Catalan Gothic

Huw Lemmey

The ghost is a domestic animal — as much can been seen in the word itself, where to haunt is to have a home. And so we live alongside them; once you turn something into your haunt, soon enough you’ll realise there are companions there with you.

*

I struggle to tell the difference between hauntings and history. Whenever I am in a place where the past creeps through, which is to say, the human past, I find it difficult to differentiate between what is materially there (the carvings in the stonework, the physical impressions of human hand and brain), that which emerges from what I might call my own historical imagination (visualising the closing gate that no longer exists, hearing the falling ordnance a moment before impact), and then, and this is the sticky bit, that which haunts (the border guards who actually stood here, the body actually flayed of its skin just yards from this mock Swiss cottage selling glühwein). I know there is a thin gap between each instance, each occurrence, yet I also know that the three inform each other. It’s how they inform each other where that eerie experience lies; not quite uncanny but the unsettling suspicion that, as Faulkner wrote, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” What happens in these gaps, but a haunting — an imposition of the absent into the present?

There is nothing I hate more than the reconstituted historical city, one so aware of its past that it seems to run a thin layer of gelatine over it, for fear of the modern air damaging it. In Vienna the buildings are preserved in this anti-spectral aspic, so aware of their own important past that little seeps through, unexpected, into the present. Each building is so well lit, there is little darkness there for the haunting. I spent a few cold winters in the city, with my hands pushed for warmth into my pockets, waiting as if at the corner of a street for something expected to come along but it barely did, at least not on those wide streets in the city centre where the grandest buildings stood, tipped in gold with history as a crown. That strange sense — the gaps — crept through only occasionally, at the foot of the indestructible fascist citadels whose protuberances hang like unoccupied gallows over the landscaped parks, or very late at night, beneath lamps strung across foggy streets. One afternoon, the sun already set, I snuck into a cinema to watch The Third Man, and felt it there on the screen amongst the ruins, before the preservative was smeared across it all. I found out later that they sprayed the cobbles with water, to reflect the light back to the lens.

Streets are where the ghosts always lie for me; not domestic but public, and the gaps between the old wet cobbles from between which the ghosts emerge, those gaps are the gaps between history, now, and the imagination. Vienna’s veneration of the past prevent, at least in the city centre, the everyday life that nurtures spirits. It’s as if the town fathers, the good burghers, have said “well, the city has had its history. It doesn’t need any more. That’s it. Nothing more is to happen here.” Barcelona, on the other hand, is a city living in the shell of itself, again and again, millions of humans squatting like hermit crabs in buildings that belong, rightfully, to the ghosts. The city ripples out from a Roman centre until it hits the circle of hills that surround it, and ripples back again, pushing up to the surface monasteries and weed clubs, mobile phone shops and old prisons, buckled against each other, stacked precariously. In fact the present is so present here — everything so alive — that, when I first moved here, it felt like it took months for those ghosts to make themselves known.

After a few months living in the city, the old market near my apartment reopened after renovation. It was first built in 1882; the city was undergoing an enormous expansion during the Industrial Revolution, and a plan was made to formalise the expansion of its limits from beyond the old city walls up towards the mountains. The walls came down, and an expansive grid system was designed by the Catalan urban planner Ildefons Cerdà, a utopian project of inter-class contact in a sanitary and pleasant living environment rather than the cramped, lightless mediaeval city, an archetypical warren of human constraint and desire. A great bastion of the wall, built by the gate of Sant Antoni, was replaced with the largest market in the city, built from wrought iron. It takes the form of a cross, almost like a prison, with a vast central hall beneath an octagonal dome. The dome mirrors the vernacular architecture of much of the city, Catalan Gothic; church towers across the city rise in the same form, with tall, sturdy octagonal geometries reaching upwards, almost as industrial as they are spiritual. Nothing tapers towards God here, so much as holds the sky up as columns.

