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Volker M Welter: Biopolis - Patrick Geddes and the City of Life

Friday, October 22, 2010

A review by Kathryn Timmins of this study of the influential urban thinker Patrick Geddes




OVERVIEW
The theories, obsessions and beliefs of the Scottish urbanist, biologist, sociologist, historian, geographer and town planner Patrick Geddes (1854-1932), are the main focus of this book by Volker M. Welter, along with the people and studies affected by his work.
Originally trained as a biologist, Geddes was intrigued by the evolution of human life and its future possibilities within its growing urban context. Working at the turn of the century, where the entity of the city was starting to develop at a fast rate, Geddes was part of an era that asked questions about this new urban life, its origins and subsequent expectations. He was born into a “century of cities.”
Placed in context and examined and explored, Geddes’s work is complemented and compared with research of similar topics by fellow intellectuals from the past and present. The book is not a biography of Geddes, but an investigation into the questions that he raised and the studies that were affected by these. It looks not only at town planning on an architectural scale, but the metaphysical, spiritual, individual and global one.

CHAPTER 1 - “Angling for Cities!”
“Vivendo Discimus - by living we learn.”
Patrick Geddes

Studying biology at university, Darwin’s theory of evolution influenced Geddes and his study of life, consequently resulting in his journey as a ‘scientist of life’. Geddes became obsessed with classification from his biological work and consequently looked at the classification of life throughout his career, attempting to ‘give back to the world a structure. The study of habitats and environments stems from this starting point and leads to Geddes’s work with towns and cities trying to understand how human life can be improved by the growth of a town into a city.
Welter looks at how Geddes’s involvement in the Revolt against Reason (a movement consitisting of intellectuals at the time questioning fact and looking at “the significance of religion in all human societies”) lead to his spiritual, metaphysical studies of human life;
“Geddes did not hesitate to marvel at the mysteries of life or capture them in the symbolic, imaginative forms of art or literature. Yet he always went a step further and asked how life could be improved, rather than merely understood.”

CHAPTER 2 - Patrick Geddes’s Theory of the city
“City and citizen are bound in an abiding partnership of mutual aid.”
Patrick Geddes

“ As the landscape changed its appearance, the life of the people changed too.” Victorian Britain, the age of vast industrialisation and expansion of cities encouraged investigation into city life itself. Therefore, people began to look back at antiquity to find better previous models of society ie the Middle Ages, the Greek polis. Geddes devised various ‘thinking machines’ as a way of studying this human interaction with its environment. The Notation of Life was his most successful and widely examined. It focused on the headings; TOWN, SCHOOL, CLOISTER and CITY IN DEED integrated with the triad of WORK, PLACE and FOLK.

Geddes attempted to use this with the Town-City formula he devised as a law of the evolution of cities from towns. The Act-Deed formula also investigated this transformation on an individual scale, looking to raise individual human life to higher levels of conscious existence to transform a town into a city. This individual process then had to be applied to communal psychology; how the individual acts within a community to enable transition as a collective. Moreover, Geddes explores the idea of using the Cloister to embody ideas for a city into the urban fabric, creating a city soul (comparable to the Acropolis in Athens);
“ The soul not only gives life to matter but is also the carrier of knowledge about ideas and forms”







CHAPTER 3 - The City and Geography
“Our town and country divisions…are now for the most part totally inadequate for modern purposes.”
Patrick Geddes

Elisée Reclus (the French anarcho-geographer) suggests that the town and country merge as the city, “transforms and elevates the countryside to its own, more highly evolved level of social and cultural life.” The Valley Section designed by Geddes explores this and discusses the various settlement types, occupations and physical environments of the region-city and how they interacted. Welter states that instead of the city taking over the rural areas, Geddes believes the “town arises and renews itself from the country…in character, individual and social.”

Considering these new studies of the city and city life, Reclus assumed that world peace must be a “pre-condition of the ever-expanding city” contrasting Geddes’s view that this will be achieved through the constructive activity of city building. The author therefore progresses the study from regional to universal looking at The Outlook Tower where individuals were theoretically able to understand and reflect upon the environment at a range of scales, encouraging an individual citizens transition from town to city

CHAPTER 4 - The City in History
“The world is ever beginning anew, each community with it, each town and quarter”
Patrick Geddes

The Arbor Saeculorum, ‘The tree of centuries’, was originally a design for a stained glass window at the Outlook Tower in Edinburgh, and was for Geddes a summary of all known history at the time. The two scrolls to the left and right sides of the sketch, depicted symbols relating to each known time period with the tree in the middle representing the future of human history. It illustrateg history as a continuous process of growth as, “a city is more than a place is space, it is a drama in time.” It again shows this belief that individual members of each type must realise their role within society as a whole.
Investigating this further, Geddes understood four social types; PEOPLE, CHIEFS, INTELLECTUALS AND EMOTIONALS, “a city is only achievable if the four groups work together harmoniously.” However, Welter discovers that little thought into the interaction between these social forces and their different classes is given.

