The Semiotics of Urban Space

Authored by: Alexandros Ph. Lagopoulos

The Routledge Companion to Urban Media and Communication

Print publication date:  October  2019
Online publication date:  September  2019

Print ISBN: 9780415792554
eBook ISBN: 9781315211633
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This chapter focuses on the semiotics of urban space, i.e., the meaning of space, as a particular, and major, case of urban semiotics. Before passing to the purely semiotic approach, I try to show how semiotics, identified with the cultural/ideological system, is articulated within the social structure as a whole. After a brief presentation of the basic perspectives on the semiotic analysis of urban space, I discuss two different approaches, based on the communication circuit: the semiotic production and consumption of urban space. Concrete examples are presented to substantiate the existence of the three-level semiotic analysis proposed: semiotic, sociosemiotic and social semiotic analysis. Following the epistemological approaches above, the paper ends with a historical and theoretical approach presenting the three major semiotic models of urban space: the precapitalist model, the modernist model and the postmodern models.

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The Semiotics of Urban Space

Epistemological Considerations

Any scientific object is defined by the adoption of a specific epistemological approach oriented toward a specific object. A term such as “urban semiotics” is an umbrella term that covers the subject of the present chapter, but also, for example, the study of urban practices or shop signs. I shall focus on one of the central objects of this term, urban space. The term “semiotics” indicates that my approach will be concerned with meaning. Thus, the specific orientation of this chapter is the semiotics of urban space. Since its object is the city or part of it, it does not coincide with, for example, the semiotics of architecture, concerned with individual buildings or building complexes, and its viewpoint is differentiated from the material analysis of space—economic, sociological, demographic or other.

The semiotics of space can be studied in two manners. The first is the direct study of actually existing built space; that is, the study of space-as-text. The second is the indirect study of space through the mediation of some other semiotic system, such as religious, mythological and philosophical texts, literature, the press, painting or cinema. Such studies concern space-in-text and may be articulated with the first approach.

European semiotics is a theory of culture originating in the Francophone world and urban semiotics has developed in this tradition. There are also other theoretical perspectives on the meaning of urban space, originating in Anglo-Saxon human geography. Behavioral geography has studied cognitive or mental “maps” (e.g., Golledge and Stimson 1987); the phenomenologically based humanistic geography turned toward the existential dimension of urban space (e.g., Tuan 1977; Pickles 1985) and the “new” cultural geography studies urban space through the lens of postmodernism (e.g., Jacobs 1993).

The semiotics of space could not be constituted without the above epistemological considerations, since they delimit the field. However, this delimitation, necessary though it is, should not be interpreted as isolation from other approaches. Given the understandable tendency to extrapolate from the particular to the general, the result of isolation is partiality in the best case and, in the not infrequent worst case, misleading conclusions. Thus, I consider it necessary, before focusing on our subject matter, to touch upon the broader context within which we should understand the semiotics of space.

Political Economy and the Semiotics of Urban Space

It was Henri Lefebvre who emphasized that urban space is a social product. Simultaneously, Louis Althusser and Étienne Balibar with their “structural Marxism” defined society as a complex structured whole, composed of a set of internally structured levels or “instances.” The major ones of these are the economic level, the political and legal level, and the level of ideologies and theoretical formations (philosophy and sciences); the latter two levels are determined by the economic level, but only in the “final instance,” because of mediating processes, and thus are “relatively autonomous” (Althusser and Balibar 1968: 120–124). The same grid was adopted by Manuel Castells for his initial analysis of the production of urban space. Castells shows the semiotic character of ideologies when related to urban space when he posits that the spatial manifestation of the ideological system is a sign system, with the spatial forms as signifiers and the ideology they communicate as signifieds (Castells 1972: 165–280).

On his part, Lefebvre defines three aspects of social space: the spaces related to its production and reproduction (the socio-economic production of space), the “representations of space” held by urban planners, technocrats and others tending to “scientificity” (partially related to the ideological and, through it, the political production of space), and a subordinate third space, which concerns not the production but the consumption of space, including its users (Lefebvre 1974: 40–43, 48–49, 283–284).

