— Article by Julia Kozlova

The aim of a good city is to lead citizens towards a happy life (c) Plato

In Antiquity, both the Greek polis (from which derives our ‘politics’, the science of governing states) and the Latin civitas defined the city-state, an urban as well as a political organization. This dual significance of the word ‘city’ encompasses both the physical place and the body of politics that makes social and political arrangements correspond in a city. A city has never been considered as only a living space but a social union, living organism – ‘kosmos’, the platform for exercising politics that could escalate a society to a better world organisation. That’s why a utopian idea of ideal living space has appeared many times during the history in forms of urban projects, some of them were finally realised and others remained only on paper.

During the humankind history, a soaring mindset appeared in different forms and shapes. The idea of ideal sustainable city came many times to such futurists as Plato and his Republic (380 BC), Thomas Moore and his Utopia (1516), Tommaso Companella and his Civitas Solis (1602), Ebenezer Howard and his Garden Cities of Tomorrow (1898), Frank Lloyd Wright and his Broadacre City (1935) and many others.

The word ‘Utopia’ has Greek origins: ‘topos’ (place) and ‘eu’ (well) – and originally was introduced by Thomas More meaning ‘place of well-being’. But even if the credits for the word ‘Utopia’ goes to Thomas More, there is still important influence of Antiquity and Plato’s ‘statis’ (ideal city).

All the ideal cities thinkers based their philosophy on different population doctrines which had reference to different demographic thought starting from the Bible (“increase and multiply”) to Greek thinkers. Among all the ideal environments thinkers, the ideal cities projected by Plato (428-347 B.C.) are of great importance to the utopian traditions. Plato clearly prefers the modest city-state to the immodest empire. In Laws, Plato established three organizing principles that could secure the city unity – trade specialisation, right size (5040 citizens) and modesty.

This idea of restricted city population (Platonic doctrine of population) have inspires many scientist if demographic thought many centuries after. However, the  Romans during the expansion of their powers and building fortress, setting colonies, they used to demolish areas of existing towns when they became subjugated to the empire (the Greek city at Marseilles was thus razed to the ground). The Romans built about 500 new cities in North Africa on the lands appropriated from the local tribes.

In the Middle Age attempts to create an ideal and even an ideological living space led to creation of isolated society groups as monasteries as appealing example of an ideal way of life of many aspects such as sharing tasks, meals and prayer. But obviously with urban development demographic growth and the banishment of certain urban functions beyond the town walls came. Consequently, the system of life there with its perfect order soon gave a way to more chaotic development.

During the Renaissance time urban philosophers were concentrated on ideal-city design (i.e. Florentine Leonardo Bruni). Some developments of that period contributed to the depiction and objective consideration of the existing city: the increasing sophistication and employment of surveying and drawing instruments and the increasing availability of paper and the introduction of printing. City were believed to represent the divine universal order as an extent of the mathematical knowledge of the time.

At the same time, it has to be emphasised that cities of that time were surrounded by medieval city wall that led to the raise of  population density and epidemic flashes consequently. Leonardo Da Vinci proposed to reposition city walls to let the city breath. His plan for Milan (1493) included an accommodation the surplus population in 10 new towns of 30 000 inhabitants each (also look at Ebenezer Howard’s plan).

“Tabula rasa” (lat. building the new urban areas from the scratch) has been the main idea of planners through the history of city development, taking a delight in flattering uneven land and straightening rivers and revealing a geometrical order, with the only one intent to master the apparent chaos of the natural world. Utopias were usually planned to be built  upon virgin or razed soil: it was Plato who quoted Socrates saying that the artists will not start working on a city nor on an individual unless they are given a lean canvas or have cleaned it themselves. Utopian environments were considered to be realized through human effort without supernatural assistance but where they could find call or resources to build new megacities and what they supposed to do with those cities that thought to be working incorrectly.

Although ideas of Renaissance were confronted to Medieval urban thoughts, it successfully was applied to medieval cities. In their practice Renaissance architects followed the principle: “to build new not demolishing old”. It was a time of the sprawl of urban thoughts such as ideas presented by Thomas More, Francis Bacon and Tommaso Campanella. Renaissance ideal city appeared as a protest against of Medieval time idea of the Heavenly Jerusalem (embodiment of human and God’s plan): a city was created by man in agreement with geometry and mathematics. If Medieval city was isolated by walls and directed to its centre, a city of Renaissance was pointed to the external world, it was a period of division of architectural spaces with the central position of the city square. If the medieval city gravitated to the sky, Renaissance city is horizontal with the perspective on the main place.

