Polis Architecture, now and then

“The entire character of a base and its inhabitants can be absorbed in a quick trip to the Rec Commons. The sweaty arenas of Fort Legion, the glittering gambling halls of Morgan Bank, the sunny lovers’ trysts in Gaia’s High Garden, or the somber reading rooms of U.N. Headquarters. Even the feeding bay at the Hive gives stark insight into the sleeping demons of Yang’s communal utopia.”

-Commissioner Pravin Lal, “A Social History of Planet”

We live in an era of unprecedented engineering accomplishments.  A member of the Western Middle Class, bearing the right passport, can eat breakfast in their hometown, and have dinner on another continent, time differences permitting.  All but the smallest and most remote regions of the developed world are served by a regular and reliable set of transportation nodes.  Modern construction equipment can move literal mountains in months, assuming one has the proper paperwork (or bribes).

Historically, most city-states, the polis as the Greeks (and later Romans) termed it, have had some form of public architecture.  In fact, as late as the 1940s, it was considered rather unusual for a city not to have a distinctive architecture, see much of the negative commentary directed towards Orange County developments in California, and the negative public views towards the sprawl of post-war London.  From Egypt, the Forbidden City, Palatine Hill, the Hagia Sophia, Westminster, to Wall Street, the powerful Polis of the day has always had architecture to demonstrate it’s power, and to provide key services.

To the great medieval cities, perhaps not on the level of the Imperial Capitals of the day, constructing a Cathedral was the act of becoming a major city, to stop up to being poleis, and they moved the proverbial “Heaven and Earth” to get there.  Venice’s great bridges could take years of taxation and contributions, and Cologne, perhaps not wanting to be outdone in the history of construction project overruns, took 632 years to finish to the original plan.  By comparison, the most impressive construction projects of the modern Western World, in dollar value, are either pork barrel projects like Boston’s Big Dig, or Casinos, most notably in Las Vegas.

Polis, in the traditional sense, do not exist in the modern western world.  If an urban center wished to spent 10 years of tax revenue to build a public building, it could only be a sports arena, and it would be conveyed to a private, connected interest.  Even then, this arena would be divided into different classes and sliced and diced like a mortgage backed security into so much ticket inventory.  While many of the most elite corporations and organizations in each city are willing to buy skyboxes, they are meant as tokens of their power to be shown to prospective clients or to family members, not to show their membership in the greater civic fabric.

While people generally do not value what is given to them, marketing everything to the price of a basic ticket means that entertainment must be marketed to the lowest paying denominator.  Tens of thousands arrive, masticate greasy food, cheer for a given set of mercenaries, and leave with little or no more connection to the polis then when they arrived.   Whatever else can be said about the great civic works of the past, they do not lack for inspiring some sort of feelings towards the polis.


2 thoughts on “Polis Architecture, now and then”

  1. Archtitecture and layout makes a statement about how we see ourselves in relation to society, and how society sees us.
    Rather than an organism we take part in, it’s become a thing we happen to live in. If we want, we can move into another like it and there is little difference.

    With the apotheosis of Marxist thinking, intangibles such as cultures do not exist. There is only economic production and the workers. Only greater pleasures and greater pains for certain numbers of perfectly rational people on a spreadsheet.

    If the original enlightenment thinkers could see where their worship of reason had led, they would be horrified.


    1. Your article is a nice barb toward today’s “privacy at all costs” world, with scattered symbols of partisan preference.

      I wonder: What would it take to revert back to the glorious past?


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