Lefebvre’s first and third aspects are also elaborated by Raymond Williams’s “cultural materialism.” Williams supports the dialectics between an economic field, determining in the sense of setting limits to human action and the pressure of the social subjects on society and consciousness. Stuart Hall supports a similar view. For him, the sense of economic determination is that material circumstances have limiting effects on the grid, not the content, of ideology (Hall 1996), though when he argues that they are simply “mutually determining,” it is difficult to defend this as a materialist position. Williams distinguishes between a formal “official consciousness” and a “practical consciousness,” which is a “structure of feeling” or “structure of experience” and is constituted by meanings and values as they are experienced actively in everyday life (Williams 1977: 83–89, 130–134). It is these meanings and values that are invested in urban space during its consumption. The same synthesis of system and practices, structure and agency, is proposed by Pierre Bourdieu, who sees the semiotic as produced from the social structure through his concept of “habitus” (Bourdieu 1971, 1980: 88–96, 101–102).

There is a historical precedent to these views in the “Marxist sociological poetics” of Mikhail M. Bakhtin and Pavel Nikolaevich Medvedev. According to these authors, ideology is incorporated into a “semiotic material,” from language and literature to the organization of objects and people, and both are produced by economy, not as a reflection but as a refraction of it, through mediations (Medvedev and Bakhtin 1978: 7–15, 18).

The following diagram (Figure 2.1) condenses the above views, concentrating on the production of urban space. It shows the operation of the major systemic components of modern society in respect to space and is valid for any society, including those without monetary economy: the spontaneous production of space from the socio-economic system, the production of space due to state intervention (planning) and that due to the semiotic, with their dialectical interrelationships and in their articulation with space. These components are complex, being constituted by different or conflicting groups. They are analytical concepts and, in practice, cannot be isolated, because they function together dynamically as a system through continuous mediations and interactions, though these are not all of the same intensity, as the arrows indicate. The diagram shows, for example, that ideology may function within the socio-economic system or that it is subject to class determination, about which Hall observes that there is a tendency for ideas to arise from the material conditions of social groups and classes and possibly to reflect them without any rigid link between class and ideas. The figure does not cover the consumption of space, or the circle back from it to the reproduction of the social formation.

The Production of Space from the Major Systemic Components of Society

Figure 2.1   The Production of Space from the Major Systemic Components of Society

In capitalist production, there are three stages of the circulation of capital and commodities: a circulation process before production, a process of production and a new circulation process, through which the products reach the market in order to be materially consumed; these three processes are generalizable also to societies in which goods have a non-commodity form. We observe a striking resemblance between this socio-economic circuit and the communication circuit in which an addresser produces a message that is then put into circulation and reaches a set of addressees that interpret it or pragmatically use it—that is, semiotically consume it; urban space is semiotically such a message. There is, then, a general isomorphism between the socio-economic circuit and the communication circuit (see also Lagopoulos 1993: 274).

The Semiotic Analysis of Urban Space as Place

Humanistic geography has the merit of indicating the radical difference between two kinds of spaces: (material geographical) “space” and (semiotic) “place.” The concept of space refers to an external, material object and involves an intellectual, abstract, neutral and indirect manner of understanding geographical entities, while place is an internal semiotic object, a direct experience of space in consciousness, invested with meaning, values and feelings. Space is mainly produced by the dominant socio-economic system; place is by the semiotic component (Tuan 1977: 5, 17). Later, we shall concentrate on place.

