Tag Archives: urban planning

Kevin Lynch on Perceptible Objects and Urban Design

Kevin Lynch -- The Image of the CityWhere the first part of The Image of the City looks at the big picture of how and why human beings need to be able to read their cities, and how they find their way through them, Kevin Lynch in Chapter III goes on to the nitty gritty, as he analyses physical, perceptible objects and their relation to imageability. Lynch classifies these into five types of elements:

  1. Paths:  … the channels along which the observer customarily, occasionally, or potentially moves… For many people, these are the predominant elements in their image.

  2. Edges: …the linear elements not used or considered as paths… the boundaries between two phases, linear breaks in continuity: shores, railroad cuts… some edges may be barriers, more or less penetrable, which close one region off from another; or they may be seams, lines along which two regions are related…

  3. Districts: …the medium-to-large sectiosn of the city, conceived of as having two-dimensional extent, which the observer mentally enters “inside-of,” and which are recognizable as having some common, identifying character.

  4. Nodes: … points, the strategic spots in a city into which an observer can enter … they may be primarily junctions, places of a break in transportation, a crossing or convergence of paths, moments of shift from one structure to another. Or the ndoes may be simply concentrations… a street-corner hangout or an enclosed square. (47)

  5. Landmarks: …another type of point-reference, but in this case the observer does not enter within them, they are external (48).

The visual drawings of each can be found in the margins (I quite love the use of the margins in this book, they make reading this unique to most books on cities)

Kevin Lynch city elements

More on how these all work:

These elements are simply the raw material of the environmental image at the city scale. They must be patterned together to provide a satisfying form. (83)

And this…oh this is an aside for Lynch, but opens up so much in terms of how people move through space and those boundary lines of race, class, age…so much.

The psychological distance between two localities may be much greater, or more difficult to surmount, than mere physical separation seems to warrant. (85)

I loved this about the various maps that people drew, how the progression of physical things didn’t change even if they experienced them in very different ways:

However distorted, there was a strong element of topological invariance with respect to reality. it was as if the map were drawn on an infinitely flexible rubber sheet; directions were twisted, distances stretched or compressed, large forms so changed from their accurate scale projection as to be at first unrecognizable. But the sequence was usually correct, the map was rarely torn and sewn back together in another order. (87)

That would be so interesting to dig more deeply into, understand how individual relationships to the city and its various communities might impact these maps.

The larger goal that Lynch is attempting to reach with this work:

We have the opportunity of forming our new city world into an imageable landscape: visible, coherent, and clear. It will require a new attitude on the part of the city dweller, and a physical reshaping of his domain into forms which entrance the eye, which organize themselves from level to level in time and space, which can stand as symbols for urban life. (91)

He continues:

The common hopes and pleasure, the sense of community may be made flesh. Above all, if the environment is visibly organized and sharply identified, then the citizen can inform it with his own meanings and connections. Then it will become a place, remarkable and unmistakable. (92)

It is interesting to think about how the ‘sense of community may be made flesh’, how by organizing an environment and providing clear markers in it, people’s quality of life and relationships might also be transformed.

To continue on to how one might actually plan for this, beginning with the improvement of paths, which are

the most potent means by which the whole can be ordered. The key lines should have some singular quality which marks them off from the surrounding channels: a concentration of some special use or activity along their margins, a characteristic spatial quality, a secial texture of floor or facade, a particular lighting pattern, a unique set of smells or sounds, a typical detail or mode of planting. (96)

Methods might include emphasizing nature of street to get somewhere with perspective, using a gradient and then there is this:

Where the journey contains such a series of distinct events, a reaching and passing of one sub-goal after another, the trip itself takes on meaning and becomes an experience in its own right. (97)

I think he captures the joy brought by traversing certain streets fairly well here. I particularly love the analogy with music he brings to bear:

There is a final way of organizing a path or set of paths … It might be called “melodic” in analogy to music. The events and characteristics along the path–landmarks, space changes, dynamic sensations–might be organized as a melodic line, perceived and imaged as a form which is experienced over a substantial time interval. (99)

On nodes he writes, that they are

the conceptual anchor points in our cities. Rarely in the United States, however, do they have a form adequate to support this attention… (102)

They need to be places, with some defining characteristics. So on to his list (yay lists) of qualities of urban design that create successful places:

  1. Singularity or figure-background clarity: sharpness of boundary…closure…contrast

  2. Form Simplicity: …in the geometrical sense (105)

  3. Continuity: continuance of an edge or surface … nearness of parts (as in a cluster fo buildings); repetition of rhythmic interval … similarity, analogy, or harmony of surface…

  4. Dominance: …of one part over others by means of size, intensity, or interest

  5. Clarity of Joint: … high visibility of joints and seams… clear relation and interconnection

  6. Directional Differentiation: asymmetries, gradients, and radial differences which differentiate one end from another…

  7. Visual Scope: qualities which increase the range and penetration of vision…transparencies…overlaps… vistas and panoramas… articulating elements… (106)

  8. Motion awareness: the qualities which make sensible to the observer…his own actual or potential motion…

  9. Time Series: series which are sensed over time … or truly structured in time and thus melodic in nature (107)

  10. Names and Meanings: non-physical characteristics which may enhance the imageability of an element.

Below are the visuals corresponding to the first 7 of these elements, to be read down the left side and then down the right:

Kevin Lynch Design Elements 1

Kevin Lynch continues:

In discussing design by element types, there is a tendency to skim over the interrelation of the parts into a whole. in such a whole, paths would expose and prepare for the districts, and link together the various nodes. The nodes would joint and mark off the paths, while the edges would bound off the districts, and the landmarks would indicate their cores. It is the total orchestration of these unites which would knit together a dense and vivid image, and sustain it over areas of metropolitan scale. (108)

A good reminder, one often forgotten. Ultimately, he argues

…the function of a good visual environment may not be simply to facilitate routine trips, nor to support meanings and feelings already possessed. Quite as important may be its role as a guide and a stimulus for new exploration. In a complex society, there are many interactions to be mastered. in a democracy, we deplore isolation, extol individual development, hope for ever-widening communication between groups. If an environment has a strong visible framework and highly characteristic parts, then exploration of new sectors is both easier and more inviting. if strategic links in communication (such as museums or libraries or meeting places) are clearly set forth, then those who might otherwise neglect them may be tempted to enter. (110)

This aspect of planning and urban design is coming to the fore now, I think, which is really something to celebrate. Like Lynch, however, many of those writing don’t really pay much attention to power, capital, inequalities, racism and fear … those tricky things. So these remain ideals, potentialities opened up though with little sense of how to make them reality. Lynch does, however, note how the city is full of many very different people, and so its designers have to create places that allow for wide differences in how people organize their city. I do love, for all my critique, that Lynch’s principal solution is that designers must provide their cities richly with the different imageable elements that people can organize according to their wishes. Can’t be too specialized or orchestrated, you don’t want people to feel that one path dominates, multiple paths and adventures must be left open.

