Friday, November 27, 2020

Gangs, Tythings and Congregations - the First Levers of American Association

Insights from Gen. James E. Oglethorpe's Development Plan for Savannah

Part Two

First Presbyterian Church, Synagogue and Wesley Memorial Church, Savannah Ga., originally uploaded by scadspc.

American frontier settlers were a hardscrabble lot. But, in this trait especially, they were not the self-dependent pioneers we commonly romanticize them to be. They were individualists of spirit, but not of their society. George Jones’s 1734 perspectival drawing of Savannah (see my previous post) is but an early witness to the power of American civic association that Tocqueville would marvel about a century later in his observance of its untrammeled industry. The organization of Georgia’s first colony by Oglethorpe and the Georgia Trustees, indeed, was quite long in strategy to foster effective associations, and quite consciously so.

In Part One, I treated the associations of labor, the work gangs that rapidly boosted the construction activity of the colony by giving it a robust footing for economic exchanges, enabling the colony to immediately benefit from potent forms of labor productivity. Beginning with the guardhouse and fortifications built in the first month, I want to emphasize once again that much of the settlement activity of the colony was created and sustained by public work projects. This was a brilliant stroke for forging a collaborative field of enterprise that creates springboards for private gain and productivity, and it has much to teach us today about an effective form of organizational development: the strategy I called the “Tactical Commons” in my first post. To focus less on the process, and more on the humans, we need to give the catalytic work gang orchestration a better name. To refer directly to the organizational framework, I am going to call it the "Kindling Cooperative", emphasizing here the economic dimension of the arrangement as well as to highlight the instrumental nature of that short-term arrangement, a temporary collectivizing of labor that can, with a few sparks, return a set of common goods and immediate public benefits. The most central and important return is the literal infrastructure needed to sustain the flames - the platform - from which the self-organizing embers of independent enterprise can subsequently emerge. A Kindling Cooperative should at the very least do everything needed to create the platform.

The Two Moral Syndromes

While the Kindling Cooperative represents a short-lived association, it was not the only corporate strategy established at Savannah's colonial start. I briefly touched upon a second lever of association that was longer lasting. Doubtlessly different from these initial work gangs, it comprised the militia units of ten members each called “tythings”. These were something like deputized units whose members were comprised of all the arms bearing men sharing a town block, and who also shared a jurisdictional square-mile tything unit of Savannah’s farm district (more on the latter to follow in future posts). 

We hear surprisingly little about these militia units in the correspondence of colonists preserved, despite the fact that the colony’s master plan was anything but quiet about them. Unlike the work life of the colonists, we just don’t see these units coloring the thoughts and reports of the colonists first hand. 

Why the tythings were hardly mentioned is hard to tell. Either they were so essential and second nature to quasi-feudal Britons that they did not bother commenting on them in their letters or, as I see hinted, they were rather irrelevant, weak or ineffective associations to these particular colonists. I suspect the latter was at play due partly to the fact that the arms bearing men of the colony were commoners, most of whom were aged well past that age when they might have been more successfully militarized. They are the folks who plied their trades in the commercial centers of London, such as the upholsterer Peter Gordon who I mentioned in the first post, and, as such, they were the kind of folks who very much held a preference for trading-based forms of corporate orientation. The ethos behind this preference is what the urban social theorist Jane Jacobs, in her work Systems of Survival, called the “Commercial Moral Syndrome”. 

Generalized across cultures, this “moral syndrome”, according to Jacobs, is comprised by a frame of mind tightly adhering to the following interrelated cluster of values (note: I rephrase or elaborate here and there on her descriptive terms for the sake of immediate relatability): 

“Commercial Moral Syndrome” Values:

Shun force, e.g. shun piracy, costly policing, taking without trading

Come to voluntary agreements

Be honest and trustworthy

Collaborate easily with strangers and aliens (cosmopolitanism)


Respect contracts (versus yielding to privileged status) 

Use initiative and enterprise

Be open to inventiveness and novelty

Be efficient

Promote comfort and convenience

Innovate/Disrupt for betterment (“Dissent for the sake of the task”)

Invest for productive purposes

Be industrious

Be thrifty (and quick to the matter)

