Cyber Cities by M. Christine Boyer, The Urban Image of Augustan Rome by M. Diane Favro, Urban World/Global City by David Clark

Thomas Bender

More than thirty-five years ago, Kevin Lynch published The Urban Image (1960), in which he introduced the idea of the cognitive mapping of cities and outlined the basic elements of urban legibility, orientation, and memorability. He identified five elements that were central in mental images of the city: paths, edges, landmarks, nodes, and districts. Although these components of the urban image were obviously the product of a particular moment in the history of cities and urban thought, they suggest ways of understanding the elements of urban cognition of the past and of conceptualizing urban orientations in the future. In fact, two of these three very different books specifically refer to Lynch’s work, while the third, in exploring patterns of global urban development, reveals why the issue of urban perception and comprehension now challenges scholars and designers alike.

Together, the subjects of these books span two millennia, from the Rome of Augustus to contemporary urban developments to speculation about the rise of the cyber city. The intellectual and literary styles of the authors are distinct. Diane Favro’s well-illustrated book is monographic, deeply researched and carefully argued, but daring enough to include two fictional narratives of imagined walks through Rome, one in 52 BC, the other in 14 AD. David Clark’s short book is a gracefully written primer incorporating a generation of social science research on urbanization and urbanism. M. Christine Boyer’s collection of essays reveals what she characterizes as “associative thinking,” building upon “analogy, metaphorical associations, and circumlocutions” that allow her—in the prose of middlebrow journalism—to “dance with data, enjoying recursive reflexivity, strange loops, and nonlinear inconclusive structures” (p. 10). Unfortunately, she lacks the literary skill for such ambitious writing, and the result is more pretentious than serious.

Both Favro and Boyer address the question of urban images. Favro follows Lynch quite closely, allowing his formulations to structure her work. I wish she had used the distinctive qualities of Roman life to press Lynch’s categories and understandings more than she does; nonetheless, she uses them to shape her ambitious re-creation of the experience of living in late Republican and early Imperial Rome. In describing Rome she is arguing, indirectly, for the importance of clear and coherent images for our own cities, which she believes are missing. Boyer announces that electronic communication and the computer revolution together both demand and reveal anew imagery for the city; she suggests that the computer itself will supply such imagery. Lacking the imaginative power of a William Gibson, however, Boyer fails to project this vision effectively; thus her book fails to orient us to the cyber city of the present or the future. Cyber Cities contains little sustained argument or metaphorical power; rather, it is peppered with the ideas and words of others, from Walter Benjamin, who is footnoted dozens of times, to Barbara Stafford, whose observations on visual culture are consistently illuminating.

For all their differences, the books by Favro and Boyer share a common problem. Both emphasize a single trend in urban form and imagery without taking sufficient account of how that trend (whether imperial building in Rome or cybernetics) is embedded in a variety of existing contexts. In each case the trend exists in dialectical relationship to these contexts, and these prior and surrounding circumstances gain new meaning, even as they affect the meaning of the new. Contamination is unavoidable; the goal is to recognize and respond to it, and thus to add richness to urban design and the social experience of cities. Favro makes a couple of nods in this direction, but her effective focus is the construction of Rome in isolation from ordinary, existing physical forms and social experiences. Boyer’s intellectual position welcomes juxtapositions and fragments, and disdains the search for order. Yet her exploration of the “shards” of urbanism lacks any dynamic or animating idea; it is flatter than the critique of the city of order contained in her 1985 book, Dreaming the Rational City. Whatever the virtues of associative thinking, the absence of sustained theoretical reflection is damaging; by default, her book becomes little more than pastiche.

