To: Mr. Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council
Rue de la Loi, 175 B—1048 Brussels, Belgium
Dear Mr Van Rompuy,
Last May, at the height of what has come to be known as the Arab Spring, and in the midst of a wave of tragic fatalities among refugees attempting improvised crossings of the Mediterranean Sea, Domus magazine published a call for ideas entitled Project Heracles. It was inspired by an email exchange between two of your fellow Belgians, philosophers Lieven De Cauter and Dieter Lesage, on the social, cultural and political implications of a bridge between Europe and Africa across the Strait of Gibraltar. We challenged our readers from all over the world to send us their suggestions as to how such a connection might be realised.
Is it really a coincidence that this remains the last juncture between the earth’s great landmasses to have been consistently deprived of any significant form of infrastructure? Continents have been sliced apart at great expense, first at Suez to permit the passage of vessels between Africa and Asia to Europe, then in Panama, a site that marks—geographically if not politically—the meeting point of North and South America (which, revealingly, Europeans lump into a single continent but Americans prefer to consider separate entities). Continents have previously been sewn together by bridges. As you well know, Asia and Europe are today united by not one but two—the Bosphorus Bridge and Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge, both spanning the Bosphorus Strait in Istanbul. According to scientists, even the Bering Strait was once spanned by a land bridge connecting Asia and America, which was how our species first reached the Americas. As you can see, the history of intercontinental movements is, in many ways, the history of humankind itself.
“But,” you may argue, “in terms of the engineering challenges it poses, and its sheer cost, a bridge across the Strait of Gibraltar is in a league of its own.” That is true, but you shouldn’t be tempted to dismiss these precedents as unworthy terms of comparison. When it was inaugurated in 1973, the Bosphorus Bridge was a true marvel of engineering—the longest suspension bridge span in the world outside the United States. And, although we now take them for granted, the Suez and Panama canals remain two of the most expensive and ambitious construction projects ever undertaken. We realise it is not an easy challenge we are setting you, and to assist you in this Heraclean effort the readers of Domus have assembled some ideas that might help expedite your engagement with this infrastructural challenge. You might be interested to hear that of the 170 or so proposals we have received, only two opt for the European Council’s preferred typology of connection, the tunnel. Our readers, it would seem, believe a project of this import is deserving of a more ambitious infrastructural gesture, something of greater symbolic strength.
Most popular among our contributors is the idea of a poetic (if somewhat predictable) recourse to geo-engineering: Africa and Europe united by an archipelago of islands (a solution propounded by no less than 21 participants, either floating or permanently anchored to the seabed). The second most popular strategy, one of considerably greater originality and symbolic value in our opinion, proposes to link innumerable boats, ships and watercraft of all kinds into a new floating landmass. This clustered swarm of vessels of all sizes would stretch north-south between Ceuta and Gibraltar, buoyantly spanning the Heraclean abyss. Surprisingly popular, considering the purportedly rationalist inclinations of our readership, was the suggestion that a miraculous parting of the Mediterranean waters might provide a neat biblical solution to this infrastructural dilemma. Without disrespect, one evident problem with this option is the absence—anywhere on the European stage—of a worthy modern-day equivalent of Moses whose authority and leadership might suffice to stimulate such a miracle.
There is one other typology of proposed connection that impressed us with its symbolic value: the bridge-city. Of the six such proposals received, one in particular struck us deeply in that it was inspired by a text written in January 2004 by the late Giancarlo De Carlo, one of the great urban theorists of our time, and published in Domus 866. The text was titled “Tortuosity” and began with this passage: “I think the notion of a Mediterranean city could have an important influence on the construction of Europe and the European city. It can be a positive influence because it generates fertile contradictions.”
The Offshore Bridge + Mediterranean City proposed by Andrea Costa and Deborah Sanguineti is an eloquent expression of Project Heracles’s greatest ambition: to reframe this work of infrastructure as something capable of transcending the utilitarian dimension and thereby embody those ideals and values—openness, equality, cultural enlightenment—which purportedly represent the pillars upon which the European project rests. A new city, a truly Mediterranean city in every sense, could be the birthplace of a new era in the millennial relationship between Africa and Europe. A city in which migratory flows are not an unfortunate yet inevitable reality, but rather the mainstay of its identity. As De Carlo reminds us: “Migration has always been the vital essence of Mediterranean cities. New cultures have continued to be included in daily life, and they have fertilised and expressed themselves through complex urban forms with richness and imagination.”
Mr Van Rompuy, it is deplorable that Europe and Africa, two continents linked by innumerable cultural ties and one of the most significant migratory flows ever, are the only ones which, despite their proximity, have remained physically disconnected throughout human history. As you can see from some of the works of architecture published in this issue, the African continent is a place of innovation and experimentation, from which we Europeans can learn.
We would therefore like to add our voices to those of Lieven De Cauter and Dieter Lesage in asking you: what are you waiting for to develop a plan for a hospitable entrance and gateway to Europe on the Eurafrican border?