‘Cities’ are complex entities that include, to name a few, urban clusters, various land uses, urbanites, written records, urban form, resources, networks, and systems. Spiro Kostof’s book, The City Shaped, is a one-of-a-kind investigation into the birth and evolution of a city, as well as the processes and parameters that shape it. It provides historical and cultural overviews of the city before digging into the intricacies of the city’s components. Thematically, the book revolves around the structural phenomena of cities – specifically, the forces influencing the city’s shape. It investigates the practicalities and prejudices that underpin the elements of a city’s inception.

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The City Shaped, 1991_©Spiro Kostof

Organic Patterns

Cities fall into two categories. The first is the ‘planned’ or ‘designed’ or ‘created’ or ‘inorganic’ city, while the other is the ‘spontaneous’ or ‘grown’ or ‘generated’ or ‘organic’ city. According to Spiro Kostof, no city is unplanned, no matter how haphazard its form. He gives a glimpse of how cities came into being and how they have changed over time. Non-physical factors such as social conventions and legislation also play a vital role in shaping cities.

Moreover, the city is analogous to a living organism, with lush-green urban open spaces serving as the city’s ‘lungs,’ the city centre acting as its ‘heart,’ and the streets serving as its ‘arteries.’ The master plan below appears to adapt to the context to achieve a nature-related form. The beauty of today’s modern cities, on the other hand, is marked by the juxtaposition of both ‘organic’ and ‘inorganic’ urban fabric.

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Rajarhat, West Bengal_©ETH Studio Basel
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Salt Lake City, West Bengal_©[email protected]

The Grid

For planned cities, the most common pattern is a grid-iron network of roads. The urban grid divides land equally and is a reflection of the social hierarchy and territorial aristocracy. Historically, the grid aided in the establishment of ordered settlements, military arrangements, and industrial planning. Ancient cities like Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa exhibited signs of adopting a grid plan, such as roughly equal-size blocks and a clear delineation between streets and alleys. On the other hand, this rectilinear settlement planning has several drawbacks, such as the equitable distribution of urban open spaces and urban blocks’ size, shape and layout.

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Chandigarh plan by Le Corbusier_©www.townandcountryplanninginfo.com

The City as Diagram

In their purest form, ‘utopias’ are generally short-lived. As soon as reality sinks in, the city evolves. Palmanova (1593) is a peculiar example of an ‘ideal’ city with a perfectly shaped nine-sided polygon in Italy. Salt Lake City, in India, is yet another large-scale modernist ‘ideal’ city. It had its roots in industrialization when social reformers like Le Corbusier and Ebenezer Howard addressed the issues associated with the development of industrial towns. Three forms of urban matrices are merged into the shape of this metropolis: radial, orthogonal, and linear, ensuring unity in diversity and an intelligible urban structure.

Furthermore, cities like Angkor Wat, Cambodia, and Varanasi, India, are prominent examples of concentrated sanctity with religious symbolism manifested in their physical and spatial structure. Overall, “all ideal city-forms are a little dehumanizing,” says Spiro Kostof. Life, it appears, cannot be regimented, except in entirely artificial units such as monasteries, cantonments, and concentration camps where people submit either voluntarily or reluctantly. The city as a diagram is the story of fantasists seeking the intricacy and depth of an urban structure without dealing with the realities of urban life.

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The hexagonal public square, Palmanova, Italy_©alexeynovikov, iStockphoto LP
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The holy city of Varanasi, India_©Insane Traveller, Motion Array

The Grand Manner

Grand Manner refers to “an idealized aesthetic style derived from classical art” (HiSoUR, 2021). The capital of the United States, Washington, D.C., is a perfect example of a Grand Manner City. It is planned constructively as an amalgamation of the grid structure, radial avenues, and green cover. The Grand Manner has a unique relationship with the concept of theatre design, emphasizing the creation of temporary environments and enriching the spatial experience. Spiro Kostof also lays stress on the elements and characteristics of the Baroque aesthetic, such as the focal point, views, landscape, and topography.

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Washington, D.C. plan by Pierre L’ Enfant_©Jeffrey N. Fugate

The Urban Skyline

The line where the earth and the sky meet has traditionally been called the ‘skyline.’ Before the Industrial Revolution, the urban skyline was dominated by buildings of communal significance, having religious or political power. The influx of industries and subsequent technological advances caused a muddle of skyline priorities. In recent years, cities have undergone modernization and a surge in real estate demand. ‘Skyscrapers’ now satisfy humanity’s desire to aspire for the stars and their fascination for reaching enormous heights.

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Shanghai, China Skyline – 1990 (top) and 2010 (bottom)_©Catherine Rampell

Today’s ‘ideal’ city is the one that can sustain itself, its inhabitants and come to the rescue in times of adversity. In the 21st century, cities have evolved much beyond our imagination and control. They are currently transforming at two major scales: the first is at the built environment level, with real estate development regulating the urban form, while the other is at the level of urban governance. However, there is still a pressing need to bridge the urban divide, eradicate spatial injustice, and make our cities more inclusive.


[1] HiSoUR, 2021. GRAND MANNER: Art Style. [Online] Available at: https://www.hisour.com/grand-manner-21974/ [Accessed 30 October 2021].

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