seeing CITY:
understanding city plans as expressions of culture

Set B, Module 1: seeing CITY
by Ryan Bradeen, 2002
designed for students of world history, geography and Asian studies at the secondary level and beyond.
Estimated project time: 5 days

This assignment has the following objectives:
  • to develop your understanding of institutions and their role in society;
  • to increase your ability to identify institutions and their functions in Roman society;
  • to provide experience with "reading" city plans as historical and cultural documents;
  • to develop your ability to create symbolic representations of ideas using size and position to indicate importance and relationship.

CITY and its Institutions

In the planning of a Roman city, its designers consciously arranged the structures of the city so that the structures' locations matched their importance. Structures were built to house the essential elements of Roman society. These elements are called institutions or
Rome"enduring organizations intended to promote and preserve a society's well-established patterns of behavior or activity."
For instance, the government institution organizes the activity of governing a country so that the country is ruled by the same general process year after year even as the actual leaders change. The government can be run by people of questionable intelligence or qualifications for office; nonetheless the procedures of government preserve the well-established pattern of life. The government institution continues to function in exactly the same manner. Institutions preserve the fundamental activities of a society even when it lacks leadership.

The Roman military is another excellent example of an institution. The military institution, that is the organization of ranks, duties and procedures that members of the Roman military followed, preserved the very successful modes of operation of the Roman legion even when the military was led by incompetents, as was often the case.

whitehouseBuildings can become symbols of institutions. The Whitehouse is the symbol of the executive branch of the US government. But the Whitehouse could burn down (the British burned it down during the War of 1812 when they raided Washington DC) yet the institution of the executive branch would (did) continue to function. An institution is therefore not a building. Nor is it the individuals since, by the same test, the executive branch can continue to function without a president or with a moron as president. When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, the government continued to function.
Institutions are ideas. Institutions are enduring organizations that people create in their heads which promote particular relationships among people in a society. This office reports to that office, lieutenants take orders from colonels, and students do their homework because the educational institution promotes the idea that students do as their teachers tell them.

VerboniaThe Task

Every society has many different institutions; there are government and legal institutions, military and health institutions, education and religious institutions as well as economic and cultural institutions. In this activity we will review the book and film, CITY by David Macauley, to understand how Romans designed their cities. We will learn to read city plans as expressions of culture. A planned city, such as the city of Verbonia described in Macauley's book, provides us with an way to examine how a society perceived its own institutions.

In Verbonia, the buildings that house and symbolize the basic institutions of Roman society are arranged on the grid of the city plan. The position and size of those buildings indicate the relative importance given to each institution. The most important institutions are given the grandest buildings and the best real estate. Also, the arrangement of the institutions allows us to understand the relationship between institutions.

In this assignment you are to examine the book and film CITY and;

  1. identify five basic institutions of Roman society;
  2. write thorough paragraphs describing each institution and indicating the pattern of activity the institution preserved and how it accomplished that goal;
  3. produce a schematic diagram that uses size and position to indicate the relationship between the five institutions you have identified;
  4. incorporate into the schematic your paragraphs and images of the buildings that symbolize each institution.

The Procedure
  • review materials from the Roman institutions webgate, your textbook and other resources to gain a general understanding of Roman society;
  • read CITY by David Macaulay. This is a intriguing book. Take time with it, pore over the pictures to understand how Roman cities were created. Most importantly note where the major buildings are and how they are arranged;
  • fill out the CITY guide;
  • view the film CITY;
  • now begin to use the city plans from Verbonia as historical documents. The next step is to transform the city plan into general statements about Roman culture and society. Based upon your readings from the webgate and other sources, identify five major institutions in Roman society;
  • for each institution you have identified, write a thorough paragraph describing the institution and indicating the pattern of activity preserved by the institution and how it accomplished that goal;
  • then, create a diagram in which the five institutions you have identified are arranged on a piece of paper (or other creative format). Use position and size to indicate the importance of each institution. Also, use arrows or lines or some other means to show the relationship between the institutions in your diagram;
  • add your paragraphs describing the institutions to the diagram as well as images of the buildings that symbolize each institution in Roman society. (For example, the Whitehoues symbolizes the executive branch of government in US society.);
  • (Optional) look at a model of ancient Rome, the capital of the Roman empire, to see how your ideas about institutions work in a unplanned city, much larger and more complicated than Verbonia.

Evaluation (100 points)

(20 points) • Institutions
Correctly identify five basic institutions in Roman society;

(20 points) • The Researcher
Accurately describe those institutions in thorough paragraphs that indicate the pattern of activity preserved by the institution and how it accomplished that goal;

(20 points) • The Einstein Award
Produce a schematic diagram which uses size and position to indicate importance and the relationship between the five institutions you have identified;

(15 points) • Design and Fashion
Incorporate into the schematic diagram your paragraphs and images of the buildings which symbolize each institution;

(15 points) • The Wow Factor
Complete the schematic diagram in a creative and effective fashion that is attractive and clear;

(10 points) • Webster's Award
Write in concise but thorough style with no mechanical errors.

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