Remixing El Presidio

June 1, 2008

Thinking about plazas and Milestone 3

Filed under: Uncategorized — chimeraspider @ 6:41 pm
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San FranciscoPresidio Main Post looking northI have been thinking about the plazas of the El Presidio Spanish Colonial Quadrangles. When we think of the quadrangles, we almost always think about the built environment that creates the perimeters of the Quadrangles. It’s easier for us to imagine, perhaps, the buildings with their challenges of building materials, builders with the necessary skills, the forces of entropy that want to destroy the buildings, the bustle of activity that went into building them and then into living in them or moving around them. In England, the public squares that were built in the 17th century have always focused in people’s minds on the built environment of the perimeter rather than the square as a whole. In fact, Covent Garden that was a public square designed by the famous architect  Inigo Jones deliberately copied the arcaded shaded perimeter of Spanish and Italian plazas and piazzas, focusing attention – because of the shops within the arcades – on the perimeter. And here are we at the Presidio continuing this traditional perception.


When we think about the interior of the quadrangles, what do we envisage? I believe that, if visitors think about the interior of the Quadrangle at all, they think of a void, at best an empty place that needs to be passed through quickly. Currently, the interior of all three phases of the Colonial El Presidio quadrangle is covered by an asphalted car park. The archaeologists do not expect any features to turn up in geophysical survey. The anomalies that were recognized in the middle of the 1815 quadrangle are in fact most likely to be vestiges of the northern perimeter of the  second (1780-1815) Quadrangle. In some Presidios (eg Santa Barbara) the built environment did encroach into the plaza area (Voss, 2008, xx), but not at San Francisco’s Presidio.


So we have this huge empty space – a void – and yet it’s the largest part of the built environment of El Presidio in all periods of its history, even if itself it is not built, but enclosed. And in fact the area became larger and larger. Barbara Voss has a nice illustration of this (Voss, 2008, xx). The 1815 plaza, for example, represents an increase of 220% of the previous phase. There seems to me, then,  a surprising dearth of the literature devoted to what went on in this very large place.


A general knowledge of history and geography of Mediterranean cities (Italy, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Dalmatia)  and their colonial outposts in the Americas, suggests a number of ways in which the plaza interior was in fact the center of event-centered community-building and social daily life. This suggests a very different pattern of movement, sound, and visual impressions from the empty images that we tend to be presented with. The plaza of Madrid, for example, knew bull-fights, executions, military parades, religious festivals. The great circular plaza of Siena is famous for its annual horse-racing, but this piazza along with every small and large town piazza and plaza is still to this day the location of the corso or its equivalent where the community struts and chats walking slowly around or stopping to gather every evening as the sun goes down.


Barbara Voss interprets the fact that the Quadrangle that was constructed in 1815  was the first time that all fours sides of the perimeter were built finally closing in the plaza does not represent the colonists finally bowing to the rules of the Spanish crown. Quite the contrary – this represents a strengthening of the  community building activities of the Californios and their symbolic and actual separation from the Native Americans on whose labor they depended. It represents a turning inwards of attention on themselves.


Just as the Quadrangle is more about demarcating its residents from the outside world, (rather than defending it from aggressors), the plaza itself represents the center of this inward looking activity and attention. The plaza is not just about military mustering, training and drilling, it is about audio-visual visibility and control of movement. As Barbara Voss says, the construction of the 1815 Quadrangle represents an important shift in the ethnogenesis of the Californios and the Californianas, in their self-awareness as an ethnicity, in their performance of  actions and behaviors that set them apart. Thus the plaza is larger in this construction, not to enable more soldiers to drill, but to make sure that the whole population could participate at once, to have grander events (perhaps even bullfights and horse-races).


We need to think what difference it makes if you have a more enclosed plaza like the one built in 1815, in contrast with a more permeable construction such as those of the first and second Quadrangles, when the fourth (eastern) side of the perimeter was absent or hardly present.


Some of the things a plaza format  creates, as has been known from at least the earliest Classical cities of Greece (plaka) and Rome (forums), emulated in the cities of the Renaissance:


  • The old panopticon theme: from anywhere in the perimeter, you can keep and eye (and ear) on every other part.
  • Every part of the perimeter is accessible (at least its front parts) by movement along a straight path
  • All parts of the perimeter are brought together at a central point in the plaza.
  • The perimeter creates shelter for the plaza from the wind and sun
  • Protection for animals and people from themselves (wandering). As Voss points out, it is easy to keep an eye on everyone from anywhere.
  • It draws in the eye and movement into the center: good for gathering, speeches, activities, centering the attention, avoiding distractions.
  • And of course movement control of many by a few!


More later So how would we break this down into a few multimedia vignettes.

I need to add references, I know…


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