Eleven Canonical City Plans and a Note on the Conceptual Practice of Architecture: A few reflections on a recent teaching project
The city itself is the concrete embodiment and the collective historical sum of manual and mental human labour. The city plan – whether theoretical or as built, a precondition of the city, or not – is the representation of singular values, common beliefs, critical sensibility, and a manifestation of a particular way of looking at the world, and of ways of living.
With this position in mind, we assigned our students a canonical city plan as a lead-in to this years Rooms + Cities Masters Unit. The selected city plans were the following: Filarete’s Ideal City of Sforzinda (c1460), Giambattista Nolli’s La Pianta Grande di Roma (1748), Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s Campo Marzio (1762), Ludwig Hilberseimer’s Hochhausstadt (1924), Le Corbusier’s Ilot insalubre no. 6 (1937), Archigram’s Instant City (1969), Rem Koolhaas’ Exodus, or the Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture (1972), Oswald Mathias Ungers’ (et al.) Berlin: A Green Archipelago (1977), Costantino Dardi’s panel for Roma Interrotta (1978), Bernard Tschumi’s Street in The Manhattan Transcripts (1978), and finally Pier Vittorio Aureli’s Stop City (2007). Each plan, in different ways, analyses the city and sees something in it – features, qualities, forms, objects, events, geometries – that was not seen by others. Once seen, the particularities become the basis for project thinking and design.
Most of the city plans are theoretical projects by architects motivated by the possibility of influencing the urban condition through architecture’s formal potential by means of framing and representing the space of confrontation and coexistence, which is the city; and who take the view that architecture is a conceptual practice and intellectual pursuit.
The emphasis on architecture as a conceptual practice – as a theoretical project – is important because it is by being presented as theory – a category autonomous yet in dialogue with design – that architecture goes beyond the art, craft or pragmatic construction of building to propose an intellectual contribution that addresses the potential for an alternative future urban life.
After being assigned a plan, each member of the Rooms + Cities Unit was required to produce a series of diagrams that describe the formal, conceptual and organisational principles of their plan, and to delineate a room within their city plan. Then a representative area of 500 metres square was redrawn at the scale of 1:500. Accompanying these drawings was a short explanatory text to historically situate the city plan.
The purpose of this project can be summarised in the following three ways. First, the act of redrawing the city plan is itself a form of architectural inquiry by means of architecture’s quintessential critical tool: the drawing. For this reason the drawings produced should not be viewed as illustrations of a canonical plan (although they are that as well), but as critical examinations into the ideas that underline each city plan and therefore produce knowledge about the particular plan.
Second, by discussing the principles of each city plan a conceptual vocabulary was developed to help describe the relation between room and city. Theoretical categories particular to each plan were debated – including “cell,” “event,” “bigness,” “limit,” to name a few – as well as categories common to all plans, including “enclosure,” “context,” “type,” and “the other.”
Third, the city plans act as critical reference points to be manipulated and transformed, and which can be used to generate ideas and city forms for the studio projects that follow.
This project is developed with Lorens Holm in the Masters Unit entitled Rooms + Cities at the school of architecture in Dundee.