Philip Bess: What is a city for?

April 18, 2008 at 10:48 pm 2 comments

Now that I found my notes, I can make some hopefully intelligent comments about Philip Bess’s interesting, although two-hour long, lecture on Wednesday. And since it’s already late, I’ll make this an introduction to a series of short posts about his lecture and ideas.

But first, I must mention that it was too bad that his lecture tackled so much: Five distinct topics plus a prelude and postscript. Add that to the 20-minute delay thanks to a technical glitch, and it was no wonder many in the audience left before the panel discussion afterward.

Also, Bess’s PowerPoint slides were not as helpful as hoped because they consisted of so many small photos and so much small text. One photo or image per slide would have been easier to discern.

Bess spoke glowingly of Aristotle’s ideas of what makes a good city. And a main question Aristotle hoped to answer was: What is a city for? Bess summarized Aristotle’s answer as such:

The City exists to promote the good life — or the best life possible — for its citizens.

But what is the good life for human beings? Here’s an answer from the lecture:

The best life for human beings is the life of moral and intellectual excellence lived in community with others — arguably, in a city.

Bess said that one concept that makes a city look like a city is the use of background buildings and foreground buildings.

A city is made up of some prominent structures, such as courthouses, churches, statues and public institutions, that are shown their importance by their placement and their architecture. These are the foreground buildings, or the res publica. (See illustration at right.)

Other city buildings are more traditional block structures that can be very nice, but are not given the architectural prominence of the foreground buildings. These are the background buildings, or the res economica.

Together, these buildings form traditional city blocks, with the background buildings giving strong definition to the streets and squares.

Here is his definition of the formal order of cities:

A hierarchical network of blocks, through streets and squares, characterized by a reciprocal relationship between public spaces and more important and less important buildings.

Of course, most architecture schools would concentrate on teaching how to build foreground rather than background buildings, which makes Bess’s definition of a good city more controversial than it may seem.

There’s much more to add, but it will have to wait for the next post.

— Photo of the main piazza of Ravenna, Italy, by dolanh on Flickr

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Entry filed under: Architecture, Downtown, Jon Swerens, Urbanism. Tags: , , .

Story on Philip Bess lecture in The News-Sentinel Philip Bess: Good cities are like pizzas

2 Comments

  • 1. Barranda  |  April 22, 2008 at 1:55 pm

    Correct me if I’m wrong. I didn’t think the actual definition of a good city was controversial. It was my understanding that most architecture schools just simply emphasize the foreground buildings because that is where they can build something that is more prominent and aesthetically pleasing. Whereas ND also puts an emphasis on background buildings in order to create the formal order of the city. In other words other schools recognize the concept, they just let ND folks build the boring background buildings. Am I incorrect?

  • 2. Pietro Pagliardini  |  May 12, 2008 at 8:48 am

    I think that the definiton of a good city is VERY controversial, beacause the actual urban is dominated from he modernist vision, that excludes the city-definition how “A hierarchical network of blocks, through streets and squares, characterized by a reciprocal relationship between public spaces and more important and less important buildings”.
    Rem Koolhas, a guru of contemporary architecture, an archistar, speaks about the city how Yunkspace that is the opposite of historic european city, and all the archistars think equal than him.


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