4.241J | Spring 2013 | Graduate

Theory of City Form

Lecture Notes

Lec 3: Normative Theory II: The City as Machine

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Lecture Summary

The concept of the city as analogous to a machine has a lengthy history. This model emerges often when there is no long-term goal in mind but the settlement must be created hurriedly, with its future growth determined by unforeseen forces. Its form requires a few simple rules in order to continue with urbanization, and the outcome is factual, functional, and without any attachment to the mystery of the universe. Among its attributes are convenience, speed, flexibility, legibility, equality, and speculation.

The set of cases of the machine model extend from the third century BC to contemporary times. The workers’ dwellings built rapidly and close to Egyptian mortuary sites are gridded in a per strigas form, “monotonously alike…, the very pattern of mechanically devised industrial dwelling.” Unlike the form of their capital city, the Greek colonial trading cities from fifth to third centuries BC are formed by equalized, rectangular blocks to allow a democracy of lots to its settlers and, according to Mumford, to provide the legibility necessary in a new climate of commercial trade. Despite Rykwert’s assertions of the role of metaphysics in Roman city building, rules of castramentation (the cardo and decumanus alignments and equal lots) and centuriation (the fusing of urban and rural land geometries) dominate the creation of the 5,267 settlements built by the Romans. The thirteenth-century colonial expansion of the 177 Bastide towns in southwest France follows an orthogonal order of a pair of double axes marking a center and surrounding equal-sized chequers. Perhaps the most complete and widely imposed practical handbook of city building instructions come from the colonization of the Americas by Spain according to the Laws of the Indies proclaimed in 1573. These laws govern site selection, street and block layout, orientation, central plaza, public buildings, walls, common lands, the distribution of lots, and even the style of buildings. The American land expansion, both religious and commercial, to the west is examined in the light of “grids of expediency,” as is the nineteenth-century expansion of the Manhattan grid as a system that “is the most cheap to build and the most convenient to live in.” The assertions of Mumford and Sennett of the capitalist/grid relationship are challenged in this discussion. Finally, many of modern machine appropriations in city form, such as linearity, are explored as are many of the metaphorical attempts to link the form of cities, Archigram, for instance, to those of machines.


Handout for Lecture 3 (PDF - 1.4MB)

  • Page 1: Five sites of the machine model on a westward trajectory from the third century BC to today
  • Page 2: Excerpt from “Southwest Washington in Plans”

Referenced Texts

Frontado, G. “La Leyes de Indias: Observations of its Influence on the Structure of Physical Space in the Latin American Cities.” MIT Thesis, January 1980, pp. 14–59.

Examples, Precedents, and Works

Bastid towns (France); Verbonia (fictitious city in Rome); Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia); Tell el-Amarna and Kahun (ancient Egypt); New Jerusalem (Israel); Miletus and Priene (ancient Greece); Rome’s road system, Via Appia, Imola, Timgad, Verona, Meridian of Tordecillas (Italy); cities from Gromatici veteres; Caracas (Venezuela); development of Portuguese towns; Latin American colonies; plaza development in Latin American cities; land division from Ordinance of 1785; Salt Lake City (Utah, United States); Chicago (Illinois, United States); Manhattan and Central Park (New York, United States); Savannah (Georgia, United States); Madrid (Spain); The Ascoral plan; plan for Tokyo, Japan (Kenzo Tange); plan for Paris, France (Yona Friedman); Archigram drawings; dome over Manhattan (Buckminster Fuller); Soweto (Johannesburg, Africa)

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