He ends with idea that not only do planners need to build more eligible cities, but also that people need to be taught to read them better, to really see them. He advocates programs

teaching him to look at his city, to observe its manifold forms and how they mesh with one another. Citizens could be taken into the street, classes could be held in the schools and universities, the city could be made an animated museum of our society and its hopes. (117)

Something about this section strikes me as rather patronising in its wording, yet I love the idea, and particularly love thinking about how the city might in fact be an animated museum of our society and its hopes. People should think about their cities, it is an important part of having more power over them.

Two final notes of interest, first, this almost throwaway comment on the underground:

The subway is a disconnected nether world, and it is intriguing to speculate what means might be used to mesh it into the structure of the whole. (57)

I’m more excited about the netherworld, I confess. A last note on speed, which I’ve been thinking about a lot since reading Le Corbusier and Illich:

The increasing size of our metropolitan areas and the speed with which we traverse them raise many new problems for perception. (112)

I think it has, it does. He doesn’t get into the ways cities have been built for cars, but that is clearly inimical to the kind of planning and design he is thinking about.

One final post on LA specifically, a little more discussion of class and race, and on to the next book from my reading list:

and for even more on building city spaces…



Camillo Sitte: The Art of Building Cities

Camillo Sitte - PlazasCamillo Sitte’s The Art of Building Cities is one of the acknowledged cornerstones of the whole edifice of books I really love about architecture and public space. This translation is from 1945, but the book itself was originally published in Vienna in 1889. Fin de siecle Vienna in the middle of its drive towards modernity, this is a curiously ambivalent book that looks to the past in order to reimagine an urban future. But it does try to look forward, and though not everyone reads it that way, this is from  Eliel Saarinen prefatory note:

Simultaneously with this understanding of such organic town pattern, and subsequently to a great extent as a logical consequence of it … there became laid an equally strong groundwork for such an understanding of architecture that even the architectural style-form must express contemporary conditions, and no other conditions. (iii)

This is essentially a look at what works about older cities, and it connects patterns in architecture and planning with patterns of social life. So it has half the equation I think is needed. The other half is how architecture and planning in turn shapes social life in the dialectic that Henri Lefebvre would explore among others. Sitte argues that the changes in the city reflect the changes in social life —  in medieval times much of life led on the street, because interiors cold, damp, uncomfortable. From the introduction by Ralph Walker:

The growing number of comforts within the modern shelter had, one by one, eliminated the desire for pageantry in the space outside. The underlying idea of the forum and the plaza, through out the ages the focal points of classical and medieval cities, took on less social and political meaning. (vii)

camillo-sitteBut on to Camillo Sitte himself. In the introduction he quotes Artistotle’s summary: ‘A city should be built to give its inhabitants security and happiness.’ Sitte continues

The science of the technician will not suffice to accomplish this. We need, in addition, the talent of the artist. (1)

From his words you would know the world has already entered the time of professional planners, architects, what Sitte calls hygienists. He doesn’t argue that they are not needed, but rather that they need to rethink their approach and incorporate, as he says, the artist.

Perhaps this study will permit us to find the means of satisfying the three principal requirements of practical city building: to rid the modern systems of blocks and regularly aligned houses; to save as much as possible of that which remains from ancient cities; and in our creation to approach more closely the ideal of the ancient models. (2)

Difference between then and now, I wish, as I say he had thought through more of the corollary.

Public squares, or plazas, were then of prime necessity, for they were theaters for the principal scenes of public life, which today take place in closed halls. (2)

But I like playing with this very different understanding of space that he sees existing in past and present:

In brief, the place of the forum in cities corresponds to that of the principal room of a house. It is to the city, so to speak, the principal hall… (5)

This is just lovely.

The interior temples and monuments are the stone myths of the greek people. The highest poetry and thought are embodied in them. (7)

The bulk of the book, however, focuses on the details of public spaces, groupings of building and streets that work. In many ways the chapter headings summarise very nicely Sitte’s arguments.

I: The relationship Between Buildings, Monuments and Public Squares

This highlights again the importance of the public square in community life, and contrasts the squares that work well from the past with those that don’t from his present:

The fundamental difference between the procedures of former times and those of today rests in the fact that we constantly seek the largest space for each little statue. Thus we diminish the effect … instead of augmenting it … (11-12)

II: Open Centers of Public Places

This explores the many examples of monuments and fountains that sit not at the centre of the square, or in way of its foot traffic, but off to one side. This also applies  to churches — which I confess I find quite odd as I am so used to them sitting in open space in the US and UK. Like Gordon Cullen, though not nearly as explicitly, he is always thinking how people move through space, how they encounter buildings and the public places that surround them. He looks at both stone and emptiness and the way one relates to the other.

Buildings built in this way ‘acquire a double worth’. even without being surrounding by a void they offer up different views and compositions. (18)

Being written in 1889, this already feels as though it is part of the past, but this is the period when our present is forming — this critique is all too familiar:

This rage for isolating everything is truly a modern sickness. R. Baumeister in his manual on city building even raises this to the status of a working principle. He writes, ‘Old buildings ought to be preserved, but we must, so to speak, peel them and preserve them.” The object of this, then, is that by the transformation of surroundings the old buildings should be led to the midst of public places and in the axes of streets. This procedure is used everywhere and with special satisfaction in treating ancient city portals. it is indeed a fine thing to have an isolated city gateway around which we may stroll instead of passing under its arches! (19)

Peel them and preserve them — no better way to describe what has been done to too much architecture that should instead be living and peacefully subsiding.

III: The Enclosed Character of the Public Square

Such a simple rule, one so ignored so often in modern building.