Be optimistic 

These values quite interestingly stand distinctly apart from what Jacobs called the “Guardian Moral Syndrome”, a moral frame adhering to another cluster of interrelated values that are esteemed for certain non-commercial institutional endeavors, typically those based on protecting territorial interests. Religious practices, adjudicating courts in quarterly sessions, and conducting the militia duties are just a few examples of guardian tasks that were conducted by the Savannah colonists. According to Jacobs, basing her insights on the observations of Plato specifically, the cluster of values that comprise the “Guardian Moral Syndrome” is the following:

“Guardian Moral Syndrome” Values:

Shun trading, e.g. avoid bribery, and quid pro quo dereliction of duty

Exert prowess (back up authority with force)

Be obedient and disciplined

Adhere to tradition

Respect hierarchy (and avoid ease in reorganization, unlike businesses)

Be loyal

Take vengeance (back up authority)

Deceive for the sake of the task, e.g. entrap criminals for public safety

Make rich use of leisure and create "art for the sake of art"

Be ostentatious (express ceremony, dignity and continuity)

Dispense largesse (invest in power, influence and control)

Be exclusive

Show fortitude

Be fatalistic

Treasure honor

At first, this dichotomous framework will likely strike you as an odd and sweeping generalization of things. And there's a good reason for that, since today we might initially notice that much of what we would initially consider in the ethos of many kinds of associations today could represent an odd mishmash of all the values above pulled liberally from each syndrome. Certainly, commercial organizations, which Jacobs claimed should operate only with the first set of values, may to us today seem to operate with both sets of values. Today's commercial players, indeed, often do act vengefully and anticompetitively, submit to discipline and dispense largesse and lobby congress members. For instance, today we think of brand value, a core concern for commercial enterprises, almost exclusively in terms of consumer identity, but not that long ago “brand” was more about establishing trust, the confirmation of a promise of value, which relates to the commercial value “be honest and trustworthy”. But this has slanted this way to our contemporaries because a Faustian bargain was struck in the 1950s, and we discovered that the Marlboro Man could displace inconvenient hang-ups. So brands today, as with the “Trump” brand, are more about inculcating loyalty, a guardian prerogative, despite the obvious spin, deflection and tall tales to do so. Branding tactics likewise increasingly use hierarchy and tokens of prowess at the expense of transparency, trustworthiness and adherence to basic market honesty. One can circumvent the need for truth telling and trust setting in a brand by instead appealing to permanent markers of identity. 

Jacobs, however, usefully labeled these occurrences of moral blurring in institutions and businesses as the work of “monstrous moral hybrids”. They lead to a lot of social and economic subterfuge, as when police work, a guardian pursuit, bends to questionable moral outcomes when commercial motives sneak in through procedural features (an example is the practice of booking arrestees, sometimes with cooked up entrapment strategies, at the end of one's shift in order to enable the arresting officer to register overtime pay). 

Knowing this and thinking carefully through the dichotomous sets of values, Jacobs's framing of them will eventually strike you as quite revelatory. It will change the way you think about organizations in profound ways. 

Note, for example, how the values tightly interact within each “syndrome”, yet each set of values, taken point by point, seems to stand in opposition to the other set of values. “Promote comfort and convenience” in the first set stands variously in contrast with “Adhere to tradition” or “Show fortitude” in the second set. Each individual value of the one stands in corresponding contrast with two or three points of the other syndrome. Many of our social and economic malfunctions today boil down to the tensions inherent to the blurring of values, inclinations and tactics between both sets of syndromes when they get mixed in together institutionally. Very interestingly, we can spot these tension points in the correspondence of the Savannah colonists, to come back to our subject. 

First of all, the guardian inclination of mind is easily identified in all aspects of Oglethorpe’s activities establishing the Georgia colony. He was a general, of course, and his operational framework for leadership no doubt derived from the military, the guardian institution par excellence. Expressed in his letters through a cool comportment of the narrative details, his motives clearly lean a bit on a paternalistic orientation to the colonial undertaking - namely, his efforts to ensure that civil affairs and matters of defense take precedence over private interests. This often put him in direct conflict with some of the commercially minded colonists. 