The Urban Image of Augustan Rome is, in some sense, mistitled. The book is not a full exploration of urban imagery, nor a comprehensive account of urban development or transformation. It concerns the aspirations and achievements of the architectural patrons of a patrician class, some of whose projects were large enough to be of urban consequence. Indeed, Favro discusses them as initiatives in urban design. The Rome she studies was built by patrons who sought to establish their civic worth, and Favro assumes that through their works such ambitious Romans engaged the city’s urbanity and created an urban image. She rather effectively presents the differing aspirations, urban interventions, and architectural styles of Republican patrons (especially Sulla), of Julius Caesar, and, of course, of Augustus, the first Emperor. She points out, with some disapproval, that Romans of the Republic did not associate urban greatness with architectural distinction; rather, they identified Roman distinction with “nontangible characteristics and associations” (p. 45). Favro acknowledges but underestimates the significance of Rome as an idea as well as a physical place, in both the Republican and Imperial eras. In fact, the great achievement of Rome—and one that distinguished Rome from Greece—was not simply the imperial expansion of its territory, but also the extension of the idea of the city and citizenship (and Roman law) beyond the bounds of a city-state, a point made by Lydia Storoni Mazzolani in her 1972 book, The Idea of the City in Roman Thought. I would add that the work of William L. MacDonald on the cities of the empire (see his 1982 book, The Architecture of the Roman Empire) makes the same point in reference to urban form and expectations. The Romans created an extensive urban world, a point to which we will return in speaking about globalism, urbanization, and cyber cities in our own time.

Late Republican patrons, including Caesar, sought to represent their own dignitus. Although Caesar claimed to be the re-founder of the entire city, his interventions were particularistic and limited in effect. In contrast, Augustus worked on a larger and less personal scale. He glorified the Empire by insisting upon its continuity with the Republic; he made no innovations in either building style or typology, despite the functional changes involved in the transformation of a city-state republic into an imperial center. He did, however, emphasize the wealth and power of the new Empire by building not with modest materials, such as brick, but with costly marble.

According to Favro, the building of the city was quite straightforward: the patron’s intentions were directly realized. Architects and craftsmen, legal and religious constraints, among other possible complicating factors, do not figure in her account. Nor does she discuss the commercial production of buildings, by which most Roman habitations were constructed. Her study focuses closely upon the realization of patrician architectural patronage (mostly that of princips and emperor) in a society based upon patron-client relations.

It seems to me that one could question whether this book, although fascinating, is about urban history at all; in a sense its real subject is dynastic ambition, and the ways in which such ambition inserts itself architecturally into the city without being of the city. One might regard such dynastic power as analogous to corporate interventions in the contemporary city—and in both cases, the result may be a kind of de-urbanization or even anti-urbanism. And this raises an intriguing question: does specifically urban development depend upon distinctively urban processes, usually understood to include, among other phenomena, multiple actors, politicized decision making, and market allocations of resources?

Like many architects and architectural historians, Favro identifies with the power to bring about urban order. Favro notes that the competitive atmosphere of the late Roman republic—where the essential competition focused not upon the market but upon the achievement of honor—produced incoherent urbanism, while the new political order of the early empire worked to make the city legible and coherent. She argues convincingly that Augustus used power wisely and with subtlety, using architecture to foster strong popular identification with the empire and its political values. In the process, however, she comes somewhat too close to standards of evaluation that might be called Haussmannian, or worse, Disneyesque.

For Favro, the ordinary buildings of the city beyond the grand projects of Emperor Augustus are mere “infill” that threaten to contaminate the urban gestures she so effectively describes. She does not explore the dialectic between new and old, between the sophisticated architecture that Augustus imported from the east and the surrounding vernacular and market-driven construction. Like many other urban historians, Favro treats the city more or less as a container. But in fact, as the presence of architectural imports suggests, cities are translocal in important ways, importing and exporting urban ideas, styles, and experiences.

I raise the issue of the mobility of urbanism and its relation to the vernacular—to what is relatively stable—because it is a central issue today. Some historians, like Boyer, argue that the new virtual world will displace our local experiential world. “Cyberspace,” she writes, “pulls the user into the receding space of the electronic matrix in total [my emphasis] withdrawal from the world.” Space, time, and architecture, Sigfried Giedion’s famous triptych, “have been condensed or eradicated by our instantaneous modes of telecommunications.” Even more extraordinarily, Boyer insists that “all [emphasis mine] our bodily senses seem to get transferred to, plugged into, or downloaded into machines, as our body parts become simple emitters and receivers of information stimuli in a sensorial feedback loop” (p. 11).

