The Rational Reconstruction of Cities
12 December 2008
In yesterday’s On the rational reconstruction of statehood, I considered the positivist conception of rational reconstruction as the proper task of philosophy in relation to contemporary political theory, especially in light of nation building exercises as a form of rational reconstruction.
Constructing or reconstructing a nation-state is a tall order, but it has occurred to me that history provides many examples of the construction and reconstruction of cities, with these examples inhabiting a generous continuum from the not so rational to highly rationalized town planning.
Cities emerge in history in many different ways. The origins of most cities are unknown to us in any detail. Only the most recently founded cities such as Brasília have any reliable documentation to establish their provenance. And what better slogan could there be for the rational reconstruction of a city than “Order and Progress”, as emblazoned across the Brazilian flag?
We have all heard the old adage that “Rome wasn’t built in a day”, but by late antiquity, with its mature institutions, its established conventions, and the power and wealth at the disposal of certain rulers, a city could be more or less built to order. This was the case with Herod’s Caesarea Maritima, with its brilliantly designed and built harbor, essentially following the same principles as any artificial harbor built today.
Planning is intrinsic to civilization. The neolithic agricultural revolution that ushered in the first cities, and hence the first civilizations, was based upon raising sufficient food in one location to feed a population for the entire year. This required significant planning and preparation. Thus urban planning is not a novelty of the modern period, but it was an idea largely lost during the medieval period. Why? This is too large a question to address at present, but whatever the many causes that contributed to this, clearly there was a shift in the character of civilization from antiquity to the middle ages, and one of the ways in which this shift is manifested is in the difference between ancient and medieval cities.
The Medieval city grew organically. The transition from village to town, and from town to city, was imperceptibly gradual and incremental. Moreover, the medieval city had a distinctive structure. If it displays any symmetry at all, it will display radial symmetry (in contradistinction, for example, to the bilateral symmetry of the plan of Brasilia, show above). The church with its spire would be the tallest building in the center of the city; the next tallest buildings would be the houses of the wealthiest burgers, hence the largest, and outward from the center the buildings would become more humble until at the outer edges would be wattle-and-daub hovels. Consider this picture of the German town of Nordlingen:.
It looks like it grew right out of the ground, like a mould on the forest floor. And now compare Nordlingen to a picture of a penicillin mould:
There are, of course, exceptions. South of Avignon and Arles there is Aigues-Mortes. The town traces its roots to Roman times, but during the crusades it was rebuilt on a regular street plan as a staging point for ships embarking crusaders. Its regularity is mostly a function of its being purpose-built in one fell swoop – quite an unusual situation for a medieval city. In this respect, both as being a port and being purpose-built to the order of a monarch, it resembles Herod’s Caesaria, mentioned above. One of the reasons that most medieval cities have an organic appearance is that they grew gradually over time, and thus were not built to any plan. But even this relatively “regular” medieval city, compared to ancient or modern efforts, is recognizably medieval, i.e., still irregular to a certain extent.
Organic forms take the shape that they do for good reasons, but these reasons are not always the reasons of Reason, as it were, i.e., these reasons are not always rational reasons, though they are reasons all the same. The roughly circular shape of the town walls of Nordlingen and the roughly circular shape of a penicillin mould are the result of optimization: a circular wall is the most economical structure that contains the greatest interior space with the smallest exposed exterior wall. In the bacteriological wilds, penicillin mould is shaped by natural selection, as in the wilds of feudal Europe, Nordlingen was shaped by the selective forces acting upon society at that time. Some of these forces were social, political, and diplomatic, but some, like the town walls, were the result of simplicity, economy, and optimization.
After the great fire of 1666, Christopher Wren, architect of St. Paul’s Cathedral and founder of the Royal Society, drew up a visionary plan for the reconstruction of London.
Wren’s plan was not adopted. No plan was adopted. This was primarily due to property rights considerations. Recall that, about this same time, John Locke was theorizing that it was OK for the monarch to have a man executed, but said same monarch couldn’t legally touch the condemned’s property. Clearly, here was a culture in which property rights trumped all other rights. I am again reminded of a line from Machiavelli that I recently quoted in my In Defense of Market Fundamentalism.
Times change. When Lisbon was devastated by the combined effects of earthquake, tsunami, and fire in 1755, Europe was experiencing the Enlightenment. The Lisbon earthquake became a philosophical and religious point of debate and conflict: was it a mere “natural” disaster, or the just punishment of a wrathful God?
Despite being among the least “Enlightened” countries in Europe, Lisbon was rebuilt as London was not, according to a visionary and thoroughly Enlightenment-era plan.
At present I am listening to The Last Day: Wrath, Ruin, and Reason in the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, by Nicholas Shrady. It is a pleasure to hear the story of the reconstruction of Lisbon told in such detail. I heartily recommend the book, if not the narrator.
Somewhere I read (though I can’t recall now where) that if Paris had not been reconstructed in the nineteenth century it would be the largest medieval city surviving in Europe. In other words, Paris survived more of less in its medieval form up until is rebuilding under Napoleon III according to the plans of Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann. It is Haussmann who was responsible for the broad boulevards, the neo-classical façades, and the Place de l’Étoile that are today synonymous with Paris.
The rebuilding of Paris, and indeed large scale urban renewal in general, came to be called “Haussmannization”. The controversy over urban renewal continues to this day. The political left has in particular taken up the controversy for reasons that are too detailed to go into at present. What was controversial in the mid-nineteenth century was controversial again in the mid-twentieth century when major highways were brought into New York City.
