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Politecnico

di Milano
School of Architecture, Urban planning, and Construction Engineering
Bachelor of Science in Architectural Design
Course of Elements of Architectural Typology
Academic Year 2017/18
Professor Antonella Contin

October 4th, 2017




Name: Vera Vince
Identification Number (matricola): 880240

paper #01:
4 ELEMENTS OF URBAN THEORY


Settlement form is the spatial
arrangement of persons doing things,
the resulting spatial flow of persons,
goods and information ant he physical
features which modify space in some
way significant to those actions]

Kevin Lynch




Keywords:
city; urban theory; definition; space;
actors; dynamics; time












Figure 1: Wong, Eric. Cohesion. 2016.


The purpose of this paper was to explore and explain main points used in urban theories. They can be
divided into four main elements explored through four simple questions: where, who, what and when. Each
element explains a dimension or framework of urban theories and provides examples from three principal
referenced texts Rem Koolhaas The Generic City, Aldo Rossis Urban Artifacts and a Theory of the City, and
Grahame Shanes What is a City. Going through the concepts of location, subject, action and time the goal of
this paper is to confirm how they constitute the central elements any urban theory needs in order to define a
city.

Introduction

Almost all urban theory starts with a definition of the city. City in relation to non-city, city in relation
to society, city in relation to its architecture, and so the list goes on. Often a theory is defined in relation to
another theory, one which it draws upon or which it disputes. After reading a couple of such texts one might
feel perplexed about the topics of the and their relationships, as well as constantly changing paradigms and
perspectives.
In this paper, I will identify the four main elements which form an urban theory, by consulting the
three assigned readings. Opinions on the physical aspect of the city, urban actors, dynamics of the city and
time are what forms our view and analysis of an urban environment. All of the four elements are
irreplaceable, connected and interdependent. It is my opinion that these texts can be discussed along these
four elements, which, when discussed together form the definition of the city present in the discussed theory.

The Where?

The introducing element is the physical value of the city. The artificial physicalities of the city as well
as the natural ones. The reason why this is the first element is not due to its importance over the other three,
but because it provides a framework for the remaining elements. The first degree of defining a city is most
often through its physical attributes regarding its structure, size, difference from country or simply by placing
it within a hierarchy of settlements. In Serlios visual analogies for the hierarchy of urban European
settlements he makes a parallel with theatrical productions and the settings for different stages used for
specific genres. This clearly illustrates the role of the physical within a city as a provider for function, context
and interaction. 1
Rossi brings up an important dimension to objects in the city, raising them above solely their physical
application. He calls these urban artefacts and they represent not simply a physical thing in the city, but all


1
Shane. What is a city?, 19- 20.

1
its history, geography, structure and connection with the city life. 2 This illustrates the unsaid and symbolic
meaning that spaces have for users, even outside of the scope of functionality. Kostof stresses this in
connection to the traditional organization of the city around the streets and squares, along with monuments
which constitute the symbolic, public part of the city and its identity. 3.

Koolhaas, on the other hand, in describing his Generic City, opposes the notion of implied value of
identity and argues for the advantage of blankness. The Generic City has no center and it is the reflection of
present need and present ability.4 This challenges the conventional norms of right and wrong of city life, once
again reminding us of the modernist heritage still very present.

Nevertheless, in both cases there is an agreement on the fact that the artificial environment of cities
was created by users for users, and through their further action it continues to form and reform.


The Who?

Second element of urban theory are the users and their role in the city. When we talk about users it
is important to stress the difference between an individual and group, as they have different motivations
which influence the city in different ways. Lynch brings up the paradox that although individual actors search
for freedom in the city, the urban patterns of the city emerge as a product of group behaviour.
The role of actors isnt just the creation of the dynamic in the city, but also the permanence and
order. This is most clearly illustrated with the subject of institutions. Urban actors create physical institutions
(monuments, libraries, archives, and the like) that are charged with the maintenance of memories and codes
of activity central to the identity, organization, and stability of a given urban setting.
Both Rossi and Lynch stress another important aspect of the users. They are the ones defining the
central values and ideas that shape the city and its identity. 5 This is partially a political issue of choices made
by the users which ultimately realize the city itself. 6 For Koolhaas on the other hand, actors in the Generic
City are diverse and do not form any specific foundations or identities. 7They cling to history even though
they do not realistically possess one of their own.8


2
Rossi, Urban Artifacts and a theory of the city, 22.
3
Shane. What is a city?, 25.
4
Koolhaas, The generic city, 1248-1250.
5
Shane. What is a city?, 25-33.
6
Rossi, Urban Artifacts and a theory of the city, 23.
7
Koolhaas, The generic city, 1252.
8
Koolhaas, The generic city, 1256.

