Post nº7 | Why is a city born here and not elsewhere?

#semiotics, #signification, #architecture, #urbanism


In the previous post, I stated that the act of building is not dissociated from that of investing one's environment with values.


I have also presented my perspective on how the act of building is inextricably linked to the ecosystem where we build and to the meaning we attribute to the various places of the living environments.


My research on urban morphogenesis taught me that most cities are born in a specific territory after two main considerations. We have, on one side, its strategic position, as are its proximity to water supply, the ability to defend its limits, or its access to commercial routes; and, on the other side, its relation to symbolic places, as are the “primitive empty places” that structured and organised the space of a settlement.


To exemplify my reasoning, we can look at the "Pleine du Landit", a few kilometres to the north of Paris, which was a place where, during spring, the druids of all the Gaulle would get together. It was a structuring void, strategically placed at a certain distance from Isle de la Cité, easily reached from the place of permanent residence of the representatives of the different tribes of Gaulle.


Another example of a structuring void is the “Sintra Mountains”, located in the surroundings of Lisbon. This primitive structuring void was an attractor of pilgrimage rituals that structured the urban deployment of Lisbon. The Cape of Roca, on the edge of these mountains, was the limit of the known world and place of ritual practices when the world was perceived as flat. These rituals worked as protection from the unknow and lasted for many centuries.


Both the "Pleine du Landit" and of “Sintra Mountains” were sacred places that attracted various rituals, but also repelled permanent habitation. In general, these places corresponded to the domain of death, distanced by a few kilometres from the places of the living (the first human settlements). In the case of Paris, the city initially developed around a North / South axis, with the Isle de la Cité as its central point. In the case of Lisbon, its development started around a West / East axis, with the hill of São Jorge fortress as its central point.


These primitive voids structured the territory, according to Man’s profound values representation, translated by the places connected to death and life rituals. They articulate spatial forms and symbolic forces, and we can identify these today. In Paris, we have the basilica of Saint Denis as dead attractor area – places of death and mystical rituals; and the Isle of the city as life attractor area – markets, peregrine’s routes, seasonal festivities, the route of the king, among others life rituals, intensively linked to the establishment of communities. Another example of these systems of implementation of profounds values in the territory is the case of “Sintra Mountains” as dead attractor, which is also intrinsically linked to death and mystical rituals; and São Jorge Hill as life attractor – place of political, religious and production power. These territories are branded by reference buildings and by the weight of its intensive character, sought after by thousands of tourists.


Throughout history, the first step in the line of action of each conquering people – like the Phoenicians, Greeks, Celts, Romans…, in southern European; was the occupation of cities and of its structuring spaces, as a strategy to assure the control of the population, and the conditioning of life itself.


We can then say that these places have structured the collective identity and are benchmarks for its inhabitants. For us, architects, these places speak a language that crossed generations and that we have to interpret and integrate its signification when we intervene in the territory.




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