In the 18th century two main trends appeared: modernization and embellishment, which combined aesthetic and functional approaches to the city, unifying the work of engineers and architects. Scientific observation and experimentation slowly demystified the world in the 18th century: empirical knowledge against obscurantism. Urban and political scientist started considering urban and rural planning as a platform for experiments on social organisation. The city gradually came to be considered not as just reflection of the power but as the structure that must be distributed and organised as rationally as possible.

Nevertheless, the European economy in the 18th century was primarily agricultural and based on traditional industries. The working conditions were awful (even children worked starting from the age of 5). It became increasingly evident that the era of universal  fraternity and equality acclaimed during  the French Revolution in 1789 was far from being attained.

In the 19th century medieval city walls were finally torn down that was following by fast city expansion. The society sought to build a new world within its new framework.

The period which began with the industrial revolution caused varied social problems as from the second half of eighteenth century. Seeking solutions to address the poverty and social imbalance, which were caused by the industrialization, social policy tried to make balance between economy and social policies.

The idea of progress went further than the professionalization of research and the formalization of knowledge. Major 19th century ideologies, from liberalism to socialism, were eager to improve the human condition. Ideas of progress were bound up with the experience of empire, based on a comparison between core and periphery, which reflected the metropolitan sense of superiority.

At the same time, not only long-established cities experienced expansion, but numerous new towns came up around the novel industries, with the factory now replacing the church, palace or town hall as the centric building. The striking contrast between the densely built-up megapolis and the countryside was viewed as a major problem of a city that needed to install a new intimacy between the two types of living spaces.

Whereas Ruskin, Morris and Ebenezer Howard  favoured small, dense urban in which functions were combined, most others were for separating them and to dispose large, individual buildings across the landscape, an autonomous architecture that was introduced by Ledoux

If these changes are essentially the result of the growth of the size of the city, the 19th century is also the period in urban history which saw the birth of the largest number of new cities. Effectively, of the approximately 268 cities of more than 100000 inhabitants in the developed world around 1910, some 98 did not exist or were villages at the beginning of the 19th century (or in England in the middle of the 18th century).

The role of those utopias  authors is really important. Being headliners of outrunning thinking, they not only predicted the future but also influenced and prepared the society for upcoming changes, they made the future. However, that roaring desire of changes led to an appearance of multiplicity utopian city projects.

Karl Mannheim, in the beginning of the 20th century, opened up a discourse on the distinction between ideology and utopia. The main distinction that puts projects in a conflict with reality, makes them utopian,  is that it is too dynamic and progressive. In contrast, ideology is working on stabilizing the shared social reality in the mode of thought of dominant policy making group. Utopist seeks for changing the current social order while ideologist tries to preserve it. 

The idea of an ideal city is laying in between motivation and ambition, between Ideology and Utopia. It combines authority of political powers and progressive thinking designed to change a social order. The latter involves not only architects but also people of a different professional background: writers, philosophers or social reformers.

Cities are unique ecosystem that absolutely human made, that artificial structure was used for sustaining safety of human beings and optimizing the positive trend in chance for survival and prosperity. It started with a collectiveness trend of human species mostly rural, hunting and gathering and then became small villages and cities after the Neolithic Revolution of Agriculture. That is the crucial effect of any social shifts and world revolutions, whilst it’s challenging for a society, it’s always fertile creating new forms and shaping the world towards its development predetermined by evolution.

While society is developing and urbans are growing, the mankind won’t stop seeking for ideal concept of self-organization but for policy-makers that’s important to stay focused on real-to-life conceptions that could be easily applied  and adopt the existing system to the new conditions instead of looking new utopian projects. And as far as the majority of cities were built centuries ago, urbanist and political scientist should develop urban areas with respect to their historical heritages. Consequently, there are two possible ways to improve urban pattern – reconstruction of existing territories or creation a new living areas on abandoned, non-exploited or misused territories.

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