Why is the City Square Square?
How does public space mirror a society’s highest ideals? Its deepest anxieties? In this excerpt from his essay for The Future of Public Space, computer scientist, philosopher, and “godfather of virtual reality” Jaron Lanier muses on both the physical and psychological dimensions of the public realm, across time and geography. He reveals surprising intricacies to a deceptively simple question: why, exactly, is the city square square?
The Future of Public Space is the second volume of SOM Thinkers, a series of books that poses provocative questions about design and architecture from perspectives outside its professional culture.
Why was the ancient city square square? In China, as in Europe, as in Mesoamerica? Because bald geometric symmetry is the opposite of chaos.
This is an admittedly retro way of thinking. Fashionable or not, it’s a perspective we must keep in mind during digital times.
Briefly: Before cities, we roamed. We hunted and gathered. Our small bands slithered in terror through contested terrain not of our own design. Later, our tribes wandered, looking for signs.
The only environment we knew was fractal and organic, dotted with secret caves and springs, staged by the seasons, veined with hope and doom.
Then we learned to change our world (agriculture) and came upon a revolutionary choice: We sometimes might stay to work a place, to improve it.
But there were always competing bands of people. Our world was still contested. So, we defended our places. We built forts and castles. Then, castles big enough to outlast a siege. Cities.
Cities turned our world upside down. Before, we had found strength in speed and agility. Now, we found strength in numbers.
No phalanx was too broad, no area of cultivation was too vast, and no city walls were too high. Cities were strength. Each one an island empire until it was eventually breeched and bled into submission to a larger empire.
At the center of the city was a repudiation of the surrounding chaos. Geometry ruled. That is why the square is square. (If not a square then occasionally some geometric cousin; a triangle or a circle.)
The reason this creation tale for a shape is worth telling is that it illuminates the underbelly of our liberal imaginations.
It’s not uncommon, today, to use the city square as a metaphor for democracy, but squares predate democracy. They signified power before they signified fairness. First came Athens for survival, then came the Athens of ideals.
Today, a plaza in a world city like Toronto, New York, or Los Angeles might, on a good day, be an open-air temple to the ideals of tolerant, fertile cultural mixing. You hear languages from all over the world at once, while watching children chase balloons. But at first, the square was a symbol of safety from aliens. Aliens would stoop to anything, like hiding in a big sculpture of a horse, to breech the geometry of separation and order.
The square originally meant submission in exchange for safety before it meant democracy. That ancient turnaround confuses us to this day. Hidden in the heart of any practical or reliable form of freedom is a submission to an order that protects us enough to not be sacked by Trojans, not to mention highwaymen, predators, hackers, and grifters.
How can we reconcile ourselves to this intrinsic compromise? This has been a tension since the first city wall was raised and the first square laid out.
This excerpt comes from an essay written for the The Future of Public Space, the second edition of SOM Thinkers. Each book in the series brings together leading voices on a single topic related to the built environment.
The Future of Public Space explores how different types of public space — urban and rural, real and virtual — influence everyday experiences in an increasingly privatized world. The book is available for purchase.
Jaron Lanier is a computer scientist, composer, visual artist, and author who writes on numerous topics, including high-technology business, the social impact of technological practices, the philosophy of consciousness and information, internet politics, and the future of humanism. His book Who Owns the Future? received the Goldsmith Book Prize from Harvard in 2014, and was called the most important book of 2013 by Joe Nocera of The New York Times. His 2010 book, You Are Not a Gadget, was also named one of the ten best books of the year by The New York Times. His writing has appeared in numerous places including Wired, where he was a founding contributing editor.
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