‘The old plazas produce a collective harmonious effect because they are uniformly enclosed…In fact, the public square owes its name to this characteristic in an expanse at the center if a city. (20)

He looks at how it is enclosed, how street enter into it:

Careful study shows that there are many advantages to an arrangement of street openings in the form of turbine arms. (21)

It looks clear in the drawing, I think of the great wonderful squares of Prague or Krakow and agree with him on avoiding busy cross sections at each corner.

IV: The Form and Expanse of Public Squares

He looks at two forms of square — those that are deep and those wide. They set off different building types, deep plazas are better facing a church of slender form, city halls require broader, more expansive ones.

… The height of the principal building, measured from the ground to the cornice, should be in proportion to the dimension of the public square measured perpendicularly in the direction of the principal facade. (27)

I love this, can’t wait to wander some of the cities he describes in this way:

It is truly a delight for the sensitive observer to analyze such a plan and to find the explanation for its wonderful effect, Like all true works of art it continually reveals new beauties and further reason for admiring the methods and resourcefulness of the ancient city builders. (26)

V: The Irregularity of Ancient Public Squares

The opposite to today’s grids, but Sitte hardly needs to point that out, nor that this is due to their gradual historical development, but this is an important point:

Everyone knows from personal experience that these disruptions in symmetry are not unsightly. On the contrary, they arouse our interest as much as they appear natural, and preserve a picturesque character. Few people, however, understand why irregularity can avoid giving an unpleasant appearance. We must study a map to understand it. (30)

Always we turn to Italy — Padua, Verona, Florence, Palermo. To give you a taste of the many maps that fill the book:


VI: Groups of Public Squares

The groupings of squares! To an American this is a wonderful extravagance indeed, also wonderful to move from one enclosed, irregular square to another as my European wanderings can attest.

On Venice:

There is such an expanse of beauty here that no painter has ever conceived an architectural background more perfect than its setting. No theater ever created a more sublime tableau than the spectacle to be enjoyed at Venice. It is truly the seat of a great power, a power of spirit, of art, and of industry which has gathered the treasures of the world upon its vessels… (37)

VII: Arrangement of Public Squares in Northern Europe

The difference he notes, which I had noted already, was that in Northern Europe churches tend to sit more separately — usually because they have been surrounded by graveyards. (Where was everyone buried in this Italian cities of stone I wonder?) Yet these small churches that form the fabric of the city or town are still generally not fully centered in a square, rather they often set to one side.  There is, however, often a large plaza in front to set off the facade. Still, they are approached in various ways that creates interest, surprise, wonder.


Sitte doesn’t simply look to the ancient, he likes too the Baroque arrangement of squares, the way that

… art came to control vistas of the great three-sided plazas, churches, palaces, formal gardens, sumptuous approaches to important buildings, as well as nature’s masterpieces. (50)

This would include the Plaza of the Palazzo Pitti at Florence, that of the Capitol at Rome. Thus:

The development of Baroque style differs from the history of earlier styles in that it did not evolve gradually. On the contrary, like modern styles, it came full panoplied from the drawing board as an invention. We cannot, therefore, attribute the banality of modern planning to the fact that it has precisely the same kind of origin. We insist, simply, that the straight line and geometrical patterns should not be made the aims of our planning. (51)

The Baroque is the idea of a theatre-type perspective…he gives the example of Würzburg Residence:


He writes:

Every modern university or group of public buildings laid out around large and small open spaces generally follows some variant of the Würzburg Residence plan — a large court or yard at the center with smaller courts at either side. (51)

Looking at the picture I though god damn, it’s so true.

VIII: The Artless and Prosaic Character of Modern City Planning


Open space that should serve everyone actually belongs to the engineer and hygienist. All of the art forms in town building have disappeared one by one so that we have scarcely a memory of them left. (53)

IX: Modern Systems

Ah, the grid. He writes here at the beginning of the grid. It’s funny looking back, that actually it got much worse than the grid, comparing New York for example, to the suburbs.

These systems accomplish nothing except a standardization of street patterns. They are purely mechanical in conception. They reduce the street system to a mere traffic utility, never serving the purposes of art. They make no appeal to the sense of perception, for we can see their features only on a map. (59)

He looks at street patterns and traffic — traffic! Ah, 1889, this was just the beginning, but this kind of diagram is also very familiar.


X: Modern Limitations on Art in City Planning

What I like most is that actually this is not just a nostalgic looking backwards, though I wouldn’t fault that too much given the delight that these old city spaces bring and the importance of thinking through just why. Sitte writes:

Many of the old structural forms are simply out of the question for modern builders. While that may disturb the sentimental, it should not plunge them into a sterile nostalgia. Decorative construction without vital function is but temporary and of questionable value. Time makes inexorable changes in community life, and these changes alter the original significance of architectural forms. (69)

But now more and more, we see how architectural forms result from community life…

Great population increases in our modern capitals, more than anything else, have shattered the old forms. With the growth of a city its streets widen and its buildings grow taller and bulkier.

Written before the first skyscraper mind.

Intense human concentration has meant intense increase in land value, and neither the individual nor the city government can escape the consequences. Subdivision and street opening have proceeded apace, Street after street has been cut through old districts, giving birth to more and more city blocks. (69)

This economic understanding of development was unexpected, I’m not sure why though. Still, it is almost uncanny to see the way that Sitte foresaw the architectural and planning future.

High land costs encourage greater intensity of land use, and this, in turn, supports certain structural forms. Modern lot plotting tends to exalt the cube motif in architecture. (70)

XI: Improved Modern Systems

So looking to his future, our present which is one Sitte did his best to prevent and I appreciate that, he writes:

Our study has already indicated the obvious need for innovations to overcome the effects of the ill-famed rectangular system. (74)

I’m almost glad he didn’t know there would be worse. He didn’t see bureaucratic and state planning as the answer — though private planning wasn’t the answer either.

