Boston – “… There seems to be a public image of any given city, which is the overlap of many individual images. Or perhaps there is a series of public images, each held by some significant number of citizens…
… What does the city’s form actually mean to people who live there?!”
(Kevin Lynch – The Image of City)
Everything we see everyday in our lives is concerned with geometry itself. We keep on drinking in cylindrical shapes, eating in circles or writing on a rectangular surface. We can apply this method to cities, as well.
Therefore, each city has its own shape, a specific geometry.
Since I arrived in the USA, I started focusing on the different shapes that characterize cities such as Boston, Cambridge, Forlì (my home-city), Milano, Venezia or Firenze. Let’s concentrate, for instance, simply on geometry. We will take into consideration the idea of square and line.
A square is a polygon with four equal sides and angles, where a line is a shape that is indivisible along a particular direction, a link. We can reduce cities to this basic geometry: they are made (up) of points, or nodes, and lines. Squares can generally be considered as points and streets as lines. A town square is (usually) an open public space, mainly characterized by a concentration of shops and public facilities. That is why it is commonly located in the heart of cities for community gatherings, and it is characterized by a rectangular shape.
The idea of a square goes back to the past till the ancient Greece. At that time the Agorà (that was the term to indicate a square) was the real hub of Greek cities. Most of all, that was the place where all the citizens used to meet each other. The Agorà was the focal point for political or business purposes. That’s the reason why it was also considered the symbol of democracy. This symbol (rectangular shape) was handed down to the ancient Romans, who adopted it and made it become the heart of cities, as well as their real geometric center. In those ages, that shape took the name of Forum. Most of the ancient Roman Fori evolved thoughout the ages, becoming the current “piazze.” So, for instance, when you walk through Piazza Duomo, Milano, you are walking on a path which was built up in 223 b.C. If we look at Italian cities from above, we always recognize a large, “empty” space, usually located in the downtown (the economic center). Massive public buildings (such as city halls, cathedrals, post offices, tribunals, etc.) face it, characterized by an average height, defining its shape. Italian squares are usually spaces a wanderer can enter. Thanks to this rectangular shape, a citizen or traveler walking through it, can feel like living or acting on the “stage” of a city. It may seem to him/her as a kind of comfortable place to stop; and meeting new people seems easier.
It doesn’t matter what Italian square you choose, because they all can give you a sort of “cozy” feeling. This is true for my home-city, as well.
Forlì, for instance, was founded in 188 b.C. by ancient Romans, so we are going to celebrate its 2,200th “birthday.” Today the population is around 117,500 inhabitants. It is located it the North East of the country, 30 km (far) from the Adriatic sea. Piazza Saffi, which is the main square, was the first thing built up by Romans. Its function, which at that time was a gathering, civic center, has always been the same for 2,000 years. Looking at the square we can notice several buildings facing it:
- The city hall (Comune)
- The Cathedral (san Mercuriale)
- The main Post Office
- The Business Center
- Aurelio Saffi (Monumento)
If Italian cities rose around a rectangular shape, many American cities grew from intersections of roads and paths.
All in all we can say that they have the same purposes but different shapes.
Let’s take into consideration, for instance, the case of Cambridge:
- Harvard Square
- Central Square
- Kendall Square
- Inman Square
None of them has a real beginning or end. They are all defined by lines, as they are intersections. These linear shapes are to be read as streets. It is true that we can define them using the term square only because they are characterized by a concentration of public or commercial facilities. Thanks to its geometry, a street itself is to be considered as a link, associated to bustle, movement, which has the opposite meaning to gathering.
Therefore the linear shape of most American squares seems to be mirror American society: a society made up of citizens who are always traveling, moving, surely much more active than Italians; characterized by shallower roots than Italians. Concluding, I would say that the rectangular shape belongs to Italian architecture whereas the line belongs much more to American architecture.
Photo by Francesca Gordini