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Joseph Rykwert's social and urban history of Rome

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Clare Melhuish reviews. . .

The second in Joseph Rykwert's three-part Jane Jacobs lecture series, 'Anthropology and the City', focused on the development of ancient Rome. It dealt with the city's growth over the centuries into an urban image more familiar to us today as the iconic model for the 'world city' of our time. This latter subject will form the basis of the third and final lecture in the series (see next week's column).

The lectures are named in honour of Jane Jacobs, 'the individual who in the 20th century most encouraged the discussion between visual design and social life of cities'. But Rykwert's discourse on Rome seemed rather lacking in social content. In that sense, the proposed connection with anthropology seems somewhat misleading, particularly when one considers anthropology's limited interest in historical, even documentary, research. The core of the discipline lies in fieldwork, primarily social observation.Although archaeology may be a close ally, this does present problems of engagement with historically obsolete cultures.

Neither did Rykwert make any direct reference to anthropological theory or research, citing only the biologist Peter Wilson in support of a very loose description of his approach. One based in 'the story of culture. . . me and the world', and 'the development of the ability to symbolise, make metaphor. . . the condition of language'. This provided the starting point of the lecture in a brief discussion of 'the notion of archetype', the squaring of the circle, which supplied the basic schema for the ancient Roman city plan. This can also be traced through various forms of human material culture of the ancient period, such as the decorative schema of Neolithic pots.

Rykwert's discussion developed into what was essentially a social and urban history of Rome, illustrated by maps. It would no doubt have interested Jane Jacobs, in view of her antipathy to the concept of formal planning, for Rykwert pointed out that, in its earliest form, Rome was far from being a centralised, rationalised city. The key public focus, the forum - and the 'biggest pedestrian space in the world' - was in fact located outside the main boundaries of the settlement. And public space in general was made up out of 'leftovers' in which people might congregate.

This was the 'essential element of urban life - coming together', rather than any formally imposed notion of political order. This only happened much later in the city's history, argues Rykwert. At a point when the invention of perspective, combined with that of artillery, led to what he regards, along Jacobsian lines, as a 'deformation' of the city. The development of a new urban model, comprising a central space with avenues radiating out to peripheral bastions, led to the revamping of Rome 'on new perspectival lines', and it is this, suggests Rykwert - the city as gridded island - which has dominated - and deformed? - urban history to the present day.

Joseph Rykwert's lecture, The City in Perspective: defensible space, columns, and obelisks, was hosted by the Cities Programme at the LSE

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