Personal ambition, artistic individuality, and enthusiasm for work of one’s own responsibility are factors that do not fit into public administration. In fact, they are incompatible with official discipline. (82)

Sitte foresaw the great wind corridors of our modern times as well:

While it is possible for a pedestrian to stroll without discomfort in the old inner city, he is immediately enveloped in clouds of dust when he steps into a modern part of the City. Open plazas, where street openings draw in wind from every direction (like the new City Hall Plaza of Vienna) feature beautiful wind spirals throughout the year… (87)

I haven’t yet been to Budapest and Vienna, but Sitte upholds the first, describing Budapest:

where stand the finest and most greatly admired urban areas along the Danube, where the river is made a magnificent feature of the City itself. Sooner or later, the Danube can have an equally fine effect on Vienna. … Should, then, a gradual slum development be permitted in the meantime? Should not the senseless and immensely costly rectangular system be abandoned? (85)

He really hates rectangles.

XII: Artistic Principles in City Planning — An Illustration

Again Vienna, always back to Vienna, it was his city after all. But there is much to think on for all cities.

More on building social spaces…

and even more…











Archaeology and landscape and seeing what you expect to see

16109225Time’s Anvil was brilliant in thinking about archaeology and landscape — human lives, activities and ideas and their inter-relations with their surroundings. Much of Richard Morris’ argument revolves around this:

Or as Einstein said to Werner Heisenberg in 1926: ‘Whether you can observe a thing or not depends on the theory which you use. It is the theory which describes what can be observed.’

What you see is often defined by what you expect, what questions you start with, what you choose to notice and what you think irrelevant. Thus we can track archaeology by its questions and assumptions, which as years pass have shifted time and time again as widely held ‘truths’ proved completely wrong. This is a lovely little history of some of these dismantlings, a bit rambling from personal experience to excavations to poetry to agriculture to planning and battles and more. Quite enjoyable, and much for thought here — as you can unpack this kind of history for any field of inquiry.

There is quite a bit on the rise of archaeology itself, and how that shaped what early archeologists were looking for, the questions they asked, and what they were able to see.

There is, of course, that crazy period where (almost all) men worked so hard categorising things to understand them — Luke Howard’s An Essay on the Modification of Clouds (1803), William Smith’s attempt to map for the first time the stratification of minerals in a geological map (1815), the first attempt to grapple with architecture — An Attempt to Discriminate the Styles of Architecture in England by Thomas Rickman (1817). Morris roots archeology here, and in the activities that emerged through it:

With these four step taken — classification, the ability to ascertain sequence, time-depth, and evolution by natural selection — modern archeology’s heart was set beating. (62)

He argues that Darwin returned man to nature, made humans –and their history and development — subject to scientific examination rather than sat above it.

Interesting that archaeology grew as a discipline alongside history and conservation — which means British/American archaeology shared much of the same understanding of land and nature. People like William Wordsworth and Ralph Waldo Emerson running around delineating land worked by humans and ‘pure’ and ‘pristine’ nature.

As the industrial revolution quickened so did the idea of delimiting areas if land to keep nature in a pristine state. (64)

Thoreau rode on this bandwagon, arguing for establishment of parks ‘not for idle sport or food, but for inspiration and our own recreation’ (65). Thoreau apparently often wrote re-creation — not just enjoyment but self renewal. That’s rather nice. But still, a very different way of seeing the world around us than was common for earlier generations:

Deeper than this, though, was a perception of the pre-industrial past as a place in time that paralleled wilderness in geographical space — a slower-paced realm of pure life-giving existence, as it was, before everything became sullied or began to fail. What was old was more ennobling than what was new, because it had its own organic, creatively true and coherent network — the result of deep-rooted tradition which set it beyond fashion or unthinking utilitarianism. (65)

But we couldn’t get beyond these binaries of civilized and wild (too much riding on that one, like all of Britain and America’s arguments for colonisation and genocide), and linear progression. This is so different from other conceptions of time, so much has been written on Mayan and other indigenous understandings of teh cyclical nature of time, but for medieval Europe it was the same. This is a quote from the medieval historian Bede, from his The Reckoning of Time:

a lunar year and a solar year, a separate year for [each of] the wandering stars, and one for all the planets, which is particularly called “the great year”. (10)

And more about the differences:

Advances in technology and art during the Middle Ages were apparently unaccompanied by a general theory of progress. Until the sixteenth century an ‘inventor’ was, as its Latin root invenio reminds us, a person ‘who found something which had been lost, not one who devised a new solution unknown to previous generations.’ (quoting Keith Thomas from Religion and the Decline of Magic) (18)

Stepping outside of accepted theory we see a little more. For example, I liked the use of ‘the Old Ones’ to describe the mix of our ancient ancestors, the ones from the muddy bits of our family tree, the ones who may or may not have been homo sapiens or part of that line.

I love this amazing graph, this feels rather new since I studied such things in my heady undergraduate days in the 1990s:

Stringer graph-model of the evolution of several species of genus Homo over the last 2 million years (vertical axis).
Stringer graph-model of the evolution of several species of genus Homo over the last 2 million years (vertical axis).

I also like imagining them as different, rather than as inferior versions of ourselves.

Despite abundant evidence that earlier humans were adapted to their environments, the legend which paints them as inferior versions of us lives on…the archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley demanded evidence of progress, as if its absence was a defect…E.H. Carr argues that ‘only those people which have succeeded in organising their society in some degree cease to be primitive savages and enter into history’. On this view, it is history that defines our genes rather than the other way round. (141)

An example —

Hitherto it had been generally assumed that early people had lived in holes in the ground. Bersu showed that in fact they lived in generously proportioned timber-built round houses. (71)

How people relate to their environment is also up for rethinking. I read some of Childe doing my masters — those beloved archeology classes I took as part of the Latin American Studies degree I never finished, this makes me want to go back to him.

