16 The Jungle and the City Cartagena de Indias

The Jungle and the City
Cartagena de Indias (Colombia)
The Drama
If greenery in a northern city survives through gardening, in
Cartagena de Indias it is more a case of the jungle holding its own. To the visitor, it spills
over balconies, fills courtyards, and creeps out of every unattended crack, waiting ominously
to return and reclaim. But Eli, the gardener, has a different view. His machete trims and
prunes in gentle yet resolute control over the green. This raises the question: does Elli’s
“dialogue” confirm a subtle balance or a quiet struggle with the green? As is enigmatically
observed by the Colombian poet Aurelio Arturo, “Without thinking, we brought the valley
in our speech.”1
I come back to Cartagena after a forty-year absence to find it changed, of course (newly
painted, altered by tourism and commerce), yet curiously familiar (a chapter in my first
book, Building the Unfinished: Architecture and Human Action, is dedicated to the city). But
Quoted in William Ospina, El país de la canela, La otra orilla (Bogotá: Grupo Editorial Norma, 2008). See
also the catalogue Trajimos sin pensarlo en el habla los valles, whose title is drawn from Arturo’s 1982 poem
“Rapsodia de Saulo,” reproduced in Antologia de la poesía hispanoamericana actual, ed. Julio Ortega (México,
D.F.: Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 1987):
Trajimos sin pensarlo en el habla los valles,
los ríos, su resbalante rumor abriendo noches,
un silencio que picotean los verdes paisajes,
un silencio cruzado por un ave delgada como hoja….
soon, under the auspices of daily conversations with my old friend Fernando Jiménez and
the discovery of a short text by the Colombian writer William Ospina, both change and
familiarity fade in favor of drama.
Cartagena, now carefully refurbished, genderless yet like a harlot heavily made up in bright
colors, sits geographically right in the middle between the equator and the Tropic of
Cancer—an arena for the seemingly never-ending struggle between the rational and the
tropical. This is not a simple skirmish, easily resolved by the machete, but an epic battle,
dramatically casting the City, as personified by Lope de Aguirre or El Loco (The Mad),
against the equatorial human whose house and livelihood is la selva, the jungle. Klaus
Kinski’s memorable portrayal of El Loco in Werner Herzog’s movie Aguirre: The Wrath of
God and the anthropological description of a hunter of the Nukak-Maku tribe of the
Amazonas help in fleshing out the two actors in this drama being played out right now
under the moniker of global climate change. And it is here in the jungle city of Cartagena
that the global drama can be locally lived.
In my earlier explorations here, I was in awe of the assured rationality and logic of the
colonial city—only slightly bending its streets, maybe to face the sea and its now long gone
pirates and buccaneers. Although at that time I was acutely aware of the mosquitoes, I
didn’t acknowledge la selva. Yes, the urban fauna was green and abundant, and the parrots
were loud, but all this was merely incidental to the astounding human construction. Now
the grimacing face of Gaia stares at me, and suddenly I sense one of the original instances
of the eternal struggle between humans and terra firma, a struggle that Aguirre may not
have understood, but still acted out in his explicit wrath against equatorial culture. Ospina
It has always attracted my attention to think of those European voyagers who, in the middle of
the XVI century, discovered the Amazon in the name of Europe, making their way in the heat,
ironclad in their armor, covered in things that protected them from the dangers they lived
through and imagined: arrows, snakes, insects. All of which contributed to the birth of the notion
in them, and us, their descendants, that the jungle is like hell.2
Ospina, El país de la canela. 42.
Yet El Loco, the Man of the City, was also becoming a creature of the jungle, as reflected in
his breaking with King Felipe II of Spain, who reigned over all the colonial cities. In a
strident letter of 1561 to his king, Aguirre laments the monarch’s neglect of his
conquistadores and rudely castigates him, while simultaneously pillaging and raping his way
down the Orinoco to claim populations and territory in the name of the Catholic God.
This model of conquest was followed in subsequent centuries by soldiering, but now capital
interests, motivated by the distinctly northern preoccupation with accumulation of
resources such as gold, sugar, coffee, bananas, illegal substances, and oil, has replicated this
clearly schizoid state of affairs that appears to still be raging.