Starting from Roland Barthes’s position that “as soon as there is a society, every usage is converted into a sign of itself” (Barthes 1964: 106), Umberto Eco elaborated a first basis for the semiotics of space with reference to architecture. He argues that the objects of architecture are not created to communicate (the semiotic perspective) but to function (the material perspective); however, they simultaneously communicate their function. He considers architecture as a system of signs, composed of spatial signifiers—the perception of the form of the use objects—and conventional denotative signifieds of a functional nature, which are the “first functions” of architecture. Beyond these, there are connotative signifieds of architecture, its “second functions,” which constitute a system of anthropological values, a global ideology of functions, and define the symbolic level of architecture. The first order constitutes the system of architecture strict sensu, but it is just syntactical; actual architecture as a whole presupposes its conjunction with systems existing outside it (the functional and symbolic signifieds), and these are the ones found in architecture (Eco 1972: 261–317).

We can improve Eco’s theory in two directions. First, there are also other non-morphological denotative signifieds referring to space besides the functional ones. In a field study in northern Greece on the conception of regional space, more than two dozen unitary semantic fields (codes) of such denotations were identified (Lagopoulos and Boklund-Lagopoulou 1992: 209–217). Thus, for example, in a statement such as “[t]he western suburbs have their own way of life,” we encounter a sociological denotative code. However, to do justice to Eco, the appearance of this and the other denotative codes beyond the functional one presupposes their conjunction with the functional code (“the western suburbs,” “the housing area is polluted”). These codes may also function as connotative codes. There are also two codes that are always connotative: the aesthetic code (“this is a beautiful part of the city”) and the experiential code (“I am fond of the neighborhood where I grew up”), covering issues of spatial and personal identity.

The second improvement to Eco’s theory is outlined in the above views of Castells, focused on spatial forms. In fact, the denotations of space are not only non-morphological, but also morphological. A street pattern may be a grid, the city center may have tall buildings and, of course, various kinds of connotations may be attached to them (“monotonous arrangement,” “oppressive environment”). The same code may function as either denotative or connotative.

As we saw, urban space from the semiotic viewpoint is integrated within a communication circuit. Here, we pass from semiotics to sociosemiotics. Elaborating on urban sociosemiotics, Algirdas Julien Greimas conceives of the producer of a city plan as a collective “actant” that may be composed of different “actors” (see below the case of the city of Thessaloniki), only one of which is the urban planner. In the process of planning, an amalgamation takes place of the values of the different actors, though sometimes contradictory, leading to an implicit ideological model of the future city (Greimas 1976: 151–153).

Approaches to the Semiotic Production of Urban Space

One of the planners who has addressed the semiotics of the urban environment is Kevin Lynch. After a detailed analysis of urban images (see the next section), Lynch formulated normative propositions for urban design. His principal goal is the “imageability” of the city (also see next section), which he considers the foundation for aesthetic pleasure. He proposes a semiotic reshaping of the city, through forms organized on different levels of generality, both in space and in their temporal development, and observes that they should take into account the basic elements of the city, traffic, land uses and the main urban focal points (Lynch 1960: 2, 91, 95).

Lynch’s principles of urban design are the following (Lynch 1960: 108–109):

  • (a) morphological specificity and simplicity of urban elements
  • (b) continuity of urban space, through form, uses or rhythmical repetition
  • (c) use of dominant elements
  • (d) clarity of connections
  • (e) differentiation of directions, through asymmetry or gradation
  • (f) use of visual penetration and panoramic views
  • (g) creation of a feeling of movement
  • (h) creation of temporal sequences
  • (i) strengthening of imageability with non-spatial elements, such as names and social and historical references.

Lynch’s proposal may work to a point for local plans, but it is over-ambitious for the scale of a whole city and one-sided because of its elitist concentration on aesthetics. Mainly, by limiting itself to morphological signifiers and their spatial or functional denotation (see the next section), it ignores the actual ideological universe projected onto the city by urban plans, which I shall try to identify with the following example.

In 1917, five years after the liberation of the city of Thessaloniki from the Ottoman Empire, a devastating fire leveled a great part of the central city. The government of Eleftherios Venizelos appointed a committee of Greek and French specialists and a first plan was prepared by the British architect Thomas Mawson, followed by a final plan by the renowned French architect Ernest Hébrard. The plan, which was partially realized, represents the first major urban intervention in Europe after World War I and still shapes the central city.

