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Ch. 1, pp. 23-35

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  • The previous installment brought us to the end of Chapter 1-1 and this one will continue from 1-2 The spatial structure of polis and the spatial concept of “threshold”. It’s about twice as long as the previous installment or, as LinkedIn would put it, a “12 min read” instead of my usual six. I did this because there wasn’t a good place to break it. It made more sense to continue to the conclusion and the end of sub-chapter 1-2.
  • I noticed more repetition in the sentences than we’re perhaps used to in English. I think much of this is because Yamamoto is describing Ancient Greek architecture and the writings of Hannah Arendt in Japanese for Japanese readers likely to be unfamiliar with either. I’ve condensed some sentences but, since this translation is being published in installments, it won’t hurt to keep some repetition as reminders of what went before.
  • The phrase “political freedom and equality” will occur many times. I’ve translated it literally and hopefully without any culturally-specific definitions or manifestations other than those to which the text refers.
  • Following Yamamoto’s lead in always writing 閾 as [ 閾 ] with the Japanese equivalent of quotation marks, I’ve translated it as “threshold” as a reminder that it means something more than its normal meaning.
  • In written Japanese, paragraph breaks are sometimes used for emphasis much as we might use bullet points in English. I’ve kept most.

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2 The spatial structure of polis and the spatial concept of “threshold”

The “threshold connects and at the same time separates

The “no-man’s-land” space was a space not only characteristic of Ancient Greece but, when thinking about urban space, is a universal concept. The word we use for spaces such as this “no-man’s-land” is “threshold” (but here used in to indicate a threshold having spatial depth). This “threshold” was between two different realms and was a space that formed a mutual relationship between them while at the same time functioning to separate them as shown in FIG. 4. The “threshold” is the space between the two different realms of the public realm and the private realm. (The author, Theory of Housing, New Edition1, p264) It’s a very architectural concept and this “threshold” is an architectural device for “connecting and at the same time separating” the persons living in the house.

Fig. 4: Conceptual Diagram of the Threshold (drawn by the author). The “threshold” is a space included in the private realm and is a space open to the public realm. The “threshold” is a space inside of the private realm but is also associated with the public realm. It is what Arendt termed “no-man’s-land”. The space for “privacy” and which does not include the “threshold” is labelled private sphere and which, in Ancient Greece, was the realm of women and servants, and the place for “cyclic life processes.

In Ancient Greece, the andronitis (male realm) was the “threshold” and the gynaikeion (women’s realm) on its inner side was the place for private living. The andronitis was directly open to the public realm of the polis while the gynaikeionitis (women’s realm) separated from the public realm by the threshold was the space for private living, and the space of women and servants.

A caution is needed because the “threshold” is within the space of the house (oikos) and the situation is not one of the “threshold” being a special space associated with neither house nor polis. The threshold was part of the house (oikos). This may be difficult to understand but one part of a privately owned house was part of the public space that was the “threshold”. This brings with it the specific problem of architectural space.

If we consider the “threshold” as an architectural space only in terms of its function on the inside of the house – that is, understanding it functionally as a single space – then, as with Spiros Kostof’s understanding that “the functions of each of the other spaces are not strictly determined but the room with the low platform around its edges and called the andron was the main space for eating and entertainment”. It was therefore more than a multi-purpose room or one used for receiving guests. This mutual separation of the “male realm” and the “female realm” can be interpreted as sexual discrimination within the household because we think of the “house” (and including the “housing” we live in today) as a private realm. Contemporary architects see the problem of the architectural space of the house as a the problem of the interior of the house. As long as that is taken as the premise, then it will never be connected to the problem of the outside, or the problem of the house’s relationship with the city. The architectural space of the “house” is that of the “house” including its “threshold” because the public space of the “threshold” is included in the “house” as a private realm. It isn’t just a problem of the inside of that private space. The problem of the private realm is more than the problem of the inside as it also relates to the public realm and this is a specific problem of architectural space.