Probably insane and totally merciless, Aguirre assumed a seemingly bizarre and
unsustainable position (he was shot as a traitor in October 1561), standing between the
Crown and its colonial project. In an act that eventually recurred in all colonial adventures,
El Loco instigated a new position, or rather outlined a political space, between the colonial
empire and the brown humanity embedded in the wild botany of the equatorial lands—i.e.,
somewhere between the City and the Jungle. Historically, this abstract domain set the stage
for many would-be liberators: Simón Bolívar (Venezuela/Colombia), Bernardo O’Higgins
(Chile), Francisco de Miranda (Venezuela), and Miguel Hidalgo (Mexico), as well as the
more recent figures of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez, and Evo Morales, plus
wannabes like Juan Perón. Many of the more long-lasting libertadores began as populists but
ended up as dictators. First at odds with their colonial sponsors and their dominating grip
on the lands invaded, these revolutionaries grew increasingly dictatorial once they were at
work on national self-rule, entering internal conflicts with the liberated and thus
transfiguring the old struggle between the City and the Jungle. Even today this battleground
is notoriously unstable, suggesting that the conflict between the rational and the tropical has
yet to be resolved.
Until now my city/jungle conceit has been metaphorical, if with real consequence, but in
light of environmental degradation and global warming, the struggle today is actual. It
represents the most consequential conflict between human habitation and the myriad of
complex and vulnerable ecosystems we live within, threatening to destabilize the very
ground of human existence. We now face a stalemate, not just here in Cartagena but
everywhere, in the form of local conflicts: between the tsunamis and Japan, between the
Gobi desert and Beijing, between the hurricanes and New Orleans, and recently between
superstorm Sandy and the U.S. East Coast megalopolis—those littorals with their citadels of
western thought and rationality. Agglomerated, all these local skirmishes add up to a rising
of the ultimate wrath of nature against the machine and its human cohorts.
To address this stalemate, many direct actions on all levels of human endeavor will be
necessary. In the case of cities, the old top-down planning model must be reevaluated,
given that it threatens the very ground the city occupies. Here the jungle may offer an
answer in its productive, if very complex, interactions with its territory as well as its climate.
The invention of a planning model for the City, in which the built and the grown are seen
as complementary rather than binary oppositions, will certainly be a most difficult
undertaking, but numerous strands of this project have been long under way.
Watching Eli from the second-story balcony as he methodically cuts the
offending jungle intrusions—just so—remains an indelible moment in my memory. Add the
fishing of leaves from the pool and the shaping of neat piles of daily cuttings (to later be put
in a jute sack and hauled away), and the sacred cycle of the gardener in the world is nearly
complete. The only missing part is where the debris goes, which may also be a clue. Singlehandedly, this timeless gardening task, an act of suspension, holds Cartagena and the jungle
at a seeming standstill—somewhere between a tumultuous past and the future. Its past
socioeconomic advancement stumped by radical change, the city appears caught in a
strange slippage of times. Here it still faces the jungle as if in perpetual armistice while life
goes on around it, blindly and unencumbered, new wine in old barrels. Frozen, the city
waits for a future worthy of its promise. As a deliberately constructed space, it would still
be a magnificent city if it weren’t for the surrounding debris, and I refer here not to piles of
cuttings, but to the new, ramshackle subsistence housing, with tourist vulgarities adding
insult to injury—the drama of modernity.
At this point, gardening may be a shrewder place from which to restart a productive
discussion of the relation between assemblies of mostly industrially and manually
manipulated elements and naturally grown elements. After all, gardening (albeit not in the
city per se) must have begun before the twelve thousand years of agricultural settlement,
our cumulative cohabitation with the grown. The gentle balancing act performed by the
gardener makes Cartagena the perfect starting gate for a modest but deliberate next phase,
the result of which we can only dream of. Clearly modern environmental understanding
must form the backdrop to any practical experimentation in gardening today. Ambitions to
reach perfect biomimicry—a type of hybridization where plastic flowers meet roses and
steel columns join bamboo beams—are admirable, indeed necessary, but what Cartagena
both inside and outside the walls demonstrates is that these old cities, modestly affected by
dramatic changes, have still maintained a precarious yet productive balance. (The tourist
facilities built along the beach outside the ancient walls are examples of the opposite: here
the relation between the built and the grown is severed by the abundance of hysterical
modernization and total disregard for the setting.) This observation about cities like
Cartagena, however, is not an appeal for a return to the past—such nonsense just leads to
formalism—but an argument for the resumption of a new modernization, trusting this act
of suspension to the skilled hands of a modern gardener. My contribution to this effort,
which is by necessity modest, brings us back to the generic colonial city, as evidenced by all
of Cartagena’s Caribbean sister cities whose central core was designed and constructed
during the Spanish colonial empire.
