The City as a Muse

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The City as a Muse

The Ideal city   Cites are not just utilitarian structures; agglomerations of houses and workplaces. As Marco Polo entertains the Great Khan

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The Ideal city


Cites are not just utilitarian structures; agglomerations of houses and workplaces. As Marco Polo entertains the Great Khan in Invisible Cities:


‘Cities are like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is a secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful and everything conceals something else.’ (Calvino 1972, p 44)


Our built environment contains meaning, in the course of human history; our fears and desires, our dreams and nightmares have all been given urban form.


The quest for the ideal city has captivated architects, thinkers, philosophers, writers and artists since earliest times. They are the ultimate self-improving location. They comprise of an expression of geometry of living, a union of aesthetics and functionality that serves a social, even ethical purpose. The very physical existence of these structures and spaces instill a sense of fulfillment and order in their inhabitants. These can be known as progressive, optimist and almost self-sustaining plans of good life.


Ideal cities should also be a product of their own times-they bear the imprint of their own culture and world view in every street and building being open to continuous development, free to evolve and grow with the demands of the new times.


Designing cities will always be more of an art that a science. New towns may begin as a fantasy-a vision of gleaming towers and infrastructure: perfect and adequate, but they can only survive when lived in and responded to. They should be tangible expressions of what we are and what we need to become.






They are the habitat and consist of life and light. It absorbs everyone and everything; holds it as one. Public spaces are multifaceted and multi cultured according to the behavioral, cultural currents of the inhabitants. It is the mother ship/muse for many artists and they cannot help retort to it through their work. Its length and breadth, its rhythm and beat, its ebb and flow translate ideas and ideas grow from within more ideas. They reciprocate to its intimacy, its memories, its fragrances its noise and music, its pollution, its silence, its constant change, its traffic, its men and women, its food, talk, language, accents, anger and calm, its dialogue, its elite and poor, its night, day, morning and dawn. Its young and beautiful and the children. The old and the weak, who show us the age of the city in their eyes-their world in the city and we imagine their world in the city before our time.


It is not only architects and city planners, who help shape a city, but also those creative minds with ideas and visions for what a city should be like and how it should function. Every aspect of it, from its landscape and architecture, to its infrastructure and sewage system, to its painted walls and vandalized spots, to its people and their activities- all of these are a muse for the artists of today, as well as the artists of the past.




Historical Cities

As written in City: A Guide for the Urban Age:



“The design of streets and squares, temples and palaces- all have been used at one time or another to project ideas about mans place in the universe”



The perfect example of this is the imperial Chinese cities, which were designed in such a way that they were enclosed by walls on four sides. There were twelve gates; three on each side. This particular structure was very significant because the earthly residence of the Son of Heaven was supposed to be a small representation of the entire universe. Since the universe was believed to be a square, it was only befitting that the emperor’s city reinstated that belief. This practice was not only but was also found to exist in India as well as the Near East. Even the Holy City of Jerusalem reflected the shape of the Sacred Temple by being in the form of a square. (Smith 2012, p 37)


The way that cities have changed and progressed over the years is through the constant and continual search for the “Ideal City“. Even philosophers played a great part in this process. One of the first urban visionaries was Plato. Plato named his idea city: Kallipolis, which is a Greek word and it means beautiful or noble city. It is described as:


“A rigidly hierarchical state governed by philosophers-kings, the Rules. The population was strictly policed and controlled. There was censorship: writers and artists were only allowed to portray noble characters, and there was no place for poets in the ideal city. Doctors practiced eugenics and euthanasia, removing from society those who judged not to be sound mind of body. In this communistic state, private property and even families were banned. Admittedly Plato had a noble aim in devising this authoritarian state, namely to eliminate greed and self-interest. But the cure was worse than the disease and Plato’s city seems far from ideal today. What is valuable, however, in this urban thought experiment is the realization that cities bring together a wide range of different people, who have diverse needs and desires, and that for everyone to live in harmony a framework of law and traditions is essential”


Antonio di Pietro Averlino (also known as Filarete), introduced the Sforzinda which is the shape of an eight pointed star. It is formed by two squares which are superimposed on each other. In his novel, he describes it as:


“The outer walls should form a sixteen-sided figure and their height should be four times their depth. The streets should lead from the gates to the center of the town where I would place the main square, which ought to be twice as long as it is wide. In the middle of it I would build a tower high enough to overlook the whole surrounding district.” (Smith 2012, p 40)



The Transition to Modern Cities

As the world paced on, technology opened new doors, scientific research advanced, so also did the city structure and city life. The concepts of historic cities and the ideal city fused together became influenced by the change the entire world was going through and found itself in a transition towards modernity. As discussed earlier, the city is a portrayal of the ideals and concepts of its inhabitants, so the gradual change, which the societies were going through, was also portrayed by a change in the general concept, layout and structure of the modern city.