Child argued that human beings do not adapt to their surroundings as they really are but rather as they imagine them. ‘Each individual carries about in her or his mind a “cultural map” incorporating knowledge acquired through learning and experience, from which the individual selects the data required to adapt to the social and natural environment. (76) [Childe – Prehistoric communities of the British Isles, Trigger — Childe’s relevance]

This is a good metaphor for archaeology itself, Morris argues it arose in years of colonial expansion and nation states, ‘It is not surprising, then, that archaeology should have been harnessed to the imperialist cause’ (77)  — nor that pre-history should be understood as succession of conquests bringing new ideas and better ways of doing things. Thus rather than look at landscape or the continuity of developments over time, they cut deep shafts into sites:

‘in Britain down to the 1950s placed reliance on vertical control whereby events in the life of a place, each chapter with its own layers, each layer a stage in a story, were read off serially from sections as if from a railway timetable. (77)

Very different from countries such as Denmark, always more focused on settlement and environment. A focus on shafts in a very tightly delimited space also limited what could be seen:

At best, ‘site’ was an artificial construct, an area delineated for present convenience rather than denoting any past reality. ‘Site’ was also deceiving, for it invited you to look inwards rather than out to the surrounding area and horizons that gave it meaning. [O. G. S.] Crawford said that alongside frameworks of period and typology archaeology also needed a grammar of space and time. (122)

There is a wonderful chapter on the rise of aerial photography — a whole new view of landscape and identification of sites and how they fit into their surroundings. Trasnformational, For example, until then archeologists and historians believed settlement concentrated in a belt across England, and that places like the fenlands lay all but deserted. Aerial photography showed marks of old fields, proved this completely wrong. I love too that they found that different crops show archeological features very well or not all through changes in lushness of growth, that frost dissipates differently, that mushrooms can grow differently — Gilbert White had noted this in his journals. A nice tie-in.

As these challenges arose, new ways of excavating worked to answer them. Christopher Taylor doing an area study, challenged

four time-honoured suppositions: that places had generally come into existence in ‘waves of colonisation’ or grown outwards from stable centres; that the earliest recorded reference to a place was likely to approximate to the time when the place was first settled; that a place ommitted from Domesday Book did not exist in 1086; and that continuity of habitation presupposed continuity of site, or indeed the reverse. The new reading visualized extensive earlier settlement, and fluidity as well as fixity of habitation within an older framework of fields, estates and lanes. (162)

The fluidity is particularly important:

There is a contemporary tendency to see the past in terms of static functions, what a place was ‘for’, as distinct from processes, the perpetuity of what went on. (170)

Aerial photos and excavations revealed so much that we didn’t know — like causewayed enclosures or cursus that we still don’t understand the meaning of, like Knap Hill in Wiltshire.

It also allowed us to better trace changes in agriculture, from small fields to open-field agriculture:

Blocks of strips with the same trend had been gathered into furlongs, and a group of furlongs formed a larger land which was cropped in rotation with one or two others. Lacking permanent subdivision, tenurially subdivided, communally organized, there were the remains of open-field agriculture. (184)

And similar changes in villages — going back to Christopher Taylor:

…the settlements we see today will not usually be the result of outward growth from ancient nuclei, but the result of a succession of reconfigurations. Such transformation can occur in many ways — by relocation, slow drift, coalescence, fission, fusion — and at differing tempos in which beats of different measure may run in counterpoint. (194)

And this:

Taylor showed how widespread planning had been. By examination in the field he showed that places which looked amorphous were in fact often made up of planned elements which had, so to speak, gone out of shape as time passed — for instance through piecemeal addition or the loss, subdivision or amalgamation of buildings. (194)

Ah, planning.

Land and people differ from those once pictured: the land more intricate, locally, varied, longer settled and more efficiently managed; the people better housed, more socially and economically diverse, bearing more responsibility for events and change. (202)

Part of this is the long occupation of sites over time, and things like the widespread Anglo-Saxon cemeteries associated with earlier mounds and monuments like Wigber Low or New House Farm.

On to Dominic Powlesland, who found this incredible ‘filament of farms, a linear agricultural commune one building wide and tens of miles long’ (212) in the Vale of Pickering.

Amazing. This was a moment where I felt everything change — nucleated village settlements aren’t some kind of innate, natural form we create.

He uncovered this working systematically over nine seasons across a broad area in a way no one had before — it is now thirty years work has been happening now, and the wonderful site of the Landscape Research Centre has much more on this. Look at these images generated through geophysics:

Fluxgate gradiometer survey of Ladder Settlement. (Area 6.87 hectares)
Fluxgate gradiometer survey of Ladder Settlement. (Area 6.87 hectares)


3D view showing the ribbon of Iron Age and Roman settlement on the southern side of the Vale of Pickering near West Heslerton


These long strips could run for up to ten miles, a line of buildings facing each other across a road. They remind me immensely of Paolo Soleri’s Arterial Arcology, which is sitting in a box now for the most part unread.

This study also challenged ‘the foundation myth of a people finding its destiny in an unclaimed land’ — the Anglo Saxons moving into a mostly unpopulated wilderness parallel to rhetoric around colonisation.  I wasn’t even aware of such a myth, but it parallels closely the myths utilised n the US and elsewhere to justify expansion so I am not surprised. I (and others) find the period after the end of the Roman Empire particularly interesting, and particularly cloudy, with little evidence and much speculation of collapse and darkness. But excavations in the Vale of Pickering showing little contraction in the economy or depopulation, but stable communities

A key aspect of these settlements is the way they embraced a cross-section of rural resources between the Vale floor and the Wold top: river frontage, marshland, arable, water, upland grazing’ (223)

His surveys and excavations also showed residence, craft and industry in different zones — ah, zoning. My urban planner heart goes pitter pat.

The village of Heslerton remained occupied until the ninth century in this long filament pattern. It was then dismantled (how? why?) and a new community a short distance to the west emerged. The old area converted to ridge and furrow and communally worked fields — and this happened up and down the valley. Thus

the ‘early Saxon’ settlement did not originate in contrast to the thousand-year-old ladder, but rather was condensed out of it. (227)

The Vale of Pickering shows:

the birth of early medieval England occurs not in the aftermath of a post-Roman collapse, but as an evolution from late prehistoric society that Rome had ruled and exploited but not significantly altered. (227)

York is another example of continuity followed by change — as medieval York evolved above the still-visible ruins of Roman York:

the evolving topography of the Anglo-Saxon city had been influenced by axis of the Roman fortress. The Norman cathedral builders, on the other hand, had pointedly ignored it. (257)

Interesting. But archaeologists found Anglo Saxon graves in the old Roman basilica, and they also used Roman building blocks and Roman slabs for gravestones within remains of Roman buildings. They painted them as well! I don’t know what that last detail is so interesting, but so it is.

