Theoretical Dimensions of the Ideal City. The Problem of Symmetry and Harmony in Various Concepts

Essay, 2020

9 Pages, Grade: 5.0

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The idea of perfect living conditions in terms of government but also city planning may be as old as civilisation itself but appears initially in literature through the preserved works of Hippodamus and Plato. While synthesised (i.e., aspects of city planning and architecture with politics and ideology) by Vitruvius at the advent of the Roman Empire, utopian city planning would arguably find its apex in the early modern era. But why is that so? Why did architects between the 15th and 18th century concern themselves with theoretical city planning in pursuit of beauty and symmetry in favour of practical utility? And this because especially larger populations require practical city planning.

While most of these ideal city plans never transcended their sketched planning stage, some plans like that of Palmanova in Italy or Richelieu in France were actually realised. These cities are said to have been produced out of idealist thought to enable a population to live in harmony and aesthetical perfection. Now, if this social reality of living ever happened to become remains debatable. Yet, the pursuit of a perfect city was an (and maybe ongoing) human obsession. If according to Vitruvian theory the virtues of a society were depended on its architecture and man-made habitat, it is not surprising that the revival of Vitruvian theory in the 15th century inspired ambitious architects to mould perfect societies through perfect cities.

Interesting enough none of these ideal cities (i.e., Palmanova, Richelieu, Pienza, Sabionetta) were able to sustain urban growth and prosperity beyond the lives of their creators. Many of these cities remained only intact until this day because their status as heritage was realised. At this point, it seems legitimate to halt, and ask if cities which succumbed to economic and social ruination are even fit to be entitled to the status of an ideal city ? Is it possible that these cities may appear only aesthetically ideal? But there is certainly a deeper concept of an ideal city which includes architecturally manifested ideologies and social utopias embedded in city planning. It, therefore, makes sense to compare an actual theory of an ideal city with the actual cities that were realised and hold the status of an ideal city until this day.

Hans-Walter Kruft has referred on this issue in his book Städte in Utopia: Die Idealstadt vom 15.-18. Jahrhundert and came to the conclusion that most cities which are called an ideal city do curiously not fit the theoretical criteria.

Therefore, in this essay, academic architectural theory shall be confronted with probable contradictions displayed by the cases of Palmanova and Richelieu. Their building history and creators’ intentions may reveal that these cities were neither intended to be ideal cities nor fit the proper criteria. The idea of this essay is to confront simplified notions of the concept ideal city (i.e., an ideal city is an ideal city because it looks symmetrical) with elaborated academic theories. This study may lead to rethinking many of the so-called ideal cities into pseudo ideal cities.

In order to do so, the author intends to introduce the concept and theory of an ideal city based on Kruft’s work and other contemporary academic definitions. To enable a proper confrontation with alleged ideal cities and the introduced academic theory, the author has chosen to discuss the cases of Palmanova and Richelieu. These two cities were chosen as they are usually associated with the great planned cities of the Renaissance and are therefore representative for other planned cities as Pienza, Sabionetta, Freudenstadt or Zamosc. A subsequent conclusion will reveal the problematic term of the ideal city in itself and in how far these cases can even be defined as such, within academia as also the public popular domain.

On the Theoretical Foundations of the Ideal City

“The men of old were born like the wild beasts, in woods, caves, and groves, and lived on savage fare.”1. The second book of Vitruvius treatise begins with a genesis of architecture and the evolution from humans as savages to civilised beings. This understanding can be considered as one of the core foundations of the concept of an ideal city, namely that architecture is the necessity of a civilised society; achieved through the “building’s coherent relationship to the cosmic order”2. A perspective which was also observed by Henri Lewis Morgan, founding father of anthropology. He considered architecture, which exceeded its pure utilitarian functions, as a key invention in elevating man as a barbarian to a civilised state of existence3. This kind of understanding must have dominated the ancient city builders of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece but also the Roman Empire; substituting cosmic relationships with architectural representations4. One could argue that knowing or at least assuming that social orders could be manipulated through architecture lays at the bottom of the ideal city thought.