At such crossroads, many novel notions started springing up in different cities around the world. Different cooperative housing societies were formed, so were buildings, which introduced the idea of living in apartments rather than houses.


As city life became established, entertainment was needed in the cities which led to the opening of cinemas, clubs, restaurants, cafes, shopping centers, museums, art galleries, libraries etc. In such a way, a city became a small embodiment of everything one’s life should contain. It was also through this that art became such an integral part of a city and that conceptual art took the form, which it has today.


Similarly, even the modern city is divided into different factions such as the commercial area, the industrial area and the housing area. There may not be any clear boundaries between these but there are definitely demarcations, which keep these separated from each other. Within the city, each faction has a different sense of building and style, a unique perspective of idealism and a completely different character to itself. Each is essential for the survival and existence of the others.


Regarding the changes, which are seen in cities and how they come about, it is written:


“The most significant small gestures are related to the big moves in the city’s evolution, -implying that the physical form of the city is an outcome of several events triggered off by the wider social, economic, and technological changes.” (Dwivedi, 1995 p 327)



The Muse


A city compels artists, philosophers, architects, and engineers to play their part in helping construct the city how they perceive it. The entire concept of a certain city, it’s mapping, its destruction and reconstruction; it is all part of a process which is very closely linked to what we know as art.


“Most cities emerge with time, developing organically with the ebb and flow of population, self-organising systems that evolve to meet people’s needs- new schools, roads, suburbs. But some cities- such as St Petersburg, built in Russia in 1703- are born fully grown. The new town, Neue Stadt or citta nuova, emerges from its scaffolding shell at a single moment in history.


The urban planner’s craft can be compared to that of a storyteller. Building an invisible city in the mind is like writing a novel made up of many narrative strands- national identity, local history, trade and commerce, culture, religion and architectural traditions. All these threads must be tightly woven, leaving no loose ends. Despite the claims of some of its practitioners, designing cities will always be more of an art than a science. New towns may begin as a fantasy, a vision of gleaming towers, but cities cannot survive long in the ideal realm. They need to be lived in. The stuff of dreams must be translated into concrete and steel, forming tangible expressions or what we are and what we want to become.” (Smith 2012, p 44)



An example of how closely the planning of a city is linked with artist is depicted in the Ink on Paper image by Constant in which he portrays New Babylon as he would like to see it.


“Constant’s sketches for New Babylon evoke a sense of energy, movement and change. Lines clash and swirl, expressing a discontinuous and shifting spatial experience. In his drawings and graphics on the subject there is none of the geometric purity and order associated with the utopian plans of the modern movement architects. The emphasis is on motion, displacement and spatial transgression. Paths crisscross or wander across the frame, sometimes forming a wheel, or tracks reminiscent of a railway line, or a ladder connecting different levels or elements, all of which had been common motifs in his earlier paintings from the Cobra years.” (Pinder, 2006 p 203)


Culture plays a vital role in designing, embellishing and constructing any living area. It also plays a part in the life of the city, of how things are being down and certain things are constructed, whereas certain things are destroyed, simultaneously.


In an article Living in Glass Houses, Pervez Vandal defines architecture as such:


“Architecture is an aspect of the culture of people. Culture is that set of beliefs and practices which animates, sustains and binds a people and thereby defines their identity. In the present maelstrom of existence, culture is being enriched and destroyed; the past is our bedrock and yet it must continuously evolve” (Vandal, 2013 p 30)



Artists and the City


Many artists now use the city as both their canvas and their medium ,where Land Art is one of the many terms and ideas represented through conceptual art.


Robert Smithson said:


” Landscape [is] co-extensive with the gallery. I don’t think we’re dealing with matter in terms of a back to nature movement. For me the world is a museum.” (Osborne, 2002 p 246)


Let us look at a few artists who have made their mark by taking the city into consideration through their practice.


