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The city as a paradigm of symbolic order


  • Concept of city in North America different to Europe and Latin America > no illusion of richness brought about by layers of cultural history (e.g. historical architecture)

  • North American city can be perceived more as a hostile jungle rather than a ‘home’ >> city become more of an embodiment of technological processes >> thought to be fuelled by materialistic ideologies of modern times e.g. marxism and capitalism

  • Ideas of the capitalist ‘suburb’ where western dream of mixing city and country to produce a well-balanced habitat


Greek/Ancient Cities

  • In primitive societies, ritual was necessary for survival, organisation, sense of purpose etc.

  • Sanctuary primary feature of the city and the builder usually the king or priest etc., > sanctuary the place for divination and existential orientation and was a paradigmatic public space

  • Around C6 BCE, transformation occurred to the ancient Greek Dionysian ritual > change corresponded with discovery of reason in early Greek philosophy

  •  in Dionysian ritual there were main protagonists, but all participated —- in classical theatre spectators and actors were separated (man suddenly able to establish a distance between himself and the rest of the world)

  • Actors of Greek dramas became responsible for re-enacting the wills of the gods on humanity, whilst spectators witnessed these events >>> the Chorus, facing the Skene in the Orchestra, became the representatives of the spectators


Discovery of Logos

  • The Greek discovery of Logos also led to their discovery of the individual > a place had to be provided for the reconciliation of the diverse logoi

  • this came in the form of the Agora (the place for discussion and oratory in politics- which was understood by Aristotle as the search for stability)

  • Agora was the origin of the Polis- the Greek City

  • whilst Greeks were discovering reason they were still concerned with maintaining the given order of the Gods, so the city’s role became that of maintaining order


City Maintaining Order

  • Hippodamus of Miletus discovered that geometry could be used to impose a formal order in his orthogonal city plans > however this could be seen as an exception as the city’s order was essentially the order of rituals

  • the perfect order of geometry was reserved for the most sacred temples (using all of its symbolic potential) >> processional routes then related to all other institutions e.g. theatre, where other forms of ritual (i.e. public life) could be performed

  • Building was originally and primarily a religious, mytho-poetic art > but later became rational and functional

  • traditional mythical order prevailed in many cities but during the Renaissance, architecture was emphasised as a theoretical discipline and modern cities are intentionally void of any mythical content


Roman Cities

  • Romans took many ideas from the Greeks, but their identification of geometry with ritual n the foundation of cities became a significant contribution to later western city developments

  • Romans always planed their cities by incantation >>> Mundus at the centre, where the priest would give the recitation of the limits of a new settlement

  • the tracing of the cardus and decumanus (main ‘directions’) done with intention of it responding to the four main quadrants of the city 

  • In the Roman city, orthogonal relationships between urban institutions were the rule > however the whole city wasn’t conceptualised as a geometric shape - the city limits were irregular 


Christian Middle Ages

  • Christianity inspired a renewal of myth that replaced the Greek Logos with faith and mysticism (thought to be the new means to achieve true knowledge) 

  • Consequences of this evolution of thought can be seen in the development of the medieval city >>> different to Polis and Urbs —- city had become a western entity embodying the synthesis of greek and judeo-christian traditions

  • City was typically irregular— relationships between buildings and public places seemed ‘unplanned’ >> however geometry was dominant, as it was in the building of the gothic cathedral

  •  medieval man could consider the ideal city as being perfectly geometrical - geometry was implemented in the cathedral and in the transformation of public places into sets for mystery plays

  • The physical world, particularly the city, was responsible in  a  most  immediate  way  for  the  meaning  given  to  embodied  perception, itself always open to  divinity and  always a  "symbolic”   perception


'Theatrical' Nature of the City

  • During times of celebration, city was enriched by the memory of orthogonal structure that was the remains of the original Roman city plan 

  • in mystery plays that lasted several days, spectators followed actors from stage to stage through the public spaces of the city > relationship between spectator and actors different to that of Greek theatre

  • In medieval theatre, the stage itself embodied geometric directions which responded to cosmological places and scenes from the bible e.g. heaven and hell occupied opposite spaces on the same central path 

  • For medieval man, the cathedral and the stage-set were  the  places  where  he  would  achieve  true  knowledge,  an  orientation allowing him to transcend his individual limitations and become part of his guild,  his  city,  his  church,  and  God's  creation.  Here  man's  life  became transcendental, finding  its  meaning  in  a truly intersubjective architecture.

