Urban Sculpture

Issue 00/14

The long-awaited ‘ideal city’ exists where perfection and change aren’t enemies but allies: it tries, fails and then continues to write its history with what does work.

To imagine perfection is an impossible task. The mere challenge of writing on the ‘ideal city’ has provoked such overexcitement of the brain that for a number of days I’ve been unable to come up with an orderly thought. The fact is that there are certain words or ‘mirage-expressions’ that encourage blockage. Perhaps this is due to the yearning for perfection that man sometimes pursues, which produces paralysis once he becomes suddenly aware of his limitations. But isn’t life full of imperfections? As Edgar Allan Poe stated, ‘There is no exquisite beauty without some strangeness in the proportion.’

Pheidias [?]: ‘Poseidon, Apolo & Artemis, East Frieze—Slab VI,’ Parthenon, c. 442 b.C. Acropolis Museum, Athens

To whom should we address this brief reflection? Who is the citizen, teacher, architect, town planner or politician I imagine reading these lines? My humble recommendation is a starting point: the gathering of data to find solutions requires that we look with the eyes of foreigners, that we stroll through the cities of others—in short, that we travel. In the sham article I began last week and which inevitably ended up in the waste-paper basket, I drew up a list of the things I had liked best in the cities I had visited. To begin with I listed monumental structures, such as Roman bridges, and then I added passing mentions of local customs, such as the curtainless windows of houses in Amsterdam. Can we speak of an ‘ideal city’ as a list of big hits?

To travel and to observe the world is essential, something that has always provided great moments of inspiration. But when we return to our home cities, something doesn’t seem quite right. On the one hand, we’re not quite sure whether all the physical and immaterial things that have seduced us in other places will work in the place where we live. On the other, our newcomer’s gaze reveals what is truly superfluous, what should never have been or what is no longer relevant. Then comes the moment of paralysis, the moment we eagerly search for perfection without finding it.

Leonardo da Vinci: Vitruvian Man, c. 1492. Gallerie dell’Accademia di Venezia, Venecia, Italy

Michelangelo: Awakening Slave, c. 1519–36. Gallerie dell’Accademia di Firenza, Florence, Italy

How should we address changes to ensure we don’t end up causing a greater catastrophe? In her TED intervention, Janette Sadik-Khan relates that during the time she worked for the New York Transportation Department she suggested solving mobility problems with daring proposals that had to be of a transitory nature, i.e. cheap and reversible, correcting problems by trial and error in order to consolidate that which is truly effective.

Let’s forget spectacle in architecture and let’s look at our cities with the eyes of Renaissance sculptors: removing what is superfluous in the block of marble until we obtain a figure. Let’s correct the mistakes of the past and focus on people and their desires to find happiness in small things. Save for a few exceptions, perhaps those who imagined the things we now like so much weren’t too sure what they were doing.