April 2019

A House Is Made Of Rooms & Passages

“… as the philosophers maintain, the city is like some large house and the house is in turn like some small city…” from Alberti’s Ten Books (Book 1, chapter 9)

This piece is about measuring, comprehending and, in the case of a designer, setting out, the spaces between buildings; asking ‘what makes for a successful scale and an unsuccessful one; is there a right or a wrong ?’

Returning to Alberti’s analogy, are the best cities made up of a set of ‘carved spaces’, like the rooms of a house; interconnected spaces which we can navigate, use and inhabit ? If so, is there a limit to the size of urban spaces, based on human expectations, or climates, or cultures which determine good, or not so good, proportions and are there rules, formal or informal, which can help us to achieve developments which are ‘On Scale’ ?

The chapter is divided into three parts. Firstly ‘Far too Far’, which discusses how spaces within the city can be scaled, or over-scaled. Secondly ‘Making an Outdoor Room’, which looks at spaces within the city which make one ‘feel at home’, both from a dimensional and an associational point of view. The third part, ‘City as Still Life’ examines the inhumanity which we can feel in a city where object-like buildings seem to thrown down by accident and, as a result, fail to make streets.


“…in larger towns even too much breadth can be unhandsome and unhealthy…”

Alberti IV.5


In the Spring of 2009 I was in Washington with Noah, my son, and Paul, his godfather. We decided to walk from the National Gallery, past the immense obelisk of the Washington Monument, to the Lincoln Memorial, along the Mall. It is a distance of more than 2.5km – we did not realize it was that far.

It was a hot and humid day; after lunch. We had to leave before dark. As we began to walk along the grand axis, with another kilometer behind us, up to the Capitol, I felt we entered a strange suspended state. As we walked, the obelisk seemed to get further away, and yet, as an object, it seemed to grow, and I to shrink. The fact that the day was hot and humid may have exaggerated this effect but I felt not only that the monumentality of this place had entered the realm of diminishing returns but also that the ratio of width to height to length of the Mall left me feeling placeless, uncomfortable and drab. If this had been a large urban park where feeling lost was desirable, I might have enjoyed it. However, although it was meant to be a structured set of spaces, it was on a scale which ceased to read. Too much space – no space. If the width of the Mall had been less, or the buildings forming its edges had been slightly higher, it may have been a more comfortable place to be in.

As we thought we were approaching the obelisk, after what seemed like an age, we found we were still far away. As we eventually drew near enough to see the tour groups milling about at its base, and the structure itself grew larger and larger and larger, we seemed to be subject to a sensory illusion. What we had thought at first was a standard monumental axis with large civic sculptures, for visitors, along the way, was actually a ‘time and space machine’ which had set everything into slow motion and made us into lilliputtians in a world of giants. The Washington Monument was much larger than I had realized and it was still far off; it was impressive but uncomfortable.

By the time we arrived at the Lincoln Memorial; itself a masterpiece of sculptural scale – where Lincoln, the brooding giant, looks out day and night from within his finely honed cave – we felt diminished. We had walked a distance which, at walking speed, should have taken Z minutes*, but it had felt like an eternity. It was as if the whole experience had been scaled to the giants and not to our ‘regular’ human dimensions.

The Mall and its monuments are by no means a failure in urban terms but my question is whether its dimensions are unnecessarily large. Perhaps the Parisian masterplanner, L’Enfant would have admitted as much; “…the plan should be drawn on such a scale as to leave room for the aggrandizement and embellishment which the increase of the wealth of the nation will permit it to pursue at any point however remote”. Would the whole have been a better place, for people, and a better piece of urbanism, if distances had been reduced, or proportional relationships increased ?

In 200Y I was in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, the new city where we were competing for a new university campus; a competition we eventually came second in, to Massimiliano Fuksass. Like Washington, this is an over-scaled capital city plan from the Beaux Arts tradition.

The plan of Abuja, by Kenzo Tange, is a work of genius. Its central axis, held by the seat of government at one end and by a large church and a large mosque, two sentinels to faith in balance, at the other, is very strong when seen on Google Earth. The softly meandering lines of the surrounding neighbourhoods, spreading out from this axial geometry, emulating nature, flowing down from what seems to be a source, are in brilliant contrast to the formality of the central spine; but if only the scale of every distance, every street, every space could be reduced by 30%.

When seen from street level, the first thing we notice on the central spine, apart from a generally bland streetscape, is a boulder, on axis behind the parliament; beyond it in the wilderness. This is Aso Rock; the hugest boulder I have ever seen in my life. Aso Rock is neither Christian nor Muslim, neither left wing nor right wing; it just sits there, as it has for millennia. It is a ‘sugarloaf’; a solid lump of granite with shear sides; impossible to climb. I felt its magnetism strongly. It is 350m wide by 500m long by Zm high. The church of St Peter’s in Rome would fit neatly inside it, with plenty of space to spare.