David Clark’s good sense sparkles in contrast. He acknowledges the persuasiveness of various theories that propose global urban uniformity and the dissolution of the particular sense of place. But he brings to bear a good deal of recent empirical research that makes the obvious but important point, supported by our daily experience: despite the unprecedented rise and proliferation of translocal or delocalized cultural phenomena, people still live in particular places and local cultures continue (again, not without contamination) to flourish. The point is not whether cyberspace or a placeless globalization will fundamentally characterize the future; rather, the theoretical and practical task before us is to examine with sensitivity the complex, continuing, and ever-changing relation between the local and the translocal, the vernacular and the cosmopolitan, the material and the immaterial. But note: Marx was right when he insisted that we are first of all material beings who require space and physical sustenance to live. Emerson was equally right when he explained that he had a dual consciousness: one aspect of his life occurred in a translocal world of ideas, beyond place and particular identity, while another aspect of his life, a material and local aspect, provided intimate sociability and physical pleasure and pain. These relations are not fixed, and one continually inflects the experience of the other.

It is worth putting our notion of the novelty of globalism into historical perspective. Clark, whose very literate book incorporates much data on patterns of global urbanization, is skeptical of extreme claims. “Global urbanism is a simple, superficially plausible, but highly questionable concept,” he writes. And he points out that the growth of global urbanism at the turn of the last century was significantly greater than it is today. In fact, any contemporary world traveler will find ample evidence, in cities all over the world, of that earlier globalization of capital, of diasporic movements of populations, and of the extension of commercial culture.

The case of Rome forces further reflection on the supposed novelty of our present circumstances. Consider these words of Polybius: “The Romans . . . have succeeded in subjecting nearly the whole inhabited world to their sole government—a thing unique in history.” Yes, it would be anachronistic and silly to claim he could be describing the contemporary world, but we need to understand the incredible mobility of peoples, ideas, arts, and money through history, a point powerfully made by the recent “The Art of Byzantium” exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Whether one’s interest is architecture, art, or social and political forms, it is important to avoid exaggerating either the image of the self-contained city or that of the disappearing or delocalized city.

Our contemporary urban imagery must capture the complex interplay of the translocal and cosmopolitan with the local and vernacular, of the mental with the material. We must understand, better than we do, the ways in which the very idea of the city can travel, as did the idea of Rome two millennia ago. A good place to start, one firmly grounded in geography, is David Clark’s brief survey of the current social science literature on urbanization, urbanism, and globalization. Much like Polybius, he suggests that we may be witnessing an era during which the world itself is a city, a vast extension of urban aspirations, architectural forms, and behaviors. Yet the result, he points out, does not seem to be uniformity or a singular global urbanism, but rather a larger version of the diversity that marks our historical cities. “The interaction between global and local,” Clark writes, “results in a range of hybrid cultural forms. Just living in a city does not create a homogeneous urban life style in a single society . . . [and likewise] the worldwide transmission of information produces richness and variety of urban responses (admittedly constrained) at the global scale” (p. 134). Our urban imagery in the future will be constructed of some new elements, extending, revising, and supplementing those of Lynch, which assumed a differentiated but bounded space. Space will have more contingent, flexible, and permeable boundaries. Yet it will still encompass the human experience and perception of particular places. The city of the future, like ancient Rome, will be notable for its internal differentiation and local distinction, even as urban standards are extended into a world already more than half urban.

Thomas Bender is Dean for the Humanities and professor of history at New York University. His most recent book is Budapest and New York: Studies in Metropolitan Transformation, 1870–1930 (Russell Sage Foundation, 1994), which he co-edited with Carl E. Schorske.