The polis was designed for persons to be equal

Returning to Arendt, the house is expressed by its exterior. “What is important for the city, is not that the realm that has no public importance is hidden, but its exterior appearance, as it appears to the city realm via the boundaries between house and house.” The house appears in the urban space as architectural space. What I mean by this is that it appears as specific urban spaces such as walls, gate-style, and the andronitis, and this architectural exterior appearance is part of the urban space of the polis. Furthermore, that “architectural appearance” was, for the people of Ancient Greece, the most important means of establishing order in their lives. It was a means for attaining political freedom and equality for its citizens.

People were not equal in terms of Nature. Rather, a city-state was necessary to make people equal in terms of Law (nomos) as rules to regulate human behavior. Equality existed only in the special political realm in which people met as citizens and not in their mutual interactions as individuals. … Equality in the Greek city-state –isonomia – was an attribute of the city-state and not one of the people. … [Equality] was Law (nomos), by agreement, artificial, a product of human endeavor, and associated with the man-made world. (Arendt, On Revolution, p.41)

Before nomos was nemein [meaning “to manage”]. The city-state (polis) was designed for persons to be equal but this equality was not derived from rights people were born with, but rather created by the city-state. Nemein are artificially created walls and barriers – the “man-made realm”. It is architectural space created by people, and is urban space itself. So then, how is this urban space designed?

As already noted, polis were artificial cities. They were spaces designed from the outset and were “built as a single unit on levelled land rather than being allowed to grow naturally from existing settlements.” (Kostof, History of Architecture, p.252) ”Their diagrammatic clarity comes from the need for them to be immediately legible.” (ibid. p.252) This is why the plan is a grid. What can’t be overlooked when thinking about the mindest of the Greek colonists, is not that they weren’t satellites of the parent city but cities that were newly built and independent, however small.” (Ito Sadao [Ito, S.], History of Ancient Greece, p.130) The urban space of an independent polis was designed for the colonists. The idea for the grid plan is said to have come from Hippodamus of Miletus and owes much to the Ionian cities of Aegean Sea in Asia Minor, and Miletus in particular. (Kostof, History of Architecture, p.253) It was Aristotle who said that this “new system” of “orderly and separated” city streets was devised by Hippodamus. (Politics, p.336) “Until the 5th century, cities broke off from Athens and developed naturally from villages and, because of this, roads were disorderly and the city walls were crude.” (Kobayashi Bunji [Kobayashi, B.] et al., History of Western Architecture, p.80) Planning and design followed the topography.

Fig. 5 shows the city plan of Miletus as developed by Hippodamus after the 5th century Persian Wars. After Miletus, this grid plan came to be known as the “Hippodamus Style” although the grid plan was not the invention of Hippodamus alone as “it was already an ancient type seen in Mesopotamia.” (Manford, Ancient Cities, Tomorrow’s Cities, p.200) Manford is of the opinion that there were already examples of grid planning in ancient Egypt and in Mesopotamia. Hippodamus’ contribution was not the invention of the grid plan but his discovery that the grid plan had great possibilities for “a new way of doing things” in the new colony cities, and for reinventing the grid plan as a concept for planning the polis (colony city). This planning concept was “equality”. Grid divisions determined by dwelling requirements and not by the exceptional requirements of shrines or temples. They recognized the equality of all areas and the equality of land personally owned on the basis of general regulations determined by the local authority. The grid plan was “a device for planning egalitarianism” (Kostof, History of Architecture, p.252) But why should a grid plan be linked to “equality”? IUt is because the relationship that all houses have with the street (the transportation infrastructure) has the same condition. Plans with streets arranged in parallel lines make it difficult for hierarchies to develop between houses, (unlike the centripetal arrangement of cities planned with radial roads, for example). Grid planning is thus extremely suited to giving rows of houses the same attributes.

