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Ideal city: layout: regular divisions of the plain

October 16, 2013

[After a long delay, this is the third entry in the ideal cities series. As I said in the first post, entries vary greatly in length. This one is short, with many pictures.]

Many of M.C. Escher’s most well-known compositions are from a series of prints titled “The Regular Division of the Plane.” The following isn’t; it’s a wooden inlay found in Leiden’s City Hall.

A wooden inlay map of Leiden, in city hall, created by M.C. Escher.

M.C. Escher – Map of Leiden (wooden inlay)

Escher has this to say about his work: “I try in my prints to testify that we live in a beautiful and orderly world, not in a chaos without norms, even though that is how it sometimes appears.” In a way, that’s what a city does too. A city, like a print, is an artifact, an imposition of order on a chaotic wilderness, an attempt at sorting out the world into regular divisions.

But in another sense, the city itself is the aberration, something that makes a regular division impossible. It creates a space with its own, internal order, one qualitatively different from that outside. Look at Escher’s map of Leiden; the birds surrounding the city are much more orderly than the apparently random arrangement of the city’s streets.


Map of medieval London

This is how most cities have looked most of the time. Consider this medieval map of London. It looks like it grew “organically” (whatever that means), streets taking shape wherever people happened to walk on their way from point A to point B. It looks cozy.

Contrast it with Chicago (where I now live). Chicago’s a city of the 19th century. It began organically to a certain extent, but quite early on–even before the 1871 Great Chicago Fire–a street grid was imposed on the city, and has been there ever since. 1/8th of a mile between E-W streets, 1/16th between N-S ones. See for yourself:

Map of Chicago

Map of Chicago

In many ways I prefer the Chicago style layout. It’s easier to navigate, and much more walkable, than cities with just a few major straight lines and then a bunch of unpredictable side streets. London-style winding streets are great for small medieval towns, but I don’t want to live in a small medieval town. I want to live in a world with railroads and telephone lines, and in that kind of world, straight lines are more “organic”; curving streets happen nowadays only for (bad) aesthetic reasons. So if my city’s going to be in the Midwest, I want it to be a regular division of the Great Plains.

But Chicago being a small prairie within a larger prairie causes problems at the border between them. Chicago’s own logic dictates that it has to go on forever in all directions, but realistically, it can’t. The buffer of suburbs between it and the plains is, I must admit, not particularly attractive. Perhaps a city of hills? A hill can give a city a focal point, a place where the long lines of the streets can safely converge. Athens has a rather pleasing layout; I particularly like how everything gets somewhat twisted as they wind up the hill towards the Acropolis.

Map of Athens

Another city I’ve always liked is Stockholm. Called the Venice of the North, it’s better than Venice, being built on islands rather than a swamp. The Old City, on that central island, follows a more medieval plan; the rest, being much more recently build, has a much more rational appearance, but still radiates out from the island, rather than just following an endlessly repeatable orthogonal grid.

Map of Stockholm

Hills, or water? Both have something to offer. A good combination can be found in Berkeley, California. Regular divisions near the water, trailing off into winding mountain paths as you get further inland. Quite walkable, too (though it could stand to be a bit more dense–more four story buildings, less two).

Map of Berkeley

Too bad it’s in California. My ideal city certainly isn’t.

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