Several colonists penned letters to some of the governing Trustees relating such instances. One Robert Parker, a miller, airs his grievance to Mr. Hucks, a trustee, regarding Oglethorpe’s confounding strictures to his person. All of his complaints are reactions to Oglethorpe's guardian demands, including the matter of bearing arms for his tything. Evidently, Mr. Parker's sons would fill in for his obligatory watch every fourth night. It is easy to see why the general would regard the matter a dereliction of duty from the standpoint of guardian moral code, as the subbing practice would certainly have quickly undermined discipline and group cohesion and erode ongoing seriousness in the matter. This impasse doesn't seem to even register with Mr. Parker. If it did, his transactional remark that "the duty was never neglected" was in sum all he thought he needed to say about the matter. The main charge of his letter is that these duties could be better addressed through his more productive industry as a mill creator to better serve the colony thus. The trading mindset exactly illustrated.

Another good example of a guardian activity Oglethorpe devised were the marksmanship contests he directed on Sundays to develop the hunting and military skills of the colonists. He would award the best performer with a turkey. Contests, as Jacobs observed, are great opportunities to manifest exertions of prowess and make rich use of leisure time, as well as cultivate group loyalty and bonding.

While held somewhat less prominently in the concerns of colonists, the tythings provided a lever of guardian association that was there - maybe mostly as a formality as the city matured, but a well defined and geographically circumscribed one. This is a defining characteristic Jacobs singled out for guardian work: it is typically oriented toward territorial interests and control. Indeed, the jurisdictional framework Oglethorpe provided for tythings would go on to define jurisdictional geographies, by fact and legal nomenclature, for more than few generations of Savannah’s history.

Congregations and Civil Society

The third lever of association prominent in the daily lives of the first colonists was sustained by the assemblies of faith. The 35 families of the English tradesmen who first landed with Oglethorpe were likely all Anglican. In the summer of 1733, they were joined by 42 Jewish colonists from London who were, except for two of their families, primarily refugees from the Portuguese inquisition who had fled to London. For a time, these comprised the second largest grouping by faith, becoming the founders of the third oldest synagogue in America. Arriving in their number among this second settler wave was a physician who had helped stabilize the colony during a pandemic that blew through the colonies that first summer. Hitting on the heels of Oglethorpe’s first extended absence from the colony, the pandemic had proved deadly, for grifters and insurrectionists had also used Oglethorpe’s departure to their advantage, weakening the colonists with malnutrition, strife and rum-induced delirium as a consequence. Oglethorpe clamped down on the rum trade and noted the effectiveness of the physician’s therapies. He relished the recharge of industry as more settlers trickled in to new province, noting their salubrious contributions to the sober advancement of the colony.

This historical anecdote from Savannah’s foundational year, in retrospect, brings up an instructive attribute about the long-term effects of the Oglethorpe Plan. In particular, it provides a handle for us to think about the the subtle social dynamics set up by a settlement strategy impelling more than one lever of associative order. By grouping colonists into construction gangs and, separately, into militias and obligating them to farm labor as well as periodic judicial assembly, these duties altogether represented both “commercial” and “guardian” endeavors. A cross-associative framework for collective enterprises was set up thus that could neutralize the natural tendency to keep these fields of undertaking otherwise segmented within the tight bounds of trust-communities. With that layered associative order, requiring coordination across all settlement units in the colony, corporate fields of colonial activity could evade the cantonization effects that could have otherwise occurred with the entrance of minority communities. In Trustee Savannah, social life must in daily concourse expand beyond the tacit bounds of trust-communities and, instead, adaptively incorporate a plurality of ethnic-religious orientations within the greater polity of the colony.

This layered cross-association, because it was so particularly circumscribed by the Oglethorpe Plan, allowed a miracle. It created an early path to maintain socio-political stability with the entrance of minority groups. Somehow, in a gingerly balancing act, the cross-associative order managed to nurture faithfulness to one's trust-community while establishing conviviality with the distinct ones of your neighbors in the maintenance of all other colonial associations and enterprises, thereby bypassing the formidable walls of religious and ethnic loyalties. The miracle is that the decision-making sphere actually rests on a homogeneous civic and commercial culture - a civil society - that envelops the entire colony, but it remarkably does not dispense with individual particularity nor cheapen religious affinity. The growing “homogeneity” of daily concourse rests on a plurality of association.