Aside from the filmic struggle of Aguirre, the irrationality there stemming from his
purported madness and explicit wrath, his fellow conquistadores built utterly rational urban
constructions. Systematically produced in the middle of mayhem, these cities have left an
urban legacy, mostly taken for granted rather than analyzed and understood, which was
finally summarized in the Law of the Indies. Published after most of the colonial cities were
already settled, the Law “fills in the colors” after their construction, not unlike most of the
planning efforts in the cities above the Tropic of Cancer and across the water from
Cartagena. Maybe documents of adjustment and reconstruction (such as those we have
seen in Palladio’s work) are closer to the real ambition of its authors, and the Law of the
Indies thus get us closer to the fundamental colonial rationality. Clearly other fields, such as
history, philosophy, economics, and anthropology, can claim expertise in these matters, but
urbanism benefits from its closeness to the tensions between the stated and the built—
between the plans and the constructed, between speech and action, between logos and
praxis. But before we embark on our investigations, a brief visit to philosophy will set the
The Unthought
Alain Badiou, the French philosopher, asks: “What is a
century?” And immediately follows that with another question: “How many years?” And
then makes a proposition: “A hundred? No not exactly…”3 In doing so, he stimulates us to
think big. To reframe the question at hand: “What is Cartagena?” (Or, for that matter,
“What is Old San Juan de Puerto Rico, Campo Viejo in Panama, Old Santo Domingo, and
or La Havana, Cuba?”—the last a city I have yet to visit.) I realize that these cities can all be
seen as the stalemate in the struggle between nature and civilization. As if the potential
cooperation between the two is prematurely halted and now awaits continuation. This is
the same stalemate that we can expect to find between ambitious future plans and the
actual City.
When Badiou continues his search for what a century is, he states that as a philosopher he
is not primarily interested in “what took place,” but he wants to know “what was thought
in it.” Most importantly, he asks: “What are the century’s uninherited thoughts? What was
thought in the century that was previously unthought—or even unthinkable?”4 The colonial
enterprise itself was partially unthought, being first apparent in Columbus’s conviction that
he would find Asia and in his sponsors’ general belief that he had just found a beach in
Africa. And once the initially gentle encounter with “the natives” in Barbados changed into
intense conflict, the earlier experience in the struggle with Spanish Muslims came in handy.
The thought that drove the conquistadors is explicitly embedded in the Law of the Indies
(its rules are directed to the invaders and not to the invaded!), and the City, which is clearly
built thought, therefore serves as the other voice. Yet the ultimate previously unthought
Alain Badiou, The Century, trans. Alberto Toscano (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2007), 1.
Ibid., 3.
notion of the era was the power of the Jungle that the conquistadors ruthlessly invaded.
Reduced, greatly simplified, the colonial city has a long history, reaching far back in time to
its many gridded farebearers. But the dramatic reductions took place in Spain, making the
concept of the new city, simple, pragmatic and likewise naïve—emminently fit to travel.
During the previous centuries of civic life, Muslims, Jews, and Christians had
lived in relative harmony, if in short duration, at the southern end of the Iberian Peninsula.
In 1492 the graceful gardens and courts of Granada—animated by the sound of fountaining
water and manifesting la vita contemplativa—were left behind, and new cities like Santa Fe
(1492) and Puerto Real (1483) drew their inspiration from the city-as-colonizingmachine—patterned on Roman encampments (Punta la Reina) and French bastides. City
building, as Anibal Sepúlveda Rivera writes, was seen as a strategic device, as the
“mineralization” of power.7
Here explicitly the Carta Puebla and the construction of Puerto Real are fundamental parts
of the sacking strategy of Granada. The intention was to use the material presence of a
New City as a sign of double permanence: “Not only did we conquer, but we are here to
stay, and since the City is permanent, it is the best proof of our intentions.” Immediately
following the fall of Granada, Fernando and his cohort of architects and political advisors,
through a consistent ideological and factual transformation, now knew that they were
superior. The Reconquista had honed the urban settlement and military skills of the
Catholic kings to such a degree that embarking on the discovery of India seemed logical if
not inevitable.
Los preparativos para la batalla por la ciudad de Granada constituyeron un estímulo más que idóneo para
que, el 14 de junio de 1483, los Reyes Católicos emitieran desde Córdoba el documento que autorizaba
Puerto Real. Este extraordinario documento, conocido como Carta Puebla de Puerto Real, constituye una
referencia de incalculable valor que no se ha mencionado como antecedente directo de las primeras
instrucciones de planificación urbana remitidas por la Corona española a los conquistadores de ultramar en
América. Este documento puede considerase como una versión primitiva [a primitive version] de las célebres
[of the celebrated] Leyes de Indias (1573). El documento de fundación de Puerto Real ofrece una visión clara
de los conceptos legales y de planificación urbana que se tomaban en cuenta en ese momento histórico.
