Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Ideal City

A staggeringly boring 'Ideal' cityscape by Fra Carnevale

The idea that an ‘ideal city’ is even possible is a tantalizing dream born of a desire to escape our current situation, wipe the slate clean and start afresh. It’s part of the reason colonizers get so glassy-eyed when it comes to setting up shop in a newly colonized space; the attempt to transcribe the perfect world that exists in our imagination into real bricks and mortar has excited both creativity and hubris for ages, from cave-painters to conquistadores. The downside - that you can’t just run away from human nature - hasn’t failed to excite its own brand of dystopian creativity too, where writers and artists have pointed out just what a disaster these utopian delusions invariably turn out to be. 

Vitruvius, Plan of an Ideal City

From hippy communes to Brasilia, the attempt to corral people into synchronous alignment is like trying to stop a spinning drill bit with your lips: You’re welcome to give it a shot, but it’ll end in tears. At the end of the day, we monkeys don’t like to share our banana. The synonymy between “idea” and “ideal” means that, by definition, a thought must stay in our heads if it’s to remain perfect, because as soon as it turns into action it is reduced and corrupted by the physical world. 

Renaissance ideal cities inspired by Vitruvius (15th-16th c.) 1. Filarete, 2. Fra Giocondo, 3. Girolamo Maggi, 4. Giorgio Vasari, 5. Antonio Lupicini, 6. Daniele Barbaro, 7.  Pietro Cattaneo, 8/9 di Giorgio Martini. [source]

Werner Herzog’s documentary, “Encounters at the End of the World,” has its share of misfits and oddballs all drawn like lemmings to the polar research station at McMurdo Sound in Antarctica, in some ill-conceived attempt to “get away,” only to end up living in closer proximity with other oddballs than they ever would have if they’d just stayed back home. What sustains and enables them to stay cooped up inside for months on end is simply the idea of all that space around them, far away from the big bad world, demonstrating the power of a good concept to overwrite empirical reality. 

From Hugh Ferris’s “The Metropolis of Tomorrow” (1929)

Plato would argue that Ideal Forms are not just in our heads, that they have a very real existence outside of space and time, and that they are the models from which our world is built. They prevent us from sinking into depravity and weekend marathons of Duck Dynasty by reminding us that we are better than that; that as we careen through life we should be more honest, more courageous, more compassionate. 


  1. Nice post Al!

    I like your argument and think it applies to just about any ideal, doesn't have to be a city.

    Your post as always is amusing and thoughtful. It got me thinking about things like the relativity of our supposed individuality, the sources of our natural creativity, etc, and then I stumbled upon this little gem: "The Hidden Geometry of Flowers" by the remarkable Keith Critchlow. Check it out. It's treasury. Good soul food.

  2. ". . . as we careen through life we should be more honest, more courageous, more compassionate."

    I'll go with that


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