But the miracle goes much further than that. The associative individualism that is a peculiar attribute of American Civil Society has a role throughout the remaining pieces of the Oglethorpe Plan that we have yet to touch upon, especially in its remarkable agricultural strategy, which was aiming to subvert the slave plantation economy. We will pick up on these many things in our future installments, and I shall engage the insights of the philosopher and social anthropologist Ernest Gellner, among others. It will only get more amazing. I hope that you will stick with me.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

The Tactical Commons

Insights from Gen. James E. Oglethorpe's Development Plan for Savannah

Part One

Ten years ago, after a visit to Savannah at the end of 2009, I began to research the Oglethorpe Plan for Savannah and record my thoughts on this blog. Already back then, I was inferring things that I would never suspect would actually be backed up historically, such as the influence of John Locke on the plan. I already suspected then that I was scratching the surface of a deeply rewarding study, and by the middle of the past decade, my hunch had borne out in ways I could not have imagined. 

I shall begin posting the important lessons this past decade of thinking about Savannah has surfaced to me. This is just the first installment, and our introduction. Because these thoughts started on this blog, I think it only proper to revisit ProperScale and rekindle the love affair with Savannah's origins from whence we left them here last.

For a shortish preview of my study, you can consult my 2018 Twitter thread on the Oglethorpe Plan to peek at where my studies took me these past ten years.

A Subdivision Plan is Publicized

One of the most incredible artifacts of American colonial history is an 18th century sepia drawing housed in a repository of the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library of the University of Georgia. It depicts the early progress of construction for the settlement of Savannah, the first settlement of the charitable trust governing the Colony of Georgia then at the southernmost frontier of the colonies. Under the leadership of the sole attending member of the Georgia Trustees who had directed the settlement of the colony, Gen. James Edward Oglethorpe, 114 English colonists landed at this pine covered bluff on the 1st of February, 1733. They had erected a dockside crane by the first week of their landing, and within a little over a month, the 35 settler families had completed the timber magazine and its battery of cannon and had erected two clapboard homes on the lots staked out, with work in progress for others.

Savannah, Georgia in the 10th-14th months after its founding. Sketch by George Jones, after Peter Gordon's account and Noble Jones's Nov. 1733 plat map ("His Majesty's Colony of Georgia in America"; London, Feb.-June 1734; located in: Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Georgia)

This drawing depicts the state of the colony only a little over a year later. Very likely produced at the hand of a London draughtsman named George Jones in early 1734, it is a striking oblique perspective. Composed as a bird’s eye image of the town as viewed from the Hutchinson Island side of the Savannah River, it richly details the general situation of the town on the flat plain of the bluff on the southern bank. To an amazing level of detail, it depicts each individual home and public structure of the colony, including Oglethorpe’s tent, and charmingly illustrates the unmistakable characteristics of the surrounding Southern Pines, the tranquil commerce of trade ships and native canoes in the river, and the Trustees’ cattle lolling about Hutchinson Island in the foreground.
These details were probably informed by the memory of the colonist Peter Gordon, an upholsterer from London, who had left the Savannah colony in early November 1733 after serving a stint there as Savannah’s first bailiff. Gordon had returned to London to seek medical care for a fistula and brought with him a copy of the town plat drawn by its surveyor, Noble Jones. Most likely with this, Jones had included instructions for the production of a perspective, which George Jones used to prepare a sketch by the February of 1734. The same general composition was later approved for printing in mid-1734 by General Oglethorpe himself, who had returned to London after leaving the colony at the end of March 1734 to seek military reinforcements. Hereupon, some additions may have been sketched in for the commissioned engraving, and so the perspectival view, as the printed engraving claims, likely represents the state of the colony as it had stood that March in just its fourteenth month of construction. 

According to Oglethorpe's December 1733 letter to the Trustees, however, three and a half of the wards had already been occupied by that time (at what state the housing was in, he doesn't make clear). This is substantially more than depicted on Jones's drawing. The sketch could actually be conveying the state of the wards as they stood the November of 1733 from Peter Gordon’s accounting. Regardless of the case, the general extent of the program of construction - considering the travails and hints of discord communicated in the preserved correspondence we have - is simply remarkable, both in the breadth of the execution and the thoughtful, thoroughgoing cohesion of the details. What’s evident from the correspondence, however, was that neither the colonists nor Oglethorpe seemed satisfied with the speed of progress. You almost get the impression that the drawing was more of a clarion call than a mere propagandist effort - a tool to convey the urgency of the work needing to be done. Rather than today's absurdly atmospheric architectural renderings, it instead shares a curious semblance to the kind of plat maps you see in subdivision sales offices, with a portion of lots marked “sold” with red tags. Functionally, it really did serve a similar kind of marketing prerogative in inducing immigration to the colony. 