My semiotic analysis of the plan is mainly based on historical data from the historian of urban planning Pierre Lavedan (1921, 1933). Not all of its codes are semiotic (focused on urban meaning) because we also find codes of a practical planning nature; however, even these codes may be invested with semiotic connotative meaning. About a dozen major codes and certain sub-codes may be identified.

Two practical codes are a code of health and a very important economic code centered on the historic port of the city. A third practical code is the functional one covering the newly emerging principle of zoning and applied by Hébrard according to his four-zone prototype: administrative center (the central city with administration, commerce and upper-middle-class housing, which belongs to another zone of his prototype), industrial area (the west of the city, where it still is, with working-class housing areas) and leisure area (a garden to the east of the central city, in which a university is foreseen and where it is today), beyond which extend upper-middle-class suburbs. This practical functional code is invested with the connotations “modern city” (as is also the case with the economic code) and “European city,” giving a specific symbolic identity to the city. These are also the connotations of his elaborate traffic code, which foresees large avenues, allowing for fast and safe traffic, and a street system securing the decongestion of the city center.

The cultural code presents special interest. It has two poles. The first is that of modernism, with the above connotations. The second is composed of three historical sub-poles. Hébrard used as a basis for his plan the Hellenistic street grid system to connote its connection to ancient Greece. He also displayed the Byzantine churches by connecting them to specially designed radial axes and making them nodal points of his plan, thus connoting the relation of the city to the next phase of Greek history, Byzantium. The Beaux-Art conception of streets converging to a monument is loaded with aesthetics and the cultural and aesthetic codes are closely linked in Hébrard’s plan. For example, Hébrard created the central square of the city on the seashore, at the end of a new monumental axis oriented toward the “supernatural” view of Mount Olympus.

The third sub-pole is suggested by the writings of Lavedan, Hébrard’s contemporary. Lavedan adopts an orientalist viewpoint on Thessaloniki, which combines a condescending attitude with an atmosphere of fairy-tale, exoticism and charm. The connotation “Orientalness” seems to have marked the new plan for the French.

We also encounter in the plan a kind of super-code, which is political. Hébrard was one of the cornerstones of modern French planning and his ideology was imbued with colonialism and faith in the French civilizing mission and superiority. This nationalistic code is brought out by Lavedan, who refers to the triumph in Thessaloniki of “his [Hébrard’s] person, the cause of urban planning and that of France” (Lavedan 1933: 148).

Let us now pass to a sociosemiotic approach. The plan committee was a collective actant, closely related to Prime Minister Venizelos and his Minister of Transport, Alexandros Papanastasiou. The two men referred to the historical past of the city and its future as a modern city and used also in their statements the economic, the aesthetic and the health code, as well as a pronounced political code, exemplified by Venizelos’s declaration: “if I am proud of the conduct of my foreign policy, I am no less proud of this work”; a work that, as Mawson writes, followed Venizelos’s ideals (Yerolympos-Karadimou 1995: 81–82, 94).

The codes of Hébrard that we detected in the plan were generally also endorsed by the Greek actors. However, there are two major code conflicts in the semantic investment of the plan. First, the Greeks wanted to get rid of whatever was reminiscent of the Ottoman past and thus any connection to the Orient. Second, they opposed French nationalism.