But architecture in its most simple form (i.e, decorations, singular buildings and smaller complexes) is not sufficient to understand the vast complexity of the concept of the ideal city. Two other factors play a crucial role in its conception, namely city planning and social ideology.

Elaborated city planning can be traced back to the 5th century BC proposed by the Greek architect Hippodamus who already applied the understanding that “rational, geometrically clear, grid-patterned town layouts could express social order”5 besides their economic benefits in saving space. Planned cities stand in stark contrast to so-called or organic cities 6 which do emerge rather spontaneously on mostly individual and private building endeavours. An interesting symbiosis of these approaches can be found among the planned military encampments and coloniae of the Romans that were founded around the limes (i.e., Cologne, Mainz, Trier). While the initial camps or colonies were planned and remain in their urban outline almost unchanged until today, neighbourhoods around these central structures developed mostly organically and spontaneously.

As mentioned already above, another aspect remains crucial for the overarching concept of the ideal city, namely a social ideology or utopian ideal. Rosenau defined it as follows: “[A]n ideal city represents a religious vision, or a secular view, in which social consciousness of the needs of the populations is allied with a harmonious conception of artistic unity [...] the most striking feature the ideal images have in common: they are based on a belief in betterment, either on this earth or in the hereafter.”7

Even though this definition highlights the ideological intrinsic value of an ideal city, Kruft criticises Rosenau's definition for its vagueness8. An ideal city is according to him not only aesthetically beautiful, causing to represent a social order but it is first and foremost a materialised architectural embodiment of a totalitarian social ideology9. An ideal city is hence a portrayal of a social ideology with no interest in the harmonious alliance of a real population. It is in itself utopian and can therefore never be fully realised. It can only be materialised in ignorance of the human factor; leaving out the ultimate completion and therefore demise of itself10. The ideal city can only be surmised through its materialised form; its final form only fantasised through the viewer.

The difference between Rosenau's and Kruft's position becomes most visible in relation to Jacob Talmon's notion of totalitarian regimes. Talmon explains that totalitarian regimes believe that human beings are supposed to become what they are destined to be (according to the ideology) if the circumstances for this process are given and ensured11. This thought goes very close to the idea of the ideal city. Now in Rosenau's perspective, this is what such a city is about, it is the materialised circumstances that should enable the human being to become the perfect expectation of his socio-ideological framework. Kruft on the other side does not even go that far. For him, the ideal city is nothing more than the representation of a utopian or ideological social order12. He does not even consider the possible success of these social experiments13.

To sum up, three factors are crucial for the understanding of ideal cities. First, the notion that architecture can lead to a higher state of civilised being. Second, that a city plan must be predefined; an ideal city cannot be organic or spontaneous. And third, the factor which enchants the whole concept is the imposed social ideology. Now if the ideology must be realised or not to verify an ideal city remains debatable but it is mandatory that a social ideology must exist and underlay the whole city.

Palmanova: The Forgotten Frontier

In 1593, the Venetians decided to fortify their eastern front against the Ottomans. Palmanova, a commune in Udine, north-eastern Italy, should become a modern and powerful fortress; a visual bulwark against the foreign aggressors14. Palmanova was a child of its time and followed a trend of radial fortifications. “[P]rojected with its central tower in the market square, [it] is indebted to Filarete’s Sforzinda and is frequently attributed to Scamozzi, but may be inspired by the second book of Maggi and Castriotto’s publication”15. It is said to embody the ideal plan of such a structure in an unchallenged way16. The city plan shows a transition from a nine­sided circumference to a hexagonal core (see fig. 1). While the exact author of the initial Palmanova plan remains obscured it is assumed that either architect and theoretician Vincenzo Scamozzi or the military architect Giulio Savorgnano was responsible for the genuine plan17.

The building process of the fortress city was accompanied with “great inefficiency and even confusion”18 which were caused by excessive administrative changes throughout the early years of construction. These administrative changes are visible through the conflicting architectural trends embodied in Palmanova, namely the military and the civilian. These conceptual infightings by various architects led to military inconsistencies as only three of the nine bastions remain connected to the central piazza19, while narrow main roads from the gates to the central piazza indicated shortcomings in urban and civilian pragmatism20.