We asked to be driven there but it seemed too far. No roads seemed to lead there and we ran out of time; we had to get back to work. To this day, I am filled with the sense of not understanding how big it really was and not being able to touch it; some intangible disconnection of space and time and scale. However its ineffable presence for the city, its calming permanence, is something I will never forget.

When looking at these understandably monumental compositions, the question I am asking is whether their monumentality is successful; does it engage me, the viewer; does it lift my soul, does it send tingling sensations down my spine, or does it make me feel alien, lost and indifferent ?

If grand axes and monumentality could be argued to be a way of ‘bringing things closer’; of making people feel larger than life; enabling them to ‘reach out and touch’ things which are beyond them, are these three capital cities, in particular the widths and lengths of their streets and spaces, and the heights of their buildings, ‘on scale’, are their scale relationships as good as they could possibly be ? I believe not; they have gone too far.


On the 29th July 2012, on the way back from my first visit to Naples, I spent six hours in Rome, the King and Queen of cities, where I have spent many days and weeks over the years, and hope to spend many more.

I wanted to look at the scale of Piazza San Pietro and the ceremonial street, Via della Conciliazione, which Mussolini created in the thirties by demolishing several blocks of the ‘Borgo’. I have never loved St Peter’s, inspite of Michelangelo being one of my personal heroes, and I have always felt strangely disappointed with the Piazza. I wanted to know why.

It is often said that the creation of the Via della Conciliazione diminished the impact of St Peter’s by ‘taking away the surprise’. In pre-Fascist Rome, having wandered through the tightly packed blocks of the Borgo and coming suddenly on an explosion of space; the Piazza San Pietro, and the enormity of the façade of St Peter’s, framed by Bernini’s grand elliptical porticoes, was said to be one of the great moments in the city. Fig.X shows the piazza before Mussolini decided that a grand vista was needed. To cut a grand axis through the city; to be able to see the façade of St Peter’s from far away; would this bring it closer, make it more noble, or would it make it seem further away, and perhaps more ordinary ?

The precedent was tried and tested. Julius II* had succeeded in Rome, Hausmann in Paris. These were cuts made through the pre-existing city; to open it up, rationalize it, and of course to make it easier to navigate. They were not new pieces of city laid out on virgin soil as with Washington, Abuja and Chandigargh. In the case of twentieth century Rome, when everything was on a larger scale than it had been four centuries before, I wanted to check the notion that Mussolini’s intervention had been a negative step on account of scale; too wide, too long, too open ?

I am delighted to say that, as if I was looking at these spaces for the first time, I was surprised on two counts. My first surprise was that, rather than being disappointed by the long vista of St Peter’s, I found it successful and satisfying, in §spite of the scorching heat of the day. As one crosses the Ponte S Angelo, the meeting of the bridgehead with the North bank of the Tiber (at a point where the river begins to curve southwards), and its confluence with this grand ceremonial cut, is pleasingly complex. Perhaps it was the early afternoon light, or the quiet acoustic of streets which were almost completely free of traffic, but whatever the reason was, I found the ‘closeness’ of St Peter’s, on account of the Via della Conciliazione, entirely positive.

Having avoided being distracted by the intriguing asymmetries of the axial approach to Castel S Angelo, I began to walk towards St Peter’s and unlike Washington or Abuja, it was not too far. Apart from the regrettable lack of arcades, and some rather characterless (by Roman standards) frontages, I reached the great space in front of the basilica concluding that Mussolini had been right to take out the Borgo, or at least, he had not been wrong. However, when I looked towards the church from the point where Via della Conciliazione narrows to frame the space, I understood what had gone wrong.

For some inexplicable reason, perhaps out of deference to Bernini, to create a prelude to his famous arcades, which themselves had been designed as a prelude to St. Peter’s, a second open space had been joined to the elliptical space of the Bernini piazza in the Mussolini scheme and, in my view, had destroyed its magic. There is too much space.

We are all impressed by Bernini’s colonnades when we see them; their scale is uplifting, their detail is disarmingly simple, their curve is irresistible and most people find it impossible not to sit for a moment at the column-base to feel the weight of this bold construction. However I believe there are few people who feel the emotive beauty, and the positive energy flowing between the church and the open space of the piazza, as one feels, for example, at San Marco in Venice.

The Piazza Pio XII is 75m wide by 70m long, which is a good size for a public square, ‘outdoor room’, in its own right. I was now understanding for the first time what I had always felt. Inspite of very much liking Bernini’s arcades, and feeling that their monumental simplicity was one of Rome’s masterpieces, I have always felt a niggling sense of disappointment at coming upon St Peter’s itself; ‘what’s all the fuss about ?’ The Piazza Pio XII, separated from the main square by the Via Paolo VI*, both diffuses and de-fuses the strength of the main space and the presence of the gargantuan Michelangelo façade within it.

