The town as a forest

Saturday I went out on errands. I wanted to buy an additional memory card for my camera, which I took with me in order to try the device in. The shop turned out to be closed on a Saturday morning, but while I was around with my photo equipment I did not let slip a good opportunity through my fingers. I had often walked or cycled past places that I promised myself I’d come back to photograph, and this was the right time.

My first subject was not something that most people would define a beauty. It was the carcass of an old big warehouse that I have always seen empty and decaying into a derelict ruin. I had sometimes wished it would be refurbished into something useful, or pulled down to be replaced by a glamorous building. However, I discovered an interest into it, suggested by a new interpretation of the city that stems from a passion for history.

To me, a beautiful town is like the virgin rainforest: there are tall trees that are several centuries old and represent stateliness: they are the monuments. Other trees are in the ageing phase and may become the landmarks of tomorrow, although not all were not planted with such ambitious goals. Besides, of those that aspire to this glory, a part will die, or grow stunted owing to disease, or be felled and used as timber. The future generations, like loggers, will pick out, according to their own taste, which of them will be left to stand and speak on.

However, it is not only the monuments that can tell a story. Every single building is a testimony of something that took place in the past. Like in the forest, as long as briars and the undergrowth are found in the midst if bigger trees, they will stand to explain some stage that the forest lived through. And maybe the patient explorer will find a succulent berry even amongst the thorny leaves of these bushes.

The trees of a forest are affected by climate modifications or other changes that concern the territory. Similarly, a town develops as a result of artistic trends and technological development coming from afar like winds of change that cyclically revolutionise the architectural styles. From the local buildings you can infer a bird’s eye view over their historical period and in this respect, everything deserves consideration, but not all can be maintained. The town, as the forest, is something living and must evolve for the benefit of its inhabitants. It is not a museum.

I had seen this abandoned warehouse as a degrading presence for the decorum of my town, but it is in fact precious evidence to an era gone-by when industrial activities took place inside the urban context. It is also a building bearing the marks of the ornate architecture rife at the turn of the 20th century, when even the setup of a productive site gave an opportunity for embellishment. As long as it is standing, it will be an example of industrial architecture and will speak of its epoch.

One day it will be pulled down or pitilessly converted into something that will make us forget when it was originally conceived and for what purpose. But this is the destiny of the forest: it is an environment of slow but inexorable change, where the survival of the oldest trees is challenged by time and where their remains are destined to be finally tramped on and disappear. New buildings will be added to adjoin the old ones.

The rainforest has taken shape over several millennia and this is patent from the countless species of plants that compose it. Likewise, a beautiful town is made up of buildings inspired by myriad styles, with individual variations due to the genius of their designers. I have seen towns sprung up from nothing that lack this depth and are like a boring grove of saplings. All their buildings belong to the same age group, hastily put up to serve the primary purpose of lodging. On burnt land there is no richness of vegetation. The colonising species are all the same.

Later on my tour I cycled along a street that I’d often seen as drab. No monuments, no attractions, and still, if I let my gaze wander on the facades, the lintels, the gateways and gables, again I discovered the styles that have left a trace in the development of the environment.

Even the shrubs and the undergrowth that hinder the scout from making a headway in the woods, on close examination, reveal unexpected wonders. The detail of a beautiful leaf, tiny and unappealing as it may be, is a microcosm and a work of art in its own right. The town is a forest in which it is a pleasure to get lost.