At some point, however, I really ought to take up the critique from the left of urban renewal, as it calls into question the presumed rationality of the measures taken in the name of urban planning, and it could be argued that urban renewal is among the most significant forms of rational reconstruction of cities undertaken today.
We must look to antiquity for one of the most ambitious examples of the rational reconstruction of a city. And in antiquity the rational reconstruction of a city had special resonance since (especially in the Hellenic regions) the city-state – the polis – was the most venerable political institution. To reconstruct a city was at the same time to reconstruct the state (and hence to reconstruct its citizens).
Knidos (also transliterated as Cnidus, Κνίδος in Greek) was one of the great Greek cities of Anatolia in antiquity. It began at one location, but the Knidians decided to move their entire city and build a new city. The location they chose was beautiful and prosperous. One walks through the ruins of Knidos today and can still be impressed by the orderly street plan and the enormous walls of ashlar masonry. Even through the wreck of ages, the vision of the planners of Knidos stands out. And there are also remains from the city’s decline, when the original plan of the builders was abandoned and the remains of the past were thrown together for temporary structures. A feeling of melancholy and sadness pervades such structures.
Another striking example is Split on the Adriatic, where Roman emperor Diocletian had a palace built for his retirement. After the collapse of Roman political institutions in the region, the local population withdrew within the walls of the palace and built their city within and on top of the ruins of the palace. Walking through the back streets of Split one comes across medieval hovels crazily wedged in between massive Roman walls meant to stand for ages. Here we see, side and side and one on top of the other (as at Knidos) the organic city and the rational city.
Rome, of course, affords numerous examples. Most poignant are the pagan temples simply bricked up between the columns and rudely forced to serve as Christian churches. It has the appearance of a forced conversion, as inauthentic as the conversion of an individual dedicated to another tradition. Most ancient Roman structures, however, were simply used as quarry material. In his entertaining book In Ruins, Christopher Woodward makes the point that ancient structures as imposing as the Colosseum were viewed more or less as “phenomena of nature” like a volcano or a mountain. And when there is an awareness that one is confronting a human monument of the past, “Any visitor to Rome in the fifteen centuries after its sack by the Goths in AD 410 would have experienced that strange sense of displacement which occurs when we find that, living, we cannot fill the footprints of the dead.” (In Ruins, Woodward, p. 5; the entire first chapter is devoted to the symbolic power of the Colosseum in its ruined state, and the literary reactions it has inspired.)
In the social sciences, the currently fashionable term for human construction is “the built environment” (it would be an amusing exercise to source this phrase, and to find out why it was introduced), and the city is the built environment par excellance. However, we could with perhaps more justification refer to the built, re-built, un-built, and over-built environment, as this is what ancient cities show to us.
Previously in A Tale of Two Cities I discussed the diverse approaches to town planning and historical preservation in Tokyo and Berlin. I now find myself asking whether Berlin or Tokyo represent rational or organic town planning. There is a sense in which the continual reconstruction of Tokyo is a rational enterprise, explicitly seeking greater economy, but there is also a sense in which it is an organic growth of contemporary industrial civilization. And Berlin, in seeking to (partially) reconstruct the Stadschloss, is looking back to an organic, pre-industrial past, but the deliberation and foresight involved in their endeavor illustrates sophisticated city planning of a high degree of rationality. Similarly, the now-demolished communist-era Palace of the Republic also illustrated a sophisticated sense of planning, but one which is even now being explicitly renounced.
It is unquestionably rational to seek to provide the residents of a city with adequate access and transportation infrastructure, and it is equally rational to allow residents to retain their traditional neighborhoods and the feeling of continuity and stability in their lives that comes with the retention of the urban fabric. Which interest is to take precedence? Can either be said to be favored by reason? Should the rational reconstruction of the city prefer one or the other, or attempt to strike a balance through compromise? Moreover, regardless of whether it is rational or not, it is certainly desirable to beautify a city, to provide spacious parks and pleasing structures. Ought urban planning to always err on the side of beautification? but we already know how controversial “gentrification” is.
Given the conflicting possibilities for what may be considered “rational”, it is obvious from the distinct approach of medieval on the one hand, or ancient and modern city structures on the other hand, that the “shift in the character of civilization” mentioned above could be formulated in terms of a shift in rationality. In other words, what medieval man found be to most rational was distinct from what antique man may have identified as rational. But medieval man did not value the ramshackle character of his city on aesthetic grounds, as we today value medieval survivals like Nordlingen for their quaint charm. Nor was the medieval city dweller a community organizer ahead of his time, concerned to protect the special ethnic character of particular neighborhoods. The ethnic character of particular neighborhoods in a medieval city was likely to be codified in law, such as laws that all the Jews must live in a certain quarter, or a law that all foreign merchants must live in a certain place. These could be considered an extension of sumptuary laws, which were almost universally adopted in medieval societies.
It would be all too easy to write an entire book on the rational reconstruction of cities and the intellectual significance of such enterprises and the different ways in which such enterprises have been undertaken. Indeed it would be easy to write a book or several about any of the cities mentioned above, and in fact many have been written. But the question of the rational reconstruction of cities, freighted as it is with the tension between tradition and innovation, is a matter above and beyond the particular circumstances of any one city. Once I start thinking about the topic, the examples that could be cited multiply like rabbits, and there are possibilities of interpretation that promise real intellectual excitement.
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