Cities built over older cities?
February 26, 2008 11:15 AM   Subscribe

Where can I learn about cities that are built over older cities? I'm more interested in the older cities and what those ruins can teach us.

I've always been fascinated about how people tend to build over older cities and the occasional discovery of ruins in the basement of some office building. How does this happen and what kind of studies or books have been written about it?
posted by clockworkjoe to Society & Culture (15 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
There are a lot of cities like this, that are built on landfill from their predecessors. Rome, Paris, London, Seattle, San Francisco. A lot of historical societies have this kind of info, you should also check out the University College London's Center for Spatial Theory, which does a lot of work on this phenomenon.
posted by parmanparman at 11:20 AM on February 26, 2008

Seattle had a significant fire in it's early days. The ruins were buried and the new city built on top. There are tours of the Underground Seattle, as it's called.
posted by trinity8-director at 11:27 AM on February 26, 2008

I think you can safely say that any European/UK/rest of world city (except places like Milton Keynes in the UK and other 'new' cities/towns) will all have been built like this. Just research any one. It's only the US, with its relatively young history, that will have missed this normal phenomenon.

Any major city outside the US that you can think of will have oodles of this kind of thing. Rome, however, is a particularly good example as it has a lot of the old stuff on show. Start with any city related history book.
posted by Brockles at 11:27 AM on February 26, 2008

Bryn Mawr College has a Growth and Structure of Cities major. The program's site Resources page, along with the individual class syllabi, be helpful to you.
posted by mumkin at 11:29 AM on February 26, 2008

I'm currently reading London, The Biography by Peter Ackroyd which covers this as far as London is concerned at the start of the book.
posted by ob at 11:43 AM on February 26, 2008

Check out the History Channel's series and DVDs, Cities of the Underworld.
posted by Carol Anne at 11:56 AM on February 26, 2008

You might want to do some research on Mexico City. It has been razed and built over several times by different civilizations.
posted by ShootTheMoon at 12:04 PM on February 26, 2008

erm. may be helpful. Generally you're talking about continual occupation, so it's not so much that complete cities are being built on top of older complete cities, but rather that portions of the city are always being rebuilt. Much like how in the human body, over time (7-10 years?) all of your cells will be replaced with new ones, but gradually. When you just knock down one or two buildings at a time, the line of the original street remains the same since you don't really have much lee-way to work in. And even when you have something like complete destruction, primary roads will tend to follow the same routes since topography is always important. Roads have historically been built to require a minimum expenditure of energy on the part of the traveler, and consequently strive for flatness while following the contours of the landscape. We're moving away from this in the past 100 years or so, with the overall mechanization of travel and a greater capacity to carve through hillsides and mountains, but it's still preferable to choose the path of least resistance. This is why, remarkably, the structure of Roman London is still visible in the modern map.
posted by mumkin at 12:08 PM on February 26, 2008

Pointe-à-Callière is a fascinating Montreal museum based on the ongoing archaeological dig underneath it.
posted by loiseau at 12:21 PM on February 26, 2008

Thanks for the info so far. I should mention I want to write a story based on a small port city where the ruins of an older city are discovered underneath so this background research for it.
posted by clockworkjoe at 12:30 PM on February 26, 2008

It's only the US, with its relatively young history, that will have missed this normal phenomenon.

Even in the west of the US (the part where permanent European settlement is the most recent, except for early Spanish settlements in the southwest and Russian settlements in what is now Alaska), towns were often built on the locations of permanent or seasonal Native settlements, and certainly the modern western cities you see now are built on top of layers of quickly-replaced previous versions -- from frontier village to railroad town to boom town to 1950s suburbanization to now may have taken only 100 or 150 years, but the physical change at each step can be total.

So yes, this is an almost universal phenomenon (with prominent exceptions, and even the "new cities" of the UK, Egypt, Brazil, and elsewhere tended to be built on sites where someone had been living before); there are a lot of really neat specific cases. Sometimes it is a comfortably organic process; sometimes it is a deliberate attempt to erase the physical reminders of what came before.

