Mobility and Mutability: Lessons from Two Infrastructural Icons

John Munro*

An imposing monument to ideology and power, it stood as a marker of urban division from its construction during the height of the Cold War until its fate was sealed in 1989. Featured in films from noir to arthouse, its austere aesthetics absorbed observers on the scene and around the world. With its grey, alienating appearance, it also attracted no shortage of denunciators. “Oppressive,” one urban design expert opined in retrospect, “does not begin to describe it.” It’s still remembered by history, even if most people now enjoy inhabiting or traversing the public space its absence affords with little thought to this once formidable fabrication.

I refer, of course, to San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway.

Construction of the Embarcadero Freeway, January 1958 (San Francisco Chronicle)

But this reference also recalls that structure’s infrastructural doppelgänger; Berlin’s infamous edifice was also built to control mobility and to shore up a system of unequally distributed power.

Installing Berlin Wall reinforcements, 1961 (

Standing as they did across the same temporal span, the Freeway and the Wall, despite their differences, invite comparison for the lessons they hold. Two of those lessons – that mobility is power, and that nothing lasts forever – might issue from the twentieth century, but they are particularly salient for thinking about the city of the twenty-first.

Continue reading “Mobility and Mutability: Lessons from Two Infrastructural Icons”

Memory Erasure of Trans-Imperial History in the City of Nerchinsk

Journey through Siberia from Tobol’sk to Nerchinsk and the Chinese Border. Электронная библиотека (репозиторий) ТГУ <;

Iacopo Adda
Global Studies Institute, University of Geneva

On 4 December 1675 (14 December in the Gregorian calendar), gunshots were fired into the air from the fortress of Nerchinsk. A conspicuous group of Cossacks had been approaching the fortress and they immediately answered the salute. It was a signal for the arrival of a special traveller, who had been sent by Tsar Alexis I to lead a Russian embassy to the court of the Chinese Emperor. This special envoy was the Moldavian literary man Nicolae Milescu Spătaru, known in Russia as Nikolai Spatharii or Spafarii, who had taken up service as a diplomat of the Tsar a few years before.[1]

Spătaru was not the first envoy whom Moscow had sent to Beijing to discuss the settlement of the border between Russia and China, but he was the first to take the internal Siberian route from Moscow to China. He was also the first to provide the tsarist court with a fairly detailed, though sometimes imprecise, description of the geography of the Russian imperial possessions east of the Urals, which was published as Journey through Siberia from Tobol’sk to Nerchinsk and the Chinese Border (see photo above). However, scientific exploration was not the primary goal of the expedition.[3] As the Cossacks had only recently pushed down to the Amur valley, the border situation was unstable, but the Russians hoped to secure both a good strategic position on the Amur and a stable trade route to China. This would have meant reopening a sort of Russian-branded Silk Road, almost 300 years after the collapse of the one that had accompanied the pax mongolica between the 13th and 14th centuries. Continue reading “Memory Erasure of Trans-Imperial History in the City of Nerchinsk”