Something formative in the long-standing frame of our culture is being conveyed on this sketch, and I don’t mean that cynically. Thinking over this composition of humble structures now for over a decade, a Promethean reflection of our development culture is brilliantly peering at us here. And yet, I have lately become aware in hindsight that this sketch has made our contemporary renderings of architectural utopias today read socially unambitious to me. They toot like the resolved lonesome notes of individualized futures, ill equipped and weightless in comparison to Savannah’s social project. My contemporaries have no similar faith in the might of voluntary mobilization for the public good. Not at this scale.

The First Levers of Association

What resourced this incredible scene? When inspecting the correspondence we have, the colonists of Savannah’s first year mobilized their work with at least three levers of association. Labor, naturally, was the first reason for company, comprised by the work gangs Oglethorpe organized at the start for construction tasks. These units were based upon the available abilities and trades of the colonists. Not all tasks, however, could be accomplished well by the gangs due to the inexperience of colonists, and so Oglethorpe found it necessary to supplement these often by hiring itinerant laborers and slaves from Carolina, explaining that the work had been proceeding too slowly. While they were short lived, the gangs were effective tinder to start the industry that created the scene depicted in Jones’s drawing. 

The construction tasks organized daily life for the colonists early on. What is important about these work units is that they initiated a collaborative framework for work projects, synchronized with all such units in the colony. Once that collaborative base was there to root from, construction roles could extend over to farming projects and other works. With the flow of newcomers, the aggregate of these embers would eventually glow stronger with the progressive specialization of work into professions and occupations. What George Jones captured in his drawing was the point in time when the furnace was beginning to get hot.

Jones’s drawing shows the progress of tidy, identically-sized homes that each settler family was building on one of the 60 by 90-foot town lots they were granted. These were located in square “wards” near the protected bluff edge by the Savannah River. Each ward unit, which was centered on an open square fronted by public buildings, contained four blocks of ten homes each called “Tythings”. Six wards of forty homes each were planned, but the drawing only depicts four wards under construction, one of which, Derby Ward, is all but complete except for a vacant church lot (where today Christ Church Episcopal now sits facing Johnson Square). 

In this post from my early days encountering the Oglethorpe Plan, I noted that Savannah’s uniformly repetitive ward fabric of 60 by 90-foot town lots arose from the need to settle a colony of commoners in as fair and efficient a manner as could be contrived for this purpose. The cellular pattern of four Tything blocks to a ward was also useful for military reasons, as each Tything of ten households comprised a militia troop that kept the night watch of every fourth night, which was rotated with the other three Tythings of their ward. Note that this meant that the four day guard rotation didn’t coincide with the days of the week, always falling one day more advanced than the week before and thereby preserving strict fairness in the calendar cycle with regard to sabbaths. This is your first clue to the high degree of intelligent comportment riding with the geometric qualities of the plan. 

The Jones drawing also shows that the first public buildings of the colony were among the first erected, and, as with the homes, they appear to be very similarly designed gable roof structures, rectangular in plan, about double the size of the homes in length and height. Most of these were located in a “Trust Lot” belonging to the Georgia Trust, which overlook the central square next to each Tything block. Initially, Jones’s drawing shows that these lots served public uses, such as the public guest house (“House for Strangers”) and the “Publick Mill” for the colony, but the trustees would also grant some of these lots to congregations founded by the settlers. Thus granted in reserved prime locations near to all homes, the trustees could assign Trust Lots to spur the assemblies, charities and public halls of the town, as such associations could develop in due course in the colony. The Trust Lots, put in our terms, provide a prime reserve grant for civic enterprise, but, to access it, the common benefit must be clear to the greater colony, and the improvements must be collectively resourced. 

