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View of Vienna from Stephansdom.

From fortress to boulevard

The most picturesque part of Vienna, a city known for its beauty, is Ringstrasse, the Ring Road that encircles the oldest part of the city. The broad, attractive road wraps around three sides of the historic city center, with the Danube River closing the loop to the north. Many of the city’s most important cultural and civic buildings line Ringstrasse, including the opera house, Rathaus (town hall), the Austrian parliament, and an assortment of museums and libraries.

Monuments on Ringstrasse in Vienna: 1) Staatsoper (1869); 2) Hofburg (1881-1913); 3) Maria-Theresien-Platz (1889); 4) Naturhistorisches Museum (1889); 5) Parlement (1883); 6) Rathaus (1883).

Monuments on Ringstrasse in Vienna: 1) Staatsoper (1869); 2) Hofburg (1881-1913); 3) Maria-Theresien-Platz (1889); 4) Naturhistorisches Museum (1889); 5) Parlement (1883); 6) Rathaus (1883).

Ringstrasse is a legacy of the Austrian Empire, when Vienna was the capital of a multi-ethnic, polyglot empire eight times the size of Austria today. Emperor Franz Josef, who reigned from 1848 to 1916, spearheaded the development and beautification of his capital city early in his reign. In 1857, he authorized the most dramatic change to the city: demolishing the old defensive works to make room for Ringstrasse and the buildings alongside it.

But what were these defensive works that made way for Ringstrasse? When I first learned about Ringstrasse on a wonderful but brief visit to Vienna eleven years ago, I had the impression that they were medieval walls, made of stone. This didn’t really make sense to me, though, because medieval walls, such as those that still stand in Rothenburg, do not take up much space—not nearly as much as Ringstrasse and the neighboring buildings. In fact, Vienna had been defended by early-modern fortifications. The city’s medieval walls had been torn down and rebuilt in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to defend against the Ottoman Turks. A large open area in front of the defensive works, known as the glacis, was kept clear to offer a clear field of fire. The buildings of Ringstrasse were constructed on the land that had been kept open for the glacis.

Early-modern defensive works had a low profile and a large footprint. Consisting mostly of large earthen berms, the fortifications were designed to defend against the offensive weapon of the age: the smooth-bore cannon. The earthworks absorbed the impact of cannonballs, which could easily shatter stone defenses. These early-modern defenses were in vogue until the introduction of rifled-bore artillery, which made its debut in the American Civil War.

Kastellet, an early-modern star fort in Copenhagen.

Kastellet, an early-modern star fort in Copenhagen.

Many (but not all) early modern-fortifications had triangular projections at regular intervals along the berms or walls—the origin of the nickname “star fort.” The projections allowed soldiers standing on them to shoot at attackers from either side, trapping them in enfilading fire. An 1858 map of Vienna, drawn before the old defenses were demolished, shows triangular projections at regular intervals along the wall.

Another city that once had early-modern fortifications, but does no longer, is Frankfurt. The German city’s approach to using the land freed up by the demolition of the defenses was different from Vienna’s. The land once occupied by Frankfurt’s defenses is now taken up by a park that wraps around the historic city center. Even some of the triangular star-fort projections have been converted into parkland. They are visible on modern maps of the city—a telltale sign that this park was once an early-modern fortification.

Gallusanlage, part of the greenway on the site of the former fortifications of Frankfurt am Main.

Gallusanlage, part of the greenway on the site of the former fortifications of Frankfurt am Main.

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An Ode to Concrete

“This is Bombay, my friend, Bombay. Here the buildings are made of cement, and people’s hearts are made of stone.”

-The Beggar, Shree 420 (1955)

David Edgerton explains in his book The Shock of the Old that concrete, asbestos-cement, and corrugated metal are examples of creole technologies—technologies that originated in one place but took on new uses and meanings elsewhere. These materials in their modern forms were western inventions, but they have been particularly significant in the development of the poor world.1

It would be difficult, or perhaps impossible, to imagine modern India without concrete. The material can be produced cheaply and worked easily by either labor-intensive or capital-intensive methods. As such, it is the foundation—both literally as well as metaphorically—for much of India’s infrastructure.

The following gallery illustrates the complex and varied uses of concrete in contemporary India.

  1. David Edgerton, The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 42-3. []

The Klan’s Dam

Coordinates: 40.22 N, 105.35 W

Kayaker passing Chimney Rock Dam.

Kayaker passing Chimney Rock Dam.

On the St. Vrain River in Colorado, a concrete structure juts partway into the stream, providing an obstacle to kayakers shooting down the rapids, but otherwise serving no useful purpose. The structure is the abandoned foundation of Chimney Rock Dam, a project that began and ended in the mid-1920s. Originally planned to be a combined hydropower and water storage project for the town of Longmont, the remains of Chimney Rock Dam now shed light on two quite different topics: early twentieth-century dam construction methods, and a brief chapter in Colorado’s political history.

Chimney Rock Dam was built with the use of cofferdams, a cheaper method than diverting the river, but a practical solution only for small or medium-sized streams. Cofferdams are wooden frames that workers fill with weights to sink in the river. Once they have completely surrounded a section of riverbed with a series of cofferdams, the workers pump the enclosed area dry and excavate the riverbed down to bedrock. Then they build the dam up layer by layer. When one section of the dam has risen to a reasonable height, the workers move on to the next section, which they built up from the riverbed out of cofferdams in the same manner as the first.

Detail of the concrete layers used to construct the dam.

Detail of the concrete layers used to construct the dam.

Backside of Chimney Rock Dam.

Backside of Chimney Rock Dam.

A dam built section-by-section from cofferdams has channels in its base, which allow the river to flow unimpeded under the structure during construction. Once the dam tops out, the holes at the base of the dam are closed with gates that drop into place. Then the reservoir begins to fill up behind the dam, exerting pressure on the gates and keeping them sealed tightly shut.

Work never progressed this far on Chimney Rock Dam. Before the dam had even made it across the stream, all work stopped on it. The reason why the dam was abandoned was ultimately political, although a US Army Corps of Engineers audit also determined that the project was technically unfeasible. The dam was a pet project of Longmont’s short-lived Ku Klux Klan city government. Voted into office in the 1925 local elections, the Klan government initiated Chimney Rock Dam in 1926. During its short period of construction, the estimated final cost of the project ballooned from $85,000 to $350,000. Because of these and other excesses, Longmont’s Klan government quickly grew unpopular. Voters ousted the Klan from city government in the 1927 local elections.

What was the Klan doing in Colorado? Longmont’s brief electoral flirtation with the KKK was part of a major revival of the Klan during the 1920s. The first incarnation of the Klan had been based in the South during Reconstruction. The new Klan was reconstituted with its geographical center in the Midwest. During this period, the strongest Klan state was the thoroughly midwestern Indiana. The new Klan persecuted any group that they deemed different and un-American. In Colorado, they targeted Catholics and Mexicans.

Sixty years after the abandonment of Chimney Rock Dam, Longmont finally got its own major dam for water storage on the St. Vrain River. Button Rock Dam, just upstream from Chimney Rock, was dedicated in 1969. Holding 16,084 acre-feet of water in its reservoir, the dam cost $5.2 million to build.

Button Rock Dam and Ralph Price Reservoir

Button Rock Dam and Ralph Price Reservoir.

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