Tag Archives: ideal city

Topophilia in the City (pt 2)

TopophiliaThe city is where I live now, what I struggle with, what I think about…and I love the Lefebvrian dialectic of how we shape space and space in turn shapes us. I didn’t find much more clarity here on how this happens, again more of a list of pickings that I found interesting. But I confess I liked returning to our most basic grounding:

The city liberates its citizens from the need for incessant toil to maintain their bodies and from the feeling of impotence before nature’s vagueries. It is an achievement that we now tend to denigrate or forget. As ideal, the city seems largely lost to us while its defects as a physical environment…become increasingly obtrusive (150).

This basic level of dependence on weather, rain patterns, boll weevils is something I don’t think must of us are really capable of understanding whose fate is untied in a direct fashion to such things. But still, the city means more to us than that, is more than just an economic conglomeration of trade and accumulation, has a life and and a feeling all its own that is made up of all the people in it, and like any collective grouping can be much more than the sum of its parts.

It does not just raise us above the level of survival, it sparks things. But I get ahead of myself.

I was quite fascinated by early looks at medieval city planning, both the ideal and the reality.

Numerous graphic descriptions of Jerusalem in the medieval period showed the temple located at the center of a circular walled city. In fact the idea had little impact on urban form (157).

Not necessarily because they didn’t try, but because the way city’s grow organically, with unruly leaps and bounds depending on the needs of the inhabitants. But I am still curious to look up these early planners, and their cities of squares imposed upon circles to create a complexity of points and stars:

Later in Baroque and Renaissance ‘periods of idealistic town planning.’ The movement began in Italy with the works of people like Alberti (1452-60), Filarete (1460-64), Cataneo (1554-67), and continued later in France and Germany. The circle and the square stood for perfection: combinations of these figures were prominent in idealized planning (158).

Also a great section on early planning in China, which I knew vaguely of but mostly through fiction I have read. Its patterns on myth and cosmic hierarchy, the reasons it could not acheive and maintain an ideal material reflection of these spiritual beliefs:

Cosmic symbolization in the design of cities found more explicit expression in China than perhaps in any other civilization (166)

Such a terrestrial model of the cosmos embraced the aristocracy and the farmers. It had meaning to an agricultural people persuaded to depend on some central authority for the regulation of calendar and waterworks. But it had little to say to the craftsmen…and even less to the merchants. These professions ranked low in the social hierarchy. Ideal cities patterned after some heavenly model tended to be unsympathetic to the idea of trade. They stood for stability while commerce made for growth and change. Time and gain the frame of the ideal city yielded to the pressure of economic and population expansion…(167)

It is no small stretch from here to Lucio Costa, architect of Brasilia, proponent of cities that reflect one solitary vision of intellectual ideal rather than life as it is lived…

For him the artificial capital is not an organism that slowly grows up from the ground but a fully conceived world to be laid down on the soil. City founding, he writes, “is a deliberate act of possession, a gesture in the colonial tradition of the pioneers, of taming the wilderness (171).”

I long for such a deliberate act to fail, hate the arrogance of power and planning that makes such a sentiment possible. Developers still try this, but usually (if only it were always) on a much smaller scale through the development and attempt to impose saccharine and sanitised visions of the ideal, like this one of the suburbs:

Because they constitute an unscrambling of an overcomplex situation, because they are largely composed of like-minded people to whom cooperation should not be difficult, and because of the environmental advantages of roominess, the suburbs, in spite of their limitations, are the most promising aspect of urban civilization….Formed out of the dust of cities, they wait to have breathed into them the breath of community sentiment, of neighborly fraternity and peace. They reflect the unspoiled and youthful aspect of urban civilization, the adolescent and not yet disillusioned part of the city, where, if at all, happiness and worthy living may be achieved, as well as material well-being. (quoting H.P. Douglass, The Suburban Trend (New York: The Century Co., 1925) pp 36-37

Of course suburbs have for the most part failed utterly in this, again because of the messiness of life as it is lived, the way it cuts round and under imposed ideals even if those ideals are to some extent embraced. But this does not mean that they do not have an effect on people’s lives as much as their income or aspirations.

The lifestyle of a people is the sum of their economic, social, and ultramundane activities. These generate spatial patterns; they require architectural forms and material settings which, upon completion, in turn influence the patterning of activities. the ideal is one aspect of the total lifestyle. We know the ideal because it is often verbalized and occasionally substantiated in works that last. Economic and social forces contribute overwhelmingly to the making of life styles, but unlike idealistic impulses they lack self-awareness (173).

Part of this has, of course, been due to the immense impact of the automobile — author after author hammers it home, as does Yi-Fu:

In the Middle Ages pedestrians rich and poor jostled each other in the crowded lanes. Social hierarchy was rigid but it did not find orderly spatial expression in where the people lived or how they moved. From the seventeenth century onward the increasing use of carriages by the wealthy resulted in spatial as well as social separation among the people (174).

A collection of other interesting facts that mark our changing relationships to city spaces:

The importance of street lighting, the way in which festivities used to take place during the day and where they did last into the night it was dangerous going home. Street lighting has brought a shift from day to night…

Greece and Rome both prioritised the public over the private sphere, thus their cities contained glorious public buildings in contrast to homes of great squalor (but what about these luxurious villas they have uncovered surrounding English settlements and elsewhere? I am not quite sure we still hold this as fact). I found it quite fascinating the fact that for a period carts transporting goods were not allowed into Rome during the day to reduce traffic congestion, so the night was full of their din and no one slept well…

In medieval London medieval shop advertising went a bit mad, and a decree from 1375 limited the length of shop signs to seven feet.

In 1716 every London householder whose house fronted a street or lane was obliged to hang out a candle long enough to burn from six to eleven o’clock in the evening. After eleven the city was plunged into darkness. Candles were lit only between Michaelmas (September 29) and Lady Day (March 25) (187).

Chicago was once known as the garden city, before the great fire. Only then did it earn its other sobriquets.

Again, I feel this in the sum of its parts can give a sense of how people relate to place, how their feelings both shape and are shaped by place in true dialectical fashion, and how this is always dynamic. But it’s a very diffuse sense, to be explored more concretely both through places themselves, but also the dynamics of capital, ideology and ideals that shape our places.

Read Pt 1.

(Tuan, Yi-Fu. Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, And Values. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc.)