While the basic outlay, including walls, streets and administrative buildings were finished by the end of the 16th century, further building phases would follow over the next centuries. Anyhow, it is interesting to note that the fortress city has never attracted much of public life. Harbinson reflects on it as follows:

“Its streets have not filled with activity, its squares have not come into use. It still feels like a colonial outpost waiting for settlers to dispose themselves in the surrounding countryside and wake its functions into life. Perhaps ideal cities are doomed to remain uninhabited, or find themselves gradually submerged in life indistinguishable from life pure and simple, not ideal.”21

The reason for the social failure of Palmanova may lay in the practical contradictions between military and civil engineering in the town. Its failure may be also attested to the empty perfection embodied in the fortified town as Rosenau subtly observes, “The emphasis during this period was on regularity and dignity, the rule of fitting conduct, and the importance of social restraint, coupled with a widespread feeling of disillusion and isolation.”22

The most curious aspect of Palmanova may be that it stylistically appears as the ideal fortified town of the early modern era; arguably straight out of the ink of a humanist's utopia. Yet, the construction was neither endorsed by any ideological intentions nor was the building phase in any sense conceptually coherent and in addition, the city had been never successfully settled by a flourishing community. The most ironic aspect could even be that the fortress was never attacked and had therefore not even the chance to defend its original purpose. Palmanova remains, therefore, a beautiful but sad and empty ghost of an idealised past. So, even though Palmanova might appear on first glance as the archetype of an ideal city, theoretically it does not meet a single criterion. It cannot even be called a failed ideal city, as it did not even intend to meet any of the criteria (i.e., human betterment, absolute and coherent city plan, imposed social ideology). To remain fair it is recorded, that Scamozzi, while working in Palmanova was stressing on the importance of “[f]eatures which he deem[ed] necessary for the well-being of the town’s inhabitants“23. But human well-being remains for sure a different objective than human betterment.

Richelieu: L’État c’est... mon ville

The locality of Richelieu, in central France, carries the name of one of the most influential and powerful people of the 17th century, namely that of Cardinal Richelieu. Armand Jean du Plessis or more famously known as Duke of Richelieu and Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, who may have been the de facto ruler of the kingdom of France during the official reign of Louis XIII. originated from the locality of Richelieu. Throughout the cardinal’s career, he started to not just become highly influential from a political view but he also accumulated vast amounts of land, properties and artistic collections24. The cardinal’s key to these achievements lays in his fundamentally rational world view, which he put in his political testament as follows:

“Common sense leads each one of us to understand that man, having been endowed with reason, should do nothing except that which is reasonable, since otherwise he would be acting contrary to his nature, and by consequence contrary to Him Who is its Creator.”25

Everyone has his place and everything has its order, so to speak. The ideological foundation layer of French absolutism, with a blunter Machiavellian attitude than he would admit himself, had his vision of social order. This vision is nowhere better displayed than in his private project of transforming the small locality of Richelieu into a planned city of architectural splendour and ideological structural underpinnings26.

Already before plans on the actual city started, Richelieu employed the architect Jaques Lemercier for the construction of the Château de Richelieu, a splendid residential manor house for the cardinal (see fig. 2), which he himself visited only three times27. The construction of the residence began around 1625. Later, the locality of Richelieu and the surrounding lands that the cardinal had acquired were proclaimed as a dukedom in 1631. It is only around this date that the cardinal seriously engaged in planning the new city of Richelieu as a conceptual annexe of the château28.

An interesting detail to note that the cardinal thought, in his testament, that “[t]here is nothing more dangerous for the state than those who wish to govern by maxims they have learned from books.”29. Yet, he must have been extremely interested and educated in architectural theory which was obviously applied on every square meter of the new city of Richelieu. Also, even though not directly attested the cardinal must have known about Tommaso Campanella’s Civitas Solis which was a utopian work on an ideal city. He must have known this first and foremost as Campanella was since 1934, so exactly during the planning and construction of the city, under the cardinal’s protection and received a notable pension from him30.

