Carroll William Westfall


Fundamental in understanding the urban character of a place is the role buildings play in the civic life of the citizens and the relationship of buildings one to another within the realm wherein the citizens live that civic life. No examples are clearer in this regard than the cities living under Roman law. In them, citizens built private buildings for their own purposes with a large view to the role they would play in their public life. They built public buildings as parts of their duties as citizens and to expand their civic status. And they had quite precise laws concerning the legal status of city, a status that was intimately tied the particular ground or site where that status had standing. That ground or site gave us the word urban which is the place where a particular legally defined civic regime is found. Thus, from Rome we receive a legacy of understanding that there is an intimate link between architecture or the art of building, citizenship or the acquittal of the duties of a citizen, the legal arena or civic realm within which that citizenship operated, and the physical place and architectural character, that is, the urban character, of the civic realm.

Of the greatest interest is how these several aspects of city building produce more than a mere accumulation of buildings. A mere accumulation is something Aristotle would characterize as a mere village capable of sustaining life but less than a city. How, that is, might practicing the art of architecture produce a city which assists citizens to live the good life, that is, to live nobly and well? What are the marks of buildings illustrating that their principal aim is to contribute to a city that has justice as its end rather than to a mere market that seeks only peace, prosperity, and abundance? To put it another way: How does the architectural character of a city differ from that of a village? If a city requires that the citizen recognize that his wholeness and completeness comes from his willing subjection to the laws that bind him with other citizens into a city and that these laws have justice as their end, what is the equivalent in the architectural character of the city?

To answer this requires a close understanding of the relationship between the individual building and the larger urban ensemble of which it is a part. Pompeii provides a particular vivid setting within which the relationship between the civic, the urban, and the architectural can be assessed. The example of one building, the Ionic Propylaeum leading into the so-called Triangular Forum, will provide a focus for this presentation.

The Ionic Propylaeum

The Propylaeum was apparently originally built in the mid-second century BC as a part of a general project of reorganization and expansion of the buildings and open areas beyond it, although there is no inscription or other material to identify it with a time or a person. The building itself was apparently rebuilt during the Augustan period, and has had extensive modern restoration. Paul Zanker has called it a gateway into a cultural precinct and has said that it engaged the energies of the Samnites at a time they were allied with Rome but excluded from civil participation in Roman affairs. (Pompei: Società, immagini urbane e forme dell'abitare, Turin, 1993.) Since their energies could not be devoted to the political affairs stirring Roman citizens, they devoted themselves to enjoying their great wealth by building luxurious private houses and importing Hellenistic culture for enjoyment in both private dwellings and public settings such as those beyond the Propylaeum. Meanwhile, they devoted only minor attention to the Forum, an area that would come to eclipse the importance of other public areas only after Pompeii became a Roman city.

The Propylaeum's siting and design illustrate a typical characteristic of ancient buildings in that the Propylaeum belongs to a self-enclosed precinct rather than to an expanse of homogeneous space. That is, it is a gateway into an area that is set aside from the rest of the city, an area that, in being set aside, is like every other part of the city whether it be a major public building, such as a bath or basilica, or an insula block or a house in an insula. The urban setting of Pompeii is made of a collection or accumulation of these elements, and the rest of the city can be thought of as gaps between these precincts.

Simply put, the streets have no presence of their own. They are slices between precincts. This is most clearly seen in the character of the grid which is discontinuous, which changes as topography dictates and as the various precincts push and pull, and which is defined by streets of changing widths rather than by an abstract geometric pattern controlling and regulating the disposition, the manner of laying on the land, and the widths. The grid, then, is not first of all a physical manifestation of the geometry that controlled the vision, as it is for the first time in the perspective systems established in the Renaissance; nor is it something that can be distilled into geometric mathematics as Descartes did. It is instead the byproduct of parceling out the land for precincts, some sacred, some profane, some public, and some private.

The streets may be separable from the precincts, but this does not mean that the precincts are not tied together. Indeed, the Propylaeum illustrates the capacity of a part of a precinct to link with parts of other precincts and thereby show the relationship between them. The relationship is first of all a visual one rather than a conceptual one. That is, the relationship is between this thing and that thing, not between this thing, that thing, and the larger homogenous space which holds them and other things as well in a knowable relationship. In other words, the relationship is not like the one between objects in a Renaissance perspective scheme or a Cartesian grid. And neither is that relationship of the sort William MacDonald defined as constituting the armature in Roman imperial urbanism, although the relationship is on the verge of becoming just that. Instead it is what can be called a part of relational design, a topic insightfully discussed by Lise Bek (Towards Paradise on Earth, Odense, 1980). A few observations concerning the Propylaeum will clarify this point.

The job of the Propylaeum is first of all to provide a gateway and identity to the putative cultural precinct of the Triangular Forum. Secondarily, it has the task of tying that precinct into the urban complex of Pompeii. To satisfy these purposes it makes that precinct easily visible from the two main traffic arteries nearby. It presents its full face to the via dell'Abbondanza, and it stands out obliquely at the top of the rise leading up from the strada Stabiana. Conversely, from it can be seen the side entrance into the Stabian Baths in the vicola del Lupanare across the via dell'Abbondanza, while the view from it toward the strada Stabiana allows that main cross street to be prominent since it is lined on the right by the largely blank walls of the temple and other precincts within the cultural complex and on the left by the quite different character of the house and shop fronts.

The Propylaeum could have been designed differently. And an entrance to that precinct could have been located elsewhere; indeed, there are other entrances, but no one would mistake this one for being anything other than the main entrance.

The design and siting of the Propylaeum are guided by an understanding of the role the individual thing plays relative to the position of that thing among other things forming a larger whole that completes it. It is, in other words, like the citizen of the city who gains completeness through participation with other citizens. But it is clearly an example of a particular class of thing--a public monument--just as a citizen also belongs to a class. A city is an orderly array of things in classes, whether the things be buildings or citizens. The Propylaeum may have been built by Samnites excluded from full participation in Roman affairs, but they are clearly ready for Roman civil status, and once they get it, the abilities at design they exhibit here will be turned toward the Forum. The result there will be a paradigmatic example of Roman urbanism.

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Carroll William Westfall
School of Architecture University of Virginia
December 21, 1995
Copyright 1995 by , all rights reserved
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