The conundrum of an urban ‘perpetuum mobile’ (Op-ed Børge Kallesten)

Børge Kallesten, Norwegian civil engineer, Constanta enthusiast

Old or new; yes or no to development; gentrification or stagnation. The discussions around urban development are sadly too often polarized: it is (supposedly) impossible to achieve something new without losing something existing. Or is it? Does urban development have to erase the traces of the past to create value, both commercially and for the society?

Gentrification is currently a hot topic within city development; it describes the process where the character of a neighborhood is significantly changed due to new (and often wealthy) business- and residence establishments, whereas the settled population and businesses are forced to relocate due to increased rent, buildings being demolished in favor of new developments, or due to a mere change in expectations of what activities are acceptable or not. There may be certain socio-economic, commercial and security improvements as a result of gentrification, but there is always a backside of the medal that makes this kind of city development not desirable: what happens to the people that used to live here, the buildings that formed the neighborhood and the history they represented? All these are factors that formed its character and identity.  

Society changes constantly; people change, businesses change, political direction and opinions change. The technological development in the world develops faster than most people can keep up with, shopping habits are increasingly shifting from physical to digital, there is a climate threat lurking upon us, and suddenly our own feeling of security has changed significantly, as an unexpected and cruel war is being fought on our own continent. Should we not also allow our cities to adapt, change and develop themselves to keep up with society? Should we demolish old energy-ineffective buildings and replace them with the best modern technology has to offer?

Old buildings, quirky streets, crooked walls and roofs, alongside with yesteryears architecture are appealing to a lot of people. It is not the modern engineering of new structures that draw people from all over the world to visit Venice or Rome, it is (obviously) the unique old buildings and the reflection of history they represent. Even in smaller and much more anonymous cities, we can see the same trends: the historical part of the city tends to be more appealing to people.   

Urban destruction, where historically important buildings are demolished can be a result of many factors, including gentrification and societal changes. With some exceptions, an urban area is usually not defined by individual buildings. The fact that one single building is changed, demolished, or lost does not change the character of a neighborhood significantly. The character of an urban area is (largely) defined by the sum of all buildings and the people that utilizes them, where every building forms an important piece of an intricate puzzle. If too many buildings are lost, the character of said urban area will be lost or changed forever.  

Buildings can be restored to their former glory, but as society has changed – it is often unrealistic to keep everything as they used to be. The conundrum of an urban ‘perpetuum mobile’; which compromises do we accept as a consequence of changes in society? A building can be conserved as a museum piece (and some buildings should) or through various degrees of alteration and adaptation. This is a vastly controversial topic, with many opinions – as this alteration can often be too brutal. There are however many good examples of well restored buildings that has received a completely different purpose and use, where a large part of the building has been preserved and tastefully restored respecting its historical importance – while other parts of the building has had some historical compromises. As ambassadors for conservation, we should not fall into the utopic extreme where the most desirable solution becomes the feasible (second-best) solutions worst enemy. The alternative to certain compromises can often be a poorly functional building that falls into disrepair, or stagnation. Owners, developers, and city officials need to cooperate for good, sustainable and feasible solutions – and sometimes compromises, when necessary, reasonable and acceptable.

One important step towards conserving historical buildings, is access to- and use of information. The launch of ‘Arhiva Monumentelor’ is a very important contribution towards this: spreading information, knowledge, pictures and history connected to the city and to these buildings that each and every one form an important piece of a puzzle.

Constanta has a rich and significant history, touching several millennia, empires and regimes. It has diverse ethnic minorities with each their own link to history. Constanta has an immense potential to utilize this historical link to create commercial- and societal value, and it can for sure restore itself to its former glory, while keeping up with society and its changes. A historical city also has to be contemporarily relevant – for the people living there in the present, to even survive as a city. Hopefully initiatives such as ‘Arhiva Monumentelor’ can contribute to this happening in a historically sympathetic way, without erasing the links to the past. Initiatives like this form individual pieces in the puzzle of hope for a blooming and prosperous historical Constanta.