The Mediterranean: Worlds, Regions, Cities, and Architectures

(May 3, 2013) -- Dr. Antonio Petrov, Assistant Professor of Architecture at UTSA, has published a new book, titled The Mediterranean: Worlds, Regions, Cities, and Architectures. The 336-page volume 5 of the New Geographies: Design, Agency, Territory series is published by Harvard University Press and supported with grants from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts and the Aga Khan program at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University. On March 14, 2013 his book was launched at an international symposium, titled “The Mediterranean: Region-Making by Design” at Harvard University. On April 18, 2013 there was a roundtable discussion around the context of the book titled “Worlds, Regions, Cities, and Architectures” at the Graham Foundation in Chicago.

In his book, The Mediterranean: Worlds, Regions, Cities, and Architectures, Petrov argues that the central role of the Mediterranean in the development of global civilization cannot be denied. Situated at the intersection of Asia, Africa, and Europe, the Mediterranean — from the Latin mediterraneus, or inland or middle sea — is a region characterized by complex systems of urban and regional networks. The region’s complexity is reflected not only in its diverse interrelations but also in endless debates about how to define it: Is the Mediterranean a space perceived as a binding geography, with a constellation of ports connected to hinterlands? Or is its expanded definition still based on seminal perspectives that come to us from historians such as Fernand Braudel, Nicolas Purcell, and Peregrine Horden, and from social scientists such as Henri Lefebvre and Michael Herzfeld?

The methodological postulation about it is important, as it reflects the struggle to understand and question the historic grounds and spatiality of a new emerging Mediterranean. Yet these sometimes overlapping and often contradictory conceptions of the Mediterranean find more possibilities of coexistence when considered in spatial terms. The “network of ports” definition versus the “complementary regions” approach may have generated heated debates in historiography, but in spatial terms these two views are quite compatible.

Although the Mediterranean has been able to resist an international architectural object fever and protect its cities from the seductive appeal of Dubaiization, globalization has nonetheless undermined the structures of Mediterranean cities and regions at a deeper level, influencing local configurations. Whether seen through the lens of early twentieth-century modernism or 1970s “critical regionalism,” the Mediterranean is often still regarded from a perspective of idealism, which influences the spatial politics and the politics of Mediterranean identity and complicates twenty-first-century attempts to deal with globalization and its implications.

The superimposition of a universal logic driven by the economic and spatial politics of globalized actors and events obstructs the region’s geographic logic, through which it might arrive at a renewed understanding of the contemporary Mediterranean. Despite the fact that the image of the Mediterranean is largely determined by stereotypes, a few countries dominate the identity, the brand, or what might be considered Mediterranean aesthetics. These claims on the brand drive the identity of the region as an image that has imposed itself on both reality and the imaginary, upsetting the balance between the two, leading to a new understanding of the whole, but with a contested meaning.

Although the Mediterranean’s definition as a system of interrelated regions and identities is not easily apprehended, the speeds at which economic, political, and demographic shifts and resulting spatial consequences occur has made a clear reading even more challenging. The lack of awareness of “the emergence of indefinable, shapeless regions devoid of identity” (1) reflects how region-making processes are becoming increasingly transitory. Recent political changes have spawned new urban and regional morphologies, underscoring how the Mediterranean as a geographic entity is contributing to the understanding of what is at stake in regionalism and urbanism on an even larger scale.

Many essays in this volume recast the understanding of the Mediterranean city in much broader terms than the conventional port city definition ever allowed. In so doing, they expose patterns of urbanization that straddle national boundaries and challenge earlier topographically bound conceptions of the space. In some cases, mountains are no longer the defining backdrop and a limit to the Mediterranean city but are subsumed by its growth. In others, urban expansions along coastal areas are cordoning off the sea from the hinterland, but they are also creating new continuities and networks that could be folded into the Mediterranean model. These new urban behemoths and the hybrid modes of transportation serving them may have altered the Mediterranean model beyond recognition, but the related infrastructures and the new hinterlands are begging for refreshed morphological models, which some of the papers presented here seek to delineate.

It is at the architectural scale that the final set of interrogations emerge in this volume. What binds the “Catalan” house with the “Greek” house? As Barry Bergdoll has already proposed, the cyclical yearning for the Mediterranean has historically coincided with a desire for synthesis. Some of the featured projects propose new tropes, such as the island/colossus, that hybridize architecture with geography. Architecture has for too long been burdened with the responsibility of expressing place, of grounding itself in context. Some of the new responses suggest that the next synthesis may be between architecture and geography, helping us to find a more active role for architecture in shaping geography.

The featured projects by students in the New Geographies Lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Design explore a variety of possibilities: a new bridge between Africa and Europe; a master plan for the coastal area across nation-states, between Barcelona and Genoa; a new roll-on/roll-off harbor in a small Greek town that will serve as a major link between the Adriatic region and Asia Minor; an underwater network of conduits that transport gas, water, and electricity between countries around the Mediterranean; natural-gas rigs that punctuate the seascape; or constantly redrawn connections between public and virtual spaces that create the foundation for a permanent Arab Spring. The work in the New Geographies Lab reflects some of the major transformations that the Mediterranean region is undergoing today, placing these issues before architects and urbanists. A regional identity that had been tenaciously preserved over millennia, in part through its architectural tropes and stereotypes, is being radically revised.

This book highlights these changes, their challenges, and their potentials. It aims to initiate new discussions that could extend to other transnational constellations, urban and regional forms, and the idea of region in architecture at large. We also hope to shed new light on the agency of architecture, which perhaps more than ever struggles to keep up with fast-changing regional structures that are morphing faster than the architecture making them. What role can architecture play in shaping large-scale territories that extend beyond the inhabited range of quotidian experience?

(1) Alain Thierstein and Agnes Förster, The Image and the Region — Making Mega-City Regions Visible! (Baden: Lars Muller Publishers, 2008), 228.

Petrov received his doctoral degree in the History and Theory of Architecture, Urbanism, and Cultural Studies from Harvard University. Currently, he is teaching at the University of Texas in San Antonio. He is also program director at Archeworks in Chicago, cofounder and current editor-in-chief of the Harvard University Graduate School of Design publication New Geographies, the founder and editor-in-chief of DOMA, a bilingual magazine published in Macedonia, and the director of WAS, a think tank located in Chicago. Petrov’s research explores new discourses in regionalism and architecture with a focus on the Mediterranean. His research seeks to reconceptualize active processes of region making by dismantling prevailing geographic, spatial, and cultural meanings. His perspective on the Mediterranean recasts the region as a contemporary phenomenon and spatializes its region-making and region-formation processes as a larger geographic entity challenging conventional boundaries between the sea, cities, and hinterlands. Petrov is investigating new spatial paradigms to be presented in his forthcoming book, Superordinary: New Paradigms in Sacred Architecture. He traces evangelical architecture in the United States, arguing that postwar American Protestantism not only overcame the traditional signification of sacred architecture but also its dichotomy of form, function, and aesthetics. Before coming to UTSA, Petrov taught at Harvard University, Wentworth Institute of Technology, Northeastern University, Iowa State University, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Illinois Institute of Technology. He is the recipient of a Fulbright fellowship and several other grants, fellowships, international prizes, and competition awards in architecture, planning, and design.

Images courtesy of Xuhua Cheng.

Related Gallery 1: The Mediterranean

Related Gallery 2: The Mediterranean