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City in Negotiations: an intro on ancient spatial language in modern order

Some Philosophical Underpinnings in City and Teleological Question

Architectural culture and its biological analogy to spatial logic of cities originated from the nineteenth century biology. Particularly the morphological observation of plant and animal structures constitutes the Excluded Middle[i] of ‘new science’ dichotomised from religion to confront teleological question. Gnosis within humans’ empirical encounters of natural history, focusing on nature and order are analogous to city’s developmental design and history of progression. Karl Kropf categorises difference between the developmental (‘ontogenetic’) and transformational (‘phylogenetic’) concepts of metaphysical change borrowed from modern biology[ii]. Implicit to the philosophical nature of cities’ change and context within cultural environment that he affirms to: “…however long [city’s] history, does not evolve, it develops…” (Kropf, 2001: 32-3, 36; emphasis added). Philip Steadman in The Evolution of Designs (2008) also traces the origin of biological ideas in design theory of modern architectural movement that led to modern scientific methods, such as spatial taxonomy and process typology. His critiques on direct biological analogy, though relate to western design theory, has pointed out a functional fallacy rooted in Darwinian misinterpretation on the teleology and developmental progression of cities.

The crux of theoretical debate is in the logical difference between human ‘cultural evolution’ and organic evolution argued for better understands humanity through metaphysical artefacts, such as city’s origin and configurational morphology. City’s teleological question in urban development or ‘urban evolution’ may be discerned that that mistaken proposition on the adaptation and progression of human cultures effecting on ‘unseen’ spatial structure of cities, described as mere ‘evolution’, is mechanically directly analogous to the evolution of organism in modern urbanism.


[i] Hiebert, P. G. (1982) The Flaw of the Excluded Middle in Missiology: An International Review, Vol.X, No.1, January, 1982. Pp.35-47

[ii] Kropf, K.S.(2001) Conceptions of change in the built environment. Urban Morphology,Vol.5(1) Pp.29-42


A Fallacy Equating Urban-Cultural ‘Evolution’ to Organic Evolution

‘Urban evolution’ as a key metaphor gained from study natural history and its interactive forces, biologically analogues to city’s development and transformation were observed by city morphology thinkers (Norberg-Schulz, 1976; Aldo Rossi, 1982; Hillier, 1996; Cataldi, 1998; Malfroy, 1998; Albert Levy, 1999; Karl Kropf, 2001; Oswald & Baccini, 2005). Theoretically, city configuration is seen as an evolutionary product of heredity. That is, ‘cultural evolution’ in the human hereditary material consists of mental concepts or information in records, books, artefacts, [and in spatial configuration of built environment], and passes through [instructive] channels such as [governmental] education, [oral tradition] and experience of individual life and [socialization] (Durham, 1990 emphasis added).

Arguably, the concept of progressive ‘cultural evolution’ critically looks at built environmental development that ‘are not objectively determined first but created by cultural heredity values and human purposes’ (Steadman, 2008: 188). Such that, human survivals in the instance of establishing a fortified city for protection of and against invading cultures and economic interests can be noted from Chicago’s interweaved grids and spatial structure.


Illustration 1  Chicago Grid, embeds natural and metaphysical space logic and restructuring order following from the river and portages initially divided the city into north, south and west quarters.    

Graphic courtesy of Teh Wei Kian 

However, the ‘unseen’ cultural and socialisation effects on the physical expansion of the city is a key to decode ‘cultural evolution’ in city restructuring. Reflecting on Sahlins’ ‘logic of culture’ (1985) that ancient oral narratives of the Potawatomis indigenous people, especially from the ‘Metis’ (hybrid of Potawatomis and French descents) passed on intangible beliefs on landscape story[i] and geography of the Chicago Portages (south-westwards ancient passages that lead to meet their divine Great River, connecting to present day St Louis Mississippi River of the mid-west United States of America) to the colonists since the 1600s, had conceived the physical development of Chicago as a regional city centre. Relevance may be drawn to re-evaluate how modernist city planning has or has not fallen into two types of evolutionary fallacy.  