Gordon Matta Clark was one artist who directly used the urban environment to present his art.  He chose to incorporate the historical value of a building, structure or space by cutting through pieces and fragments of it and presenting it in a pattern of layers. Through these different layers of material, he wanted to represent how the environment has changed or either progressed or regressed over the years.


Matta-Clark himself, describes it:


“By undoing a building, [I] open a state of enclosure which had been preconditioned not only by physical necessity but by the industry that [proliferates] suburban and urban boxes as a context for insuring a passive isolated consumer” (Osborne, 2002 p 246)


Gordon used his work to represent the complexity of memory and how it is used, at times, to hide other memories beneath it.


“[There is] a type of space we all, all of us, have stored in memory: spaces that are detailed and precise, fragments generally, at all levels of reminiscence. And of course, once you get into reminiscence, an infinite number of associations emerge. Memory seems to create a unique kind of space setting up an about-to-disintegrate level.” (Osborne, 2002 p 246)


The power couple of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s interventions in the natural world and the built environment altered both the physical form and the visual experience of the sites, thereby allowing viewers to perceive and understand the locations with a new appreciation of their formal, energetic, and volumetric qualities. Christo and Jeanne-Claude focused on making important but ordinary public buildings distinguishable by wrapping them up, entirely, in Tarpaulin.


The purpose of most of their projects is similar and built to maintain a dialogue that completely transforms the subject/architecture or landscape at hand.


Their interventions in the natural world and the built environment altered both the physical form and the visual experience of the sites, thereby allowing viewers to perceive and understand the locations with a new appreciation of their formal, energetic, and volumetric qualities. The artists’ choice to remain intermittently inside and outside the frameworks of legality lends much of their work a built-in aspect of dissent and resistance.


Risham Syed’s work in the recent years deals with Lahore and the number of new development projects, which have sprung up all over Lahore. She creates paintings/installations/ tapestries which portray the destruction of the aesthetics of the city caused by numerous construction sites and half-finished buildings.


“In the body of artwork on view, all made during the past six months, she depicted scenes in the city of Lahore. In the paintings, she focused on incomplete development schemes and isolated construction imagery, where one façade of a building would be completely finished but the other three sides left blank. Syed took photographs of those buildings and made hyper-realistic, postcard-size works from acrylic on canvas, stretched on board.” (, Retrieved on: November 28, 2014)


Her work tends to focus on the by-products of urbanization and the vandalisation of the essence of Old Lahore as it is slowly being turned into a metropolis rather than the hub for culture it always has been.


Huma Mulji uses her work to converse about issues like the expansion and integration of urban and rural peripheries as well as the nature of urban development in and around the main cities of Pakistan. ‘Her Suburban dream’, `Heavenly heights’ and `High Rise’ are examples of these subjects.


Another work of hers named “Sanctuary” is about the prevalent loss of security in our society. It is a representation of a decrease in public spaces and an increase in barriers which are out up everywhere from public parks, to the entrances of different resident areas, to the courtyards of schools etc.


It is the city, which builds life, constructs our memories and allows us to thrive within the society. Whereas, the city is seen as a block of cement made of buildings, infrastructure and people, these artists break the city down into a maze of life and its effect and highlight its features as a body with different organs, all vital to its survival.


Functionality of the city is discussed by most of these artists but with an undertone of issues such as displacement, development, disrepair, tragedy, rebuilding and lack of planning; all parts of playing a role in the building up of society as we know it.






  1. Calvino, I. Invisible Cities. Italy: Guillio Einaudi, 1972.
  2. Smith P.D. City: A Guidebook for the Urban age. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012
  3. Smith P.D. City: A Guidebook for the Urban age. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012
  4. Dwivedi S, Bombay: The Cities Within. Mumbai: Eminence Designs, 1995
  5. Smith P.D. City: A Guidebook for the Urban age. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012
  6. Pinder, D. Visions of the City: Utopianism, Power and Politics in Twentieth Century Urbanism. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006.
  7. Vandal, 30. “Living in Glass Houses.” The News on Sunday, 8th September, 2013.
  8. Osborne, P. Conceptual Art. New York: Phaidon, 2002.
  9. Mulji, H. “Notes on Selected Works 2013-2008” Huma Mulji Retrieved November 3, 2014 from the World Wide Web
10.Venkatraman, R. “A Walk Through Lahore with Risham Syed” Asia Society February 8, 2013. Retrieved November