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The City and the City

Spectres of the Classical in the Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century City

Modern cities have the past lurking within them, surviving in the pockets that escape the continuous redevelopment, in monuments, and in memories. It is not quite true that modernity turns ‘all that is solid into dust’. The past exists in the built environment, but also in then ideologies of the city, in the minds and memories of the citizens. That past is an integral element of the social imaginary, providing citizens with an idea of the city as it once was, but also how it could be again.                    

In the nineteenth century, the urban problem emerged as one of the great contemporary issues of the industrial age, giving birth to the great modern moments and movements of radicalism and liberal drives at social improvement. These movements shaped the contemporary city and its ideologies. The late nineteenth century saw a growing perception of the integral relationship between built form and society, a perspective that gave rise to the political demand for urban and social reform, the development of new ‘utopian’ and ‘reformist’ new town and urban renewal projects, and the birth of new academic disciplines, notably sociology, emerging in the UK in parallel with urban geography at Le Play House and in the University of London.  

 New cities/communities, however, as Jameson has argued, can only be conceived within the social imaginary of an existing society. In the case of the emerging debates of the nineteenth century, that social imaginary had a strong Classical focus. That focus derived from both the imbuing of contemporary political rhetorics with Classical models and the almost hegemonic status of Classical history and thought as a paradigm. The focus of the Classical on urban cultures (around poleis and Roman exported urbanism) offered parallels for urban analysis not available to the same extent from other contemporary or historical cultures.  The Classical city had a profound architectural influence in many of the great eighteenth and nineteenth century urban restructurings and in the building of new cities.  In the urban debates of the late nineteenth century onwards, the Classical city was a profound interlocutor, not just in the design of the urban form (morphological issues), but also in the social design of the communities that were desired by urban reformers.

 The project seeks to analyse the political, urban, and social thought of the reformers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries through analysis of the Classical influences within their thought. 

Areas of research

Research Issues

Contemporary Importance


Proposed volumes

This project is sponsored by the Centre for the Reception of Greece and Rome


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