[i] Available texts and material evidences to-date, suggested the existence for the urban prehistory of North America and the so-called “pre-Columbian” urban form reconstructed and centred to Mississipian prehistoric civilisation prospered during A.D. 900~1300. Its cultural sphere in modern day geography stretched from States of Georgia to Oklahoma to Wisconsin and includes East St. Louis, Illinois. The rediscovered Cahokia Mounds of a Mississipian civilisation suggested from configurational traits of urbanised and complex trade networks may prompt future research of extended influences to the Potawatomis in Chicago area. Particularly the ancient Chicago Portages to the Potawatomis functioned as both a form of culturally inherited ‘connector’ to the Mississipian civilisation and also as an economic physical network linked to the wider regions centred in Chicago River mouth precinct.  Extended readings: Kolson, K. (2001) Big plans: the allure and folly of urban design. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press. Pp.29-48; The Chicago Portage – Historical Synopsis, “The Waterway West” by Wm. E. Rose and Associates, Inc., Hindale Illinois. http://www.chicagoportage.org/synopsis.htm [access October 2010]; Chicago and the Potawatomis: http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/1001.html [access September 2010]; Straus, T. (1990) Indians of the Chicago Area. (2nd ed.); Clifton, James A. (1977) The Prairie People: Continuity and Change in Potawatomi Indian Culture, 1665–1965; Edmunds, R. David (1978) The Potawatomis: Keepers of the Fire.    


Illustration 2 

Graphic courtesy of Teh Wei Kian

(a) Chicago River

 (b) Ancient Portages


Having said this, it is to acknowledge any attempt to simplify the complexity of city planning and design is to be avoided, and as much as any inductive fallacy itself is to be precautious. The examples given in this essay, and within its scope, are to signify how modernist prioritises in defining functional aspects of city, ignoring culturally acquired characters that are heritable and cumulative before the derivation of city configuration. Case studied of Manhattan and Chicago is to analyse how modern planning of the City Beautiful Movement in the turn of the twentieth century, use spatial language of ‘Order, Dignity and Harmony’ is still influential to city design norm in prioritising physical (tangible) functions over inherited cultural meanings today.


Second type of logical fallacy deals with technicality of evolution analogy that undervalues conscious and deliberate contribution in human creation of urban configuration. That is, within organic evolutionary framework, the production of city designs in urban plans is achieved through ‘selection’, working on variations which are generated randomly. Thus, logically implied reducing the role of planners and associates to ‘copy’ from other cities’ planning and designs, detecting shortcomings by chance and making accidental changes to assist at the natural creation of city configuration (Steadman, 2008). Following this line of logic, the fallacy is in the absence of conscious cultural anticipation by human negotiations. Such that, ideas conceived through generational socialisation to produce a common “survival” language – the symbolic and functional city geometry co-exist with ancient urbanism in the creation of modern cities are ignored. This evolutionary fallacy illustrated in case studied in Taipei, is relevant to re-evaluate City Beautiful planning principles applied, and denote surviving urban-cultural signifiers in contested conjuncture sites, still carrying heritable acquired characters expressed for symbolic city configuration since antiquity.

Negotiations in City Grids: Manhattan Re-ordered

Human negotiates within and without the city for space and use of land for values. Multitudes in values of land that has been used, subduing, and to be assigned are comparable to rational complexity that negotiate cities and their grid formations. While grid geometry has been universally referred by ancient and modern cities in rationalising land use and space network, the incremental development rhythm of surviving ancient urbanism off-beat by rapid industrialisation based on another type of rationality in machine-economic efficiency. New sets of grid network superimposed to the old, creating a hybrid of grids that may have transformed the logic of city space and sense of religiosity during machine-age progress. Yet, underneath grid logic of modern cities, some regards ‘pseudo science’ whenever urbanism discourse is related to the structure of human-cosmic transcendence. Such that, human rationality of modern city living no longer depended on a combination of natural and metaphysical shape and forces that signify sense of space - landscape referents or landmarks, and sense of being in time – flux of schedule and spontaneity according to cosmic principles for ‘truthfulness’ and human creativity. Thus, ingenuity in legible city structure invented combining seen and unseen grid order is replaced by efficient web of spatial movement. Such as hard-surfaced paths, service lanes, marginalised streets, extended vehicular roads, mass transit and centralised

railways that link to squares, monuments, parks, institutions, and entertainment-commerce mixed residential blocks. This machine efficient grid network that ‘cut’ across topography and sacred landscape has superseded religiosity of ancient grids function to signify nature-human-cosmic relationships which tell a story of humans constantly negotiating with the immeasurable.




Illustration 3  Lower Manhattan Grid Conjuncture (left) and the Central Park Centrality (right). Lower Manhattan central ridge grid binds all streets to the historic core (in brown) and reinforced by Central Park geometric centre of monumental scale open space (in red dot). Graphic courtesy of Leong Soon Yuan (lower Manhattan) and Edison Pwee and Larissa Tan (Central park).

The ‘city efficient and beautiful’ in North American grid experience, perhaps succeeded even more than their model-after European grids in creating a new spatial religiosity out of the old grids in the turn of the twentieth century. Superimposition of grids to support spatial order of human politics are driven by economic rationality than spatio-cultural effects in humbling of self before the given nature and built.  

New York City, particularly lower to mid-town Manhattan and the Central Park as one spatial entity rises to be the North American polis (Hansen, 2006)[i] beginning in the mid 1800s and continues to be a model for highly urbanised modernist city to-date.

