With the Mediterranean Sea as their starting point, research collective Avalanche (TVK, Anyoji Beltrando and KH studio) reflects on the Sea and Earth as infrastructure. The Mediterranean as the birthplace of the Babylonian myth has been swallowed in a liquid infrastructure of global trading that turns the back to its hinterland and resettle in the open sea.
The Mediterranean Sea, a space where some of the most powerful forms of urban living were born is today a vertiginous place. The Sea is at the same time bathing spot and place of death, a burning border between north and south. But what makes it truly a space of paradox—etymologicallyspeaking, going against the doxa, the common belief—is nested in its new status. From ancient physical boundary, the Mediterranean Sea has become a bridge between oceans, an essential link in the world’s new circularity.
From its ancient paradigm as an inland sea, life basin united and domesticated, it has shifted to an open maritime space, connected and eventually absorbed in the global system. The Mediterranean Sea is a space occupied and largely transformed by humankind.
Keep in mind our present-day challenges and look at how the Mediterranean condition has shifted with time: the story of this inland sea seems to hold the myths of a global era where humanity is the reckless species in charge. The total domestication of this naturally hostile world constitutes an objective that remains out of reach. But this yearning has provided a vista towards which communities have built their ambitions.
If the Babylonian myth is the urban archetype, where the pillars of the great city reveal by their dimension, an aspiration to great heights; the conquest of the Sea illustrates another unstoppable ambition, the conquest of horizon. It is a tale of a progressive conquest of the maritime space, until it becomes a key space.
The greatness of ancient mythologies, the tumult of old tales and the contemporary chronicling of tragic migration is at odd with the seemingly peaceful and benevolent appearance of the Sea, its modest scale. The Mediterranean Sea is a closed space, within which a relationship between humanity and Sea, humanity and universe can be built.
It is within the Mediterranean that the community of humans becomes a maritime civilisation, it is here that the metropolis is invented. Its Greek etymology, “metropolis”, refers to the mother-city, with outposts or colonies, having relationship with other territories than theirs. The great city has its raison d’être in its domination over territories far away, in its extraterritorial condition. The mastering of the Sea constitutes both the foundation and the means of its appearance. A common theme across the ages connects the historical archetypes of this collective evolution: from the cosmopolitan city state of Babylon to the Phoenician reticulated empire between Sea and land, from the federation of Greek colonies to the Hellenic Euro-Asian merging, and towards the unity of the multifaceted roman domination, this drift echoes urban history that goes through the progressive association of continental and maritime forces.
The discovery of the American continent dramatically changes the perception of space and the conception of horizon. A boundless world is revealed, and with it a new culture of conquest whose legacy lives on today. The Atlantic Ocean becomes a stimulating “mirror”, vast and open. It allows the West to upgrade its imaginary and ambitions.
The Mediterranean Sea then reaches a new status. The ancient world’s centre of gravity shifts towards north and west. The rise of circumnavigation—going around the African continent through the Cape of Good Hope—the weakened Ottoman Empire and the rise of piracy means the end of the commercial routes that made the Mediterranean communities rich. The Mediterranean is not the centre of the world anymore. With the expansion of the latter, the Mediterranean Sea sees its scale changing and withers; protected creek, asleep, away from the open-sea. It is now a pocket, semiopened via the strait of Gibraltar, on the new Atlantic horizon. The Sea is not central—withdrawn, it remains the symbol of a disappeared world.
The Sea is an antithesis to Earth: to its terrain’s relief, the Sea shows horizontality; to outward appearance, depth; to itemisation and heterogeneity, continuity; to finitude, infinity.
The building of the Suez and Panama canals in 1869 and 1914 lay the foundation of a new global system. Avoiding the bypassing of the African and American continents, these new strategic crossing points translate into shortened routes for sea ships—6,000 km for Suez, 13,000 km for Panama. They establish a genuine continuity between the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans. Through these shortcuts, the most important maritime fluxes that used to go far south, now remain close to the Equator. The Earth, sliced and reshaped, bears a continuous maritime surface, supporting massive international fluxes. Humankind has turned the Sea into a circular planetary system, bridging distant worlds.
From Shanghai to Rotterdam a new maritime highway is designed going through Egypt, across the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea to the Strait of Gibraltar. The Mediterranean Sea becomes an unavoidable crossing point. This highway that privileges the most direct way has diminished the Sea’s meaning, to a mere channel prolonging the Suez Canal. Within immediate proximity of this cluster of privileged fluxes, Port Said, Piraeus, Marsaxlokk, Gioai Tauro and Algeciras suddenly become strategic harbours of a new system, global hubs principally dedicated to transhipment. Marseille, Genoa, Barcelona are downgraded, turning into mere regional ports provisioned by coastal navigation. The Mediterranean Sea is not an inland sea anymore but a key sequence part of global routes along with a local hub for Africa and Europe. The Mediterranean got reinvented by the big scale.