As a last step, I shall pass to an extension of sociosemiotics, namely its articulation with the material social structure in social semiotics. Venizelos was the head of the Liberal party. Supported by the middle class, he was elected in 1910 with 85% of the vote, but because of his decision to cooperate with the Allies, he lost the support of that part of the bourgeoisie that believed in the “neutrality” of the ruling Bavarian king. Venizelos fought the feudal system of land ownership and attracted sections of the lower-middle class. With the Balkan wars (1912–1913), there had been a great extension of the population and territory of Greece, and irredentist aspirations continued to be a cornerstone of his politics. Venizelos’s policies aimed at Europeanization and modernization; he was the founder of a modern Greek state based on the rule of law, something considered by his most powerful supporters, the bourgeoisie, as the guarantor of the unobstructed function of the economy (Mavrogordatos 1988: 11, 17–18; Svoronos 1964: 85–86, 98). Thus, the policies of Venizelos condense the aspirations of this class and may be summarized in the ideological complex “history/national identity-modernization-nationalism.” This complex corresponds exactly to the dominant codes through which Hébrard’s plan was interpreted by its Greek producers.

Approaches to the Semiotic Consumption of Urban Space

Lynch’s urban design proposal was an extension of his field work on the image of the city held by its inhabitants. From this derives his central concept of imageability, which he defines as the quality of a physical object in the cityscape to evoke, with a high degree of probability, a powerful mental image in any observer. He states that this physical quality is due to two components: the identity of an object as a separate entity and structure; that is, the existence of relationships between objects and between them and the observer. Lynch concentrates on this “physical clarity” of the image, what in semiotics we would call the level of the signifiers, with their attached denotative signifieds, and badly underestimates his third component, the “emotional” meaning of the image, on the grounds that it is unstable and can be influenced through spatial design.

Lynch discovered—and this is to his credit and was corroborated by the great bulk of the behavioral geography studies on mental mapping that he, together with environmental psychology, inspired—that the mental image is composed of only five unitary elements: paths, edges, districts, nodes (such as squares) and landmarks. In semiotic terminology, these are the five paradigmatic categories of the visual signifiers. Lynch recognizes four different patterns of the structure of mental images, which are for him stages reflecting different degrees of precision; that is, of correspondence to physical space as referent (Lynch 1960: 1–13, 46–48, 88–89). However, as in the case of the production of space, with the two social-semiotic examples that follow, we shall see that a focus on the morphological signifiers, with their narrow denotation and aesthetics, cannot account for the richness of the actual consumption of space.

The reconstruction of Thessaloniki foresaw the expropriation of the lots of the burnt area and their redistribution, causing a great deal of social tension. As to the plan itself, there were various reactions that all concerned partial aspects of it, but there were no general counter-proposals, even if in many respects it represented a radical break with the past. On the contrary, the plan was unanimously accepted and no professional questioned its principles (Lavedan 1921: 240; 1933: 159–160; Yerolympos-Karadimou 1995: 98–107, 113–116, 125–127, 180–191).

Yet the principal addressee, the Greek public, was deeply divided between two ideologies. The first was the “Hellenist” ideology, a result of the assimilation of the imported idealizing and antiquarian neoclassicist ideas of Western Hellenism about ancient Greece and modern Greece as a direct continuity of it. The second, the “Romeic” ideology, was a reflexive adaptation of Western Hellenism to actual Greek experience, founded on a feeling of continuity with the more familiar Orthodox tradition and Byzantine culture considered as the popular culture. From the beginning of the 20th century, the clash between these two models resulted in a large number of ramifications, including the defense of two different forms of the language.

However, both parties had in common “Neohellenism”: the principle of historical and cultural continuity (linked to the creation of an imaginary community), the construction of a national identity and the irredentist acquisition of a homeland for the nation, a place much larger than the present state, which they felt the nation deserved and which was a prerequisite for its existence and fulfillment (Herzfeld 1982: vii, ix, 4, 10, 19–23, 119, 123, 138–139; Leontis 1998: 34–37, 72, 126–148, 293, 301–305, 309).

With its integration into the Greek state, Thessaloniki inevitably was seen as a nodal point in the once desired and now, to a certain degree, acquired “place” of the nation. In this context the Hellenist and Romeic models converge and we better understand the government ideology we encountered above.

