Tuesday, 15 September 2015

"Are modern blocks of flats modelled on Roman insulae?"

Quite an interesting article on Roman architecture and town planning at the BBC.

But the short answer is "No".

However old or new a settlement, it is nearly always the case that they are/were more densely built up in the centre than at the outer edges, in other words, taller buildings and smaller gardens. This applies to Egyptian towns, Anglo-Saxon villages, prehistoric sites, ancient Rome, modern Rome, London or anywhere else. The 'centre' is not always the geographical centre of course - so the 'centre' of an English seaside town is the beach and the pier; the centre of a port is the actual harbour etc.

Why? It is because location values are higher in the centre, so for a given budget, people are prepared to sacrifice space for convenience. And traders have to be in the centre where the "market" is anyway, especially if they are dealing in commodities stored elsewhere (so physical space barely matters).


Random said...

Mark, please help me argue with this idiot
We need to build more houses to cut prices!

Random said...

... Says the guy

Bayard said...

Mark, it seems from your post that the answer to the title is "yes"; modern blocks of flats are modelled on Roman insulae because they both fulfil the same function, in the same way that aerofoils have the same cross section as fish.

Random, check out the housebuilding and house price stats for the 70's and you will see that a time of unprecedented building of houses coincided with an unprecedented boom in house prices, which rather suggests that another construction boom would have the same effect. As to why, that's a bit harder to answer, the best theory being that when you buy a house, the building may be the same as thousands of others, but the expensive bit is the land and that is not the same as even the next plot (if you doubt this consider which is more valuable, a house on one side of the street whose back windows look out over the park or the identical house on an identical plot the other side of the same street whose back windows look over the back garden of the house in the next street along?)

James Higham said...

Which makes getting about from one business to the other easier in the centre. Double the frontage in the suburbs means twice the walking time.

Mark Wadsworth said...

R, sorry, I was out yesterday evening. Just link to some stuff on here.

B, fish/aerofoil is a poor analogy. They arose under completely different circumstances, and aeroplane wings don't need to be aerofoil shaped anyway, that myth was debunked long ago (or how else can they fly upside down?).

Point is, modern towns would look the way they do had their been no ancient Rome whatsoever, So the analogy might be the Tasmanian Tiger and a normal big cat look similar because they evolved to fill a similar ecological niche, despite the fact they evolved completely independently and are completely different species.

JH, exactly, good example.

DBC Reed said...

Are you sure most expensive housing is always in centre of towns?I used to live in dumpy houses in middle of Swindon and Northampton where the classier housing was in leafy suburbs.Come to think of it:a lot of Brit towns had West Ends because the East Ends, at similar distance from centre, got the prevailing polluted Westerly winds.Pollution was a factor prompting dispersal, garden cities ,garden suburbs surely?

Mark Wadsworth said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark Wadsworth said...

DBC I did not say "more expensive" I said "smaller". By and large, they cost the same in absolute terms.

Bayard said...

Mark, aerofoils don't have to be asymmetric. If they did, I wouldn't have compared them to fish. Both are the best shape for a solid moving through a fluid. But no, I didn't mean that someone looked at a picture of Roman insulae and thought "that's a good idea, lets try it in our cities."

DBCR, good point. I suppose the answer is that there are other things, like breathing unpolluted air, or the ability to park or have a garden that trump closeness to the centre when it comes to housing. Dublin is interesting as the historically posh part is to the east.

DBC Reed said...

I should think that the old 18th/19th miasma theory of the spread of disease would have made people live at a distance from town centres if they could afford it, preferably up-wind. Then there was the smoke: London was called the Smoke in my childhood and it was only determined government invention that stopped people dying in killer smogs.Another awkward fact for the laissez-faire enthusiasts.Birmingham under laissez- fair conditions in the 1870's was reliant on private wells and an intermittent private piped water supply.The wells had become poisoned with sewage deep down and were spreading typhoid(or cholera I forget which).The piped water company was always digging up the city streets.
Fortunately Joe Chamberlain municipalised the water company and became thoroughly disillusioned with laissez fair and drove it out of British political discourse: even the notion of international Free Trade. However the Gothic Revivalists are bent on undoing his good work with results that all may see.I suspect its only a craze though, like hoola hoops.
Big cities today are only inhabitable thanks to massive public interventions. (More people are supposed to have died because of the dangerous nineteenth-century London streets from the accumulated horse-shit not the traffic.)

Mark Wadsworth said...

DBC yes agreed to all that

DBC Reed said...

The miasma enthusiasts were wittering away for years about the Broad Street cholera outbreak: they only agree to remove the Broad Street pump handle as an experiment and remained heroically, Britishly, unconvinced by the immediate cessation of the outbreak. Cesspits in which the upstanding or squatting down citizens buried shit and piss in the garden got into groundwater that fed the Broad Street pump .
Now London house prices are driving out the badly paid citizenry and the usual pompous prat class pretends not to notice the rising smell of shit while declaring it is beyond human capabilities to do anything about it.