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The City: Histories of Urbanism and the Built Environment


Course Coordinator: Cecilia L. CHU 
Course Tutors: Yiling LIN, Rui MA, Ting WANG
















Hong Kong

San Francisco






 Course Topics

(Please click on the course titles below to expand for more details.)

“First Cities”: Çatalhöyük and Mesopotamian Cities

This introductory lecture will consider the attributes of cities and meanings of the “urban.” Rather than attempting to provide a set of fixed definitions, we will begin by examining the forms and organizations of a range of early cities that first emerged in Mesopotamia, using these to help us think about processes of urbanism and urban functions, such as housing, use of resources, social surplus, religious practices as well as theemergence of social hierarchy, divergentmodes of urban life and world vie

Governing the City: From Mycenaean Citadels to Greek and Roman Colonies

This week introduces the idea of urban governance and establishment of urban orders. Cities, as the planning theorist Peter Hall explains, are disordered places that are more difficult to manage than villages or small towns. Thinking about urban orders lead us to associate the physical forms of cities with the rules and regulations that shape them, and how they were in turn reshaped or re-appropriated in everyday practices by individuals and social groups. Discussion of these will raise questions about the provision of infrastructure, land ownership, labor markets, as well as the role of government, political freedom and the construction of citizenship.

Cities and Empires: Persepolis, Rome

This week’s lecture will explore ideas of empire and how cities have contributed to imperial rule. While their forms varied significantly according to specific social and political structures, almost all imperial cities acted as symbolic capital and as sites where certain ideological expressions were displayed. Imperial cities of empires also tended to consist of diverse groups of people that were attracted by prospects of advancement near the center of power or drafted in by conquest. Meanwhile, characteristics of an empire were often expressed in cities outside the imperial capital by local authorities seeking to enhance their status by adapting an imperial model. 

Cities of Lineage: Chang’an, Nara, Kaifeng

This week’s lecture will discuss how particular urban forms and traditions are made, maintained and transformed over time under different political regimes. It will begin by examining the Tang capital Chang’an, whose spatial arrangement could be traced back to the intellectual order established in antiquarian China. While Chang’an has itself become a planning model for other cities in Asia such as Nara and Kyoto, the urban patterns of the latter continue to evolve according to their own religious traditions and cultural practices. The lecture will end by visiting the Song city Kaifeng, which saw the rise of a new urban tradition: the commercial street. 

“Islamic” cities: Baghdad, Damascus, Cordova

Picking up the questions raised in the previous week, this lecture explores the varied forms of cities in the Muslim world. Although conventional historiographies tend to define cities as “Islamic by their shared set of religious building types and other physical elements, recent research challenges this stereotypical image of “the Islamic City” because it does not take into account the factor of time and nature of urban growth functions that differ from place to placeThis lecture will examine the processes by which several citiein the Middle East and the Mediterranean regions became Islamic.” By doing so it further highlights the necessity of placing the study of cities within their historical and cultural contexts.  

The Modernist City: Paris, Chicago, Shanghai

This week’s lecture will introduce the ideas of modernism, modernization and modernity. It will begin by tracing the advent of modernist planning in Europe in the mid 19th century. It will then discuss how modernist planning and architectural ideas travelled to other places and were re-appropriated by various agents to serve specific purposes. The discussion will examine how particular urban forms were adapted to suit local circumstances and how these developments played a part in the construction of identities and citizenship. 

Colonial Modern: Casablanca, Singapore, Hong Kong

Continuing from the last topic, this lecture will discuss ways in which visions of modernism were adapted in colonial and “non-Western” contexts and how “colonized subjects” experienced modernity on their own terms. The discussion will also consider the idea of colonial cities as “urban laboratories” – places where planners and reformers were able to experiment with new forms of social organization due to greater governmental power which they did not possess in their home countries. 

Crisis Cities: London, Hong Kong, San Francisco

Throughout history, disasters and urban crises tended to help usher major policy changes and commencement of new planning projects in different cities around the world. Accompanying these changes were the production of new knowledge and techniques to improve the health and safety of the populations. Using crisis and trauma as a lens, this lecture will examine the urban improvement schemes initiated after major disasters in two cities. We will also explore the contestations entailed in urban regeneration and how efforts to regulate the urban environment were often compromised by resistance from property owners who fought to protect their own interests. 

The City of Homes: New York, Hong Kong, Shanghai

Since the late 19th century, the conception of home and practices of domestic life have undergone significant changes amidst ongoing processes of modernization. Our discussion this week will touch on the emergence of the “garden city” as a remedy for urban problems in England and how the concept had been adapted by policy makers and developers in other parts of the world. We will trace the development of several housing projects that utilized different utopian imaginaries to foster collective aspiration for the future. The study of these projects will also make clear that urban knowledge was co-produced by different social and institutional actors whose ideas were often adapted from other places. 

Cities and Urban Futures

Over the course of history, urban visionaries have been inspired by the prospect that a radical reconstruction of cities would help resolve existing urban problems and social crisis. Desires for better urban futures often entail a break from present political, social and economic structures. This lecture will examine several visionary schemes proposed by planners and architects in the 20th century, using these discussions to rethink the historical contexts that gave rise to particular utopian dreams in the past and to reflect on our own urban aspirations in the present.

City of Memories

In recent years, many cities that were once centers of forward-looking modernist culture are now focusing on commemorating and conserving their urban heritage. While many conservation projects are initiated as part and parcel of tourism development, local residents have also actively participated in the protection of particular buildings and sites that they see to have played an important role in the shaping of their identities. This lecture will examine the changing interpretations of heritage in several cities undergoing rapid economic development and political change.