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Urban Biographies: Interview with Curator, Professor Christopher Ratté

Christopher Ratté with rope ladder for climbing in to ancient cisterns. Photo: Benjamin Swett

What are the goals of the exhibition?

From the start, a primary goal of the exhibition has been to showcase current Kelsey-sponsored field projects in classical lands: Gabii in Italy, Olynthos in Greece, and Notion in Turkey. Notion is my own project, while the excavations at Gabii and Olynthos are directed by two of my colleagues in the Department of Classical Studies, Professors Nicola Terrenato and Lisa Nevett. I am really happy to be collaborating with Nic and Lisa on this show, and we are all thrilled to have the opportunity to share the results of our research with local audiences at the Kelsey.

Because Gabii, Olynthos, and Notion were all ancient city sites, they naturally invite comparison, and that quickly emerged as a major theme of the exhibition. What do these three cities have in common? How do they differ? And what can we learn about cities in general from close study of these examples?  In all three cases, moreover, new archaeological methods have enabled us to study these cities more fully than before, and so we decided to make developments in archaeological technology another focus of our show.

Finally, we believe strongly that the study of the past must be relevant to understanding the present, and so we took up the challenge of comparing the ancient cities under investigation with our nearest modern metropolitan neighbor, and I am delighted that Kathy Velikov, associate professor of architecture in the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, has joined us to curate the part of the show concerned with Detroit.

What is an “Urban Biography”?

Just as the biography of a human being is the story of what makes that person unique as an individual, so the biography of a city is the story of the unique experience of an urban community over time. How do cities come into being? How do they change and evolve? How do urban communities create and articulate individual identities through development of their built environments, through the layout of streets, for example, or the construction of “signature” buildings? We can all conjure up images of modern skylines that simultaneously say “I am a city” and “I am different from other cities,” and most contemporary cities also bear clear witness to passage of time, from historic buildings to suburban developments. 

Christopher Ratté taking notes on temple of Athena at Notion. Photo: Benjamin Swett

Ancient cities are much less accessible — most obviously because they are usually either buried beneath the earth or covered up by modern buildings — and that makes it much harder to recreate their unique biographies. Until recently, it has usually only been possible to examine small parts of individual cities, and so archaeologists have had to rely on comparison with other towns to imagine the parts of cities they cannot uncover — which obviously has the effect of obscuring the differences between them. Archaeological excavation, moreover, is an infamously slow process, so that even in cases where it would theoretically be possible to uncover whole cities, that is rarely done. Pompeii, for example, has been under excavation for over 250 years, but a third of the city remains unexplored.

This is where new developments in archaeological technology come in. Drone-based aerial photography, for example, enables us to make detailed surveys of archaeological sites in a matter of hours — work that would have taken weeks to accomplish using traditional methods. Even more valuable are techniques of geophysical prospection, such as ground-penetrating radar, that make it possible to map buried structures without excavation. And modern imaging techniques enable us to recreate and manipulate virtual models of urban environments, so that we can test out different possible reconstructions much more easily than before. All these techniques will be on display in the exhibition, and they have all contributed to showing how much the ancient cities under consideration both resembled and differed from each other — to illuminating what I like to call “the variety of ancient urban experience.”

What are you trying to achieve by comparing these ancient cities with Detroit?

That is indeed the biggest challenge of the exhibition — how to draw meaningful and useful parallels between three ancient Mediterranean cities and a modern American metropolis. And the last thing we want to suggest is that Detroit is like an archaeological site. On the contrary — one of the reasons for including Detroit in the exhibition is that it is still alive, full of living people who can talk both about their city and about urban concerns common to cities of all periods. The value of this was brought home to me very forcefully in a freshman seminar I taught last semester on “Ancient Cities and Modern Urbanism,” based in part around the exhibition. In our examination of the perennial issue of urban housing, we watched The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, the beautiful and heartbreaking 2011 movie that features U-M professor Robert Fishman on the unsuccessful mid-20th-century Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis. Listening to interviews with former residents of this project, both the students and I immediately felt much better equipped to imagine the social complexity of ancient communities, which were certainly rent by divisions along lines of gender, class, and ethnicity similar in kind if not in detail to modern social divisions (perhaps the biggest difference being the absence of modern ideas of racial difference, and the historically contingent heritage of slavery in America). So one reason for including Detroit is that it helps bring to life the ancient cities featured in the exhibition — and an important part of the Detroit section of the show will be interviews with residents participating in the Oakland Avenue Farm project.

But the harder and more important challenge is to show how the study of ancient urban communities can help us think creatively about Detroit and other modern cities. We try to do this on a number of levels. The first is technical, by exploring how archaeological methods can help contemporary planners and citizens diagnose and address modern challenges. This idea came to me in conversation a couple of years ago with Jana Cephas, a colleague at the Taubman College, about agricultural urbanism in Detroit. I had asked Jana how much land in Detroit was being farmed; she explained that it was very difficult to determine, since so much urban farming is decentralized and small-scale. I immediately thought of the way archaeologists use multispectral aerial imagery to determine whether the land in a given area is or is not under cultivation, which affects its suitability for archaeological survey. Another technique useful in different ways both for archaeology and for agriculture is soil coring and analysis. The Urban Biographies exhibition will incorporate displays of both these methods.

Olynthos North Hill: area excavated 1928–38 and now restored for visitors. Photo: Lisa Nevett

Fortifications at Notion. Photo: Christopher Ratté

Oakland Avenue Urban Farm, Detroit. Photo: courtesy of Akoaki

At a more conceptual level, the exhibition tries to show that a comparative perspective, which looks at the present in the light of the past, can help the people who live in and care about Detroit imagine different possibilities for its future. Detroit is in some ways a prisoner of expectations. It does not conform to normative models of contemporary urbanism, so efforts to diagnose its “ills” have often focused on where it “went wrong” and how it can be put “back on track.” The flaws in this view were the subject of a controversial New York Times column by Paul Krugman in 2013 (“Detroit, the New Greece”), which reminded readers that while Detroit’s recent fiscal woes were dramatic, the fortunes of cities have waxed and waned through the ages, often as a result of economic forces over which the cities in question have little control. What these cities can do, however, is to think creatively about how to respond to change, and the example of past cities provides a vast number of such responses. That is why we invoke the concept of biography — to emphasize the individuality and uniqueness of cities, which can and have through history responded in unexpected ways to unexpected challenges. As I noted a moment ago, the subject of urban farming will be a major component of the show. We are not suggesting that urban farming will solve Detroit’s economic problems — but it does give a new, optimistic, and sustainable spatial identity to abandoned land, and that is no small thing.

The Detroit portion of the show will of necessity be open-ended, suggestive rather then conclusive, and that is one reason why I am so excited about teaming up with architect Kathy Velikov. In addition to much-needed expertise in contemporary urbanism, Kathy brings to the curatorial team the perspective of a creative artist, or, as she would say, a “maker,” who is better equipped than archaeologists usually are to respond in open-ended ways to complex human realities. I have also found the perspective that Kathy and her students bring to issues of temporality — past, present, and future — very stimulating, and I hope that visitors to the exhibition will be equally intrigued by the dialogue between different ways of envisioning the future of Detroit and different ways of envisioning the futures of archaeological sites.