The city and palace of Richelieu, designed by Lemercier under the close supervision of the cardinal31, is itself an abstract and rigorously executed representation of the cardinal’s ideological vision of the French state; the château representing the king's (or rather his) position in the state, while the city and its structures portrayed its subjected social casts and their functions32. Curiously the city, in contrast to other ideal city plans does not have a centre (see fig. 3). It is a functional body, with the city looking almost like the carcass to the château (the head)33.

The main construction phase was finalised in 1638 with the outline, the main street (Grand Rue) and the completion of the city church by Lemercier, perpendicular to the market place in front of the château. The colonisation of the city happened apparently much later. It is documented that the first inhabitants were basically the architects and workers who were constructing the city and were living tax-free until the completion of the hundredth house34. A proper census is only attested in 1806, counting about 3000 inhabitants and declining since35.

Richelieu can be regarded as almost an ideal city. Even though its rectangular outline and lack of an elaborated centre contradict the predominant aesthetic expectations of an ideal city in the 17th century, the city of Richelieu meets most of the established theoretical criteria. Richelieu is without a doubt a representation of an ideological social order and was rigorously planned and realised by the cardinal. Yet, one criterion is not met, namely the aspect of betterment. The city of Richelieu does not represent a Platonic ideal which is worthy of human strife. On the contrary, it represents an order which already existed at that time. There is no place for betterment in a world order where everyone has his place. In Absolutism there is no betterment because everything is already as it should be. In Absolutism, there is only obedience and disobedience towards this kind of natural law and Richelieu had not much left for disobedience: “To be severe in dealing with private individuals who glory in disobeying the laws and orders of the state makes a good impression on the people, and one can commit no greater crime against the public interest than to be indulgent toward those who violate them”36.


The main question of this essay remained to ask if ideal cities can be defined by theoretical means and if these can be applied to existing examples of cities, which are perceived as ideal cities. It was established that an ideal city must intend human betterment through its architecture, an ideal city must have had an absolute and coherent plan which was rigorously executed, and an ideal city must be the architectural and urban realisation of a social ideology.

In the first example, Palmanova, it was effortlessly shown how fragile the shallow notion of an ideal city is. In public and general discourse, geometrically and aesthetically symmetrical city plans are always seen as ideal. Yet, today, we can see the attempts of building ideal cities in a historical perspective of a closed epoch, namely the Rennaissance and early modern era in total. Being able to assess several examples of seemingly ideal cities, allows us to extract a more refined definition of what an ideal city really is.

The second example, Richelieu, was a case that showed that a plan which deviated seemingly much of what one expects an ideal city to look like, remained closer to the actual intricate theoretical composition of the concept of an ideal city. Richelieu, but also Kruft's perspective, The ideal city remains utopian and because of this, it is destined to fail to be realised. A utopia is a dream, yet does this dream seemingly follow some kind of metaphysical regularity, namely the hope for social betterment, absolute planning and absolute ideology. Are the intentions of these factors to be found in the remains of a so-called ideal city, one may call it such or entitle it at least to a failed ideal city. Are these criteria non-existent, one should reframe ones’ terminology and call cities as Palmanova, for the sake of theoretical accuracy, pseudo-ideal cities.


Curl, James, Steven, and Susan Wilson. 2015. The Oxford Dictionary of Architecture. 3rd Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. de la Croix, Horst. 1966. “Palmanova: A Study in Sixteenth Century Urbanism.” Saggi e Memorie di storia dell'arte 5: 25-41.

Harbinson, Robert. 1993. The Built, the Unbuilt, and the Unbuildable: In Pursuit of Architectural Meaning. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Kruft, Hanno-Walter. 1989. Städte in Utopia: Die Idealstadt vom 15.-18. Jahrhundert. München: C.H. Beck.

Morgan, Henri, Lewis. 1985. Ancient Society. Edited by Elisabeth Tooker. Tuskon: University of Arizona Press.

Richelieu, Cardinal. 1964. The Political Testament of Cardinal Richelieu: The Significant Chapters and Supporting Selections. Translated by Henry, Betram Hill. Madison: University of Wisconsin Pree.

Rosenau, Helen. 1984. The Ideal City: Its Architectural Evolution in Europe. Oxon: Routledge.

Schilders, Petra. 2010 . The Organic City: Method or Metaphor? The Meaning of ‘Organic’ in Architecture and Urban Planning. Rotterdam: International New Town Institute.

