Guido Morpurgo | The ghetto 'tradition'  in contemporary european cities: memory, narrative and reissues



The year 2016 will mark 500 years since the first ghetto was formally established in Venice: 29 March 1516 saw urban segregation introduced as a deliberate coercive act. Yet the roots of the ghetto as an area of forced residence for Jewish communities can be traced more exactly back to the late Middle Ages in Western Europe, where it remained a fixture until the end of the 19th century.


European cities, therefore, hold the primacy of instituting and perpetuating the forced separation of the faiths and ethnicities that, ironically, have provided an invaluable contribution to Europe’s intrinsically multicultural and hybrid identity.


The Venetian ghetto represents an interesting case study that can help us to understand present-day urban division – from the inception of the European city to the present day – as a phenomenon constructed around an ideology of defence, to justify anti-Semitism, paranoia and chauvinism. In the course of its troubled history, the ghetto ‘tradition’ has taken many different shapes, gradually evolving into a gated community intended to defend privilege and safeguard real or imagined cultural and linguistic identities.


The Nazi interpretation of the ghetto as an instrument in the mass slaughter of European Jews represents a particularly painful chapter in this historical narrative. The Warsaw ghetto, housing 460,000 people bore witness to the first organised collective uprising against the Nazi regime, in parallel with those in Lodz, Lublin and Krakow. It evokes memories of segregated space that, viewed in the context of 32 similar cases in Poland between 1939 and 1943 (by which date all these areas had been liquidated), gave a new meaning to the word ‘ghetto’ in the history of Europe.


The history of the ghetto as a physical entity that remains fixed in the dramatic narrative of collective memory has taken on a disturbing new role as an increasingly widespread and entrenched urban phenomenon in the fragmented layout of European cities, with profound effects in terms of future identity and an indelible influence on the very concept of city.


As noted, we now live in ‘encampments aggregates’, a series of areas each housing only one class and with only one purpose, and with impenetrable barriers between them. This threatening patchwork leads to deep social and ethnic divisions in contemporary European cities, mirrored by the physical disintegration of suburban areas.


As the latest chapter in the long tale of inter-ethnic unrest that gradually cemented the innate conflict surrounding the web of European historical developments, the startling proliferation of urban segregation today challenges the idea of a city as an organic structure where cultures meet. The long-standing process of historical development that brings together the different identities that make up each city is thus inevitably weakened.


 Even conflicts that are not strictly ethno-religious tend to aggravate differences between neighbourhoods and social groups, who are no longer able or willing to communicate with each other. On the one hand, commercial globalisation has produced a hyper-bourgeois elite with an increasingly homogenous mindset and consumer lifestyle that views the continent as a vast, well-serviced metropolitan area. Conversely, however, there is a polarizing tendency that leads to social and cultural ruptures, to the development of areas in which each class and ethnicity is surrounded by mental and, increasingly, physical fences.


The history of cities torn apart  by political and ethnic conflict – such as Berlin, Mostar or Nicosia – illustrates how insidious this phenomenon can be: taking root underground, it gradually becomes more entrenched until there is no hope of reversing the trend. This is the case in Belfast, which is still divided into an intricate mesh of parallel fences, permanent ‘architecture’ with certain repeated features.


The issue of the ghetto has therefore remained extremely relevant in the context of the debate on contemporary cityscapes, which highlights the importance of understanding how social conflict has become ever more localised within European urban areas. Every large city strikes a precarious balance between opportunities for integration and the unquestioning, casual acceptance of the divided existence of its ethnic and social components. This situation clearly calls for urgent measures to be implemented before tensions escalate and lead to the construction of new fences, divisions and other forms of “apartheid”. We must act, therefore, before it is too late. But how?


It is precisely this ghetto tradition, constantly reinvented in the history of modern Europe, that must provide the starting point from which to conduct a critical appraisal of the phenomenon, despite the complacency displayed by administrators, architects and urban planners.


The flip side of the hyper-connected network that has been defined as the “city-world”  is an increasingly entrenched lack of dialogue and intercultural exchange. In the case of self-determined or imposed urban 'apartheid', such as in the French banlieues or the outskirts of London, this phenomenon takes the form of riots, of religious (and inter-religious) conflict and of the new inter-ethnic division that have erupted on Europe’s borders (see Kiev) and in the Near East.


The explanation for these new forms of separation clearly lies in the political ineptitude of administrators, in the difficulties encountered when dealing with social, ethnic and religious disunity, and in countering the irrevocable gap between the rich who continue to line their pockets and the increasingly struggling poor, between uncaring governments and young people trying to carve themselves a space in a desperate 'Odyssey of resentment'.


If we wish to provide an adequate response to these divisive trends affecting contemporary European cities, it is not enough to observe the relationships and causes of these distinctions between rich, newly impoverished and extremely poor; nor is it sufficient to identify and interpret the territorial patterns of inter-ethnic divides or to study their varied geographical layout and their religious, social and cultural components; it also not enough to attempt to initiate super partes mediation between opposing groups, or for architects to affect professional neutrality by ‘patching up’ urban space.


It is important, in the first instance, to commit to instituting an international and multidisciplinary debate focusing on the architectural project as a tool with which to shape the complex ghetto tradition. We must begin in post-metropolitan suburbs, by taking urgent steps in seam zones connecting different neighbourhoods and in abandoned areas, establishing a framework of collective practices and promoting the integration of different professions and social classes.


Redesigning the suburbs means reclaiming the materials which make up the separation, the physical barriers and intermediate spaces that surround the various enclaves embedded in the heart of the city. These materials must be reconstituted to create new areas of shared memory that also allow us to explore and debate our differences. The transformation of no man’s land may be achieved through a ground plan of connective tissue studded with public facilities designed for education, culture and even commercial exchange.


Yet this 'morphology of segregation' will not be overturned exclusively through planning, which often implies a degree of detachment from the social reality of urban networks and open spaces and from the architectural specificity of monumental structures. It is necessary, therefore, to improve the development of urban planning by turning our attention to new solutions and drawing inspiration from the founding principles that bring communities together, rebuilding the European city by means of architectural integration.


To rebuild, however, also requires an inevitable public consultation drive, as well as the strengthening of urban networks damaged by their physical and cultural barriers. This must include broad   and widespread quotas of social housing, targeted specifically at newly insecure social categories. Suburbs must fulfil various roles, some prestigious, in an urban layout that places public areas at the centre of the city as a regulating force for its morphology and socio-cultural differences.


Architects and Urban planners must therefore adopt a new set of disciplinary tools that can also explain and respond to new emergencies, such as the incessant   migration resulting from conflicts in neighbouring regions, such as the Middle East and North Africa. The so-called ‘reception centres’ used in Europe to shelter refugees seem to be a tragic present day equivalent of the ‘temporary solution’ in Nazis ghettos; they represent a network of temporary fences built to enclose perceived new human ‘differences’, which, as such, are isolated, registered, inspected and occasionally expelled.


And yet this diversity, this interaction of different cultures, memories and histories, has the potential to produce a new generation of European citizens and to provide resources and opportunities for integration in future cities, on a European Archipelago renewed in its own necessity.



Translated by Clara Marshall


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