Beneath the market, the ground is carved out, cut into by the visible remnants of the vast old walls. The bastion reaches an apex, cutting at an angle, and jostles for space with a new Lidl. As I search for the building online, later, I drift over the commercial panopticon, stamped into the city, and for the first time start to reckon with what emanates from the warm streets below, blowing up from the thin alleyways of the old city like the smell of hot damp and rotting fruit, skunk and petrol fumes.

I float above, using my keyboard and trackpad to articulate new visions of the city. I sweep down around the gothic arches, their golden paint flickering in digital sunlight. I pan effortlessly across rooftops, painted in thick waterproofing, or cracked open with heat. Digital mapping is beyond map or territory; it’s a belief in the city, some desperate attempt to make concrete a fabric that, by its nature, is endlessly morphous, polymorphous. As I dip down towards my neighbourhood, I notice a storefront I have never seen before, closed years before I arrived. I scoot forward to get a closer look, and it dissolves on the plane into a fresh shop, the one I could visit today, were I to walk down the high staircase and out into my street. I track back to see it again, but now it’s gone. I can’t find the position on the street, the public place, where the ghost haunts me again. Perhaps my memory is failing me. I remember the shop from a few moments earlier, gone now, selling all sorts of goods, shipped here from another continent for almost nothing. Almost nothingness.

I visit another market, Encants, built within the last few decades. Unlike Sant Antoni, which is now largely a middle-class neighbourhood and whose market is filled with finer alimentations — anchovies smoked and stored in oil, salt cod in wide, shallow marble basins, ghostly white asparagus spears sealed in brightly coloured tins — the market here is for the working classes. It’s open to the air, its roof so high and open that, in another climate, it would offer meagre protection from the elements, allowing side winds to carry in the rain. Here it works just fine; the ceiling dips and turns at angles above me, like a splintered roof caved in from dropping ordnance, as though the deep, spiralling amphitheatre on which the merchants trade is its own crater.The ceiling is lined in mirrored gold, and goods pile up over your heads, hesitating, waiting to fall from above, a shower of worn clothes and cooking utensils, old lamps and broken toys. I sit on the steps that line the commercial amphitheatre, watching ourselves overhead sifting and sorting through the cheap bed linen and elasticated underpants. My friends, who I have lost in the crowd, call me, asking if I want to meet at the cafeteria for a coffee. When we leave, does this all continue in our reflection, or is whatever is happening above our heads only a reflection of everything happening to those of us with our feet on the ground?

*

What a ghost is made of, nobody is sure. Early spiritualists referred to ectoplasm, from the Greek ektos, or outside, and plasma, material or formed, and regarded it as a mere manifestation of the spirit, formed by the medium themselves, rather than a pre-existing ghoul. I wonder if, instead, a ghost is more like a piece of grit in the eye, drifting in from an unknown place and for a moment blinding you. I wonder if we’re human sediment, washing against the wall, ready for a strong wind to blow us into the future, to glaze over their eyes in a thick paste of mucus. In writing about the strange, utodystopic pixelated visions of new developments that are affixed to the hoardings surrounding worksites, artist and writer James Bridle refers to the pixelated characters who populate the soon-to-be worlds as “render ghosts”. They once were real people, people he goes on to hunt down, but in the world of the hoarding they are something else. Like the ectoplasmic visitings photographed by early spiritualists, they are frauds, photomanipulations manufactured by those who really believe they might exist, ghosts of a better future:

They flit through new subway stations and airports, stroll in leafy parks; their children play among physically-impossible fountains and bright, toxic plants. Most of all, they like to stand on balconies, those too-narrow balconies which real urban-dwellers fill with bikes and rusted BBQs, but where the Render Ghosts dance and chatter, sip from tall flutes of champagne, admire sunsets and city views, live, love, and wait. They are waiting for their own end.