Looking back to 1492, with the final death knell of the now ancient Caliphate of Córdoba,
the financing of Columbus, and the subsequent colonial enterprise, we surmise that Felipe II
felt secure and fully convinced of his power, as evidenced by the renewal of the edict to
make Islam and Judaism illegal. Reinforcing the shift from the acceptance of the Spanish
Moors to full repression of the Moriscos (Muslims forced to convert to Christianity or leave
Spain) was the expulsion now of even the conversos—those who converted more or less
freely. Felipe’s thinking was echoed in the fervor of the Spanish Inquisition, at its height
between 1480 and 1530. This now century-long repression of non-Christians after an initial
period of tolerance would repeat itself with Columbus’s encounter with the first natives
and the horrific, graphically violent conclusion in Aguirre’s wrath—plundering and
murdering his way down the Orinoco to the Pacific.
The Law
“Yo el Rey [I, the King],” writes Felipe II in Bulas y Cédulas para el Gobierno
de las Indias on July 3, 1573. His first sentence sets the tone, written from his seat in San
Lorenzo de El Escorial—financed entirely by gold from Mexico—now some ten years after
the royal ordinance’s completion. The document reflects an authority and clarity that
benefited from Spain’s long pre-history, reaching back to the many invasions of the Iberian
Peninsula, the Reconquista, and the emergence of the Spanish empire.
Although ostensibly about the future, the document has the weight and power of verifiable
hindsight since most of the cities had already been established and by all evidence are here
to stay. That the urban form of these cities would go on to outlive not only the Spanish
empire, but all forms of radical economic and political upheaval may come as a surprise; this
formal persistence may reveal the intelligence of the Law or more likely point to the
mysterious survival capacity of all city fabric, what Aldo Rossi called la permanenza. In turn,
this suggests a more crass reason: the sacrifice linked to the creation of a city is so great
and so costly that there is no return (as long as Gaia doesn’t decide otherwise). However,
the Spanish conception of the role of its new colonial cities was instrumental and
conceivably could form the cornerstone of any invasive enterprise.
As suggested above, the Law comes with history—both glamorous and sordid—not just
the colonial experience itself, but the history of Spain from the Roman invasion (17 BCE),
through occupation by the Goths, the Visigoths, and the Muslims, to the Reconquista by the
Catholic kings. Although Seville fell in 1248 to Fernando III, it took 244 years for Fernando
V and Isabel La Católica to finally succeed in driving the Moors from Granada. The colonial
adventure was not without long-ranging consequences, as Spain experienced a series of
secessions of those colonialists remaining in the Americas, probably inadvertently prefigured
by a Muslim poet when he wrote: “Everything declines after reaching perfection.”9 Indeed,
as cities go, the colonial cities were true embodiments of geometric perfection. Such
perfection was clearly not followed in the comet tails of the self-organized additions that
grew up after the Spanish crown lost its power of city construction. At the time, however,
Spain was savoring a new sense of power and destiny.
This highly abbreviated race over 1,500 years of history makes it clear that once the
Christians ruled the Iberian peninsula, what was unthought at the outset—a certainty in
their racial superiority and an eternal Spanish empire—became the dominating thought. A
sense of assured superiority ruled the day and, as we shall see, the Law. Felipe II’s text
concerning the settlements of cities includes twenty-seven entries beginning at 110. The
Law of the Indies was translated in 1921 by Zelia Nuttall, who notes, “As it is, they
constitute what was probably the most remarkable attempt ever made to formulate
principles of town planning and to impose their execution, pro bono publico…”
San Lorenzo, July 3, 1573. I, the King. Ordinances for discoveries, new settlements, and
110. . . Having made the chosen discovery of the province, district, and land which is to be
settled, and the sites of the places where the new towns are to be made, and the agreement in
http://www.historytoday.com/roger-boase/muslim-expulsion-spain. These words were written by the poet
Ar-Rundi after Seville fell to Fernando III of Castile (1199-1252) in December 1248. By that date many other
cities, including Valencia, Murcia, Jaén, and Córdoba, had been captured, and it seemed that the end of Muslim
Spain was imminent. However, it was not until 1492 that the Moorish Kingdom of Granada surrendered to
Fernando V and Isabel, and the final Muslim expulsion did not take place until over a century later, between
1609 and 1614. This means that there was a large Moorish population in Spain half a millennium after the
high point of Andalusian culture in the eleventh century.
regard to them having preceded, those who go to execute this shall perform it in the following
manner: On arriving at the place where the town is to be laid out (which we order to be one of
those vacant and which by our ordinance may be taken without doing hurt to the Indians and
natives, or with their free consent), the plan of the place shall be determined, and its plazas,
streets, and building lots laid out exactly, beginning with the main plaza. From thence the streets,
gates, and principal roads shall be laid out, always leaving a certain proportion of open space, so
that although the town should continue to grow, it may always grow in the same manner.
