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Where design projects possibilities, literature activates their potential and shows their effects. Brought together in Thinking Design through Literature, they form a new and wider tributary in the thought of things and places.  That said, in this excerpt from the chapter on culture, readers will note that the word ‘design’ is largely absent. That’s because few people, if any, refer to their possessions or homes or cities as ‘design.’ The reality is, we give our things names like ‘table’ or ‘apartment,’ and in this instance, ‘bridge’: The Bridge on the Drina. In naming these things, we bring design into life; but, perversely, they then become unremarkable. Until we meet them again in the context of literature.


Design – the character of the things and places we surround ourselves with – is one of the most immediate ways we signal how we want to be identified in any given moment. And conversely, it is how we are identified by others, as in conditions that preclude the luxury of choice like that of homelessness. In both cases, clothing may be the strongest public utterance we make apart from the languages we speak. If dressing is the way we take up temporary residence in different milieus (wearing a mother’s sweater or a father’s watch), fashion is the self-conscious attempt to play with identity, to manipulate our relationships with home and culture. In the opening monologue to his 1989 film Notebook on Cities and Clothes, the filmmaker Wim Wenders captures the poignancy of being both part of and apart from culture in a society that prizes individual identity.

The word itself gives me shivers.
It rings of calm, comfort, contentedness.
What is it, identity?

To know where you belong?
To know your self worth?
To know who you are?
How do you recognize identity?

We are creating an image of ourselves,
We are attempting to resemble this image…
Is that what we call identity?
The accord
between the image we have created of ourselves
and… ourselves?
Just who is that, “ourselves”?

We live in the cities.
The cities live in us…
time passes.
We move from one city to another,
from one country to another.
We change languages,
we change habits,
we change opinions,
we change clothes,
we change everything.
Everything changes. And fast.
Images above all…

Though it has certainly accelerated in recent years, change isn’t always as “fast” as it is for global citizens like Wenders. For most of the world, it is unevenly paced; it operates against centuries of tenaciously held physical and psychological boundaries. However, what is true is that it is easier to shift identity and adopt a different persona than it is to change cultures. We know this from the costume traditions of Carnival and Mardi Gras and other such events – holidays when dressing up and acting out is not only sanctioned but also encouraged as a release valve from the pressures of daily life. Today, as Wenders’ laments, we have the liberty of living in a perpetual state of Carnival with endlessly curated online identities – a state of being that paradoxically has the effect of inducing cravings for enduring relations, enduring places and things.

This seemingly contradictory desire to be separate and together may be hardwired. It may be the essence of the reason why we design, not just our appearances as in the case of fashion, but also the world as it appears to us. As sociologist Georg Simmel observed over a century ago:

We are at any moment those who separate the connected or connect the separate. The people who first built a path between two places performed one of the greatest human achievements…. [I]t was only in visibly impressing the path into the surface of the earth that the places were objectively connected.

Otherwise untouched, the landscape, despite its diverse species and elements, would remain a directionless whole. Decisions to conjoin or divorce by material means – shaping paths, building bridges and walls, or framing doors – are also the bases for culture-making; moreover, each of those archetypes is weighted by different measures of separation and connection. The tension between these two incestuous states of being together and apart drives the plots of Ivo Andrić’s The Bridge on the Drina (1945) and Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red (1998). Both revolve around a mix of fact and fiction about the Ottoman Empire.

In point of fact, the bridge of Andrić’s novel still stands strong in Bosnia, spanning the Drina river, which flows through the town of Višegrad. Commissioned by Grand Vezir Sokollu Mehmed Pasha and designed by the architect Mimar Sinan (most famous for the Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul), it was built in the sixteenth century. Its creators may have been luminaries but this wasn’t a bridge for sultans or rich men. It was meant for the townsfolk who crossed it and lingered in the circular space of the kapia at its center, described by Andrić here:

Two buttresses had been built on each side of the central pier which had been splayed out towards the top, so that to the right and left of the roadway there were two terraces daringly and harmoniously projecting outwards from the straight line of the bridge over the noisy green waters far below. The two terraces were about five paces long and the same in width. . . That on the right as one came from the town was called the sofa. It was raised by two steps and bordered by benches for which the parapet served as a back. . . . That on the left, opposite the sofa, was similar but without benches. In the middle of the parapet, the stone rose higher than a man and in it, near the top, was inserted a plaque of white marble with a rich Turkish inscription, a tarih, with a carved chronogram which told in thirteen verses the name of the man who build the bridge and the year in which it was built. Near the foot of this stone was a fountain, a thin stream of water flowing from the mouth of a stone snake.

Every bridge is an architectural interlude, an interim space between two embankments. This one with its kapia facilitated far more than traffic, it provided a forum. Its very shape enhanced the innate cosmopolitanism of the bridge where Višegrad’s Muslims, Christians, and Jewish people rubbed shoulders on a regular basis. In the embrace of the kapia they made deals, philosophized, quarreled, and reconciled. Teenagers flirted and children played around it; wedding and funeral processions passed through it; even soldiers quartered in the town lingered on it from time to time. Above all, the kapia was a place to rest, to have a cup of tea. It was a parenthesis in time.

