Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Cycles and Urban Morphology - The History of Urban Form

The origin of cities has been subject of an earlier post with a clear focus on cycles. For an additional post here the starting point is quite a different one. It is the book History of Urban Form - Before the Industrial Revolutions“ by A.E.J. Morris in the third edition. A book of facts and old school history, interpreting the subject rather functional and with a pretend objectivity.
However it is a very popular book and as the third edition demonstrates, able to maintain its popularity over more than twenty years. The first edition was published in 1972.
From the book by Josef H. Reichholf titled “Warum die Menschen sesshaft wurden” the idea of rites and routines where directly involved in the creation of the first settlements and later the creation of the city. In the HUF (History of Urban Form) is acknowledging that the early history of human settlements is still being written, the description blurs early cities/settlements into early cultures such as Aztecs, Maya, Egyptian/Mesopotamia, Greek/Roman or Islamic culture. However, the description in the book starts much earlier in the human history, somewhere in the Neolithic Age when humans are believed to be, in the words of the publication “...on much the same basis as any of the other animals, by gathering naturally occurring foodstuff...” (p 3). Fro this assumed nomadic life (I am not sure this would not necessarily imply a nomadic live, some animals do live a territorial life) the humans moved on, around 14000 BC to live in caves. Suddenly, settling is possible, but I assume this is what the archeological evidence is telling us. This is presented a shift in the concept of living, an improvement over the nomads to settle down in a cave. The logical step to follow this shift is the cultivation of plants around 8’000 to 10’000 years ago and successive the domestication of animals. Logic because it is believed that a settled live would make it necessary to source food locally and this food stock would need to be maintained through out the year. This is then famously described “The escape from the impasse of savagery was an economic and scientific revolution that made the participants active pattern with nature instead of parasites on nature” (by Childe? in What Happened in History)
The book moves then on to describe the “Fertile Crescent” as introduced by J Breasted (1935) in Ancient Times. Some 3000 years of slow development later villages are believed to be established and the first introduction of cities comes at the beginning of the Bronze Age. It follows a statement by Gideon Sjoberg (1965) in The Origin and Evolution of Cities as follows: ”a community of substantial size and population density that shelters a variety of non agricultural specialists, including a literate elite.“ This description is trying to articulate that again a shift is taking place and no longer everyone is responsible for her/his own food, but some sort of specialisation took place and exchange of goods between these specialists is invented.
For this development, the book lists a number of necessary steps to be taken. Named first is the production of surplus food and the storage of such, as well as other materials that would be needed by the specialists, as named before. Then follows the listing of science achievements such as writing,, mathematics, and astronomy. Only in a third set of additional achievement social organisation, is listed. And it is only named in the context of ”to ensure continuity of supplies to the urban specialists and to control labor forces for large-scale communal work...“ Mumford is then quoted to state that these requirement where roughly met by around 3000 BC. Surprisingly social organisation is not examined as a structuring of a large group of individuals beyond the family or clan structure what could be some sort of early politics.
However none of these factors are then explored in more detail and none of them feature as defining in the chapter on the actual creation of the urban form. To be fair all of them are addressed in neat row, one after the other, but not as a determining element, but rather a feature of the city. Almost in the sense that the city made this possible or it is a ”function“ of the city. It goes from topography, climate, material, economic, political, religious, pre-urban cadastre, defense, aggrandisement, gridiron, mobility, aesthetics, legislation, infrastructure, social/religious/ethnic groupings and leisure, Anyway there would be a nice example for each of them, but overall it represents clearly a time of thought, the eighties, were everything was neatly divided, separated and isolated to be investigated and then in the exact same state presented. As if the city is made of bricks.
To summarise this short introduction to the history of urban form as it were, one could say ”it somehow happened“. Out of all these objective descriptions of analysis no clear thread emerges along that the evolution cold be examined.
The book continues to examine the form of cities. Moving from early settlements examples like Jericho and Catal Huyuk to Jerusalem and UR quickly to the Greek City State. Here examples of Miletus, Priene and of course Athens are provided. In this section the defense mechanism of the city are present, but not dominate. This, however, changes in the following section of Rome and the Empire. The examples here strongly build on the ideal construction of the military base camp, the army castra. The idea of the wall and the strong grid are dominant through out the description of the roman city. This pre conception of ”the City“ as the wall and the grid stands in the way of examining the city form from multiple angles. There are very little references to trade, production or everyday life for example religion. The problem of food production and food storage was earlier put as the main problem of urban settlements, but have, surprisingly, ever since not features as a defining element of city form. If it was, and presumably still is in cities today, this aspect must be considered while defining the urban form. As a consequence of this the city can not be defined as the grid and the wall, but would need to include the relationship to the surrounding fields for food production as well as, in terms of typology, the locations and types of food storage should be added to the examination of climate impacts.
As the book progressed through to the medieval Towns there appears to be a big break. The collapse of the Roman Empire also led to the collapse of a lot of roman founded cities. Some of them would be rebuild as medieval towns. However, of course some large and regional significant settlements manage to maintain its base, such as London or Verona. The installed structures by the Roman Empire where neglected through out and the sophisticated road network for example vanished. This meant for medieval times that there was no reliable way to distribute products in bulk. The solution was to establish transport on waterways. Surprisingly Morris states her: ”Neither the location of medieval towns nor their form was significantly affected by industry“ (p 96). Even though he continues to analyse the typology of medieval town houses as a place combining living and working.
The medieval city wall continues to be the defining element of urban form. Even though in Britain the wall was, in the 14th century, not a significant military need due to the state of peace within the island. However the wall was used to clearly state boundaries to for example impose a tax on good coming through the city gates.
There is as an intriguing beauty about the medieval town. It probably derives from a constructed clarity of dominant elements. Apart fro the wall, there is a church, as market place and a town hall. Sir Patrick Abercrombie’s favorite as it appears was Furnes in Flanders, a pretty business town in 1590. But again the connection to the outside is formally not considered. It appears in some example in the form of a port that implies some sort of trade.
Also new elements in the description are aspects of urban design that are mixed into the description of urban form. A nice example is Telc, which after a devastating fire the town had to be rebuilt. An unknown designer had for this reconstruction used a musical allegory. This results in a pretty facade bordering the main market space drawing mainly from its uniformity, while integrating individuality to great extent.