CHAPTER 5 - History in the City
“Architecture, it has been said, is crystallized history
Patrick Geddes

Restoration spread through Britain in the nineteenth century, which sparked Patrick Geddes idea for ‘conservative surgery’, “including the whole city within the potential scope of preservation activities,” planning to engage the citizens with their cities' current conditions as well as past. The historical survey looked at the earlier city in the context of the four social types and aimed to, “put the historical city at the disposal of the contemporary one.” Conservative surgery was then used as a tool in modern city planning, amending an area by minimizing the amount of historical demolition for new structures, it "preserved the built heritage by adapting it to ‘the requirement of the present’ and was used to rebuild Crosby Hall. The Cities and Town Planning Exhibition played a large role in this, it became a place where city surveys and reports on the Past, Present and Possible of cities could be displayed, helping people to understanding the evolution of cities (phylogeny).

CHAPTER 6 - The Metaphysical Imperative in Urban Design around 1900
“In every city there are men inventing, dreaming, finding the city its soul”
Ashbee

Building the Ideal Community -
“We must build a city, a whole city, anything less would be pointless…we shall create a world… from the overall design down to the last detail, all governed by the same spirit, the streets and the gardens and the palaces and the cottages…all expressions of the same sensibility, and in the middle, like a temple in a sacred grove, a house of labor, both artist's studio and craftsmen's workshop, where the artist will always have the reassuring and ordering crafts, and the craftsmen the liberating and purifying arts about him, until the two finally merge, as it were, into a single person.” Joseph Maria Olbrich

As a result of these city explorations and studies, Geddes began to examine the need for a metaphysical center for the city, a place for the individual to experience himself as a member of the whole. This would therefore provide a place for this personal transition from town to city. Temples as a vital role in city life was a common thought at the time, whether it be a Temple of a particular religion or not, or simply a center for thought. The book places this Temple discovery in context looking at similar designs and innovations of centers and hence Temples of a similar perioid; the Rock and Castle oF Seclusion for example by Richard Dadd in 1861.

CHAPTER 7 - The City and Spirituality
“evolution considers form and function no longer statically, but in movement”
Patrick Geddes

Geddes lost faith in traditional religion and so turned to these Temples of life, thought, geography etc as a metaphysical center for the city. The Temple of Geography, a Nature Palace conceived by Geddes, included biology, anthropology, geology, astronomy; the individual was to exposed to various exhibitions and installations before being encouraged to reflect in the temple space. The idea of the Globe itself was used as a teaching tool in exhibitions initially, “ a macrocosm of the microcosm itself”, then picked up by Geddes and used in his temple designs as a catalyst for thought and reflection.

In addition to this, Geddes returned to his study of The Greeks and their polis, supposing that they were the closest to a perfect society with their spiritual emphasis. Therefore, the nine Greek Gods which, “expressed the ideals of humanity” also became pivotal parts of informing his designs.
Obviously according to Geddes, there was a need for religiosity in human life and the Temple was designed as a place for unity between science and religion in cities.

CHAPTER 8 - From the Temple of the City to the Cultural Acropolis
“Our town becomes a City indeed, with Acropolis and Temples
Patrick Geddes

To create transformation from Town to City, needs not only the individual “Town Thinking” or “Town Feeling” but a whole communal experience. Geddes believed that a physical space was definitely needed for this, plus a place for city scale events and festivities to celebrate the city itself. Geddes looked closer at the Cloister (possibly a University area) to achieve this, as an “institute of Synthesis”.

“Geddes’s city is not ruled by God but by the eternal idea of life sybmolized in the temple of the Greek Gods” - he looked at this ‘feeling’ development of Dreams and Deeds and tried to create a place where these could be applied to reality; “interact with religion and polity with thought and action…these create Acropolis, Temple.”

In antiquity, what Geddes described as a Cloister (or Cultural Acropolis, as it developed into a center for theatre, spiritual learning, academia, the arts etc) was always raised high above the town to attempt to concentrate these elements into one space (eg the Altar of Zeus at Pergamon). This followed through into his own designs which are demonstrated in the book's diagrams and sketches. Others at the time also followed the “City Crown” idea of the cultural and educational center for the city, for example Bruno Taut and Tony Garnier.

Notes, Conclusions and Questions

Looking at the spiritual side of city life is extremely interesting, but are these centers successful at transforming the individual? What exact process do they need to go through to progress the town to a city? How does this then work as a whole community thought process? Every citizen is unique, how does this apply to all of them? Could a town successfully complete this transformation according to Geddes’s path? Have any towns already done this?
Intrigued to discover more about the Greek way of life in the polis, why does Geddes think this is so perfect? If their spiritual ideas and ways of life could have been applied to Geddes’s era, are they still relevant today?
It is interesting that Geddes disregards class in his studies, especially at a time when class becomes more and more relevant in society at the turn of the century with the vast urban growth and poor city conditions, do his colleagues who study class come to any similar conclusions about city design? How did Tony Garnier and Bruno Taut come to their decisions about the city?


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