Monday, 26 March 2007 11:12

Icon of the Month: Europe | icon 040 | October 2006

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words Marcus Fairs

Poor old Europe is a bit neglected these days, we feel.

Our continent seems jaded when compared to the dynamism of rising Asian economies such as China and India, while politically and economically it remains in the shadow of the USA.

Yet, in terms of design culture, Europe is still the engine room of the world. In our news and features section of this issue, we’ve decided to only include people and projects from continental Europe, with the aim of giving just the tiniest cross-section of its phenomenal creative activity.

So, here’s the history bit. Europe is named after Europa, a Phoenician princess from Greek mythology who was seduced by Zeus. It is the second smallest of Earth’s continents after Australasia, occupying an area of around 10,355,000sq km borded by the Atlantic Ocean to the west, Asia to the east, the Mediterranean to the south and the Arctic Ocean to the north.

Actually, Europe isn’t really a proper continent at all – it is in fact a vast peninsula of the Eurasian tectonic plate, the super-continent that stretches from Portugal to Siberia. Europe’s eastern border is usually and somewhat arbitrarily understood to be marked by the Ural Mountains in Russia. This uncertainty about where the continent ends means there are no universally agreed figures for its population, or even the number of countries it contains, although commonly cited figures are 726 million (roughly 11% of the world’s population), and 48 countries. More than 200 languages are spoken. The highest point is the 5,633m-high Mt Elbrus in Russia, and the lowest is the Caspian Sea, the surface of which is 28m below sea level.

Europe was settled during the Paleolithic era by Homo Erectus and Neanderthals long before humans emerged. The date of its first colonisation by humans is open to debate; bones thought to be around 800,000 years old have been found in Atapuerca, Spain, and Ceprano, Italy, while 1.6 million-year-old remains found at Dmanisi in Georgia point to much earlier incursions than previously thought. Evidence of the earliest permanent settlements, dating from the seventh millennium BC, have been found in Bulgaria, Romania and Greece.

Around the start of the second millennium BC, during the Bronze Age, Europe’s first significant literate civilisation emerged with the Minoans on the Mediterranean island of Crete. Around a thousand years later, the foundation stones were laid by the Ancient Greeks for Western civilisation. The rest is familiar from school history lessons: the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and so on. It’s only in the last century or so that Europe, exhausted by two world wars, began to play second fiddle to America, and only very recently that the rise of China has threatened to consign it to the role of third fiddle in the world power orchestra.

Having said all this, by the time we leave school we’ve generally forgotten who Agrippa and St Bernard of Clairvaux were. Instead, the Europe that we find tangible is the one made up of memories of long car journeys across France with our parents or the stories collected interrailing – the food, the attitudes, the dense assemblage of diverse cultures. It is these more personal experiences of Europe – the continent of our summer holidays – that inspired this special issue.

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