[i] Hansen, M. H. (2006) Polis: an introduction to the ancient Greek city-state. Oxford: Oxford University Press




Illustration 4  New York City Manhattan Grid.  Left: Google earth image accessed Oct 2009.

Right: Graphic courtesy of (a) Leong Soon Yuan (b) Ho Wai Kit (c) Edison Pwee & Larissa Tan



The City Beautiful Movement reinforces top-down city planning to rectify decay and demoralisation of communities seen from institutional order and space renewal. Monumental structures in institutions and landmark skyscrapers are amongst other key components in restructuring contemporaneous city in order to sustain agglomerated geopolitical economy.

Decoding this in Manhattan configuration, entails the grid reformations for machine efficiency done in measures that connect institutions with open space at strategic meeting points, whereby “pilgrimage” proceeds in spatial order of planned street promenade, subway nodes and green space network. Out of disordered urban decay, city re-orders grid movements and hierarchy, and significantly ‘order’ nodal institutions in museums, monuments and worship places. The ‘dignity’ of old signifying grids in inner city is revived in geometric ‘harmony’ of the expanding polis - a modernist cultural city and economic central state of the “beautiful new world”.


Illustration 5  Lower Manhattan Grid Structure & Configuration.

Left: Open space network reinforcing the central north-south running spine Right: Subway nodes

Graphic courtesy of Leong Soon Yuan

  Central Park and Midtown Manhattan open space and monumental institution network.
  Chicago Historic Structure of Conjuncture and Grid Signifiers

Illustration 6

Graphic courtesy of (a) & (b) Ho Wai Kit (c) & (d) Edison Pwee and Larissa Tan

Negotiations in City Grids: Chicago Re-ordered

Chicago City as noted earlier has influenced by human cultural consciousness that reinvents the “disordered” human and nature spatial relationship into an ordered, symmetrically realigned modern grid. The question(s) that we ask further in relation to the unseen structure of the city are: “Where the point of ‘cultural conjuncture’[i] located in actual space? And what ancient spatial attributes may constitute Chicago’s inherited cultural conception for the origin of grid formation?”

The ancient Portages perhaps may signify as a crucial linkage between the ancient oral narratives of the Potawatomis and the American Federalist fortified settlement history along the Chicago River mouth. The portages were strategic and have been economically and spatially contested by multiple colonial powers since the 1600s. The French traders and the Potawatomis’ hybrid descendants – the Metis whose roles were critical in the internal socialisation and transfer of intangible ancient narratives materialised into the tangible ‘historic structure of the spatial conjuncture’ (after Valeri, 1982 and Sahlins, 1985). That is, certain landscape features are denoted through time and space as urban-cultural signifiers that intersected through grids overlaid to form a meaningful geometrical direction. The extension of the intersected and signifying grids also function as pointers in city space, and the axiality denoted from the grids thus point back in time of an ancient original space of human landscape story. The spatial process of locating physically reconfigured cultural landscape is defined by identifying the ‘historic structure of the spatial conjuncture’.

In the case of physically associate with indigenous narratives, whereby the centrality of the Chicago River mouth precinct is linked with the ‘other’ narratives in Portages, Lake Michigan, Continental Divide and the Great River (Mississippi River) as interweaved network of spatial entity.

Abiding to the scope of this essay, I would only take an example looking at some spatial signifiers in a contested conjuncture site between the American Federalist and the Potawatomis to illustrate how human attempted to re-order the historic structure of conjuncture. That is, of the river mouth precinct to where Fort Dearborn was originally constructed in c.1803 and moved to the south bank of the river mouth in c.1808 and later burned down in the 1812 during a war between the Federalist and the Potawatomis.

[i] Valeri, V. (1982) The Transformation of a transformation: A structural essay on an aspect of Hawaiian history (1809-1819) in Social Analysis, Vol.10; Sahlins, M. D. (1985) Islands of History. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press


Identify the Historic Structure of the Spatial Conjuncture

Chicago’s machine efficient grid era arrived when signaled by the city’s first plated land sale in order to finance the Illinois and Michigan Canal project. The Plat was drawn in 1830 by surveyor James Thompson, spatially signified the significance of the Fort and its historic centrality in city’s early configuration. The first platted township was only to be physically determined from the embedded history of reclaimed modern landscape with little urban referents to signify its by-gone importance.

Reading the city from an interconnection between events and human agents (surveyors, cartographers, landscape architects and planners, commerce club elitists and city officers) asserting conscious efforts in physically restructured Chicago River and Portages area, signified a spatial language of shifting grid centrality communicated in planning designation for the centre of re-ordered Chicago city. 


