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Çatalhöyük & a line from Kōbō Abe

In the Neolithic town at Çatalhöyük in what is now south-central Turkey, “The houses were … built so close to each other that it was impossible to pass between them. … It’s thought that the roofs of the houses provided the paths and sidewalks to traverse the community.” This description by Prof. Steven Tuck in his “Cities of the Ancient World” course, called to mind a passage somehow remembered from a translation of Kōbō Abe‘s Red Cocoon1:  “I slowly walk along the narrow crack dividing house from house ….”

Rendering of mural in Çatalhöyük that some say shows nearby mountains and a kind of map of the community. Adapted from Image by: Schmitt AK et al. Source: Sci-News.com.

I don’t recall reading the rest of Red Cocoon but the image that sentence2 evoked was of some slightly surreal cityscape where one could walk along the flat roofs of adjacent dwellings inhabited by mostly unseen people. Perhaps that image was shaped by memory of the scenario in another one of Abe’s works, Woman in the Dunes, where the main characters (one unwillingly) were confined in a space below a barely known community above. Or perhaps by my brief experience on rooftops in Djenné, Mali, even though the houses I lived in were not connected and (unlike the solitary wandering and wondering of Red Cocoon‘s protagonist) there was a certain social nature , although somewhat circumscribed, to that level of city living.3

Artist’s impression of Çatalhöyük. Image credit: Dan Lewandowski. Source: Sci-News.com.

In any event, here was a city that, strangely enough, seems to have been laid out along lines similar to what I’d once imagined from Abe’s line about “the narrow crack dividing house from house.” Çatalhöyük’s particular organization of habitat (bunched together so that one entered each one from above) and social space (the adjacent roofs of the nearly joined houses), doesn’t conform with basic assumptions we have about the fundamental layout of living space and community. And it raises a number of questions, many of which – about why people pioneered urbanization in this place, and how their town worked – have been examined by archaeologists such as Prof. Tuck.

One question that interests me is whether “street” (as opposed to path) hadn’t yet been invented – rather analogous to the concept of “zero” in mathematics. People knew probably all too well what “nothing” was, or wasn’t, but it didn’t have any practical use once you had something that could be counted. Perhaps similarly, anyone could see that there could be a space between two houses, but maybe it didn’t occur to use that for anything other than another dwelling (which would have the advantage of keeping the continuity of roof spaces above, and eliminating the risk of people or things falling into the gap).

Obviously imagining a lot here, but the idea of streets as something that had to be thought of has actually been discussed regarding a much later period of history. In an essay entitled “The Discovery of Streets,”4 J.B. Jackson takes us from the ancient but definitely post-Çatalhöyük small city with its “flexible and informal network of alleys, blind alleys, flights of steps, and paths,” through the evolution (focused here on Europe) of markets and spatial needs, to the eventual use of streets in planning and reshaping communities (which he ultimately connects with the freeway, which I always associated with paths and old turnpikes, but that’s another subject). The turning point he sees as having happened in 11th century Europe:

the discovery of the street as a determinant of city growth and development had by the end of the century produced increasingly orthogonal town patterns, based on right angles and perpendicular lines …

So it does seem as if one could also suggest an “invention of the street” or perhaps “discovery of the alley” some time after Çatalhöyük. And by extension, that perhaps there might be concepts of urbanization that we, for all our sophistication, haven’t yet thought of (or maybe even contexts in which the ancient model from Çatalhöyük might turn out to be useful).

Returning to Abe’s walking along the “narrow crack dividing house from house,” with benefit of Jackson’s discussions of space in Old World cities, there is another interpretation (which likely was obvious to other readers): the “narrow crack” was in fact a narrow street between rows of houses. But it still was more fun to imagine it the other way.


1. Japanese title: 赤い繭 (Akai Mayu), published 1950 or 1951. There have apparently been two translations into English, one by John Nathan in 1966, and the other by Lane Dunlap in 1987. Needless to say, Abe’s story line goes in an entirely different direction than what preoccupies me here.
2. Retrieved from Abe’s obituary in the New York Times (23 Jan. 1993). I did not find the story available online.
3. During the hot season, people would often sleep on their roofs – but when you wake up in the morning on your roof, you always ignore neighbors who are awakening on theirs (in general one never says “good morning” to someone before they’ve had a chance to at least wash their face and take care of their morning essentials anyway). Also one doesn’t peer over the edge of one’s roof into the adjacent courtyards. As such this was different rooftop environment than either Çatalhöyük or what I imagined from that line in Red Cocoon.
4. J.B. Jackson, “The Discovery of the Street,” in N. Glazer & M. Lilla, eds. The Public Face of Architecture: Civic Culture and Public Spaces, The Free Press, 1987. An article in The Atlantic about this essay by Charles R. Wolfe – “City Life: Revisiting J.B. Jackson’s ‘The Discovery of the Street’” – is a useful complement.

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