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Thomas Thiis-Evensen, 1999. Archetypes of Urbanism: A Method for the Esthetic Design of Cities. Oslo: Scandinavian University Press.

Reviewed by David Seamon

This book is written by the Norwegian architect Thomas Thiis-Evensen, whose 1987 Archetypes in Architecture is a major contribution to the phenomenology of architecture and architectural experience [see EAP, 1, 2/3]. Partly drawing on principles of his earlier study, Thiis-Evensen attempts to establish a conceptual foundation for understanding the visual form of the city and, thereby, for providing the urban designer with a means to  "increase visual clarity" of the city (p. 69).

The core of urban visual form, Thiis-Evensen argues, is the relative degree of directionality that the urban fabric provides through its streets, open spaces, and neighborhoods. He writes:

We intend to emphasize the single element which we feel is the closest thing to a universal architectural experience: the directionality of space. Due to our kinesthetic experience, we are affected by how individual urban spaces--by means of their bordering elements such as roofs, walls, and floors--"guide us." This influence has to do with the plan of the space, its height, width and depth, and with how its proportions, edging and subdivision contribute to … a situation's "visual excitement" (p. 14).

In substance, [this argument] refers to an evaluation of each project's relationship to the directionalities of urban space. Guidelines for new construction are based on analysis of what the situation "suggests" in terms of directional tendencies--in other words, how it "leads" us. This implies an initial exposure of existing urban qualities and possibilities in terms of the directional gesture. These qualities and possibilities are viewed in relation to the micro-structure, which involves detailed spatial organization of the single square or street on the one hand, and in relation to the macro-structure, which involves the primary shapes of the overall landscape, the main networks and the most important buildings (p. 32).

In presenting his theory of urban-form-as-visually-experienced, Thiis-Evensen divides his book into three parts. In the first section, he lays out the need for a better understanding of environmental-form-as-experienced and, in the second section--much the longest part of the book--lays out a theory, partly based on the centrality of floor, wall, and roof as earlier explored in Archetypes of Architecture [1]. In the last part of the book, he uses Oslo's urban core as an applied context in which to demonstrate how his theory might have practical application for particular urban design problems.

The book provides several revelatory moments but does not offer the overarching power of Archetypes of Architecture, in which a simple conceptual structure held the various conceptual parts in elegant conceptual relationship. Unfortunately, this conceptual clarity is largely lacking in Thiis-Evensen's new book. The conceptual structure that is presented too often seems arbitrary or beside the point rather than a set of experiential elements that readily interpenetrate and fold back on each other.

Very early on in part two, for example, Thiis-Evensen argues that, at all environment scales, urban forms and spaces involve five qualities: contour, volume, surface, structure, and incision. The reader is given no indication of where this particular set of elements arises or how exactly it has application to form-as-experienced. Later, Thiis-Evensen defines the cityscape in terms of buildings, streets, open spaces, and neighborhoods and then proceeds to found his visual analysis of the built-up city on these four levels. Again, no evidence or justification for this manner of levels is provided. Rather, the reader is asked to accept this outline as the best way for revealing the existential dynamics of the city-as-built-form.

Perhaps the most stimulating and usable part of the book is the section on the street as its overall form, walls, and floors are described to identify ways in which pathway experience can be given a sense of continuity and direction through design elements like cornices, corners, and paving pattern. Also stimulating are many of the drawings created by Thiis-Evensen's colleague Kolbjørn Nybø.

Overall, however, the book's conceptual framework lacks clarity and coherence. Unfortunately, the applied analyses of Oslo in the last part of the book are too general to crystallize the approach as it might be applied in one real-world context. The book is most useful in bits and pieces, particularly as it provides inroads for thinking about the phenomenology of urban  built form. In this sense, the book is most closely related to Kevin Lynch's Image of the City, and it would be a useful exercise to think through similarities and differences in the two authors' approaches to urban visual legibility.

Because of the emphasis on urban form, a much more worrisome problem with Thiis-Evensen's book is its lack of consideration of the city as a dynamic field of movement.  Here, one thinks of Bill Hillier's remarkable picture of the city as a network of potential interactions very much shaped by spatial qualities of the pathway network over which those interactions take place [see EAP, 4,2]. Like Lynch's work, Thiis-Evensen's presentation of the city is formal, visual, aesthetic--static. Such presentation is important to a phenomenology of citiness but must be complemented by the process-grounded fabric of movement-in-space which only so far Hillier has been able to unearth.

NOTE

1. Thiis-Evensen argued in that book that architecture is the making of an inside in the midst of an outside. The specific way in which a building evokes a sense of openness or closure (relative degrees of the inside-outside relationship) can be clarified through a examination of floor, wall, and roof (the most basic architectural elements) as they express motion, weight, and substance. Thiis-Evensen's simple but effective structure allows one to look at a particular building and better understand, through its formal qualities, why it generates one style of architectural experience rather than another.