Ancient Apartment Buildings: Background information when reading Fishbowl

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A Novel

by Bradley Somer

Fishbowl by Bradley Somer X
Fishbowl by Bradley Somer
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    Aug 2015, 304 pages

    Nov 2016, 304 pages


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Ancient Apartment Buildings

This article relates to Fishbowl

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Fishbowl is set in a high-rise apartment building.

The contemporary apartment building has evolved over hundreds of years to its current avatar, sleek structures fashioned with high-tech materials and serviced by powerful elevators.

Roman Insulae It is believed that the first apartment buildings were built by the Romans two thousand years ago. These multi-story structures were called insulae (pronounced insul-eye) meaning islands, because they took up a lot of space equivalent to entire city blocks. These apartments were crafted from unforgiving materials such as timber and mud so fires and collapses were common. The rich continued to live in separate houses while the poor rented these apartment spaces from wealthy proprietors. Bottom floors were usually taken up by shops and businesses with the upper sections reserved for residents. The Roman port town of Ostia still has preserved examples of these insulae.

Around 700 years ago, evidence of vertical living showed up around the world. In Arizona, for example, Montezuma's cliff dwellings showcase buildings five stories high, while in the desert sands of Yemen vertical apartment buildings made of mud were beginning to show up. These buildings were built close together and are still functional today, needing additional plasterings of mud to keep the structure stable.

Chinese Tulou In China's Fujian province, squat circular structures called Tulou, three to five stories high, housed entire family clans. Looking like a pattern of radiating circles when viewed aerially, these structures housed living areas, storehouses and wells all fortified by strong exterior walls. The buildings followed the principles of feng shui and also served to keep inhabitants safe.

The elevator was a major game-changer in the history of the apartment building and a primitive model was commissioned by King Louis XV in 1743 so he could visit his mistress housed in a different floor of the Versailles palace.

In large cities across the world, the Industrial Revolution spurred a rapid rise of the tenements with notorious living conditions. They gave way to to today's fashionable condominium apartments especially after the building of the Dakota apartment building in New York City in the late nineteenth century, which changed people's perceptions of apartment living as something only for the poor.

One could argue that the idea of vertical living even has roots in the Book of Genesis with the Tower of Babel housing all of humanity speaking one tongue until God decided to take matters in his own hands and tear it down, dispersing people into various parts of the earth speaking different languages.

You can watch a series of short videos about the rise of the apartment building in an award-winning New York Times segment.

Picture of Roman insulae at Ostia Antica from early 2nd century A.D. by Nashville Neighbor
Picture of Chengqi Lou Tulou by Bolobolo

Filed under Cultural Curiosities

This "beyond the book article" relates to Fishbowl. It originally ran in July 2015 and has been updated for the November 2016 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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