We are very much used to talking and writing about the conception of life in cities and how we experience the urban scenery and its configuration. However, we fail to see or do not realize that there is no life without death. Death is experienced differently according to the country and city, bearing deep meaning related to religion and culture. In occidental countries, death tends to be controversial, even taboo, arising mixed feelings and yet, paradoxically, being one of the most critical factors in the coming to life of our cities.
For something new to be born, paradigms must be broken or at least reconsidered. A qualitative leap towards modernity and the contemporary perception of life were the epidemics faced between the XIV and XVII centuries, led by the Bubonic Plague, Cholera, and Yellow Fever. Changing the paradigm and conception of death bring about the resignification of life, affecting the urban scenario. This article will focus on how death shaped modern cities’ physical and psychological structure and its importance in its experience.
The Bubonic Plague and a New Society
The XIV century brought about a transformation in the economic practice in European and Asian countries. The development in agriculture, fostered by the education of more specialized staff and renewed commercial relationships, introduced society into what seemed a period of economic prosperity. Little would they know these advances in territorial matters would soon be their doom.
Not only will the soils fail to be fertile enough, causing, alongside rains and bad harvests, famines throughout Europe from 1315-1318, but the economic practice will bring about the transmission of the deathly Bubonic Plague.
The virus arrived by boat, with its origin in central Asian countries and spreading throughout Europe when the hygienic conditions of the European societies left room for improvement: rats, nowadays recognized as the original vector for transmission, lived among human beings, roaming around the mills and barns where grains were stored, wandering down the same streets, and traveling in the same transports. The plague did not distinguish rich from poor, and the lack of scientific perspective brought about the belief that the epidemic was no other than a divine punishment for human sins.
Knowledge and the City
The rural population migrated to the cities, creating a more significant focus for the plague to strike. The already narrow unlivable streets became more clogged as the cities began to stain in blood and despair. Circulation and hygiene were both impossible to maintain down unventilated, narrow paths. Medical knowledge was scarce, in fact, no one knew exactly how the Black Death was transmitted from one patient to another, and no one knew how to prevent or treat it. (History, 2010)
Different theories shuffled; one doctor even believed “instantaneous death occurs when the aerial spirit escaping from the eyes of the sick man strikes the healthy person standing near and looking at the sick. (History, 2010)
In 1348 in Venice, the State took matters into its hands and established Health Boards to prevent the spreading of the disease and the city’s transformation. Understanding the biology of the disease brought about an interest in scientific education, understanding the human body as more than a Divine Creation, fostering science, and therefore Universities would come to life. These advances will encourage Romanesque and Gothic art.
This paradigm relates to the renaissance man’s development, which placed him as the center of the universe, far from the Christian life. It created the tangents that would enable new technologies crucial for the construction of the cities. Over the years, many operations would make the cities more livable and enjoyable. Wider, better-ventilated streets improved air conditioning; a greater engagement with the urban spaces’ care created a less dense tissue and the design of open public spaces that consider the human being a user and wanderer of the city.
Life, Death, and Religion
Religion has been, throughout history, one of the most significant and essential pillars in the development of life; and Death in Religion a current topic. As the writer, Josè Saramago said in his book “Death With Interruptions”: “Without death, there is no resurrection, and without the resurrection, there is no church.” (Josè S., 2005).
Christians believed with conviction in life after death, for death and resurrection are part of God’s divine plan for humankind. Through his death on the cross, Jesus pays the penalty for mankind’s sin, and mankind’s relationship with God is restored. (BBC).
Religion saw death as part of life, something promising and expected. But the plague had brought even the most faithful believers to fear death and question themselves about its origin. The Christian life transformed, the moments before death neglected as a festivity but sunk in uncertainty and grief. Why did God punish humankind in such a cruel, evil way? People feared God’s judgment, and the fate of salvation drowned believers in agony. The conclusion was clear: Death was an entity, a being that acted on its own will and whose power was hauntingly neutral and unstoppable. Somehow death brought all men together in their rejection and horror to its nature.
To win God’s forgiveness for their mundane sins was the only salvation, initiating the purge of erratics who did not devote themselves to God, killing in his name. Communities such as the Jewish were massacred; in Muslim countries, women were locked in to prevent the temptation of carnal impulses; foreigners, homeless and sick were also a targeted. Cases of self-punishment such as flagellants were also prevalent: they needed to speed up God’s punishment for the epidemic to end sooner.
All these social and cultural beliefs left an open wound today, where fear and discrimination draw sharp, decided lines in the way we build and understand our communities.
A New Man for a New Paradigm
Before the fear of death, life acquired a new dimension. Society had become rather bleak and morbid; the fear of death tinted with a hint of fascination, becoming a recurrent topic in art, literature, and architecture; disciplines that will bloom during this century, depicting realistic and fatal representations of death and their consequences. However, it also enlightened that life was too short, and luxuries were for the living.
The wealthy began to value their life in acquisitive power, living ostentatious and vivid lives. As the power of Noble families rose, constructing palaces, churches, and sculptures to reassure their control and presence reorganized the city’s configuration. These operations gave rise to new public open spaces; piazzas became the heart of the urban experience. In this place, people could express themselves, valued as architectural phenomena that resignified the function and aesthetic of the city.
The urban scenario would act as a theater, a gallery, a sports arena, even a marketplace, versatile and ready to answer the new needs of this new man. The architecture would revolve around the public space, treating it as more than the residual void of the constructed building and facing contemporary aesthetics.
However, a fundamental transformation of the city revolved around the human being himself: the afterlife was uncertain; therefore, people re-valued their life on earth, it’s time moving faster, becoming more kinetic. This change in the perception of time would enormously impact the urban experience. Led by the intensified new individualist perception of the being, life resignified by death. A man conscious of his finitude would enjoy and develop himself to the fullest, therefore needing a place to express himself freely.
The city came to life, beginning with the rectification and widening of the streets where the human being was no longer a mere spectator but an active protagonist. Lured by this observing practice, men devoted themselves to the scientific field to prevent further epidemics, exhibiting the first vestiges of modern epidemiology. The first traces of hygienist approaches began to show.
Death With Interruptions – What if we Ceased to Die?
“The following day, no one died.” That is how Josè Saramago began his enlightening, almost ironic novel “Death With Interruptions.”
January the first, in an unknown town, at an unspecified time, death ceased to appear. Dwellers frantically claimed to have fooled death, gifted with the most invaluable gift: time. Religious and political authorities, philosophers, and erudite would try to understand this new phenomenon where people did not die, but time didn’t stop.
Soon enough, this miracle would become a curse with an aging, immortal society. Hospitals collapsed, funerary would face bankruptcy, the church would lose power while the government juggled as the whole institutional system tumbled, leading to chaos and despair. Along would come a new social behavior and structure, where power dynamics gained protagonism in the solving of this unprecedented situation.
Saramago had written about death on several occasions from different perspectives to understand his feelings towards it. However, he took a brand new direction in this book: he presented death as a wise, meticulous, determined seductive woman. This vision of the character may relate to the perception of death in the XVII century and the behavior of society around its unknown nature, showing fear, despair, but certainly lured by it and its mysterious being. She was pictured not as an almighty entity, but as an ordinary being with an almost bureaucratic job that retreated to the last link of the hierarchical system.
The absence of death is chaos, it’s the worst thing it can happen to human kind, to a society. (Ana M., 2005).
This book is a criticism of modern society, but it also depicts the vital role of death for life in a city. In a first approach, people were ecstatic over the idea of immortality, reflecting the vision of the post epidemic man that strayed away from the concept of the afterlife. The disappearance of death disrupted the only paradigm that had never been questioned: we are all going to die someday. This sole cause brought about every mechanism in the city to face an unprecedented crisis. It demonstrated how every gear that kept a city functioning was, directly and indirectly, related to death.
The built environment transformed into an inverse epidemic scenario. The elder and the sick on the verge of death flooded the streets as the health centers and geriatrics collapsed. Economic crisis struck, and new social entities appeared seeking to solve this situation. In other words, seeking death.
During the second part of the novel, Saramago navigated through the daunting challenge of humanizing death. Death became a human being, with emotions, feelings, and contact with an essential part of the human being: the creative soul.
The relationship between art and men was a key topic during the baroque in the new conception of urban tissue. Open spaces began to appear in the desperate need of people to express themselves and their social being, turning public spaces into an urban stage where music, plays, and art expositions were displayed. However, being death one of the essential topics of this time, public executions became one of the most concurred events in European urban stages.
For fascination, power and intrigue were all represented by the exact figure. During this time, the most fantastic architecture took place, re-signifying these spaces, before a weakened church, and bringing about beauty into a desperate society.
Nowadays, we are witnesses of how death has the power to re-structure our cities, social and cultural construction in the blink of an eye. We are first-hand experiencing a worldwide transformation, where our values and resources are placed under critical eye seeking answers to a question that has been asked many times before: how do we, as urban dwellers, deal with death?
The solutions employed bring us back to the middle ages, the city, the importance of public open spaces, respect for the neighborhood, and urban hygiene. It brings us back to the city as the urban scenario where the social, individual being can express and enjoy the organized, clean, versatile urban design.
As time goes by, we seem to forget the lessons of history, therefore doomed to repeat them. It seems paradoxical how something as taboo, uncertain, contradictory, and irreversible as death seems to be the one to remind us how things should be. In the end, it’s in death that we find the beginning of our cities journey.
Ana, M. (2005) “Saramago: ‘Nuestra única defensa contra la muerte es el amor” [online] Available at: https://www.elmundo.es/elmundo/2005/10/23/cultura/1130063287.html [Accessed June 17, 2021]
History (2010) Black Death [online] (Last updated: July 6, 2020) Available at: https://www.history.com/topics/middle-ages/black-death [Accessed June 15, 2021]
National Geographic (2017) La Peste Negra [online] (Last updated: March 23, 2021) Available at: https://historia.nationalgeographic.com.es/a/peste-negra-epidemia-mas-mortifera_6280 [Accessed June 2015, 2021]