In this new system, the discovery of the Earth’s roundness is reaffirmed everyday with the perpetual movement of container and merchant ships. They assert the globe’s circularity. The continuum is substituted to the finite and bounded space of routes going from coast to coast. The planet of yesteryear, composed of independent worlds, reaches a global dimension through the emergence of a unique ocean whose fluxes form a global system. To exploit the Sea is now to conquer the Earth’s whole surface.
A free, uninterrupted, global space for a flowing mobility (potentially fuelled by no energy but the wind); compared to other land infrastructure, impeded by physical and administrative ruptures, the Sea is a continued infrastructure whose only obstacle is the inclement weather. Because of the gigantic quantity of goods that can be transported at one time, the sea enjoys a key advantage towards other transportation modes. Its slowness is then forgotten.
The Sea is an antithesis to Earth: to its terrain’s relief, the Sea shows horizontality; to outward appearance, depth; to itemisation and heterogeneity, continuity; to finitude, infinity. Generation after generation, the vessels that sail the Sea never paused their ambition to exploit maritime infrastructure to its full-capacity. From ships carrying 500 containers in the 1950s, we have upscaled to vessels transporting 20,000 units at a time.
The Sea offers no limit to this gigantism, its boundlessness even triggers it.
Against the maritime world’s elasticity, Earth is a constrained architecture that has to adapt to these new floating giants. The Panama and Suez canals have been upgraded in 2015 and 2016 with enlargement works, increasing their width and depth. Mountains, coasts, lakes and deserts: natural geography step aside to let the water flow. Ground infrastructure are reshaped to fit a new maritime order.
Such is the property of the Sea that it represents an ideal, leading humankind to change the Earth. Humanity seems busy devising a general infrastructure that could reach such ideal. To obtain this goal, it tries to endow Earth with the Sea’s innate qualities: continuity, horizontality, vastness and depth.
It is for its inborn quality that humans embrace the Sea as their largest global infrastructure. On its waves, humankind places everything they produce on Earth. Earth produces, Sea distributes—like the conveyor belt in a sushi restaurants.
While harbours become island, built in the open-sea, it is potentially the Sea as a whole that becomes a “supersurface” dedicated to production, transformation and not only distribution: a horizontal oceanic factory. Yesterday, offshore extraction of oil constituted the prehistory of maritime resources exploitation. Tomorrow, command of maritime space will open new opportunities through the exploitation of wind, hydraulic power, sea-grown food and new materials.
Already refineries relocate to industrial harbours, closer to the source. Like car maker Renault in Tanger, factories also settle in coastal free zones—they import their raw material and export their final manufactured products. They are a step in the global circulation of goods. Logistic warehouse, free zones, factories, are as many islands ignoring the territories that host them. They are disconnected from their hinterlands and solely interested in their maritime connectivity.
Soon, with an increased control over maritime spaces, these activities will be relocated on the Sea, as close as possible to the fluxes of material. A far cry from garish sci-fi, humanity becomes, progressively, an inhabitant-operator of the Sea.
The normalisation and standardisation of maritime fluxes leads to the Sea losing its neutrality: independent, unified, codified, it is almost prescriptive. Norms of the Sea are key in determining the functioning of the harbour and its architecture—different if not detached from the realm of the land.
Thus, the Sea, now an autonomous system of values and references, imposes its organisation to Earth. It ends up influencing the terrestrial space as it takes over a planetary system. Progressively, elements of territories break away from the land-based system to enter the maritime space. Earth becomes liquid. It breaks away from territorial construction and its land-based networks by forming an alliance, by dedicating itself, to maritime fluxes. The control of humanity on the Sea reorganises the world in a global archipelago: seaborne and landbased, human communities are behaving like autonomous bodies, free from grounded continuity and connected through the Sea’s absoluteness. Products of this global maritime system, the new world cities, take the form of vast platforms, global hubs of transhipping, extraterrestrial space, linked to the global system via maritime fluxes.
The Mediterranean has seen the birth of the urban age, founded on the occupation, organisation and administration of an earthly territory. Freed from these fundamental issues—closeness, continuity and concentration—it is one of these global spaces where an alternative to the metropolitan condition could arise.
TVK, Pierre Alain Trévelo, Antoine Viger-Kohler, with David Enon and Irène Béhar; Anyoji Beltrando, Yannick Beltrando and Tomoko Anyoji; KH studio, Alessandro delli Ponti, Ilaria Novielli with Michele Ganzarolli.
AVALANCHE is a research project founded by TVK, Anyoji Beltrando and KH studio.
Article "La Méditerranée au milieu de la mer" initially published in French in Classeur no. 2, “Mare Nostrum”, Éditions Cosa Mentale, September 2017; and a shorten English version has been published in Migrant Journal no. 3, “Flowing Grounds”, November 2017, translated by Justinien Tribillon. Images by Offshore Studio.