The City as a Theater

Many years ago I read the book Metaphors we live by, written by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. I remember it had an impact on me on that time, even though I don’t remember all details today.

We use metaphors all the time; sometimes just to make a statement more lively or powerful, sometimes to make foggy thoughts more clear. Lakoff and Johnson combines philosophy and linguistics, when they distinguish the most basic metaphors; pictures that structures our world view, our understanding, our perception.

Argumentation is war. He attacked every weak point in my argument. His criticisms were right on target.

Time is money. You're wasting my time. How do you spend your time these days? I've invested a lot of time in her.

Ideas are objects; linguistic expressions are containers. When you have a good idea, try to capture it immediately in words. The idea is buried in terribly dense paragraphs.

Orientational metaphors. Happy is up, sad is down. Conscious is up, unconscious is down. Health and life are up, sickness and death are down. More is up, less is down. High status is up, low status is down.

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How do we understand cities? Perhaps by using metaphors, and one of them is definitely the city as an art work, often connected to the theatre.

Naked ballet

The most well-known book of Jane Jacobs, an American-Canadian writer and reviewer of architecture and city planning, is probably The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which has affected the debate on contemporary city planning for decades.

Jane Jacobs, Greenwich Village

She was critical to the huge urban projects which were planned and partly realized in New York, and preferred a city based on humans, not on engineering or rigid structures. This is a short passage on the importance of the sidewalks:

This order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance – not to a simpleminded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole. The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any one is always replete with new interpretations.

Jacobs could definitely be connected to the thinking of Lewis Mumford, especially his idea of the urban drama.

The city in its complete sense, then, is a geographic plexus, an economic organization, an institutional process, a theater of social interaction, and an aesthetic symbol of collective unity. The city fosters art and is art; the city creates the theater and is the theater.

Mumford, American sociologist and philosopher, has been called the last public intellectual, a scholar writing for a wider audience than the academy. Mumford wrote several – at least twenty – critical studies on city planning, technology, history, sociology etc.

Lewis Mumford

In the book The culture of cities he gives a picture of the development of the Western city from the medieval city to the modern industrial city, the latter characterized by the lack of spirit and by social break downs. Mumford tried to find new paths for humankind by creating a humanistic society.

William Whyte, American urbanist, paid a lot of attention to human behavior in urban settings; Whyte says that the plaza should function like a stage, and the street corners are obviously extremely important.

William Whyte, Street corner observation

His huge “Street life project” has affected many scholars and practical city planners world-wide.

There is a beauty that is beguiling to watch, and one senses that the players are quite aware of this themselves. You can see this in the way they arrange themselves on the ledges and steps. They often do so with a grace that they must appreciate themselves. With its brown-gray setting, Seagram is the best of stages – in the rain, too, when an umbrella or two puts spots of color in the right places, like Corot’s red dots.

Allan Jacobs and Donald Appleyard urge planners to fulfill human needs for fantasy and exoticism.

The city has always been a place of excitement; it is a theater, a stage upon which citizens can display themselves and be seen by others.

The target of their critic is on how bureaucracy and too rigid standards can conflict with good urban design and the creativity of people. Street life is noise, smells, social interaction, confusing uses of spaces.

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The metaphor of the city as a theater should not be considered as a metaphor we live by, but it is at least a common image – easy to use and almost impossible to disregard.


This page was last updated 2016-04-24 by Fredrik Sandblad.