Thus, a complex intertext was produced by Hébrard, which ended up combining, as far as possible, the two ideological waves of Greek Neohellenism and the latter with Western Hellenism, but also leaving space for the conflicting Greek irredentism and French imperialism. His plan appealed simultaneously to the supporters of both parties; that is, all Greeks. The consumer, the “reader” of the city, had ideological expectations from the plan identical to (most of) the values incorporated in its production.

Our second example comes from contemporary Greece. In a questionnaire on the conception of regional space (Lagopoulos and Boklund-Lagopoulou 1992: 258–260), analysis of one of the central questions revealed marked differences between the conceptions of the region by the different social classes. The working class has no unified regional model but is split between two opposite attitudes in respect to the same set of codes, which the speakers either adopt or ignore: the codes of economic development, ecology, lifestyle and wealth. When these codes are used, a certain geographical determinism emerges, because development is associated with ecological features; this is the context for statements about lifestyle, which is associated with wealth. Similar codes appear among the lower-middle class, but they are systematically adopted and their pairings are different: ecology is here associated with a neutral descriptive code of economic activities and the code of wealth appears together with the code referring to the mentality and character of people. The codes used by the middle class are strikingly different from those of both the above classes. The middle class focuses on the relation between economic and social issues, and some of their social codes are related to aesthetic judgments; it also associates functional issues with the built environment.

If we examine gender in relation to the settlement hierarchy (metropolis, provincial city, countryside), rural women avoid references to history and markedly avoid issues of leisure, while among city (metropolitan and provincial) women, there is a balance between reference to and avoidance of these issues. City women are focused on their personal experiences. Metropolitan women, in general, avoid issues of economic development but among provincial women, there is a clear preference for these issues.

The male regional models are significantly different. Men are not attracted by issues of leisure and do not refer to their personal experiences. Provincial men show a strong tendency toward both general economic and ecological matters, while rural men show a tendency only toward the former. In general, neither men nor women make many references to politics, but rural men are divided between use and non-use of the political code (Lagopoulos and Boklund-Lagopoulou 1992: 86–91, 249–252, 257–264).

Thus, the different social groups composing contemporary society have no unified semiotic universe. Although there may be some similarities, on the whole, each group sees regional space in its own way.

The Major Semiotic Models of Urban Space

The Precapitalist Models

Modernity caused a radical break in the way urban space has been historically semiotized. I shall start with the example of traditional India, as a typical case of precapitalist societies.

There are two main images of the universe in India. The first is the Great Lotus: the womb of the divine from the center of which, located on the vertical cosmic axis passing through the summit of the universe, creation started with the emanation of the four cardinal directions of space. The universe is a lotus, but also a man. The lotus finds its equivalent in the maṇḍala, a cosmic drawing figuring a sacred area protected from the external profane powers. It has two forms, one combining concentric circles with a square and another that is a square oriented to the cardinal points and subdivided into a grid of smaller squares. A central square, connoting the center of the universe, is considered as occupied by a lotus.

The most important Indian treatise on architecture and town planning is Mānasāra Śilpaśāstra, a compilation made between 500 and 700 ad but of much more ancient origin. This book gives the description of the basic plans of all buildings and settlements. Construction starts by tracing on the ground a square oriented to the cardinal points, which is then subdivided into smaller squares, the number of which varies; the central square is dedicated to Brahma. In other words, the architectural and urban plans are constructed maṇḍala (Auboyer 1949: 101–102; Tucci 1961: 39, 49, 87; Zimmer 1951: 56, 90–91, 136–140, 192).

The site of each plan has its protective deity, a cosmic man from whom the universe emanated; he covers with his body the whole of the plan and his navel coincides with the central part of the grid. Thus, the universe, the body and the plans of buildings and settlements are fused into an integral whole (Acharya 1995: 36–42; Müller 1961: 119–122; Rykwert 1976: 163–165).

