life: a gateway for trade and ideas between an ordered human settlement and wider, partly watery, worlds. The idea of such a gateway was central to city ports until the 1960’s and the architecture of ports reflected this as much in the grandiose gestures of shipping company façades as in the quayside functionality. But if cities have changed since the early 1960’s, ports have done so even more. Images and texts here explore, rather than simply record, the place that ports now hold in our ways of thinking about (as much as travelling about) the changed, and still rapidly changing, world we find we have made for ourselves in the closing years of the millennium.

        The ports between which ships now travel today, though, frequently lie as far outside any city’s planning and economic control as they do beyond the imagining of its citizens.

         The photographs reproduced here show a meeting of land and sea that is mostly the product of several centuries of settlement, development and redevelopment, modern port architecture is but the most recent expression of ongoing dialogue between the sometimes competing pressures of sea defences, habitation and shifting patterns of trade.


    Here's a thought......

         For Mumford the city was a given, an entity whose final value was quasi-religious – to further man’s conscious participation in the cosmic and historic process’ – where today even the very future of the city as an enterprise is openly questioned by architects.’ Other conglomeration of enterprise have grown up, new ports among them. These offer very different examples of how trade, and the civilization of which it is a shaping part, operates most efficiently. Martin Pawley sees ‘trade and commerce’ as having ‘left the city forever'. At a social level, public and private transport make today’s citizens more mobile and dispersed than ever before. So many of us commute, seeing the city as something to escape from where we can, that the very concept of ‘citizen’ is problematic. The commercial needs of the port to profit from swift cargo distribution on land has led them to join the trek to the suburbs, and beyond, in search of unclaimed ‘greenfield’ or ‘blue coast’ sites.


         Josef Konvitz has pondered the fact that there remain mysteries as to why people ‘have chosen to live in cities’, to occupy certain sites, and to link their destinies to the movements of ships’, concluding that these ‘cannot be entirely explained by economic, social and political events’. These mysteries are partly explicable in terms of the many and complex motives that have attracted communities of various kinds to settle and to build near the sea; ‘to defend the land on which they had made their homes and cities’ or ‘to reach out to trade’, to take advantage of waterborne travel’: for some ‘the views and the moderate climate’ was an attraction – as it is still today. Communities also built, though, ‘because water is a source of life, power, comfort, and delight – a symbol of purification and renewal’.

        Defence is no longer a motive, and how moderate the climate was on the coast was always relative. In our post-modern age, though, if new ports are sited only for trade, perhaps for exporting primary materials from remote areas, traditional port cities have turned to other erstwhile busy quayside for development initiatives in recreation and so-called urban renewal.


      The challenge, and one not often recognized by contemporary ‘waterfront development’ architecture, is to retain elements of that mystery, for no architectural gesture – no matter how grand of glitzy – can compensate for its lack. So many modern harbour-side developments either ignore their setting completely, simply exploiting the land space former port areas offer, or gesture towards some popular notion of ‘maritime heritage’ by flaunting sails, masts, funnels, portholes or ventilators – incongruously, always from a much earlier period of ship architecture.

         Ports and their qualities – their modern developments as well as their historical legacies – seemed always a presence whose power was undeniable but whose significance was hard to articulate; even a discourse within which to do this seemed lacking. One aim of this project is to find an  accessible way of talking about port architecture and to use it in exploring what might be the shared and defining characteristics of the port as constructs of the  littoral – whether concrete or conceptual.


    Leaving a question: 

    “If ‘port architecture’ is to be forever embedded in the past, what does this tell us of the connotations of ‘architecture’ and ‘port’ in our culture? “

    The purpose of creating this blog is to gather attributes to which will ponder to my research on rethinking port urbanism. ...

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About this Blog

One aim of this project is to find an accessible way of talking about port architecture and to use it in exploring what might be the shared and defining characteristics of the port as constructs of the littoral – whether concrete or conceptual. The purpose of creating this blog is to gather attributes to which will ponder to my research on rethinking port urbanism. ...

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