The Tactical Commons

This Trust Lot civic strategy has some expedient features for organizational and economic development with quite some genius behind it. 

To construct the first public buildings shown on Jones’s 1734 sketch in just 10 months with all hands pitching in, for instance, the critical role of organizing the collaborative training and labor must be undertaken. The build tasks must be divided by skills required, the materials sourced and allocated, and the labor rotations rationalized in a planned sequence. Expediting development with teamwork, the collaboration will mobilize the drive to clear fields systematically and prepare lumber, bringing in organizational advantages, such as the forecasting and rationing of supplies with the processing of building materials. Moreover, the work gangs acting in necessary concert with one another will be passively eliminating hoarding behavior and wasted labor better by reallocating labor to where the need most benefits the whole.

The total construction activity arising from the division of labor in the colony would have certainly exceeded, in scale, timeliness and quality, whatever would have been undertaken had each colonist been engaged only in his own separate homebuild project in some homestead in the wilderness at the start. The drawing is incontrovertible evidence of what happened. I know this is quite a difficult thing for an American to intuit today, particularly if you are a consultant type. Due to our irremediable gigging culture and emptied ranks of middle-management, we are no longer our daddy’s Organization Men. But, in a very true sense, the Savannah commons is creating the “social infrastructure” for town building. Without its public projects at the outset creating the setting of group labor and quickly normalizing exchange value concretely, the colony could have fared for the worse. 

The collaborative framework of the Savannah Trust Lot scheme hints at many upsides, but an essential one is that it grants private industry resources and economic information it would not otherwise acquire easily. Based on person hours, the collective labor to build the public projects will allow laborers to assess the value of work and goods first hand, granting all colonists insight to the quantifiable value of tasks - such as the labor value required for production of quality lumber, for example. They will probably assess immediately the total lumber that is generated on one’s own effort versus the vast more totals generated by a team of laborers. Once the initial construction of public buildings are underway, as colonists also continue improving their properties on their own, a maturing supply chain will be set in place, alongside a field of skilled labor teams with wage and material value intelligence. From this, a labor trading economy will ensue that families can tap into for their own home construction and farm projects. 

This is an incredibly important spark of industry that a “booster” project for the commons can grant a community. In a pioneering setting, especially, where the settlers are new to the skills and methods of development and most are still untested in the field, common uses that benefit the whole of them are themselves the fuel that can spark the enterprises, the organization, and the specialization required to advance their industry - creating the springboard for each individual’s options for betterment and self-actualization in the process. 

Talk about creating an effective startup team strategy... You would be creating, more than a startup, a startup ecology with this sort of work plan. Until a better term is availed, for now it is a development strategy that I will call the “Tactical Commons”. 

Besides the catalytic value of the Tactical Commons, however, the important feature I want to stress is how it functions in the Savannah economy to maintain a kind of dynamic equilibrium between individual and collective interests in the colony, and this it does as an ambient and unsupervised quality of the Oglethorpe Plan - namely, with the egalitarian layout of private lots and the formalized (also egalitarian) frame for association and governance with the Trust properties. 

Like the body’s vestibular system in the inner ear, to use an analogy, the plan guides forward motion unobtrusively, helping provide the sense of balance and motion with the processing of all external input received. In the body’s case, separate input streams are received from the eyes and the kinesthetic input received from the entire skeletal frame of the body. Both latter input streams are distinct and independent sensorial processes, while the vestibulary input, which is structurally aligned with them, is a mediating stream that helps the mind to synchronize the differentials between them. Savannah’s setting of one group effort for every ten contributors is literally baked into the structure, and people can’t help but to do the things they are hardwired to love, share and run with. It’s stunning that we haven’t learnt to plan this way 287 years later.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Sancta Memoria of a Blog

This blog was begun almost nine years ago as a light-hearted quick take on the state of urbanism of the last decade. But in quick time, it became my outlet to ruminate on foundations of urban design theory. Most of that attention looked not at present events and trajectories in urban design but at the past, sometimes the ancient one.

