4.175 | Fall 2005 | Graduate

Case Studies in City Form



The selection of readings on urban design is a presumptuous task. Any field dealing with cities is complex, and urban design might be considered especially so - beginning with the elusiveness of the term itself. Thus, any “selection” is open to accusations of narrowness, incompleteness, shallowness, and bias (God forbid!). All that being said, however, entry into the subject must be made. If intent is acknowledged, and belief in complete and absolute truth held in temporary abeyance, the task may be less difficult.

The principle aim of this selection of readings is to introduce urban design. Other aims are to introduce a discussion of urban design theory, especially that of the twentieth century, and urban design history, which is to say politics, sociology, and culture.

The articulation of these three terms - design, theory, and history - is a distinctly modern (post-Kantian) phenomenon. The Ancient Greeks, for example, steeped as they were in the concreteness of Homeric example, would not have understood such a distinction. In our own time, Leon Krier has observed that you only need a theory if you don’t know how to do something. But today there is little consensus about architecture and urbanism, and theory is a necessity. Thus, the articulation must be acknowledged and used as a fact of modern life.

At its purest, design is talent-a sensibility-that can to some degree be enhanced by training and practice. It is the manipulation of form and space. It is also about something, however, and throughout most of history, design was accomplished within a set of conventions. These conventions formed the theory base that guided design decisions. (Not everything had to be reinvented every Monday morning.) Indeed, it could be argued that theory grew out of design practice, and that design practice grew out of societal circumstance. Because design was embedded in the circumstance of culture and politics it was part of the continuity of history. Within this framework better designers made better designs (e.g. Michelangelo vs. Bandini). On occasion, great inventions transcended the conventional, or revolutionary ruptures precipitated an abrupt change in either form or society, but the norm was a condition of evolution, or continuity. Much has been written about the fact that this all changed in the twentieth century: theory often precedes - and sometimes replaces-practice; major architectural designers are often trivial or disastrous urbanists; and the design professions have a generally uncertain relationship with the society of which they are part.

There are three distinct periods of urbanism in the twentieth century: 1) the continuation of the traditional city, from 1900 until at least 1925, if not the second world war; 2) the city of modern architecture, from 1925 (or 1945) until 1975; and, 3) the rediscovery of urbanism, from 1975 until the present. Each of these periods have been accompanied by writings that might fall into the three general categories: design (how to do it); theory (what to do); and history (why do it). There is an attempt to acknowledge both of these ordering systems in the selection and arrangement of the readings.

The Introduction consists of three essays, one of each type. It is a matter of opinion of course, but these are the three essays I would choose if there could be no others. Urban Design Tactics, by Steven Peterson, is a cogent reduction and presentation of very complex issues of urban form and design. Almost everything needed for urban design is economically presented in this essay. Twentieth-Century Concepts of Urban Space, by Alan Colquhoun, is at once a clear and resonant exploration of the predominant physical and theoretical urban positions in the twentieth century. There are threads leading to a rich variety of material. Some paragraphs into Sixteenth-Century Italian Squares, by Wolfgang Lotz, one becomes aware that this is a truly remarkable essay encompassing form, history, culture, and politics. The language is deceptively simple; the ideas and information are elaborate.

Twentieth-Century Urban Design Theory contains readings about the three periods of urbanism, and is followed by readings about urban form and cultural history.

Due to changes in the course, this reader has been greatly reduced. It will be augmented by other readings.



1. Peterson, Steven. “Urban Design Tactics. Roma Interrota.” Architectural Design Profile 49, no. 3-4 (1979).

Buy at MIT Press 2. Colquhoun, Alan. “Twentieth-Century Concepts of Urban Space.” In Modernity and the Classical Tradition: Architectural Essays, 1980-1987. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989, pp. 231. ISBN: 0262031388.

Buy at MIT Press 3. Lotz, Wolfgang. “Sixteenth Century Italian Squares.” In Studies in Italian Renaissance Architecture. Edited by J. S. Ackerman, W. Chandler Kirwin, and H. A. Millon. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1977, pp. 74-116. ISBN: 0262120739.

The Traditional City

4. Hegemann, Werner, and Elbert Peets. “The Modern Revival of Civic Art.” In The American Vitruvius: An Architects’ Handbook of Civic Art. Edited by Alan J. Plattus. New York: The Architectural Book Publishing Company; Princeton, NJ: Princeton Architectural Press, 1988. ISBN: 0910413355.

The City of Modern Architecture

5. Corbusier. “Une Ville Contemporaine.” In Complete Works in Eight Volumes. New York, NY: Birkhauser, 1994. ISBN: 3764355158.

The Rediscovery of Urban Design

6. Krier, Leon. “Urban Components.” Architectural Design 54 (July/August 1984): 43-49.

7. Schumacher, Thomas. “Contextualism: Urban Ideals + Deformations.” In Theorizing a New Agenda for Architecture: An Anthology of Architectural Theory, 1965-1995. Edited by Kate Nesbitt. New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996, pp. 294-307. ISBN: 156898054X.

8. Koolhaas, Rem. “Toward the Contemporary City.” In Theorizing a New Agenda for Architecture: An Anthology of Architectural Theory, 1965-1995. Edited by Kate Nesbitt. New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996, pp. 326-330. ISBN: 156898054X.

Urban Form and Culture

Buy at MIT Press 9. Schorske, Carl E. “The idea of the city in European thought: Voltaire to Spengler.” In The Historian and the City. Edited by Handlin and Burchard. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1963. ISBN: 0262580063.

10. ———. “Museum in contested space: the sword, the scepter and the Ring.” In Thinking With History: Explorations in the Passage to Modernism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998, pp. 105-125. ISBN: 0691059772.

11. Westfall, Carroll William. “Classical American Urbanism.” In New Classicism: Omnibus Volume. Edited by Andeas Papadakis and Harriet Watson. New York, NY: Rizzoli, 1990, pp. 73-75. ISBN: 0847812960.


WEEK # TOPICS Readings
Part 1. Introduction
1 Course Organization

City Tour

Part 2. Observation and Recording
2 Urban Elements

Buildings, Blocks, Streets, Spaces

Part 3. Research
3 Historic Urban Development (What it was)  
4 Origins

The 18th Century

The Early 19th Century

Read 1, 2, 3
5 The Late 19th Century

The Early 20th Century

The Late 20th Century

Read 4, 5, 6
Part 4. Analysis
6 Urban Elements, Precedents, Comparisons (What it is)  
7 Buildings Blocks  
8 Streets

Squares and Parks

Read 7, 8
9 Quarters

Urban Fabric

Read 9
10 Urban Fabric  
11 Urban Fabric Civic Structure Read 10
Part 5. Urban Design
12 Theory

Issues and Goals, Principles - Project Identification

Read 11
13 Design Projects  
Part 6. Documentation
14 Report

Urban Handbook

15 Presentation