*

As I looked out across the tumbling rooftops I read a piece in a literary review about the redevelopment of Rome in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The city had suffered a cataclysm; the move of the papacy, following the election of Clement V, to the enclave of Avignon, France. The great city had been in decline for centuries,

a shadow of its ancient imperial self. Perhaps twenty thousand people lived in a city built for a million. Sheep grazed on the Forum, where the great dramas of the Republic had been staged, and on the hills, where warlords and emperors had built their palaces. The streets were no longer thoroughfares: feuding aristocratic families and professional thieves had turned them into places of carnage and robbery; porticos and stairways projecting from house fronts transformed them into obstacle courses, made even harder to navigate by open sewers, piles of dung and butchers’ refuse. The narrow alleys that led off the main streets, two or three feet wide, were no better: human and animal waste piled up until the walls on either side began to collapse. Undignified little shops housing vendors of holy objects obscured façades and colonnades. The ceremonies staged in the great old basilicas remained impressive – though papal masters of ceremonies, whose knowledge of Roman ritual scripts had been interrupted by the papacy’s exile in Avignon, often found themselves clutching on to one another, terrified that the wrong cleric had censed the pope.2

Ever since I have been haunted by this vision of our future, after some ecological or population collapse, the sort of threat that haunts our present: a city built for millions, inhabited by thousands. Would we shrink to the core, living in similar density in a city nucleus within a rotting shell of habitation? Or would we knock through walls, create streets within city blocks, clustered into them like crusader knights within fortresses? It seems likely my city will rot from the core, sodden with contamination deep within the stones, the smell of humanity penetrating the walls as shit from sewage after a flood, the human sediment. On the periphery the barrios will survive, undignified as they should be, a porous and barely perceptible borderland of guides, traders, and thieves. Here stands the interchange between the hinterland of the city, spreading out horizontally, and the cascading and broken towers of the city, the gateway whereby you acquire access to the languages and markets of the city.

There are two surviving paintings by Peter Bruegel of the Tower of Babel, both paintings made ten years after he visited Rome in 1553. Both are clearly influenced by the Colosseum, which in the centuries before his visit had been fortified by the Frangipani family and then turned into a rookery during the lawless years of the Avignon Papacy. In his paintings a series of seemingly concentric storeys, gradually diminishing in diameter, are reaching through the clouds into heaven. The top has been started before the foundations are secure; in one, the larger of the two paintings, the tower half sits upon a rocky outcrop, surrounded by the gently sloping thatched roofs of a mediaeval northern European city. In the other, the tower sits within an industrious countryside. Its concentric rings sit uneasily upon each other, suggesting the building rises in a spiral from the riverside, or perhaps is already unbalanced from its conception, cast across the earth not by God but by architecture. At the heights of the tower tall arches are mid-construction, held up by wooden falsework, revealing that within each floor of the tower are recurring concentric rings, arches upon arches, for air and light to filter through this enormous building. Unlike the Colosseum, Bruegel’s tower is not an amphitheatre, descending to an arena, but a city in itself, filled with habitable colonnades. Its architecture is idiosyncratic, with gothic arched windows filling some openings while others are held up by columns, some glazed and others open to the thin air, trefoil windows and arrow slits, blind arches, gates and balconies, colonnades and arcades. From the precipitous, half-made edges of the tower cranes and scaffolds hang, workshops built of wattle and daub, half-timbered mason’s lodges. The enterprise is massive and amateur at the same time, hubristic and wholly liveable. The tiny citizens are building themselves neither a monument nor a tower but a city, an urban fabric which, like Rome and Barcelona, expands with the daily needs of the populace.

The upper reaches of this earthly city are blushed a terracotta red, a contrast to the sand and granite tones below, but on the right side of the tower two teams of workers use their cranes to hoist materials towards the summit. One work gang is stained red from the breaking bricks, and at the bottom seem to rise from a mound of the same red; a slag heap of terracotta tiles or a conflagration, a burning fire for heating tar, not staining but illuminating. To their right a stranger, more heavenly host of workers, whose cranes, and loads, and bodies are not just white, but a luminous, transparent white, an ectoplasmic crew of quicklime workers, slaked with water and dissipating into the dark shadows their new city, new ghosts looking for their haunt.

  1. https://www.readingdesign.org/render-ghosts
  2. Grafton, A, (2019, 5 December). What if it breaks? London Review of Books, Vol. 41 (23).