Fig. 5: 5th century Miletus as planned by Hippodamus after the Persian Wars (Source: Benevolo, The History of the City 1, p.110)

Houses in the polis had to be equal. “Prior to the creation of the polis, it was natural that society could be deconstructed into units of social organization based on blood units such as clan or tribe” (Arendt, The Human Condition, pp.45-47) All persons living in the polis were separated from the communities in which they had been living until then, and moved to colony cities having a grid plan. Hippodamus was conscious of how this grid plan could contribute to the political concept of civic equality. By having a new house, the colonists became citizens of the polis. The plan for the arrangement of houses had to ensure equality for the colonists. Moreover, it also had to ensure freedom.

The streets of the grid plan led to the agora enclosed by the rows of columns and supported roofs that comprised the stoa. (Fig. 6) “Agora having enclosing stoa on three sides were another idea of Hippodamus. (Manford, Ancient Cities, Tomorrow’s Cities, p.200) The agora surrounded by stoa became a “formal and monumental space befitting a special place and symbol of freedom.” (Kostof, History of Architecture”, p.256) Courtrooms (or civil courts) as well as public oratory and announcements were held in the stoa. … The followers of the philosopher Xenon were known as stoics, a name deriving from the stoa where he conducted his debates.” (ibid. p.256) The agora was the place of free debate. Citizens could debate and petition in the agora and traders could set up shop in the stoa. “The lives of free individuals required the existence of others and that freedom required the city-state (polis) to have a place such as a market place where people could gather.” (Arendt, On Revolution, p.42) The polis was designed to realize equality and freedom. “”Equality” in the city-state (polis) … was an attribute of the polis and not an attribute of people. As Arendt writes, “equality was an artificial construct, a product of human endeavor, and an attribute of the man-made world. It was necessary for the city-state (polis) to have a political space place where people could gather.” It was something that was spatially designed. Equality and freedom were designed as urban space and as architectural space. By being housed in the grid plan of the city, petitioning in the agora surrounded by stoa, and dwelling in houses with their “thresholds”, the people made the citizenship of freedom and equality a part of themselves. As citizens, citizenship became a part of them.

Fig. 6: Centre of Miletus (Source: Benevolo, The History of the City 1, p.111)
Tight grid with the agora surrounded by stoa.

1 Theater, 2 Heroön (shrine), 3-4 – , 5 Public bath, 6 Harbour Monument, 7 Synagogue, 8 Harbour monument, 9 Harbour stoa, 10 Delphinium (Realm of Apollo), 11 Harbour gate, 12 Harbour market, 14 Ionic colonnade, 15 Victory promenade , 16 Baths of Vergilius Capito (commemorating 1st century Romans), 17 Hellenistic gymnasium, 18 Sanctuary of Askelpius, 19 Emperor’s shrine?, 20 Bouleterion, 21 Nymphaeum, 22 Market gate, 23 Christian church, 24 South agora, 25 Storehouse, 26, Heroön shrine, 27 Serapis shrine, 28 Baths of Faustian

Fig. 7 shows the relationship between the houses and the urban plan defined by the grid. The gridded streets lead to the public space of the agora and people could pass freely along them. The houses had an “external appearance” with respect to those streets and the andronitis (the threshold including the andron was open to those streets.

The andron was the place for conducting symposia, the place for free debate, whereas the andronitis was the no-man’s-land of the “threshold” that was a place within the private realm of the house but connected to the public realm. The andronitis was one part of the public realm (polis). Freedom for the Ancient Greeks, was the freedom to enter the public realm and the freedom to participate in governance. It is with this meaning that Arendt writes, “The freedom to participate in governance” is the essence of the word freedom and “Freedom was born at the same time as the emergence of the Greek city-state [colony city].” (ibid. p.40) Freedom was freedom in the polis space designed to enable freedom. Persons in the polis were all equal and at the same time were free. In aligmnent with the insights in Docville1, “we often think of equality as a threat to freedom but it is fundamentally the same thing.” (ibid. p.40) This is guaranteed by the gridded urban configuration, and the architectural configuration of houses having “threshold” space.

