Philip Bess: What is a city for?
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.
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