2
To sum up, even though often we view them as passive because of their role as users, actors are
those that create and perpetuate the visible and invisible conditions and flows of the city.

The What?

Even though the third element is just as reliant on the rest as the other three are, we could say that
it is a central unifying factor within an urban theory. Observing the element of city flows, systems and
dynamics is a little bit more complex but it defines the city as a living, rather than frozen thing.
Urban dynamics can be visible, such as physical changes of demolition or expropriation, 9 but they
are also hidden in the concept of laws and institutions, relationships with the countryside or other cities.
Kostof compares cities to a motor or a pump due to their ability to generate profits from different sources
and activities, all the while creating and focusing all the incoming and outcoming energies. The city, according
to Kostof, is not static but an organism that develops in patterns as a response to specific conditions which
change over time. Also it is important to note the urban systems which are created through trade and
connection and function as systems of transportation and communication. Today, cities almost entirely rely
on their networks with other cities. 10

Observing both intercity and intracity systems has become increasingly easier with technology.
Analysing this kind of data has opened the doors for new approaches to urban design, as well as urban theory.
Being able to control and observe these systems creates new forms of action and dynamics. This kind of
interventions shifted into cyberspace, with games such as SimCity and Skylines. 11The latter was actually used
as a planning tool for a new development project in Stockholm. 12

In the Generic City, the functional and necessary flows take center stage. Among the most
characteristic elements of the city is the airport, which reflects the universality of the in-transit condition.
The street and public spaces are dead, making way for the car which provides the necessary movement. All
the other dynamics of public life have shifted into the cyberspace.13
To conclude, the dynamism and action produced by urban actors within and among the physical
environment of cities is what gives them their appeal and function.


9
Rossi, Urban Artifacts and a theory of the city, 22.
10
Shane. What is a city?, 22-24.
11
Shane. What is a city?, 28-33.
12
http://www.bbc.com/news/av/39200838/video-game-cities-skylines-helps-plan-stockholm-
development
13
Koolhaas, The generic city, 1250-1251.

3
The When?

Frequently omitted from definitions, especially in earlier theoretical work, the final element deals
with the temporal dimensions of cities. In reality, cities arent structures frozen in time, and their
development needs to be observed within a timeframe in mind. The treatment of the temporal dimension
within a theory will largely specify the applied definition of the city.

Rossi, for example, uses it in a very simple manner. For him a city is construction over time. With
time, the city grows upon itself; it acquires a consciousness and memory. Memory is often a central theme
of the temporal dimension of cities. Rossi further explains this by recalling the images of destroyed European
cities after World War II. The photographs of those scenes still resonate strongly with anyone who ever visited
those same places. The thought of something physical lost, as well as the sight of that which has remained
often invokes a strong emotional reaction which testifies to its importance in regards to what we view as a
city, and moreover, a home.
Both Kostof and Rossi deal with the concept of atemporality within the city, even though no object
in the city can ever truly stay the same, inhabitants often feel the need to have certain markers of history
and memory which provide a historical context which can be conceived only through perceived difference it
has with the present times. 1415 Koolhaas views history merely as a service to cater to these feelings and need
for memories. The only memories that exist in the Generic City are general memories, memories of
memories. 16
Time provides the final framework for the urban theories and urban dynamics themselves, as well as
a narrative for our histories. That is why it is a crucial element of both writing and reading urban theories.

Conclusion

Going through the four elements, or rather four questions, one should be able to analyse or review
an urban theory. They summarize the four main points that are the themes and frameworks of most urban
theories. This can be observed in this conclusion made by Lynch: Settlement form is the spatial arrangement
of persons doing things, the resulting spatial flow of persons, goods and information ant he physical features
which modify space in some way significant to those actions.17



14
Rossi, Urban Artifacts and a theory of the city, 21-22.
15
Shane. What is a city?, 25.
16
Koolhaas, The generic city, 1257.
17
Shane. What is a city?, 33.

4
Bibliography

Koolhaas, Rem. The generic city, in S, M, L, XL, New York: The Monacelli Press, 1995;
Rossi, Aldo. Urban Artifacts and a theory of the city, in The architecture of the city, Cambridge, MA: The
MIT Press, 1984;
Shane, David Grahame. What is a city?, in Recombinant Urbanism. Conceptual modelling in architecture,
urban design and city theory, London: Wiley, 2005;



Web Source

BBC News: Video Game Cities: Skylines Help Plan Stockholm Development
http://www.bbc.com/news/av/39200838/video-game-cities-skylines-helps-plan-stockholm-development
Accessed: October 3rd 2017

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