A final challenge to some linear developments by conquest of small insular villages — the mining industry and how it connected all of Europe over the centuries. The 1140s chronicler (Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum) writes:

although little silver was mined in England, much was brought from Germany by the Rhine on account of England’s wonderful fertility in fish and meat, in most precious wool, and in cattle without number. As a result, a larger supply of silver is found in England than in Germany. (198)

The more I read or watch documentaries on the past, the more I realise just how much trade and travel did occur across our history – a look at mining and minerals seems to be a good way to understand the long-existing connectedness of Europe:

Trade seems to have intensified from the late tenth century, and its stimulant lay some six hundred miles to the east of England’s midlands, in the Harz mountains of Germany, where late in the 960s a large new source of silver was discovered, augmenting an earlier silver supply from central Europe which had been fuelling the expansion of coinage since the early eighth century. (197)

Morris described a confluence of mining and farming in Cornwall, exploited in places like Alderley Edge, where some of the tunnels and mine working mining out minerals — copper, silver, tin, malachite, galena, vanadium, cobalt, nickel, zinc, molybedenum — date from the early bronze age. These same minerals contributed to the rise of the Industrial Revolution. Cornish tin in pewter, solder and tin plate used for canning industry, Tin alloyed with copper — bronze for machine bearings and marine propellers. Copper in boilers, vats, piping for dying and processing of sugar. in brass, parts for steam engines, and gun cartridges. Arsenic for dyes and pigments, early insecticide. But going back, a look at mining challenges some very fundamental understanding’s of the stages of human development:

The Iron Age, for long viewed as a step along the road of linear technological progress, has recently been argued to have begun because from around 1100 BC the supply of accessible continental copper began to dwindle, thus stepping up the search for other kinds of ores closer to hand. If copper was a metal of journeys and mysteries, then, iron eventually became a metal of localities. Its stories differ from those of copper and gold. (382)

For all this is true, there is a definite change with the rise of imperialism and colonisation.

From the sixteenth century, it becomes less and less possible to study the past ‘as if it happened only in one place’. (350)

This is almost a throw away line, but reiterated again and again by writers like Walter Rodney, Stuart Hall, Cedric Robinson and others — hardly a coincidence that they all write critically from the spaces conquered through Empire.

I am not an archaeologist, so unable to comment how this book fits in with work happening in the field under discussion, but there is so much here for geographers. The points above were what I found most useful in understanding more of what the study of archaeology and landscape can teach us about how humans grow and change with their environment — both in challenging paradigms of thought and methodology, as well as many of my own assumptions gleaned from reading about the past. There is a lot more that could be said about how race, class, gender and etc impact our vision and structure our theory, I missed more of that here, but it does do quite a lot.

For more on archaeology…















Stuart Dybek’s Chicago Coast

Stuart Dybeck - The Cost of ChicagoWhy did no one tell me about Stuart Dybek before? These stories were extraordinary. Just as a writer I found the quality of his prose alone making my little heart beat faster, these stories are breathtaking. But these are also stories of a working class kid growing up in a fucked up but well-loved Catholic, half Polish half Mexican neighbourhood. A view and a voice that is all too rare, and perhaps explains why no one has told me about Stuart Dybek before. It involves memories, beauty, urban myths, cross-race romance that brings shame and wonder, music, weed, wandering, the ordinary overlaid with magic.

Mrs. Kubiac’s building seemed riddled with its secret passageways. And, when the music finally disappeared, its channels remained, conveying silence. Not an ordinary silence of absence and emptiness, but a pure silence beyond daydream and memory, as intense as the music it replaced, which, like music, had the power to change whoever listened. It hushed the close-quartered racket of the old building.

Then of course, there is the short story ‘Blight’ that so embodies the lived experience of urban renewal — everything I care most about, have fought over.

During those years between Korea and Vietnam, when rock and roll was being perfected, our neighborhood was proclaimed an Official Blight Area.

This is the relationship with power poor people know far too well:

Still, in a way, I could see it from Ziggy’s point of view. Mayor Daley was everywhere. The city was tearing down buildings for urban renewal, tearing up streets for a new expressway, and everywhere one looked there were signs in front of the rubble reading:


A series of paragraphs I have gathered that seek to understand what this declaration of blight means, the point of view the young men who live there — who are themselves more than likely seen as blight by the men in suits:

It was the route we usually walked to the viaduct, but since blight had been declared we were trying to see our surrounding from a new perspective, to determine if anything had been changed, or at least appeared different. Blight sounded serious, biblical in a way, like something locusts might be responsible for.

Nor did anyone need to explain that Official Blight was the language of revenue, forms in quintuplicate, grants, and federal aid channeled through the Machine and processed with the help of grafters, skimmer, wheeler-dealers, and army of aldermen, precinct captains, patronage workers, their relatives and friends. No one said it, but instinctively we knew we’d never see a nickel.

Blight, in fact, could be considered a kind of official recognition, a grudging admission that among blocks of factories, railroad tracks, truck docks, industrial dumps, scrapyards, expressways, and the drainage canal, people had managed to wedge in their everyday lives.

What its last days were like, and the vibrance that existed there before the destruction:

It was an old neighborhood that Mayor Daley, despite his campaign promises, was preparing to demolish to make way for a new university. But life went on that summer as it always had — daily newspapers printed in strange alphabets; nuts, cheeses, dried cod sold in the streets; the scent of crushed lemon from the bakery that made lemon ice; Greek music skirling from the restaurant downstairs.

It is not all easy to sympathise with, honest in the lines of race that divided neighbourhoods and their changing contours:

Douglas Park was a black park now, the lagoon curdled in milky green scum as if it had soured, and Kapusta didn’t doubt that were he to go there they’d find his body floating in the lily pads too.

And always a sense that the past hardly exists:

It was hard to believe there ever were streetcars. the city back then, the city of their fathers, which was as far back as a family memory extended, even the city of their childhoods, seemed as remote to Eddie and Manny as the capital of some foreign country

What past there is is constantly under threat, actively being destroyed through the destruction of the city:

The past collapsed about them–decayed, bulldozed, obliterated. They walked past block-length gutted factories, past walls of peeling, multicolored doors hammered up around flooded excavation pits, hung out in half-boarded storefronts of groceries that had shut down when they were kids, dusty cans still stacked on the shelves. Broken glass collected everywhere, mounding like sand in the little, sunken front yards and gutters. Even the church’s stained-glass windows were patched with plywood.

This feeling — I know this feeling.

