Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Stoa, or Porch


Of Stoas and Street Smarts

The first chapter of People without Border's infrastructure section rewritten...

Bustling cars and jostling trucks dominate city streets and country roads. Vehicles own our common spaces. Around the world, the filth, fumes and cacophony of automobiles dominate the Res Publica, the public thing. Our streets are no place to learn, work or converse; they are deserted, machines-only zones. As a result, the public thing is no thing, nothing.

The very word "civilization," meaning "life in a city," has become a dirty word. Pedestrians, when permitted on roads at all, are shunted into narrow, ugly, smelly and noisy sidewalks. Drivers can commute to work without a single face-to-face encounter with another human being. As a result of our isolation, basic social skills needed by democracy are all but lost arts.

Streets and intersections have been the exclusive domain of thundering trucks and honking automobiles for many generations. Even before this machine age, horses and carriages dominated the busier streets and byways. More than a century of expulsion from roads is reflected in our language. We use the expression "street smarts" not to describe wisdom or philosophic understanding but rather the cunning to survive in a hostile, crime ridden wasteland.

Our banishment from streets, corners and city squares took place so long ago that few remember that the greatest accomplishments of past civilizations took place there. In well-designed cities, residents relished spending time doing a full spectrum of public activity, from trade to recreation.

Teachers gave classes outside, merchants plied their trade in open air markets, artists and dramatists created great art and the "peripatetic" (walking) philosophers of Athens made memorable accomplishments in the street. The Cynics, Stoics and Epicureans of Athens and, later, Alexandria, were the first leaders of thought with a mass audience. The Roman Republic had public baths, held triumphal parades and built impressive public buildings. Centuries later, Baghdad became an intellectual melting pot of intense activity; the streets of Renaissance city states exuded a frenetic but charged atmosphere that inspired great art and literature. All this arose in vital, high-density settlements where citizens lived close to their work and engaged in open public intercourse. Even today, well designed cities like Paris, London and New York discourage car ownership and retain preeminence by attracting creative people and providing optimal conditions for discovery.

The entire built world accommodates the mechanical tyranny. Houses are garages with homes attached; suburban sub-divisions are thoroughfares with housing tacked on as an afterthought. True, some older houses retain verandas in front, a quaint relic of an age before air conditioning and electronic screens drew people indoors like flypaper; before motors spewed carbon dioxide, smog and noise throughout the street and its surroundings.

The few porches that remain, though, are used for storage or decoration. Only a few architectural historians remember that the family verandah was once a place for extended families to relax in a cool breeze, converse with passers by and entertain guests. It served as a transition zone between the public and private spheres. Today, the brave few who sit there are surrounded by ugliness, partially asphyxiated by fumes and smog, their shouts drowned out by traffic.

During most of urban history this was not the case. In the Hellenic age the stoa -- Greek for "porch" -- was the cornerstone of street life. Porches were not restricted to private homes. Public buildings were often surrounded by columns, creating a space where citizens could mix together on neutral ground and discuss public issues.

The stoa had a surprisingly great influence on the birth of philosophy and science in Athens and Alexandria. It gave its name to one of the first sets of ideas to gain mass popularity throughout the ancient world, the stoic school, so named because their founder, Zeno, had a habit of frequenting and discoursing with his followers in the painted stoa of Athens. A stoa is
defined by one authority as,

"... 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." (

In an age before pedestrians were overrun by vehicles, the stoa was not only 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 a sort of public interface between art, 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."

The stoa would be perfect for making public spaces prominent and people friendly in a post-vehicular world. Next time I will describe how they might inspire the cityscape of a cosmopolitan world order.


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