Having arranged the site and place that shall have been chosen for settlement, the foundation
shall be made in the following manner.10
As the paragraph shows, Felipe’s orders covered all aspects, including his role as the State in
full control via both legal agreements between the State and executors (…and the
agreement in regard to them preceded…) and management (…without doing hurt to the
Indians…or with their free consent…), while barely hiding the military measures to be taken if
there is no consent to the pragmatics of the layout of the city (…the plan of the place shall
be determined…). Efficient, pragmatic, and unquestionable.
The City and the Return of the Jungle
Even in this short excerpt from the
Law, drawn from the seven entries of the descubrimientos, nuevas poblaciones y
pacificaciones, the tenor of the communication is set. Authoritative, assured, and calmly
confident, the king assumes that establishing cities in the Americas is just a question of
determined logic. The jungle, the formidable counterforce to civilization, is nowhere to be
seen. Although the Spanish court had heard descriptions of the Americas for some seventy
years, had read Amerigo Vespucci’s seductive descriptions (widely distributed in the early
1500), and had listened to eyewitness accounts from returning colonists, the colonies
remained a distant Other. And when it came to the selva, only someone having been there
could fully appreciate its demanding presence. Therefore, the tone of the text remains
academic, unencumbered by reality, despite the numerous accounts. Confidently the text
tells us that cities must neither be additions to existing cities nor reuse existing material.
They must be new—and these new towns would serve as tools of pacification (of the
natives), as an assurance of Spanish dominance, and as a surety that the invaders would
remain in situ for all eternity. The deliberate use of the unexpected, totally foreign newness
“Royal Ordinances Concerning the Layout of New Towns,” trans. Zelia Nuttall, The Hispanic American
Historical Review 4, no. 4 (November 1921): 743-753. There is a historical controverse over Nuttall’s
translation expressed by Crouch et al. but my short excerpt suffices for my limited purpose.
as a tool for change is something that since the beginning has dominated the development
of new territories and not only in the Americas. Each new city is to appear “without doing
hurt,” but at the same time stand as a miracle—unexplained, inevitable, and superior in
every sense of the word. Whatever forces would attempt to annihilate the new city would
be defeated. That assuredness, backed up by the astonishing success of city building, has
prevailed until today.
It is early morning in the Caribbean city. The courtyard is almost still. The alberca is a sheet
of glass. Here known as a pool, the alberca is a proxy for the power of the City, brought by
the Moors to Al-Andalus. Al-Hambra’s palace of Yusuf III still lures the tourists’ cameras.
Adapted by the Spanish and “sailed” to the Americas, it reads as a signature of the colonial
adventure—nature captured, domesticated, surrounded by wall upon wall, and kept frozen
in eternal bondage. Aguirre would have none of this. His waters were the raging Orinoco.
He, like the jungle, was hell. His rage was the jungle’s rage. But it was only later that the
jungle would enter the language. In the courtyard, the greenery that sprouted overnight—
not yet tamed by Eli—is the only reminder of this unruly liveliness.
But not quite. A faint smell of diesel has entered across the roof from the already busy city.
Very different from the water of the alberca, the smell of gasoline fills not just our courtyard
but every other courtyard in this bustling city—a totally unexpected revenge on the five
hundred years of human hubris and sense of superiority over all things, now returning as a
monstrous concoction of nature and culture. Of air and petroleum. This is the work of the
City. Eugene F. Stoermer’s Anthropocene (his term for the aggressive acceleration of the
human aspects of the Holocene) literally constructs a new manmade global atmosphere
with its strands reaching back to the first campfire. But it is not just the air. New geologies
appear, first the stonework shaping the buildings surrounding the plazas and every street in
the grid of Cartagena, then the seemingly endless slabs of concrete just beyond the walls.
Undoubtedly an intoxicating euphoria characterized most of the time before the invasion of
the new epoch implied in Stoermer’s neologism, a term not popularized until the chemist
Paul Crutzen adds his atmospheric knowledge to the lithosphere. But today the threat of
the Anthroposcene appears in full swing. It is as if El Loco never left. Suddenly his rage
reappears and with it the Jungle—the stark reminder of the Other. The last stalwarts of the
formidable force (and euphoria) of the city-builders—the modern deniers of global
warming, still in a state of unthought—are now inadvertently joining the rest of us, finally
facing the Jungle acknowledged by their fervent denial and its wild presence.
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