This case helps us to better understand the general semiotic features of the models of the precapitalist settlements, which are the following (Lagopoulos 1995):

  • (a) There exists a sacred semiotic model of settlement space culturally sanctified, which governs both semiotic spatial production and consumption. This model presides over the functional organization and morphology of space.
  • (b) It also presides over architecture, even regional space, and further, over all aspects of cultural and institutional life.
  • (c) It combines simple Euclidean geometric signifiers (e.g., depending on the specific culture, a circle, concentric circles, a square, quadripartition) with a structured complex of connotative codes, central to cultural ideology. This set varies between cultures, but always includes as dominant the cosmic and the anthropomorphic codes as conceived in each case. Thus, the model and the space produced on its basis are cosmograms and “anthropograms.”
  • (d) The model may be clearly realized on the ground, or altered for topographical, social or historical reasons. However, it is always conceived in its original form and its alterations are symbolically absorbed; if they exceed a certain threshold, action is taken to restore, as far as possible, its original form.

The Modernist Models

In her work on the discourses of urban theorists, Françoise Choay classifies their 19th- and 20th-century texts up to 1964 into three discursive models. The first model, dominant in urban practice, is the “progressivist” model, which is founded on a faith in rationalism, science, technology and progress. It segregates urban functions, does not give the city precise limits, prescribes a multitude of green spaces, privileges standardized housing and, in the 20th century, promoted a geometrical and rational aesthetic. The second, “culturalist” model is systematically opposed to the previous model: it is anti-industrialist, nostalgic and proposes an “organic” city like the ancient and particularly the medieval city. It emphasizes the uniqueness of individual and interpersonal relations, seeks an atmosphere of urbanity, sets precise limits for the city, displays community and cultural buildings, encourages houses with individual character, and rejects rigid geometry, calling for irregularity and asymmetry. Finally, the third, the “naturalist,” a peripheral model that derives from a strong anti-urban tradition in 19th-century USA, is founded on nostalgia for nature and incorporates elements of both the previous models (Choay 1965: 15–53).

Another work, by Raymond Ledrut (1973), combining Greimas’s structural semantics with sociological analysis, studies on the basis of field work the conception of the modern French city held by its inhabitants as a structured discourse. Ledrut identifies two general urban models: an “abstract” model, correlated with the working class, which is founded on instrumentalism and functionalism, and a “concrete” one (of a “hedonistic” nature), correlated with the middle class, which has a personal and emotional character. Thus, Ledrut extends his study to social semiotics. Ledrut indicates that his first model corresponds to Choay’s progressivist model, while his second presents an affinity with her culturalist model.

A third study (Lagopoulos and Boklund-Lagopoulou 1992: 217–232) converges with the conclusions above. The authors identify, on the basis of the composition of the inhabitants’ codes, two opposed modern Greek regional models, the “objectivist” and the “subjectivist,” closely related to Choay’s and Ledrut’s respective models.

Thus, the spatial models of two centuries of European urban theorists and those of the contemporary users of urban and regional space in two different European countries are closely related. The closeness of the two models found allows us to generalize them as the ideological urban models of European modernity. The progressivist model represents the project of the Enlightenment, while the culturalist is a byproduct of Romanticism.

The Postmodern Model

Figure 2.1 shows the intimate relation between the semiotic and the material and the foundation of the former on the latter. This is also the conclusion of Fredric Jameson and David Harvey in respect to postmodern culture. Jameson argues that it corresponds to a new stage of capitalism in which culture has lost its previous relative autonomy and become an organic part of every aspect of society, hence his conclusion that postmodern culture is the cultural logic of late capitalism (Jameson 1984: 55–58, 87).

For Harvey, the repeated crises of capitalism, due to the over-accumulation of capital, totally transform culture as a “complex of signs and significations (including language) that mesh into codes of transmission of social values and meanings” (Harvey 1989: 299). The oil crisis of 1973 opened the period of postmodernity, characterized by a new regime of capitalist accumulation, and the resulting postmodern culture is the expression of the integration of a commodified culture within market forces. Today, money, commodities and aesthetic production are integrated within the process of the circulation of capital. We witness the construction of new types of imagery promoting commodities (as is the case with advertising) and in a sense being themselves a commodity. Images are used in a variety of areas, including economic competition through brand-name recognition and image building (e.g., by sponsoring the arts). In other words, beyond the use value of commodities and together with their exchange value, their symbolic value becomes of special importance in late capitalism.