  • Medieval city had an ‘invisible order’ that was revealed through the architecture of the Cathedral or the mystery play, but never imposed any geometry on the city >> this has never been repeated



  • By C15 and C16 man had become more aware of his power to transform the world > artist and architect most important individuals in the social structure of this period and for the 1st time individual architects became responsible for creating an order that was ‘totally human’ but also had to maintain a relationship with the immutable order of cosmic creation

  • The architect could conceive ideal cities for human life, but these cities weren’t Utopian, they were always ‘somewhere’

  • Renaissance architects rarely engaged themselves with major transformations of cities that they thought to be pregnant of meaning, not because of lack of opportunity but because Renaissance architects understood that geometric essences had to be embodied in buildings to guarantee the transcendental meaning of the human order

  • The transformation of the relationship between the city and the theatre signifies changes in attitudes since the Middle Ages >> the ‘city’, now designed by man, could be perceived as a stage-set for human drama

  • The  architect, responsible for a  human,  but necessarily public (i.e.  intersubjective)  order, had to conceive his buildings as a stage for the meaningful enactment of existence, as a framework for play and ritual. 

  • Renaissance architects rediscovered the distance between the artist and the spectator > the spectators role as intersubjective participants was made explicit, as if to say the meaning of the city depended precisely on its participation

  • Whilst the Greek Theatre was part of a sacred city, the Renaissance Theatre brought the whole city into the theatre



  • Geometric order for transformation of the urban fabric finally implemented in C17 > geometrical order became visible >> baroque ‘axes’ implemented 

  • By late C17 absolute values usually associated with building as the embodiment of ritual had begun to be questioned > by mid C18 architects had become conscious of the fact that, for reasons beyond their control, the city was changing 

  • men and women started dressing ‘comfortably’ and no longer according to their role in society; architects began distinguishing between necessary ‘structure’ and superfluous ‘ornament’

  • City Planning developed and the city then became a strictly logical discipline modelled on the natural sciences > city seen as an accumulation of material buildings

  • in this context man could become a passive spectator, but no longer an actor - the stage had become irrelevant



  • After the Renaissance, the city was no-longer merely the embodiment of ritual but it was also the responsibility of the architect

  • In C18 Galli-Bibiena designed the Bayreuth Opera House, where the internal edge of the balconies was modelled on the archetype of the urban courtyard 

  • Bayreuth: spectators also became actors for each-other - those moving through the candlelit space were as much a part of the performance as the actors themselves

  • Galli-Bibienas primarily stage-designers and responsible for the development of the Scena per Angolo

  • Scena per Angolo: introduction of several vanishing points compared to previous centralised stages of C17 Baroque theatre

  • Scena per Angolo: created a convincing view of the ‘real built world’ not only from the important royal box area but from anywhere in the amphitheatre


Industrial Revolution

  • City had become the embodiment of technical parameters, no longer the paradigmatic problem of the architect

  • City became more technical than poetic, design best realised by engineers and planners

  • Theatre had become realistic > actors dressed according to the period of the play, different to C17 and C18 when they wore normal street clothes

  • city became one of the spectators as theatre transformed into entertainment rather than ritual


Haussmanisation of Paris

  • City divided into neighbourhoods > citizens no longer lived in relation to the public order of the city but now ‘belonged’ to a certain neighbourhood, rarely venturing into other parts of the city

  • Disappearance of public order > Planner used maths, statistics and gridiron plans to transform the city, but these were no longer symbols (like they were in C17) 

  • The industrial city was to fit no other purpose than to accommodate the growing industrialisation, making life viable for the individual in all of its material aspects


Modern Cities

  • Today the Western city has been ‘privatised’ > American dream of the individual private house has taken priority over the public order and the illusion of the suburb dominates our civic perceptions

  • Modern existence has become impoverished, devoid of a public dimension and reduced to its bare privacy 

  • Greek Polis was the realm of human freedom, but in the modern city freedom is hampered by the geometry of traffic engineering

  • C19 city of Helsinki thrives on the symbolisation of nothingness