I looked at the façade, wanting to reach out to touch it, but I could not tell what scale it was – far or near ? It could be half as big or twice as big and I wouldn’t know. It just seemed big, and even its bigness seemed bland. It is important to say that this is what I felt from point X on the drawing* below. From point Y, Bernini still works his magic; the façade is celebrated and magnified by the generosity of the two great curves and their intriguing perspective towards the basilica.

Later I bought a cast model of the elliptical piazza for one and a half Euros from a souvenir shop at the top of the Corso. I was pleased to see that the model-maker had had the sensitivity to edit out the Piazza Pio XII. With some bits of balsa wood which I found at the bottom of my satchel I tried various options for tightening up the space whilst respecting the gable ends of Bernini’s arcades, looking for the best way to reconcile the Conciliazione and S.Pietro. The two gable ends of the Bernini arcades sing to each other across the space and a powerful ‘magnetic force’ would have been felt between them, when they were more focused on each other before the demolitions. However Pio XII has de-focused the whole composition and taken away that energy.

On that hot afternoon, another very noticeable flaw in the experience of arriving at St Peter’s was the lack of continuous shade provided to keep the pilgrim from burning in the Sun on his or her way to the shrine. The Via della Conciliazione is not arcaded, except where it narrows to frame Pio XII. These two arcades give momentary respite on a hot afternoon but, counter to expectations, the arcades do not continue around the square. I, with every other hot tourist on that day, was therefore making my way diagonally across the square, to reach Bernini’s welcoming triple arcades as fast as I possibly could. Many of us (not I) had umbrellas, but I held my sketchbook as a visor to shield my forehead. Having cooled down in the grandeur of their creamy shade and the loftiness of their ennobling scale, where every column base became an individual seat, where novels were being read, phone calls made, picnics had, maps examined, eyes closed in rest and kisses exchanged, it seemed ironic that I then found myself ejected out again into the blasting Sun before I could reach S.Pietro itself. Bernini had also chosen not to give the pilgrim a continuous shaded route and, although shading is not directly a factor of size or distance or scale, it very much affects our perceptions and memories and can ‘make or break’ our experience.

Once inside the church, the theme of disappointment at ‘too much bigness’ continued and lead me to start thinking about the scaling of detail and the need for ‘intermediary scale’, but I am getting ahead of myself; I will return to St Peter’s later in the book.

As I walked out from St.Peter’s, looking across the piazza, back down Via Della Conciliazione, I suddenly found myself imagining the square full of worshippers, as it is every Sunday*, and I wondered if Piazza Pio XII had in fact been scaled specifically to accommodate a required number of pilgrims. If so, I still wished for more compression; more intensity.

As I made my way across the Tiber, from papal Rome to one of the masterpieces of the pagan city, I wondered what I had learnt; two things came to mind. Firstly that urban grandeur, and even hugeness, can be a basic part of the ‘toolkit’ for good urban design, for example the Via della Conciliazione and the Bernini arcades, but secondly, it is a fine line between that and the over-scaling of spaces, for example Piazza Pio XII (or more obviously Washington’s Mall). Perhaps it is because human beings are of a fairly consistent average size; some spaces just seem too large.


A city is like a house. Its streets are its corridors; its piazzas are its rooms. It is the job of a city to be a home for people and homeliness, on an urban scale, is not easy to achieve. If one of the city’s ‘outdoor rooms’ has evolved slowly over time, its character will be something very different from one of its ‘fast set pieces’, designed and built at a single moment. It is good for the slow to inform the fast.

The short walk from St Peter’s to the Piazza del Rotondo took me from over-scaled monumentality to a space which I have always felt is the perfect ‘outdoor room’. I found myself sitting in the shade on the West side of the delightful square of the Pantheon, Agrippa’s temple to many gods, originally built around 30 BC and reconstructed by Hadrian around 125 AD.

This space is old indeed and its memory can be felt in every stone. Like a drawing room hung with a collection of paintings from different times and places, its windows and the inscribed plaques around its walls tell stories. I sit and read. My neighbor, an aged academic with thick glasses, slowly turns through his papers, waiting for a young friend. A waiter at the next café struggles with an umbrella, a man and a woman in dressing gowns looks down from a window above.

This is a large outdoor ‘salone’, with the sky for a ceiling. Clusters of people group themselves, sitting at the cafes, and milling about; some are moving in ‘Brownian Motion’, interacting, never meeting; others rest in the shade, animating the space with a quiet babble of voices and ring-tones. Two bicycles pass through and a bell cuts the air. The piazza is hard-paved, with no trees, but it is softened by all this life.

The light and colour from West to East grades from blue to gold; from the canvas awnings and table cloths in shade, to the walls of the houses in sunlight; cream, yellow and grey. The satin reflections on the cobbles, burnished over centuries, make the paving into a carpet.