But shifts in political currents would dramatically affect the bridge’s use, testing its tolerant character. Under the varied pressures of colonialization, war, and diplomacy, the normally pacific kapia would serve variously as a checkpoint, execution scaffold, and a space of detente in the borderland conflicts between Serbia and Bosnia and the competing interests of far-flung capitals. Even from the start, there were signs that it would be a site of contention. Building the bridge was a struggle all its own. Its construction took so long as to seem impossible. More painful was the fact that it was built by conscripted labor. Acts of sabotage were common and viciously punished: Children grew up hearing the tale of the twin infants walled into its piers and the horror story of the obstructionist peasant who was tied to a stake on the kapia. Built of stones and bones, the bridge on the Drina was as bonded to the life of the town as it was to the banks of the river.

The force of that connection was not just a matter of memory and folklore. It was intrinsic to the very essence of a bridge, which generates more than lateral movement. Andrić captures the seemingly impossible state of being above the ground while still connected to it, writing: “A man was then as if in a magic swing; he swung over the earth and the waters and flew in the skies, yet was firmly and surely linked with the town and his own white house there on the bank with its plum orchard about it.” The space itself was liberating and the villagers’exchanges were elevated in both senses of the word.

Indeed, the townsfolk – Turks and Serbs alike – didn’t “like unfavourable news or heavy thoughts or serious and despondent conversations on the kapia.” It had always been a secure space in tenuous times. They especially disliked the nagging rumors of Austrian-Hungarian control, which became fact in 1878.

That year, the town’s four “notables” – Mula Ibrahim (the imam), Husseinaga (the schoolmaster), Pop Nikola (the Serbian priest), and David Levi (the rabbi) – assembled to meet the new Hapsburg emissary on the bridge. As they did in the past when facing calamities of flood and plague, the four elders put aside their differences. They were united in common apprehension for their flocks, united in being outsiders in a new realm whose representatives came in military uniform.

These men, born and brought up in this remote district of Turkey, the rotten-ripe Turkey of the nineteenth century, had naturally never had the chance of seeing the real, powerful and well-organized army of a great power. All that they had been able to see till then had been the incomplete, badly fed, badly clothed and badly paid units of the Sultan’s askers or, which was even worse, the Bosnian irregulars, the bashibazouks, recruited by force, undisciplined and fanatic. Now for the first time there appeared before them the real “power and force” of an Empire, victorious, glistening and sure of itself. Such an army dazzled them and checked the words in their throats. At the first sight of the saddlery and the tunic-buttons another world could be sensed.

Like all colonized people, they had seen another culture without going anywhere. Under the rule of the Austrians, who showed a passion for all sorts of measuring, the outward appearance of the town and its denizens began to change. Though life within their homes remained much the same, reluctant signs of assimilation appeared when their sons were conscripted into Franz Josef’s army and began to travel. Likewise, the soldiers and officials stationed (also not by choice) in Višegrad made their accommodations.

Many of these officials, the fiery Magyar or the haughty Pole, crossed the bridge with reluctance and entered the town with disgust and, at first, were a world apart, like drops of oil in water. Yet a year or so later they could be found sitting for hours on the kapia, smoking through thick amber cigarette-holders.

For centuries the bridge had been the central feature of the town and its kapia a small cosmopolitan haven for all manner of negotiations. Indeed, negotiating people and borders was its unique design capacity. The embodiment of compromise, it spans both marks and overcomes separation, though not necessarily in equal measure. Over the course of history, the bridge’s twinned values of division and unification would take on a different weight.

To begin with, the bridge marked the divide between east and west – between the Bosnian birthplace of the vezir who commissioned it and the seat of his power in Turkey. But after the arrival of the railroad in the early twentieth century, “the bridge no longer led to the outside world.” The world and its influence would increasingly come to it, not just from two opposite shores of a river, but also from the skies, as it did during World War I. Like all bridges in disputed territories, the bridge on the Drina was a target; its unifying nature was now a threat not a promise. For the first time since it was built, the seemingly indestructible bridge was severed by a blast triggered by a bomb.

The singular structure became the victim of the darker side of its history. For all that the bridge opened up new possibilities through the introductions made on its span and forged in its kapia, it was also a place where lives ended. Remember, this is a bridge in which babies were sealed and where heads were mounted on pikes. The bomb that fell on the bridge during World War I reopened one of its wounds: it hit the spot on the bridge that hid a landmine planted by the

Austrians almost a decade ago. The bridge on the Drina would be repaired and damaged again, but with each incursion more of the stones of Višegrad’s Turkish legacy would crumble away.

Over time, even without the force of incendiaries, everything “that was old and local was always forced to give way and adapt itself.”Yet, while modern transportation and warfare brought new goods and new people into the town, changing habits and aspirations in the process, cultural allegiances weren’t eradicated. In some cases, they metastasized. “Giving way” and “adaptation” are never without consequence.


Excerpted from Thinking Design through Literature by Susan Yelavich. Copyright © 2020 by Taylor & Francis. Reprinted courtesy of Routledge, an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group. Follow Routledge on Twitter @Arts_Routledge and on Instagram @routledgeart.

Susan Yelavich is Professor Emerita, Design Studies, Parsons School of Design, New School. She is the author of numerous articles and books, including Thinking Design through Literature (2019), Design as Future-Making (2014), Contemporary World Interiors (2007), and The Edge of the Millennium (1993). She is a Fellow of the American Academy in Rome (2004) and the Bogliasco Foundation (2018). Her writings on design and related subjects can be found at Assaying: