Sunday, October 21, 2007

Dreamed City at the Edge of the Abyss

Two seasons ago, thanks to the recommendation of a friend (and the random proliferation of Spanish holidays), I visited the medieval Andalucian city of Ronda.


The city's position on a rocky mesa makes it a natural fortress. It was held by the Celts, the Romans, and the Moors until it was taken by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1485 during the final phase of the Reconquista. Ronda was one of the last cities to fall before Granada, the capital of Muslim Spain.

On returning to the states, I spent a lot of time on the internet looking for a Lebbeus Woods drawing that I had seen several years before, showing Manhattan reimagined in a similar setting.

BLDGBLOG's Geoff Manaugh found the drawing, and posted it as the centerpiece of a long interview with Woods, who's just launched his own website documenting thirty year's worth of work.

The cliffs of Ronda drop almost 300 meters at their tallest, according to legend, Nationalist fascists were thrown from them by the outraged Rondans during the Spanish Civil War, an event fictionalized by Hemingway in For Whom the Bell Tolls. Orson Welles asked to be buried here. Rainer Maria Rilke called it 'the Dreamed City' and stayed so long writing that they named a street after him and preserved his hotel room as a museum.

To be in the canyon, and stand at The Gate of the Wind, built by the Moors in the 10th century, is to have one's back exposed to the cliffs, vulnerable to the city above. The gorge below is more than just a picturesque landscape, it is a collage of infrastructures from different cultures and eras.


From the Nasrid Palace, a series of narrow steps and wide vaults was hand carved through the mountain in the 14th century. Known as 'La Mina', and intended as an escape route and water supply line from the city to river, it is filled with dripping water and illuminated by hidden windows in the cliffs. Some of the rooms are said to have held cauldrons of boiling oil, ready to pour down on the invading Catholics.

A few yards downstream from the bottom of this tunnel, and only accessible from a narrow, unmarked path notched into the cliff, is a small dam and waterworks. Here you can see rats running along the collected flotsam of styrofoam cups and sticks, and you can smell evidence of a leak from the city's sewage system into the blue-green water.

To get to this side of the river, you'll have to take a spur from the tourist trail and walk through the backyard of a Spanish hippie's house. I put a two Euro coin in his tip jar and talked with him for a minute about drawing. The path will lead past the waterfall, which drops another hundred meters, and there are strange ruins everywhere. A tower carrying a powerline pierces the roof of an old cistern, and a roman-looking vaulted chamber looks like it's been readapted as someone's home or campsite. The dam probably dates from the 20th century, there is a control room with machinery inside. Nothing is explained or organized, there are no plaques, and no handrails. The landscape of paths, cliffs, waterfalls, machines, ruins, and lush, writhing vegetation kept reminding me of the old text based videogame Zork: 'You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.'


Caves and strange tunnels lead into the cliffs, I walked into one as long as my nerve held out, taking a few steps at a time to let my eyes adjust to the light: 'It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.'

Lebbeus says: 'I made the drawing as a demonstration of the fact that Manhattan exists, with its towers and skyscrapers, because it sits on a rock – on a granite base.':

I wanted to suggest that maybe lower Manhattan – not lower downtown, but lower in the sense of below the city – could form a new relationship with the planet. So, in the drawing, you see that the East River and the Hudson are both dammed. They’re purposefully drained, as it were. The underground – or lower Manhattan – is revealed, and, in the drawing, there are suggestions of inhabitation in that lower region.

Woods' drawing, and Ronda's existence, illustrate the paradox: that which is the most defensible, is also the most precarious: the stability and height of the rock is only matched by the depth of the abyss, and that abyss is composed of the patchwork grand plans of former empires.

All cities are on the edges of cliffs.


(UPDATE-4:47PM:"You are at the top of the great canyon on its south wall. From here there is a marvelous view of the canyon and parts of the Frigid River upstream. Across the canyon, the walls of the white cliffs still appear to loom far above. Following the canyon upstream (north and northwest), Aragain Falls may be seen, complete with rainbow. Fortunately, my vision is better than average, and I can discern the top of flood control dam #3 far to the distant north. To the west and south can be seen an immense forest, stretching for miles around. It is possible to climb down into the canyon from here.")


Anonymous said...

!! fantastic. absolutely.

Anonymous said...

great post. thanks for sharing your trip to ronda.

mdmarkus66 said...

By reading this, am i likely to be eaten by a grue? Or was that a wumpus?

Nathan Kensinger said...

fascinating post. I knew nothing about this place, but now I want to visit!

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Ronda trip was quite exciting & surprising for my holidays on next year.specialty of this city is establishment of building on rocks just looks like a artistic fort.Trippers have been attracting by its natural fortress,designs.

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