An Ideal City?

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Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome – early planning

The first city

Cities began to emerge in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) around 4500 years ago. Ur, the capital of ancient Sumeria, was the world’s first city. It supported a complex and sophisticated society.

Organic yet ‘ideal’

The ancient ‘ideal city’ – typified by Athens in the 5th century BC and imperial Rome (c100 BC – c400 AD) – was not planned. Athens grew from its focal point, the acropolis, which became the ceremonial centre of the city-state, decked with temples including the Parthenon. These temples, and other civic buildings of the ancient Greek world, defined the architectural style known as ‘classical’. Below the acropolis was the agora or central market and community space for the citizens of Athens.

While Athens was organic, there were some planned towns in the ancient world. Priene, in Asia Minor, was a town planned to fit a hilltop site.

Ancient Rome grew from a settlement founded around 700 BC on seven hills near the Tiber river. Its Capitol had a similar function to the Athenian acropolis. And its forums, with temples, baths, basilicas and colonnades were places for business and recreation. Many of these buildings were in the classical style copied from Greece.

Unlike Rome itself, many cities and towns of the Roman Empire were planned, but mainly as military camps. They featured a grid with a forum at the centre, and baths, basilicas, amphitheatres and markets.

Classical revival through the ages

Ancient Athens and Rome have inspired waves of ‘classical revival’:

  • the Renaissance (15th century)
  • the Baroque style (17th century)
  • the Georgian style (18th century)
  • the City Beautiful movement (19th and 20th centuries)

Much civic architecture in the Western world is in the classical style. The National Library of Australia is a modern version of the Parthenon in Athens.