When I was at the cusp of theoretical transitions and using the blog as a forum of sorts with other bloggers I regularly interacted with, I was regularly churning out material that would take me weeks to frame and research and days to draft and re-draft. I would say that writing heyday on this blog was during those shaky years from 2009 to 2011, following the housing collapse and recession that rocked the architectural and planning professions. The crisis forced much invention in the planning and urban design world, and it was a kind of crucible that made my thought take a sober turn to questions of organized city building. (This happened not just to me, for that crisis generated the best thinking after Jane Jacobs on urbanism out there. The humility of the Strong Towns organization's thinking and, closely aligned, the "Lean" and "Tactical" approaches of urbanism are among the best creations of what that new alacrity in thought produced.)

My wedding in Chippewa Square
In 2012, my attention to the blog largely vaporized as I became very engaged in the event asset planning for Obama's 2012 Democratic National Convention, an experience that carried me more deeply into community work, which commanded not just my personal endeavors but my intellectual paths of discovery. Blogging about those things was untenable, even though the medium is in some ways more appropriate. I thought about blogging about that work of course, yet, somehow, blogging about that stuff seemed a disconnect from the nature of trust-building and situated work. Also, I just could not justify the extra cost to my personal time and relationships. To which point, I should add not incidentally, I finally got married last year. Note not a single post on Proper Scale since November 2014, the month I began courting my wife, Megan, in earnest. I got wed to this wonderful woman in, where else?... Savannah's Chippewa Square. Yes, at the heart of the Historic District and at the foot of James Oglethorpe's statue, a place meaningful to me partly because of my work for this very blog.

But since 2012, the blog has had a second life for me.

I can probably recount many of my blog posts from 2010 to 2011 to you from memory. That is partly the consequence of the nature of writing something that has become so meaningful to my personal and professional life. The blog posting drove me to realizations about the city that are irreplaceable in value, to which I keep returning in my thought and practice. Indeed, I find myself often linking to my posts in explaining things to others, and so the posts have become an inventive armature for my work and thinking. I often reread my posts to think anew about the topics that composed them.

This second life of Proper Scale has been very interesting to watch in hindsight. This is a courtyard filled with relics of my mind's wanderings and encounters. In a way I could not have foreseen then, it has become what I yearned for in an early post from 2009: a cathedral for sancta memoria - a story-filled dwelling for generating cross-thought and happenstance discovery often leading to spiritual awe.

So... to dust off the old blog after a two year hiatus, and to begin readdressing some of those new realizations from my journeys of late, I re-post that post below.

Here I celebrate the sancta memoria this blog has truly gifted me with.

What Medieval Pictorial Narrative Has To Teach Us
(first posted on Proper Scale on February 8, 2009)
Place is something the soul itself makes for storing images.
- Albertus Magnus, Dominican Friar in Cologne, 13th Century

In the Middle Ages, the role of architecture was to shelter body and edify soul. I say “architecture”, but I mean to include “visual narrative”, for art in that period was seen as an embellishment of architecture. The greater population in those days was, for the most part, illiterate, and so, for quite pragmatic reasons, churches had to convey the sacred stories of the Bible pictorially. 

But the role of transmitting sacred history in medieval architecture (and art) tends to be overemphasized. In fact, if you were able to ask an ancient learned person in Trecento Florence, particularly a skilled rhetorician, what role “Architecture” represented to him, you would probably have been surprised by the answer. He would have winked at you and said, “To remember”…or, “To prepare a lesson”, or, “To revisit topics that have long puzzled me,”…or, even, “To discover insights that I have long overlooked among the subjects of my learning”. Architecture, you see, was a physical embodiment of human knowledge. It served a rhetorical purpose. Not only was architecture used as a vessel to transmit knowledge, but it even provided the springboard to new insight.

How could a 14th century philosopher be provided with such a conception about architecture? 

Simple. You need to first know that ancient thinkers did not have readily disposable pieces of scratch paper lying around to jot down their brilliant flashes of insight. Nor were some of them even trained to write well. Paper came only into common usage at the end of the fifteenth century. Previously, if they did have access to scores of papyri or vellum parchments, they would probably not have composed on them random notes of scattered thoughts, brainstorming exercises (yes…I know DaVinci was a quirky exception), annotative outlines or what you and I call “rough drafts”. Most thinkers certainly would not have recorded anything on them without first deliberating what was to be said to painstaking perfection, and that they would only write down slowly. That was not a process conducive to unbridled thinking through writing. One gained the temerity to pick up the quill pen only after first deliberating long and thoughtfully where one was going with a given thought. The medium was too precious.