Image Google Earth - Telc historic centre with distinct market place

The Renaissance the emphasizes once more on the military defense structures, mainly in mainland Europe, especially Italy. Ideal structures are developed mainly with characteristically arrow wall extensions. Where as in medieval times the wall was designed to be the shortest and most efficient ways to surround the largest possible plot of land the defense strategies became much more sophisticated resulting in a very distinct urban form in the sense of a picture. These ideal towns like Palma Nova or Naarden became icons for the time with a dramatic impact on how towns are perceived. As a one of object, an artifact in itself. The idea of the city as an object remains through out the book.
In the context of how these cities have developed ever since again shows how interwoven, urban form and urban design in this approach are. Cities evolve and even if there are types of design elements are established the form evolves. Examples such as Copenhagen or Karlsruhe can illustrate these thought.

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Karlsruhe old/new)
Image from GHDI and Wikipedia Commons - Karlsruhe line drawing around 1739 and Karlsruhe today

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Image from Wikimedia Commons and Monash University - Copenhagen circa 1700 and Copenhagen today

The connection between travel pattern and morphology of the city is a topic of the research that has not been explored much yet.
A starting point could be the perception of space drawn from the UD interviews.
from UD txt - “Usually participants have quite a different perception of their spatial habits and will describe them at the beginning of the tracking as divers and spread over a large area of the city. The first few times they see the data they actually have collected, it is quite a disappointment to them to see that they follow a rather strong routine. Routine seems to be rather negative perceived and participants often would describe themselves as active, flexible and spontaneous implying a widely spread range of activities with a diverse movement pattern. To describe it they often refer to someone they think is very flexible or very inflexible just to provide for them selves an example of comparison. Routines and rhythm seem to be a not so much discussed subject but rather a topic people make a lot of assumptions.”
If individuality and flexibility, range of patterns and path are current values of our society, how would this influence and change the current development of the urban morphology? Would it be possible to conclude on current styles and designs or even the next ten years? Also retrospectively could the social values and the urban morphology be connected? Say the Victorian morphology, what would it say about the people of this times’ perception of habits and space?

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