Fig. 7: The andronitis open to the street. (The author) The andronitis is connected to the street of the public realm and is part of that public realm. There is also a public realm within the private realm that is the house (oikos). The house is a part of the city. The polis was not just a simple collection of independent houses. It was therefore possible to create the political space of the polis from this assembly of houses. (Hatched areas indicate the public realm.)

“Freedom as a political phenomenon appeared at the same time as the Greek city-state and this was one form of organizing politics that delivered collective living on the basis of the relationship with “no rule” that didn’t distinguish between rulers and ruled. This concept of “no rule” is expressed in the word isonomia. The ancients stated that, of the various forms that governance could take, isonomia was unique in having no concept of rule. The city-state was thought of not as civil rule but as isonomia.” (ibid. p.40) “In other words, isonomia was the urban configuration itself,” Arendt writes. (ibid. p.41) Isonomia was guaranteed by the grid plan of the city-state, and the architectural configuration of the agora and houses with their strong relationship to it. The people of Ancient Greece were well aware of the profound relationship that political freedom had with the specific architectural configuration. Arendt emphasizes that this awareness is completely absent in us living in contemporary society.

Crucially, Arendt observes that political freedom and equality did not come about because of the emergence of the architectural space of the polis, but vice-versa. The polls was architecturally designed in order to realize freedom and equality. Political freedom and equality were things that need to be architecturally planned and designed for.

In our society, the political importance of architectural space is something that’s been lost to the extent it hardly exists. Arendt’s identifying the structure of urban space and the structure of architectural space as responsible for the idea of political freedom, is something that’s now very difficult for us to comprehend because architectural space is not just the functional space we think of it as. I believe this is the simple result of us thinking of cities and buildings as nothing more than their social requirements, and that this way of thinking is characteristic of us in modern society. This does not mean that the political nature of those spaces has been lost. It is more the case that the urban and architectural spaces in which we live, work to control political freedom. The political nature of the polis worked in the opposite direction. In passing, we who live within “contemporary society” cannot perceive that political nature because – and I will expand on this later – we view architectural space as nothing more than “function”. This is the largest characteristic of the “contemporary society” in which we live now.

This is why understanding the dual meanings of what Arendt wrote is difficult. By “dual”, I mean the first is the space that Arendt could only describe as “no-man’s-land” and part of the public realm but within the confines of the house, means that the house was more than just a private realm. The other sense is that architectural space is not what we think of as functional space without any relationship to its political nature. It is difficult to understand that architecture didn’t function for the sake of private space, and was instead designed as a political space.

How the Ancient Greeks thought of their urban space and architectural space and how we think of ours now are so different as to be almost completely opposite and the difference lies in the relationship with architecture and the city. As Arendt correctly pointed out, “What is important for the city lies not within the “private” realm that is hidden and that has no public importance, but its outwards appearance.” (The Human Condition, p.92) This “external appearance” is how a single building appears with respect to the environment of the city, or how its is seen to appear. It is a direct relationship with the city. There is no “external appearance” other than that designed by the relationship with the city but we, as architects, currently have not even one design theory for this “external appearance” or how its relationship with the city should be. Instead, we believe that “external appearance” is the simple result of a process decided by internal conditions such as function (in the case of private living). The Modernists did not provide any new thinking with respect to “external appearance”, and nor did they produce a single theory for the relationship between cities and buildings. The “external appearance” of buildings is considered a problem of personal preference and not as something concerning the public.

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1 A television documentary series exploring urban life in contemporary Greece

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(1) Yamamoto Riken, Theory of Dwelling [New Edition], Heibonsha Publishing, 2004 [Japanese]

2024/04/21 Ch. 1, pp.23-35 [this post]
2024/04/07 Ch. 1, pp.18-23
2024/03/31 Ch. 1, pp.14-18
2024/03/24 The Space of Power vs. The Power of Space: Preface pp. 7-11

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