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    Spiro Kostof: A City Shaped

    Kurt Neiswender
    Jan 31, '12 1:34 PM EST

    Reading Summary

    Spiro Kostof’s book, The City Shaped: Urban Patterns and Meanings Through History, begins with an introduction by the author that sets the context of his book within the relatively young profession and pedagogy of Urban Design. Kostof seeks to explain the evolution of urban design through sociological patterns of human settlements dating back to Maya and Mesopotamia. His introduction describes the possible origins of urban design through the various human agglomerations, even if it is urbanism in an infantile form. Spiro Kostof discusses these origins of urbanism from multiple influences; from the morphology of military necessity, political forces, sociological humanistic responses, religious reasons and infrastructure needs, of which, clean running water being the most critical to human settlement. All of these are not too far off from what our modern city’s have to contend with on a daily basis for the pursuit of future land use and redevelopment.

    Kostof describes the reasoning of different urban developments around the world, and what forces were primary to the resultant urban form. For the ancient Maya, the civic center was arranged with strict adherence to the fundamental religious and palace structures, to the degree of which the sun, moon and stars were crucial to the orientation of the temples and courts. For other cities, their plans were based off the ability to get water to the ideal settlement areas, or to others yet, theirs was politically or commercially driven, like Wurzburg, Germany.

    Kostof briefly explains the origins of how urban areas were defined as such and how certain areas developed from disparate villages to distinct urban centers supported by less dense agrarian uses for land. Kostof also draws from other urban thinkers, like Lynch, Jacobs and Wirth to develop a thorough framework in which to set his argument for the historical patterns that developed city form from as far back as there is recorded data. This rich theory set up in the introduction invites the reader to expand their thinking of urban design beyond the limits of modern city form.

    Urban Design

    Spiro Kostof sets up his argument for urban design (the city) with some very concise points about what shapes them. His conclusion consists of nine points that make up his definition of a city. These points I argue are fundamental characteristics of city form and function. It is possible however for a city to exist without any one of these points. These nine points are not a city make, however, they do make it possible for a city to take form. What is possible from these points is to conclude that cities can by definition fulfill Kostof’s rubric for city’s, but the study of cities, or urbanism, digs much deeper beyond the superficial constructs of socioeconomic structures and built form. Urban design study can get right to the core of why cities succeeded or failed according to Kostof’s terms. For example, not all cities that cropped up along major rail stops through the United States stayed occupied for long, or that the ancient Maya rose to such great engineering heights and hierarchical political structures of classes, but suddenly collapsed, as described in Jared Diamonds book, Collapse.

    These instances in history are critical to understanding the deeper meaning of urban design and not just cityscapes across time. However the various empires rose and fell over time, their reasons are useful for the decisions to be made in our modern cities as urban designers. What Kostof’s introduction begins to tell us is that urban design in cities is an evolutionary process and not something that can always fit a certain mold.

    What Urban Design Can Be?

    After reading into Spiro Kostof’s definition of city, it is apparent that we, as urban designers need to look beyond the textbook definition of city, and explore the meanings behind and patterns that shape cities, as precedents and in development of future city planning. What urban design can do is react to what the inhabitants needs are, but it can also instinctively anticipate potential futures in urban form based of the actions and patterns recorded over time. Architecture begins in two dimensions, and results in a three dimensional object, but urban design takes the perceptions and experiences from three dimensional space and introduces the fourth dimension, time. Urban design is a study of the built environment that includes the relevant social and economic factors that occur over time. This is quite different from the study of many other fields. Few are affected as much by time as the development of urban areas are as they evolve over years, decades and centuries. 

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This is my personal blog to express my thoughts and research on architecture and urban design bridging academic and practice. My interests are in exploring the sustainability of urban environments.

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