Talmon, Jacob. 1961. Die Ursprünge der totalitären Demokratie. Köln: Westdeutscher Verlag.

Vitruvius. 1914. The Ten Books on Architecture: Translated by Morris Hicky Morgan. New York: Dover Publications.

Westfall, Carroll, William. 2015. Architecture, Liberty and Civic Order Architectural Theories from Vitruvius to Jefferson and Beyond. Surrey: Ashgate.


1 Vitruvius. The Ten Books on Architecture: Translated by Morris Hicky Morgan (New York: Dover Publications, 1914), 38.

2 Carroll William Westfall. Architecture, Liberty and Civic Order Architectural Theories from Vitruvius to Jefferson and Beyon. (Surrey: Ashgate, 2015), 18.

3 Henri Lewis Morgan. Ancient Society . Edited by Elisabeth Tooker (Tuskon: University of Arizona Press, 1985), 80-81.

4 Helen Rosenau. The Ideal City: Its Architectural Evolution in Europ. (Oxon: Routledge, 1984), 10-14.

5 James Steven Curl and Susan Wilson. The Oxford Dictionary of Architecture. 3rd Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 361.

6 Petra Schilders. The Organic City: Method or Metaphor? The Meaning of ‘Organic’ in Architecture and Urban Planning (Rotterdam: International New Town Institute, 2010).

7 Rosenau, Helen. The Ideal City, 2.

8 Hanno-Walter Kruft. Städte in Utopia: Die Idealstadt vom 15.-18. Jahrhundert (München: C.H. Beck, 1989), 10.

9 Kruft. Städte in Utopia, 10; 40.

10 Kruft. Städte in Utopia, 13-14.

11 Jacob Talmon. Die Ursprünge der totalitären Demokratie (Köln: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1961), 3.

12 Kruft. Städte in Utopia, 91.

13 Rosenau. The Ideal City, 180.

14 Horst de la Croix. “Palmanova: A Study in Sixteenth Century Urbanism” (Saggi e Memorie di storia dell'arte 5, 1966), 25.

15 Rosenau. The Ideal City, 59.

16 Robert Harbinson. The Built, the Unbuilt, and the Unbuildable: In Pursuit of Architectural Meaning (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993), 85.

17 de la Croix, “Palmanova”, 26.

18 de la Croix, “Palmanova”, 36.

19 de la Croix, “Palmanova”, 28.

20 de la Croix, “Palmanova”, 38.

21 Harbinson, The Built, the Unbuilt, and the Unbuildable, 85.

22 Rosenau, The Ideal City, 59.

23 de la Croix, Palmanova, 40.

24 Kruft. Städte in Utopia, 83.

25 Cardinal Richelieu. The Political Testament of Cardinal Richelieu: The Significant Chapters and Supporting Selections. Translated by Henry, Betram Hill (Madison: University of Wisconsin Pree, 1964), 7.

26 Kruft. Städte in Utopia, 96-97.

27 Kruft. Städte in Utopia, 84.

28 Kruft. Städte in Utopia, 84.

29 Richelieu. The Political Testament, 54.

30 Kruft. Städte in Utopia, 90.

31 Rosenau, The Ideal City, 69.

32 Kruft. Städte in Utopia, 82.

33 Kruft. Städte in Utopia, 92.

34 Kruft. Städte in Utopia, 91.

35 Kruft. Städte in Utopia, 94.

36 Richelieu. The Political Testament, 85-86. underlined social ideology as the most crucial factor of an ideal city; a factor which nevertheless never happened to become realised in social practice. Similar examples of imposed social ideologies or expectations can be found in Sabionetta or Chaux, which also ridiculously fell into obscurity after the departing of their builders and creators.

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Theoretical Dimensions of the Ideal City. The Problem of Symmetry and Harmony in Various Concepts
Warsaw University
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theoretical, dimensions, ideal, city, problematic, symmetry, harmony, various, concepts
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Benjamin Hanussek (Author), 2020, Theoretical Dimensions of the Ideal City. The Problem of Symmetry and Harmony in Various Concepts, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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