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Renaissance Ideal City, from the National Gallery of the Marche, Urbino
Is the Ideal City the echo of an Ideal Architecture?

Jeannette Kuo (Karamuk Kuo)

The city as a house and the house as a city was an ideal espoused by Alberti, Palladio and later picked up by Baldassare Castiglione in his description of Urbino as a „city in the form of a palace.” While these analogies of the city to a house might in certain cases prove fruitful as a provocation, the general abstraction and conflation of scales oversimplifies the very nature of a city, even that of an idealized one. Valuable more for its critique of the status quo than for the abstract reality it proposes, the Ideal City is perhaps more problematic than the Ideal Architecture. To begin with, the very definition of a city implies a scale of population and geography that denies the plausibility of any singular treatment. Moreover, a city is a dynamic organism with changing social and political structures that do not conform to any fixed image. Then, all this aside, there is still the problem of whose Ideal it would represent. From the cities imagined in the Renaissance to the modernist plans of Hilberseimer or Le Corbusier, each of these urban visions appear frozen, out-of-scale, and too perfect to allow for the messiness of everyday life. But more disturbingly, they seem to be molded for an Ideal Person (most likely a man) who does not exist.  Rather than the vibrant collisions of urban experiences that present a multitude of possibilities, the geometric perfection and often singular ideology that might work at the scale of architecture become sterile, rigid, and oppressive when multiplied at an urban scale. Even the best architecture when repeated would produce a monstrosity. Cities that we enjoy spending time in--Berlin, New York, Paris, Tokyo—are all results of layers of history, at times even violent, in which one system is grafted upon another. Each part, when isolated, may suggest a fragment of an Ideal City. But taken as a whole, none of these cities are altogether ideal. Order is often disrupted and differentiated, the ugly rub up alongside the beautiful, the ordinary alongside the monumental. More than just an image, a city is a continuous and pluralistic narrative.


Jeannette Kuo received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Architecture at U.C.Berkeley (1999), her Master of Architecture with Distinction at Harvard University (2004), and her Master of Advanced Studies at ETH Zurich (2010). After working for Barkow Leibinger Architects in Berlin and Architecture Research Office in New York, she started teaching in 2006 with the Maybeck Teaching Fellowship at UC Berkeley and went on to teach at MIT (2007—2009) and at the EPFL Lausanne (2011—2014). Since 2016, she is Assistant Professor in Practice at Harvard Graduate School of Design.