Friday, 19 March 2010

Origin of the urbanMachine

Cities are a multidimensional construct of social activities, processes and configurations taking shape or shaping through relations imagined, projected, actual, civic or public (Grosz 1998). Cities are also a place where flows and power networks intensify, on one hand manifest in physical form, but on the other hand through their very nature they dominate the change. The city ticks somehow. This multitude of activities is far beyond a single person’s comprehension, both as an actor as well as receptor. In general perception, the city is about organization (facilities) to enable me to go about my business. I want to have clean water out of the tap at any point in the day, the transport between two destinations to be reliably on time, and the city to deal with my waste. All this is preferably provided in a way I, as the user, do not notice or are confronted with (Borden 2000, p.104). We pretend that the city is a black box to serve our needs whilst trying to create as much distance between us and ’it’ as possible. We are rarely aware that we are actually part of the function of the city, as long as the machine works the way we expect it to. It works and it works along our routines, while it has its own cycles of flow and production. The machine adapts and the city could be described as a machine quite literally in many ways. The metaphor of “it works” or it does not, is strong and widely used. It applies to services, functions or even events.

Image taken from the PatrickGeddesTrust / Inspired by the River Tay in Scotland and later the Ganges in India Geddes studied life from the mountains to the water.

Only in the very late 20th century did new descriptions of the city emerge, linked to organic structures. For example in ‘The City Shaped’ (Kostof 1991, p.43), there is a clear distinction made between unplanned and planned cities. The two terms are also found as ‘unplanned evolution’ and ‘instinctive growth’ (Kostof 1991, p.43). The historian F. Castagnoli is quoted as making the distinction as follows: “The irregular city is the result of development left entirely to individuals who actually live on the land. If a governing body divides the land and disposes of it before it is handed over to the users, a uniformly patterned city will emerge” (as quoted in Kostof 1991, p.43). The planned, designed city versus the grown, spontaneous city, as a categorisation might already be a child of Sullivan’s dogma, which biases the categorisation to start from. However, there is a growing interest in the organic structure of the city. There has been in the past and a well-known urban planner Patrick Geddes actually had a biology background. Nevertheless, even though the spatial separation of function in urban planning is today regarded as problematic in terms of flows, congestion and energy consumption for example, the concept continues to influence planning fundamentally.
To go back to the modernist concept of city planning and the idea of separation of functions, there is an additional aspect to the city machine. Rhythms do result from the interaction between separated functions, but in addition, as introduced earlier, many of the modernist’s concepts were based on machines quite literally. This is articulated by Marschall (2009, p.33)in ‘Cities, Design and Evolution’: “Modernist city planning, then, is the same as classical city planning except for being distinguished by its use of modern technology – railways, motorways, steel and reinforced concrete”. This illustrated to some extent a city that was actually ‘built’ around machines. It does not quite define the role of the city, but we can assume that it was thought to be more than just the wrapping, but an extension of the machine.

Image taken from Wikimedia / Linear City by Arturo Soria y Mata

Arturo Soria y Mata proposed a linear city in 1892, It could be the first modernist city plan. The project - Ciudad Lineal – is a project based on a train line, resulting in a linear city, a city that potentially could be extended into the country side or across continents (Marshall 2009, p.34). A city machine was thus born and this illustrates beautifully the way the city was thought of. Still today the pulse of the transport network plays a big role in the constitution of the city’s pulse. The urban machine generates a certain rhythm. The pace of the departure of the public transport, the frequency of the stops, but also the location of stations spatially drives this rhythm. Any live tracking transport site gives a good idea of the pulse of the transport network. As a result of this functional separation, travel became the driving activity of the city dynamic, while this beat kept the frozen functional parts of the separated city alive.

In his book ‘Good City Form’ Lynch speaks of a slightly different “City as a Machine model” (1984). First he describes the machine “A Machine also has parts, but those parts move and move each other. “ He goes on with “The whole grows by addition. It has no wider meaning; it is simply the sum of its parts” (Lynch 1984, p.81). However he then continues to put some distance between his machine city model and the general perception of machines powered by electricity or steam and made of shining metal. He wants to use his model in the context of a ‘functional’ city for :”…where ever settlements were temporary, or had to be built in haste, or were being built for clear, limited, practical aims, as we see in so many colonial foundations” (Lynch 1984, p.82). In this sense he places this model in exactly the position of the modernist idea of the functional city. Interestingly however, it seems that he stresses aspects of time in the terms ‘temporal’, ‘hast’ and so on. This highlights the importance of time even in the machine model. Lynch puts examples of the colonisation of America forward to illustrate the machine model. Here, the aspect of form and structure becomes a relevant topic. As seen before, the aspect of power or ‘truth’ is again central to the approach. In the ‘Laws of the Indies’ of 1573, the Spanish emperor gave clear instructions on how the new cities in conquered land had to be built. It was all based on a grid system with clearly defined locations for the important buildings for a ‘functional’ city. Again this aspect of implementing the structure is put forward, but also the simplicity to expand the structure is stressed. The implementation of power and hierarchy is not mentioned by Lynch. The functioning of the structure is the primary concern and this is thought to be achieved through simplification and purity of form. From this setting, it is not far to the rectangular grid cities resulting from land allocation and land speculation in modern America. Lynch goes on through the history of urban design and names the Radiant City by Le Corbusier, Soria y Mata’s linear utopia, but he also identifies the machine in Peter Cook’s Archigram projects, in the work of Soleri or Friedman. He concludes “In less sweeping terms, the machine model lies at the root of most of our current ways of dealing with cities…” (Lynch 1984, p.86).

During the machine period the human body was subject to the mechanical imagination. It is the time where sport and sport competition became important and the training of the human, mostly male body, in analogy to the machine was convenient. See earlier post on bodyMachines HERE and HERE.


Borden, I., 2000. Hoardings. In City A-Z. London: Routledge.

Grosz, E., 1998. Bodies-Cities. In H. J. Nast, ed. Places Through the Body. London: Routledge.

Kostof, S., 1991. The City Shaped: Urban Patterns and Meanings Through History, London: Thames and Hudson.

Lynch, K., 1984. Good City Form, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Marshall, S., 2009. Cities, Design & Evolution, Abingdon: Routledge.

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