Things were gone they couldn’t remember but missed; and things were gone they weren’t sure ever were there…

At times, walking past the gaps, they felt as if they were no longer quite there themselves, half-lost despite familiar street signs, shadows of themselves superimposed on the present, except there was no present–everything either rubbled past or promised future–and they were walking as if floating, getting nowhere as if they’d smoked too much grass.

I know I’m just quoting the things that touch upon all I obsess over in thinking about cities have been made, could be remade. It’s almost like Marshall Berman writing crystalline stories of coming-of-age perfection to encapsulate his pain of losing the Bronx. There is so much beauty and life here beyond that, and this last line is splendid:

He had special windows all over the city. It was how he held the city together in his mind.


Chtcheglov’s Formulary for a New Urbanism

7041009This has been my favourite of all of the works that poured from the pens of lettrists and situationists and all the -ists of the place and period. These quotes are drawn from the translation of tom mcdonaugh’s the situationists and the city, which was for the most part a truly inspired collection, and wonderful to read in rapid succession to The Beach Beneath the Streets.  Nice to see Mike Davis there in the acknowledgments as well, for his inspiration and encouragement of the project.

I intend to find out more of Ivan Chtcheglov — or Gilles Ivain, but these are my favourite bits from ‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’ from the Internationale situationniste no 1 (June 1958). I love the opening:

We are bored in the city, there is no longer any temple of the sun. Between the legs of women walking by the Dadaists would have liked to find an adjustable wrench, and the Surrealists a crystal goblet–that’s lost.

I think of Aragon and Breton, all that is missing from their work, I somehow love this first sentence. It gets better from there:

All cities are geological and three steps cannot be taken without encountering ghosts, bearing all the prestige of their legends. We maneuver within a closed landscape whose landmarks constantly draw us toward the past. Certain shifting angles, certain receding perspectives allow us to glimpse original conceptions of space, but this vision remains fragmentary. It must be sought in the magical locales of folkloric tales and surrealist writings: castles, endless walls, little forgotten bars, Mammoth Cave, mirrors of Casinos. (33-35)

It is not often I love the complicated and baroque, the privilege of boredom, but I swooned a little over cities geological. Realised much of what I seek in my rambles through the city are indeed the original conceptions of space (though more than that, how they lead you to a taste the original experiences, because how else can you feel the weight of past lives lived in dialectical relation to such spaces?).

Then on to architecture and all it can be, all it can do:

Architecture is the simplest means to articulate time and space, to modulate reality, to engender dreams. It is not only a matter of plastic articulation and modulation–expression of an ephemeral beauty–but of a modulation producing influences, in accordance with the eternal spectrum of human desires and progress in the realization of those desires. (36)

and this:

I will quickly recall the bases of architecture:
– a new conception of space (whether based on a religious cosmogony or not).
– a new conception of time (numeration starting from zero, various ways for time to unfold).
– a new conception of comportment (in moral nature, sociology, politics, law. the economy is only one part of the laws of comportment to which a civilization agrees). (36)

In thinking about what most modern architecture provides us in terms of new conceptions of space, time and comportment, I despair. My walks up and down the Thames (and any river in any city) reveal all the terrible truth of the following statement, particularly in regards to the construction of new luxury development, new ‘public’ but always mostly privatised space:

A mental disease has swept the planet: banalization. (36)

We quarrel, however, Chtcheglov and I, over the possible cure. Still, he is delightfully inventive:

The ideal city would be built in quarters — the Bizarre Querter, Happy Quarter, Noble and Tragic Quarter, and perhaps also a Death Quarter, not for dying in but in which to live in peace, and here I think of Mexico and a principle of innocent cruelty that becomes dearer to me each day. (40)

A bit confusing and a little patronising, this innocent cruelty, but I will let it go…

We move into city as process, as activity, as the building of the collective and the need for the spiritual aspect of life in its fulness:

The principle activity of the inhabitants will be CONTINUOUS DÉRIVE. The changing landscape from one hour to the next will result in complete disorientation. (40)

…a people cannot live on dérive alone…Experience demonstrates that a dérive favourably replaces a mass; it is better fitted to introduce the whole of our energies into communication, to collect them for the benefit of the collectivity. (41)

It seems to me this presents insight after insight in vibrant language and then leaves you alone to think about it. I much prefer it to Debord, but Chtcheglov was removed from these intellectual debates through institutionalisation, which breaks my heart a little. McKenzie Wark writes:

After he was institutionalized, Chtcheglov would write Debord and Bernstein from the sanatorium explaining that the dérive has its limits, and cannot be practiced continually. “It’s a miracle it didn’t kill us. Iron infected our blood.”3 To even propose a new architecture for a new way of life took more resources than they possessed. The complete renunciation of what one might now call middle-class life cut them off from vital resources. (146) (from Beach Beneath a Street)

There is little more about Gilles Ivain here, or elsewhere that focuses on the situationists. The toll of mental illness and the lack of sympathy and understanding perhaps, alongside the toll of intellectual inquiry and the struggle for change.



For more on the situationists…


William Whyte: The Social Life of Small Urban Places

552476Truly one of the greats of urban planning, I loved this pivotal look at how you study public space and what you learn from the practice.

Not that it’s scintillating reading.

Instead it is steady and deep, and based on actual observation. For instance, their study of the spaces that are most used and where most people sit, after sifting all the evidence they find the one common variable is:

People tend to sit where there are most places to sit.

This may not strike you as an intellectual bombshell, and, now that I look back on our study, I wonder why it was not more apparent to us from the beginning…the most attractive fountains, the most striking designs, cannot induce people to come and sit if there is no place to sit.

The sad reality is that almost no one planning and building public spaces actually fills them with places to sit. The sad fact of common sense, is that design often draws on different understandings of the world that clash with how spaces are actually used and loved. Books like this allow you to bring this up in an educated manner with a weight of evidence behind you.

Or carry out your own study. The importance of this cannot be underestimated, public space is key to our wellbeing and getting it right changes how we live and how we move through the city:

…an elemental point about good urban spaces: supply creates demand. A good new space builds a new constituency. It stimulates people into new habits — al fresco lunches — and provides new paths to and from work, new places to pause. It does all this very quickly. (16)

How to judge the success of a space?  Look for people in groups —  people meet places that are known, that are liked and that are safe. They have decided to go there on purpose. You also look for a higher than average number of women:

Women are more discriminating than men as to where they will sit, more sensitive to annoyances, and women spend more time casting the various possibilities. (18)

This is true I think, as women are more subject to harassment and annoyance. Off-peak use often gives best clues to people’s preferences, people sit wherever they can when a place is jammed but they sit where they like best when it is not.