An example of the latter was in the use of Jewish gravestones as building material in Poland and other countries:

While standing on a stone path in one of the yards, Yossi noticed that the stones were oddly shaped. He requested a shovel and began to dig -- and discovered Hebrew writing, perfectly preserved, on the underside.

In a surrealistic scenario, he began loading the gravestones onto the family’s rented minivan, shoving suitcases aside to make room for the only surviving relics of hundreds of years of Jewish life in the town. Suddenly he was approached by a young woman, who told him to come to her house, located adjacent to the cemetery. There they found a huge pile, maybe five meters long and two meters high, of gravestones, broken into building blocks. Shortly thereafter, they were told that there were pieces of monuments in houses all over the town and that many of the pathways, sidewalks, walls, and buildings were constructed with sections of gravestones.

It is worth emphasizing that the process of building new on top of old is ongoing -- it isn't just something that happened long ago but no longer. The US Interstate highway system was used as a major tool of "urban renewal" (a.k.a. "negro removal") and was a significant factor in creating the cityscapes we take as normal just a few decades later; the South Central Community Garden was built on top of land previously used for other purposes, and soon to be turned back into buildings; "gentrification," "in-fill," "densification," and other terms are, in many ways, describing pieces of this process of old-on-new building. A lot of the most interesting of contemporary physical and social planning seeks to make this process less brutal and top-down and instead allow more organic and permeable rebuilding to take place; here is a NYTimes article about planners in New York State learning from experiments in Tijuana, for example.

I think it was linked on MeFi before, but Rebecca Solnit's article "Detroit Arcadia" describes a less-common twist to the process, where a densely-built city is having to be rebuilt for a sharply smaller population.
posted by Forktine at 12:47 PM on February 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oh, well if this is about informing and inspiring your writing, then perhaps it wouldn't be completely off topic for me to mention Arthur C. Clarke's The City and the Stars (and the novella it grew from, Against the Fall of Night.) The city in question (Diaspar) is self-maintaining, and has been continually occupied for as long as its immortal occupants can remember. Portions are neglected and forgotten, but exploration of city plans in the central computer helps to uncover aspects of the form it took in earlier days, before it turned inward. That's only part of the story, of course—and it could stand to be more, by my lights—but it's an element that I have always found particularly savory, and which you might as well.
posted by mumkin at 1:15 PM on February 26, 2008

Seconding History Channel's Cities of the Underworld.
posted by spec80 at 1:22 PM on February 26, 2008

Google around on Athens. I was really impressed when I was there - when they put in their new metro prior to the Olympics, apparently law mandated that wherever they ran into underground ruins, they had to protect them, and a lot of that turned into some pretty awesome display cases in the middle of metro stations. There's gotta be a documentary or book out there on that...
posted by allkindsoftime at 12:09 AM on February 27, 2008

With regards to studies on ruins, probably the best place to begin would be Christopher Woodward's "In Ruins: a Journey through History, Art, and Literature". It's a fairly straightforward general introduction to how ruins have been approached, interpreted, and culturally understood. Similar material is covered from the perspective of cultural biology by Midas Dekkers in "The Way of All Flesh: the Romance of Ruins", from the perspective of art history by Paul Zucker in "Fascination of Decay. Ruins: Relic-Symbol-Ornament", and with a specific interest in the Romantic imagination by Rose Macaulay in "The Pleasure of Ruins". There was a more academic and theoretical study published by the Getty about ten years ago called "Irrestitible decay: ruins reclaimed". If you're more interested in the specific history of how people in the Roman, Medieval, and Renaissance world came gradually to engage with fragments of the past that existed in their worlds, the standard text remains Alain Schnapp's "The discovery of the past: the origins of archaeology". Hope this helps. Good luck with your writing.
posted by hydatius at 6:22 AM on February 28, 2008

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