|Of Stoas and Street Smarts|
The Stoa in the Agora in my Mind
2010 May 06, Jamal 08, 167 BE
In our life on the street we know nothing else but cars. The bustling, jostling and noise of automobiles is everywhere. Pedestrians, when they are allowed at all, are shunted aside, relegated to narrow, ugly, smelly and noisy sidewalks. The street is no place to be, much less to learn and converse. This is reflected in the design of our homes. Only older houses still have verandas in front; and such is the noise and ugliness before them that in practice they are rarely used by residents for anything other than decoration. The veranda was intended as a place of relaxation, meeting with family, talking with guests and greeting acquaintances on the street. None of that is possible now.
It is hard for us even to imagine our streets and street corners free of thundering trucks and honking automobiles. We have expressions like "street smarts," which do not mean wisdom or philosophic understanding but the ability to survive by cunning in a dangerous wasteland. Nor is this new in larger cities; even before the invention of cars, horses and carriages dominated their streets and byways. However, this was not the case during most of urban history.
The formation of a world government would enable a standard, flexible building code to develop that would make it possible to banish vehicles from streets and crossroads forever. In the city, streets, broadways and squares would rapidly become vital fora for all kinds of social interaction. As we have seen, it then would be possible to build worker's palaces on street corners like those proposed by visionaries like Flora Tristan. Around these corner palaces paths and walkways for bicyclists and pedestrians would run down the shady side of each street.
Eventually, street corner palaces will be domed over, either temporarily during colder months or permanently, year around. The covering over of public spaces is increasingly inexpensive with the invention of inflated plastic structures -- these are most familiar now as mobile play structures for children. Buckminster Fuller even advocated covering over entire cities with his invention, the geodesic dome.
In that case, boulevards and walkways could extend right around the entire outside rim of the dome of the city. As robotics advances, we can expect that it will be cheaper and less time-consuming to plant elaborate gardens just about everywhere. With trees and gardens running down the street the character of public life would surely be transformed. We could place majestic columns along public walkways throughout town. In a domed-over city, its city limits would become a prominent place. Properly designed, with a gradual shading from formal to informal gardens to wild areas, "city limits" would become synonymous with a beautiful, tranquil recreation area and meeting place where natural spaces merge with the artificial places within.
I was in a reverie over this when a word came into my head, "stoa." I looked it up. It means "porch" in Greek. It seems that the stoa had great influence on Greek philosophy. Most notably it gave its name to the first school to gain mass popularity throughout the ancient world, the stoic school of philosophers. They were named this because their founder, Zeno, had a habit of frequenting and discoursing in the painted stoa of Athens. Here is a description I found in the agglomerater, Answer.com. A stoa is:
"... a roofed colonnade or portico with a wall on one side, erected as a separate building near temples or gymnasia or in market-places as a sheltered place in which to walk and talk or hold meetings. The wall was often decorated with paintings or inscriptions. Thus the Stoa Poikil (painted colonnade) in the agora at Athens, built c.460 BC, was adorned with frescos by famous artists, including one by Polygnotus representing the destruction of Troy."
The stoa was a unique form of architecture that I had heard of but never thought much about. This "extended roofed collonade" was built on a street or square with a portico or "market-hall ... consisting of a long straight colonnade with a vertical wall and sometimes rooms at the back and a roof over." How perfect the stoa would be for making public spaces prominent throughout a city, even extending them through the countryside!
In an age before pedestrians were overrun by vehicles, the stoa served not only as a "freestanding ... covered walkway" but also served many of the functions that shopping malls do today, except that they were not privately owned or run. They were,
"lined marketplaces and sanctuaries and formed places of business and public promenades. Rooms might back onto the colonnade, and a second story was sometimes added. The Stoa of Attalus in Athens (2nd century BC), a large, elaborate, two-story building with a row of shops at the rear, was a prime example."
The first stoa were little more than sheds with columns, but they evolved over many centuries. Eventually stoa served not only business but also as the public interface of religion and politics.
"Later stoas were often immense, running to two stories, each with a colonnade of a different order and having a ridged roof supported on internal colonnades; rows of shops or offices lined the back wall, which was sometimes decorated with paintings. Such stoas surrounded the agora or marketplace of every large city and were used for public meetings."
In a post-automobile world, long stoa could run down the streets, merging with the porches and public areas of households. They could run around worker's palaces on street corners, like traffic circles for pedestrians. They could connect to stoa running around the outside perimeter of the dome covering over the city.
A stoa-dominated cityscape would offer residents ample opportunity for walking and engaging in enjoyable, non-superficial conversation. This is the convivial atmosphere that pervades Plato's dialogues and gave rise to stoicism and other schools of popular philosophy and religion -- the Apostle Paul's first entrance into Athens featured a visit and speech at one of a newer generation of stoa. None of this is possible on a modern street or in a shopping mall.
Pervasive stoa would also offer unprecedented encouragement to the arts. The long walls extending along the stoa would offer a huge permanent exhibit for paintings, statues and murals by local painters, sculptors and other artists.
In a large city, multi-storied stoa might be connected by elevators invisibly built into some of the columns. Lower levels might be commercial, featuring shops, markets and tradespersons. Upper levels might be devoted to the public faces of households, offices and factories.
In spite of its classic facade, modern technology could be built into the stoa, albeit unobtrusively. Tubes and grids might be built into the ceilings of stoa to facilitate transportation. Larger objects might be moved around by sliding robots overhead, suspended by wires from the ceiling, out of view and out of the way of pedestrians. A domed city surrounded by a stoa, could deliver gardeners with robotic labourers to maintain the formal, classic gardens running nearby. This way great attention would be paid to adjascent gardens, with a natural transition into the wilder areas further away, where field and forest predominate.
Such a city would take two kinds of beauty, human and natural, and put them together. It would harmonize values like order and freedom, which seem like irreconcilable opposites in our harsh, frenetic streetscape today. Balance and moderation would be the public ideal, and it would be built into the very landscape. This would allow town dwellers to find a right and natural balance for themselves. Each would seek a happy mix of civic duties performed as a citizen and a person of action, with recreation, family and the reflective duties of a seeker of truth.
This is the sort of city that we all would like to live in, a place where "street smarts" means what by rights it should: the ability to glean lessons about work, life and eternity just by spending your time on the street.