The plaques on the Albergo del Sole opposite, tell me that Pietro Mascagni, composer of La Cavalleria Rusticana stayed here in 1890 [nell’ ansiosa vigilia dell’ambito riconoscimento che sogno il trionfo della Cavalleria Rusticana] and, three hundred and seventy seven years earlier, Ludovico Ariosto, writer of Orlando Furioso and said to be Titian’s ‘man in a quilted sleeve’ had stayed here in the Spring.

From which window did he look out onto the square, all those years ago, I ask.

Looking to the left, opposite the Pantheon, a large plaque is mounted on the apricot coloured wall. I have forgotten almost all of my schoolboy Latin but even I can make out that Pius the Seventh, who became Pope in the first months of the Nineteenth Century had done something similar to Mussolini’s work at the Borgo; demolishing ‘ignoble’ taverns, reconstructing the area and clearing a public space around the Hadrian’s monument; carving the city.

Piazza del Rotondo is a good example of three of the primary themes of this book: party walls, plenitude and proportion.

When buildings touch each other, sharing party walls, they cease to be object-like. They become part of something larger than themselves – an urban block; an urban edge. This is the clay from which the city is carved. Cities cannot cohere, and outdoor rooms cannot be given positive form, without being enclosed by facades which touch, or nearly touch. At this moment a ‘figure-ground reversal’ occurs. The ‘figure’, what was the solid volume of the building, becomes the ‘ground’ – in other words the backdrop or background to an open space; the space between buildings is formed. The facades of buildings which touch are no longer the skin of a building so much as they are the enclosing shell of a void. ‘Void’ however is the wrong word to use. Piazza del Rotondo is anything but void. It is full.

Plenitude is the second theme. The piazza is full in every sense of the word.

How can we feel at home in the city if we cannot furnish the rooms of our house ? If my apartment looks out onto the Rotondo, my world does not stop at my window, my balcony or my front door. The boundaries are blurred between inner and outer worlds, private and public. My experience of the city is continuous; a continuity of many layers; a complexity of many sensations. Piazza del Rotondo, like so many successful rooms within the city, is full of layers, in time and space, sound and smell. Its times of day, its constituent parts, permanent and temporary, its colours and light, its movements, activities and events; its narratives and memories, some explicit, some implicit, make it what it is; the ‘next room’ in the city.

I close my eyes. I try to remember the Pantheon, newly finished, pagan masterpiece, thirty years before Christ. I am entering a colonnaded courtyard*; axial, symmetrical; leading me forwards, focusing my eye. I approach a handsome portico with great granite columns and grand Corinthian capitals, a classic temple of its day which suggests a traditional rectangular form within. I see no sign of the drum which today is visible on the side streets; the colonnades are gone. It is thought that the circular form of the Pantheon was specifically kept secret from the viewer in order to increase the sense of astonishment for people coming into a centrally focussed drum, having been expecting a standard axial temple. The astonishment I always feel on entering the Pantheon is, I am sure, to do with scale; not just the scale of the space and how it makes me feel larger than life but the scale of the coffering of the dome and the circle of sunlight marking the time, but I am getting ahead of myself; more of that anon.

The third theme is Proportion. The Piazza del Rotondo is approximately 60 metres square, although it widens on the East side, creating a theatrical ‘wing’, for actors in the urban play to ‘enter stage left’. The vertical faces of the buildings, which vary in height around the square are less than half its width but are sufficiently tall to assert themselves and give positive enclosure to the outdoor room.

So what is a good proportion and what is bad ? The best example I know is to compare the Place du Capitole in Toulouse with the Place Royal in Montauban. Each space is surrounded by four storey buildings*. The square in Montauban is 40 by 50 and the buildings are about half* as high as it is wide; it makes me feel somewhere. Its cornices frame the sky, like the cornices of a salon frame the ceiling. It asks me to ‘make myself at home in the city’; enjoy being in this space, take a seat or get up and dance.

By contrast, the space in Toulouse is 90 by 120 and the height of the buildings is about one fifth* of its width. It is a vast open acreage; unwelcoming to cross; impossible to inhabit. Activity clings to its edges and lurks in its arcades but even these are wrongly proportioned. Although the square is far too large, in proportion to the height of its edges, its arcades are too narrow. They are only Xm wide and it is impossible to occupy them with café tables whilst allowing any space to walk, in the shade or out of the rain.

Montauban also has one of the best arcades I know. On all four sides of the square there are double arcades; the outer vault being used for café tables, the inner one for movement. The clear width of each is about the same as Toulouse but they are lower, in proportion to the space they surround and together, they make a truly generous, and highly functional, heart for the town. For me this comparison shows that less space (Montauban), if well-structured, can feel like more, and more space (Toulouse) can feel like less.