The Soft City

Architecture's Public?

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    Intuition and Instinct

    Matthew Rust
    Jun 24, '13 5:35 PM EST


    This post will focus upon some issues raised in a BBC Radio 4 episode of In Our Time (, looking at the driving forces and ideology behind the creation of cities.  For those that can't access the audio material due to licensing restrictions, the discussion within the show charts the history of the City. The academic guests explore a story which lead to people congregating in settlements of increasing size and complexity. Factors such as agriculture,  commerce, the exploitation of resources and the need for collective protection feature in their reasoning. I wish to explore a subject highlighted by Julia Merritt (approximately 10 minutes 30 seconds into episode). She looks at a time when cities start to have a sense of themselves, an understanding of what they are and their possible purpose. By that, I mean people begin to observe and write about the cities they occupy and critically reflect upon their experience. Merritt analyses a dualism between two classical poets, Horace and Juvenal and their philosophical battle regarding Rome and the role of the city. The dualism orientates around the city as a place of civility versus corruption.

    In support of civility; the Greeks interpretation of the polis as an essential form for social life, a civilising force, a place where humanity can achieve its fullest potential. Cities provide the amenities that allow man to live a life of reason. About Rome in particular you see a huge leap in technical skill, construction and engineering, especially in comparison to the surrounding rural alternative. In the discourse for corruption; the wealth of a city is something that ultimately breeds greed, and luxury, all the things that are actually quite elevating. It creates a place where people loss their identity, sense of self and values. The city is a monster breeding corruption and greed, a place of falsehood, where everything is about money. Cities lead to the corruption of the individual, but also the corruption of social relationships (Merritt 2010)

    Does this dualism between civility and corruption have any relevance when observing the cities of today? (When I use the term 'city', in a modern context, I'm generally referring to a city based upon my experiences of the European model, such as London. Cities obviously share common characteristics, but also differed greatly in how they are occupied. For example, Los Angeles is spatially a very different place to inhabit to London, and therefore produces a different user based behaviour. An individual city will shape us in different ways to another.) In support of civility; cities bring large groups of people together in a relatively small and confined space. Knowledge, skill and ideas are penned in, creating an environment ideal for advancement and enlightenment. For this I make the assumption that problems that arise for inhabitants are tested by a wider number of people with a higher skill level than you would in a town or village. It produces an environment rich in intellectual rigour. Spatially this concept is translated into universities, governance buildings, laboratories, places of public interaction such as cafes and other public spaces. As cities grow they create more examples of 'need'. For example, we need to house more people in a smaller space, our infrastructure requires more capacity, more food is needed to feed the city, cleaner energy is needed to improve the air quality, or climate change is putting pressure on a cities flood defences. As humans, we are shaped by problems we encounter, like a river meandering across a plain, we seek the path of least resistance. Horace's optimistic view of the city is clearly relevant for today. Cities can provide the vibrate and effective environment needed to solve our collective problems.

    In support of corruption; greed is widely evident in the modern city. Greed could be discerned as the core factor behind the near fatal collapse of our financial institutions in 2008. The institutions that run the financial realm, occupy key areas within our cities and hold a strong influence over how it is spatially configured. For example; skyscrapers could be construed as modern day cathedrals, built partly to reinforcing an economic doctrine. Also the way in which some areas of housing and working environments have been built reflect how the balance between a sustainable profit and extortion has been warped by greed (I want to elaborate further on the nature of our economic system and its influence on our cities but hope to explore them in greater detail in later posts within the blog). I think this raises an important issue, are we conscious enough of the effect the built environment we inhabit has on our behaviour and our relationship to wider society? 

    “. . . man’s most consistent and on the whole, his most successful attempt to remake the world he lives in more after his heart's desire. But, if the city is the world which man created, it is the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live. Thus, indirectly, and without any clear sense of the nature of his task, in making the city man has remade himself." (Park 1967)

    I like the idea of a frictional relationship between a city and its user. As we rub ourselves metaphorically against the city, we are shaped by its resistance. Therefore the nature of this urban surface has a important role in making us the people we are. Ed Soya, author of Postmetropolis, suggests we do appreciate the spatial dialogue between ourselves and the spaces we choose to create.

    "Perhaps more than before, we are becoming consciously aware of ourselves as intrinsically spatial beings, continuously engaged in the collective activity of producing spaces and places, territories and regions, environments and habitats. This process of producing spatiality or “making geographies” begins with the body and mind, with the construction and performance of the self, the human subjects, as a distinctly spatial entity involved in a complex relationship with our surroundings. On one hand our actions and thoughts shape the spaces around us, but at the same time the larger collectively or socially produced spaces and places within which we live and shape our actions." (Soya 2000)

    I agree with much the quote but disagree that we are becoming more consciously aware of the spaces we create. By 'we', I mean people not necessarily part of the architectural or space producing community, more the consumers of space, the general public. Space had become ever more ingrained with consumerism. We are sold an image on glossy billboards of ideal homes and offices. But are the way in which these pieces of the city being built solidifying the urban clay, a clay only moulded by a financially elite? I would suggest the balance between civility and profit has become skewed towards profit at the expense of social issues. This narrative will be explored further in the next blog post.

    The point of this blog entry was to reiterate that the places we live in are not inert. Space crafted to suit a certain ideology changes the individual that inhabits it, all be it consciously or not. I like the dualism between the two poets because it resonates fully to the present day city. What the poets really capture is a dichotomy for the human condition, the internal battle between self and collective good, but played out at the scale of the city. It's one of the fundamental questions we ask ourselves numerous times a day, do my actions only benefit myself or others with which I share my environment. Do I care?!


    Merritt, J. "THE CITY - A HISTORY, PART 1." In Our Time. BBC Radio 4. London, 25 Mar.
    2010. BBC Radio 4, 25 Mar. 2010. Web. 4 Feb. 2011.

    Park, R, E. On Social Control and Collective Behaviour, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967)

    Soya, E. Postmetropolis - Critical Studies of Cities and Regions, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2000)

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About this Blog

The purpose of The Soft City is to question the motives and ideology behind our urban spaces. As urban users, we are active elements within a city. We have the ability to shape the city surrounding us. Consequently the environment around us offers resistance to our interactions and reshapes us in turn. This continuous moulding and reshaping of people and space is directly reflected in our societies. This relationship will help form the key theme for the blog; who is architecture's public?

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