Friday, July 10, 2015

Vision of a possible city

In 2012 William Kentridge delivered the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University.  This was the lecture series that gave us Italo Calvino's wonderful Six Memos for the Next Millenium (he died before he could deliver them); I wonder how differently these might have been conceived now, in the age of Ted Talks and multi-media.  It is no surprise that an artist like Kentridge interspersed his words with film clips or that Harvard University Press have produced an enhanced e-book of the lectures, Six Drawing Lessons.  However, I've been reading an old-fashioned hardback version and thought I'd share here a few observations he makes on the history and geography of Johannesburg, a city he has lived in his entire life.

Johannesburg is a city that has 'an entirely geological justification'.  When a meteor struck the land it's impact caused a thin seam of subterranean gold to be tilted so that it met the surface a hundred kilometers from the impact site.  After the discovery of gold in 1886 Johannesburg was, for its first thirty years, the fastest growing city in the world.  There is a map made in 1889 that shows the physical landscape, the initial constructions (see photograph below) and 'a vision of a possible city.  At the time the map was drawn and printed, only about 3 percent of the streets and buildings and suburbs on it had been made.  It is extraordinary that now, 120 years later, almost all the map exists as a physical fact.'

Kentridge goes on to describe an episode that would have intrigued Calvino, author of Invisible Cities and The Baron in the Trees.
'Around 1900, at the end of the war between the British and the Afrikaners for control of the gold mines, the city of Johannesburg, wanting to keep the demobilized soldiers busy rather than drunk, employed them at a penny a tree to plant a forest of a million trees on the pavements and gardens of the city.  Johannesburg, by its own and some outside estimations, is the largest man-made forest in the world.  From my studio, you look out over an undulating sea of treetops.'
The lush gardens and trees are sustained in this naturally dry, inhospitable land by irrigation that brings water from rivers hundreds of kilometers away. 'The streams of the city itself are miserable ditches, stormwater drains awaiting the rainstorms.  But underground, where the mining is, it is the reverse.'  The continual pumping away of this water has left the ground prone to sinkholes, an unstable foundation for the racially segregated suburbs.  'In my childhood there were stories of an entire tennis match - the umpire on his high chair, the tea and orange juice on the table next to the court, the family Labrador - all being swallowed by a huge sinkhole, never found, never recovered.'

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