In respect to urban space, Harvey observes that in postmodernity, capital became more sensitive to the qualities of places because they create relative locational advantages that are integrated as internal elements of its logic. The great cities of the advanced capitalist world compete to attract a highly mobile capital and an equally mobile work force. One way to achieve this is to offer spectacular urban places with an ambience of tradition and a distinctive image. According to Harvey, space is seen by postmodernists as autonomous, grounded in aesthetics and detached from any social objective. They adopt the view of a fragmented city and a collage of uses; postmodern urban design wants to express vernacular traditions, but also responds to particular fancies (Harvey 1989: 54, 59, 62, 66, 77, 88–93, 124, 239–240, 287–288, 293–299, 302–307, 327–328, 344).

Among his three features of “overmodernity,” Marc Augé includes spatial “overabundance,” which he defines as related to a change of scale due to the acceleration of transportation, and to the creation, through television, of a relatively homogeneous fictional universe. The first phenomenon is also recognizable, according to Augé, in “non-places”: infrastructure and installations such as highways and airports, the means of transportation themselves, shopping centers, big hotel chains, and recreation spaces (even refugee camps). These are just “spaces,” determined by economic interests, as opposed to “places” bound to a culture localized in space and time. Spaces use history and locality as an element of spectacle and the images they embody, which show a world of consumption accessible to everybody, are the postmodern form of alienation. They create a feeling of solitude, although their experience has a certain power of attraction (Augé 1992: 41–50, 100–105, 117, 130, 133, 136–139, 144–148).

A very similar analysis comes from Mark Gottdiener, who considers Augé’s non-places as pseudo-public “themed environments.” Gottdiener adds to Augé’s list restaurant chains, museums and historical monuments, and housing developments, extending to the thematization of nature, as in the case of Niagara Falls. According to Gottdiener, the overarching theme may be limited simply to a strongly connoted linguistic device, but it may also visually traverse a spatial complex as a whole. He identifies themes related to commercialized popular culture, such as cinema, high fashion and sports; to status; to nostalgia and fantasies; and to modernism. Gottdiener, like Augé, argues that these ephemeral spatial theme-symbols are just imitations of substantive symbols and cannot cause deeply felt meanings, but they nevertheless entertain people, create a euphoric experience and promise the realization of desires. Finally, they aim at stimulating consumption, presented as self-fulfillment, and increasing profit, serving the capitalist economy; they proliferate with increasing market segmentation (Gottdiener 1997: 2–7, 73–76, 82, 121, 142–151, 155–156).

The critical views above give an image of postmodern space as revolving around (pseudo-)history, (artificial) locality, (constructed) nostalgia and the creation of euphoric spectacle. The views from within, those of postmodern planning such as New Urbanism, Smart Growth and the Urban Village Movement, reveal an ideological nucleus focused on the neighborhood at the scale of the pedestrian, the sense of place and nostalgic architecture, social interaction in and the display of public spaces, and the use of different types of housing; it is closely related to the elusive idea of “urbanity.” We see that these views are the uncritical version of the critical views above. From this whole, the postmodern model of space emerges. If we now compare it with the modernist models, a rather unexpected fact emerges: it is a neoculturalist model, a commercialized neo-Romanticism.


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Further Reading

Choay, F. (1997 [1980]) The rule and the model: on the theory of architecture and urbanism, D. Bratton, ed., Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press.

Gottdiener, M. and Lagopoulos, Ph. (eds.) (1986) The city and the sign: an introduction to urban semiotics, New York: Columbia University Press.

Lilley, K. D. (2009) City as cosmos: the medieval world in urban form, London: Reaktion Books.

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