They did have wax tablets and sand, of course. Unfortunately, if you used these, you would soon find yourself, after a flurry of thoughts, suddenly running out of space. You would have to go back and erase what you wrote, defeating the purpose…Or, worse, someone just as eager to record a thought would inevitably erase your precious scraps of unformed discourses, mistaking your storage for later as a sign of neglect (or, someone would mindlessly step on your sand writing). So what these folks had to resort to, as strange as it sounds to us today, was to sit down and memorize the elaborate thoughts they wanted to recollect and rework later.

Fortunately, they had incredible memory tricks at their disposal. One of the most important skills they cultivated was to use buildings and images as tools for recollection. First, they would carefully memorize the spaces of memorable buildings, noting not only their rooms and structural elements, but also the various decorative reliefs and murals on the walls. They analyzed every square inch of an illustrative work or painting, noting what the subjects were doing, what they were carrying in their hands, and so on. They would then use these symbol-laden elements as associative hooks for thoughts they wanted to store. Literally, the architecture/artwork became a “place” for them to hang their thoughts.

The role of art from antiquity through the early Renaissance, particularly in ecclesial art, was not only to embody human knowledge but to aid the practice most important to intellectual prowess in those days: rhetoric. Moral and philosophical thought, including prayer and spiritual meditation, were pursued using the techniques of rhetoric. St. Augustine’s writings, for example, are merely recorded works of rhetoric—“speeches”, really. The memory technique described here, called “architectural mnemonics”, was perfected by the early Greek philosophers, who were all skilled rhetoricians.

Architecture served as a tool to aid the speech-maker. To understand how this worked, say you were composing a sermon. As you reflected and came upon a statement to make, you would look to attach it by association to an element or artwork of the building you knew well, typically an image-laden church. For example, if you wanted to make a point about the capricious actions of a certain Medici boss (who shall remain unnamed) you would try to imagine him as King Herod in the nativity panel series. You did a similar thing with all the other parts of the sermon. As you composed the discourse in your head and strung your various points to artwork by associative links, the composition would literally start to take shape on the church walls. When it was time for you to deliver your speech, all you had to do was to retrace your prepared discourse through your mental image of the church, from element to element, art panel to art panel. As soon as you came upon the Herod image in your mind, you would think “Medici boss” and immediately recall the moral point you had stored for that portion of the speech.

Imagine being able to recall an entire discourse spontaneously and without great difficulty! But there was a second advantage produced by this technique that was in some ways more significant than mere recall. Obviously, the image-laden church would force you to work with a pre-existing tableau for your own arrangements of meaning. This was not such a great a straightjacket as you might suppose. You just had to be pretty creative about your associative linkages. Maybe, instead of using the Herod painting, for example, you imagine the Medici boss with head of one of pigs in the Gerasene Demoniac painting. This would help you to better transition to one of your other related points regarding the abuse of ferrymen and farm laborers. In such a way, the church would invariably order your prayers, sermons or scholastic/philosophic discourses. Not only would the church hold your orations sequentially together—like a pastor’s notes on the lectern—but it would also prod you to reconsider and rework your thoughts as you extemporized new insights from the networks of pre-existing associative links you had already built up on the walls. This often led to surprising insights that one would not have found otherwise. The church would thus marvelously become a vessel for private revelation. What would inevitably happen is that an orator would deliver a better speech than he had prepared. He would have plenty of moments of unanticipated, inspired insight.

Sometimes, among learned monks, the vessel of deriving “Holy Ghost insight” from associatively preserved memories was not a church or a panel of art but passages of scripture that they were thoroughly familiar with (which they typically were since some of them spent most of their time copying the same passages of scripture). For example, if they had the first chapter of Genesis memorized, they would use the seven day account of the creation story as a “place-holder” for their thoughts. By making associative links to the elements of each day, they could compose a seven-part prayer or sermon that could be recalled later to share with others or to reflect upon further. This insight to the latent creative function of Biblical narrative, the art of recollecting and composing ideas by using a narrative or poetic substructure, was called sancta memoria. Art panels in churches served a dual purpose, to provide communal narratives and to provide visual props for sancta memoria.