Illustration 7  Spatial Centrality and Juxtaposition of Old and New Grids. Showing

Chicago River, Portages, Fort Dearborn (c.1803 in brown, c.1808 in black), old light house (in purple) and old town square (in red) (present day City Hall). Progression of 1830 & 1834 plat boundaries denote fortified town square grid with space logic of centrality embedded by built structures and rapid grid extension. Base plan courtesy of Teh Wei Kian, annotated by author.

[i] Valeri, V. (1982) The Transformation of a transformation: A structural essay on an aspect of Hawaiian history (1809-1819) in Social Analysis, Vol.10; Sahlins, M. D. (1985) Islands of History. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press

The edge of the 1830 plat, where river mouth point and original lakeshore line intersected, signified by the embedded old light house and the original location of Fort Dearborn spatially aligned in diagonal axis to meet the old town square precinct (c.1833) with 6 miles square grid town design gazetted in the 1785 Land Ordinance. Extending this ‘historic conjuncture axis’ south-westwards that follows the trail of ancient portages and the direction of engineering diverted Chicago river flow in c.1889, it meets at the junction between Kennedy-Dan Ryan Expressway (north-south running) and the Congress Parkway Loop (junction between north-south and east-west highway system) at the present day, which was the site planned for Chicago’s Civic Centre in Daniel Hudson Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago     


Illustration 8



Spatial signifier deciphered a historic axis (in orange) as the ‘unseen’ spatial structure of conjuncture leading diagonally south-westwards. It follows ancient portages to meet the modern central axis of highway loop (in red) planned as the Civic Centre in 1909. The logic of city grid expansion followed the City Beautiful planning principles and Park and Boulevard Creation movement shifted the old centrality of town square, replace with park space network (in white block) and roads (boulevard in red and avenues in pink). Graphic courtesy of Teh Wei Kian, ‘historic conjuncture axis’ by author.

Prior to Burnham’s Plan of Chicago which was acclaimed for its City Beautiful planning principles applied, the city has adopted the motto in Latin - Urbs in Hort which means “City in a Garden” in 1837. The concept of ‘city in a garden’ was later materialised with political commitment in 1869 when State of Illinois passed three pieces of legislation creating the South, West and North Districts following the geographic characteristic of the Chicago River. The spatial significance of these regulations established the use of parks and boulevards as organising elements to restructure old city grids and stay connected to a re-ordered network in ring movement of city. Each District was given the power to regulate all land use within 100 m of the boulevards and to establish building setbacks at 15 m. Each district controls its own designs of all buildings to be constructed facing the boulevards.


A combination of events and key agents such as Frederick Law Olmsted who designed New York City Central Park was commissioned in 1870 to design park and boulevard system in the southern part of Chicago city. Substantial efforts in re-ordering the city’s form through catalytic event such as the World Exposition were made. The south park precinct of Chicago (present day Jackson Park precinct) was later to be designated for hosting 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, whereby amongst others, Olmsted served as chief architect and Burnham was the chief planner. Their influences on the spatial re-ordering of the city applied City Beautiful principles, has been argued that Chicago city is not a biologically evolved organism but fully conceived and planned in human consciousness all at once, imposed architectural languages of Italian Renaissance (Kolson, 2001) and drawing antecedents from Athens, Rome, Paris and Pierre-Charles L’Enfant’s Washington D.C.[i]

Other events, such as the post-Expo expansion of the city in 1896, where the historic precinct of Chicago was re-defined by the Grant Park Reclamation extended parks eastwards connecting Lake Michigan. Major boulevards were re-ordered following an east-west running central axis in datum that regulates other public open and green space network. Burnham’s 1909 Plan further idealised this shift of historic spatial centrality influenced by Park and Boulevard Creation and City Beautiful principles, connecting new signifiers of Grant Park and Civic Centre as nodal referents. Multiple diagonal boulevards cut through a basic rectilinear grid, thus create focal points not only for public buildings but highly institutionalised park and open spaces.


Illustration 9  Park and Boulevard Loop Realigned with Burnham’s 1909 Central Axis

Chicago city configuration continued to use parks and boulevards as key spatial organising principles. The loop system was re-ordered of its centrality positioned by referencing to the central axis appeared in 1909 Plan of Chicago. Grant Park (right most green space) and planned Civic Centre were new urban signifiers following a spatial datum. Graphic courtesy of Teh Wei Kian and Novita Johana.


[i] Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago, amongst others, inspired by Pierre L’Enfant’s 1791 Plan of Washington D.C. http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/300002.html [access September 2010]; For extended reading on controversies between Thomas Jefferson and Pierre L'Enfant over the geometric street layout and public focal points of Washington D.C. as a radial city, influenced by André LeNotre’s design of Versailles and Christoph