An interesting note on behaviour, and one that rings true even though I have greater hopes for squares and things:

Plazas are not ideal places for striking up acquaintances, and even on the most sociable of them, there is not much mingling. When strangers are in proximity, the nearest thing to an exchange is what Erving Goffman has called civil inattention.  (19)

But William Whyte notes that activities happening in the space — performances, food vendors, sculpture but particularly performance — make it more likely people will talk to strangers, share thoughts as they share an experience.

I love the insight that people say one thing when asked what they want, but actually they want a particular version of it:

What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people. If I belabor the point, it is because many urban spaces are being designed as though the opposite were true, and that what people liked best were the places they stay away from. People often do talk along such lines; this is why their responses to questionnaires can be so misleading. How many people would say they like to sit in the middle of a crowd? Instead they speak of getting away from it all, and use terms like “escape,” “oasis,” “retreat.” What people do, however, reveals a different priority. (19)

People feel safer in a crowd, less conspicuous, it becomes more of an oasis I think if there are five people in a courtyard establishing its publicness and safety, than if you are alone. Though sometimes I like being alone. There are plenty of insights about sitting here…like it is good to be comfortable. but

It’s more important, however, that it be socially comfortable. This means choice: sitting up front, in back, to the side, in the sun, in the shade, in groups, off alone. (28)

Whyte describes how people always adjust moveable chairs before sitting down, even if it’s just a couple of inches. Hell, I do it too. He writes:

Circulation and sitting, in sum, are not antithetical but complementary.

You walk, you sit, the two go together. And where do you sit? For all the sitters in the world this rings true:

Benches are artifacts the purpose of which is to punctuate architectural photographs. They’re not so good for sitting. (33)

He writes about when people stop to talk to someone chance met, they don’t step aside but usually do it ‘smack in the center of the flow’ (21). And damn, that is also so true. And hell of annoying.

What is not to love about this little piece of urban spatial poetry?

Foot movements are consistent, too. They seem to be a sort of silent language. Often, in a shmoozing group no one will be saying anything. Men stand bound in amiable silence, surveying the passing scene. Then, slowly, rhythmically, one of the men rocks up and down: first on the ball of the foot, then back on the heel. He stops. Another man starts the same movement. Sometimes there are reciprocal gestures. One man makes a half turn to the right. Then, after a rhythmic interval, another responds with a half turn t the left. Some kind of communication seems to be taking place here, but I’ve never broken the code. (22)

I don’t know the code either, but I like it.

This explains the horribleness of Wilshire Boulevard’s wind tunnel in Los Angeles, or how damn cold Canary Wharf and other downtown areas get:

…very tall, free-standing towers can generate tremendous drafts down their sides. This has in no way inhibited the construction of such towers, with the result, predictably, that some spaces are frequently uninhabitable. (44)

I agree that you need food, street cafes and I love his love of street vendors, I agree the more the better. I never understood the passion of planners to shut them down. You know them, you talk to people in line, they are vital parts of the community, full of gossip and helping make places safe. I love them. My heart breaks when the police come and destroy everything and take them away.

Anyway, one last comment on the chapter, titled: ‘The Undesirables.’ It could use a better title. The ‘undesirables’ are our people too and that is unkind, yet you know that is how too many people thing of them and this chapter is written for them. To counteract their bum-proof benches and surveillance cameras and gates and spikes and all those horrible things that make you despair of our society.

Whyte writes:

Places designed with distrust get what they were looking for and it is in them, ironically, that you will most likely find a wino…it is the empty places they prefer; it is in the empty places that they are conspicuous–almost as if, unconsciously, the design was contrived to make them so.

Fear proves itself. (61)

The best way to handle this issue is to make the space attractive to everyone. To have people in them who take care of the space, mediate issues. To understand we are a community and there are other ways to deal with problems than to lock people away or force them elsewhere.

But that is the big fight, no? And this book one tool to fight for public space that promotes sociality, conviviality, community.

[Whyte, William H. (1980) The Social Life of Small Urban Places. Washington D.C.: The Conservation Foundation.]


LA’s floating islands

Wealth in LA floats. We are not just segregated from north to south and east to west, but above and below. And I suppose I knew about the aerial isle that was once Bunker Hill, but I’d never really walked it, and until you walk you don’t really know a place. At 4th and Hope you are high up above LA, and all traces of the old Victorian neighborhood once there were completely bulldozed and destroyed several decades ago. And there followed some truly grim decades in terms of block architecture, and a planning model designed to keep public space as the exclusive right of the right people. So it is a modern wonderland of concrete and plazas leading to car garages and sleek, expensive men and women. There are a couple of skyscrapers built on it, their lights serve as the stars and I’ll not deny a strange beauty to them…there are some expensive shops and restaurants, but they all look like upscale chains. It’s that particularly L.A. thing I think, where everything is relatively new, sanitized, familiar, safe. People here trade what is real and true for a secure and enhanced façade every time, just look at sunset strip with its fake western bar, it’s fake Irish pub. Look at people themselves. And this place is made for cars, you have to climb a very steep hill to get here, and it isn’t the easiest thing on foot. I’m sure that’s quite deliberate. The right sort of person doesn’t walk in this city. I passed Gehry’s Disney hall, it’s on the edge of this as is MOCA. Wealth’s claim on high culture.

Usually I go beneath this place, through the terminator tunnel with its shiny white tiles reflecting the light when they are not falling off the walls, and the homeless sleeping along the sidewalk. I like it better underneath.  The higher you go in LA, the richer it invariably gets. From crack in Hollywood to cocaine in the Hollywood Hills and so it goes everywhere…even Echo Park has had its bastions of wealth up on top of everything, and now of course it is gentrifying at the speed of light, and from top down.

These things make me angry, so I’m glad the YMCA is still there, giving people one last reason to democratize space. I was walking because I forgot a clean shirt to change into after workout, sauna and steam, and couldn’t face jumping on a standing room only bus full of people going home from work. Especially since I was going home TO work. Happy Friday to me. But I haven’t really been home for so long, so I’m still enjoying it.