Skip to main content

Cities from the scratch then and now: Premodern capitals

Photo by 

Many cities around the world have been planned and built from scratch. Although this is not something invented by modern urbanism, since the mid-nineteenth century the rise of industrialization and the emergence of new states and countries have led to the creation of new settlements with different purposes, ranging from their function as national capital or state, to simply serve as a dormitory for workers and families.

Cities designed from scratch have also served as real-scale experimentation laboratories for some of the most widespread theories of urbanism in the last two centuries. From the garden cities and even the modern movement, these settlements have allowed us to learn from the successes and mistakes about many aspects of urban design and planning.

A good way to reflect on this experience is to make a comparison between the original master plans and the current state of those cities. There are, of course, many political, economic and social factors that have influenced whether these cities have followed their original regulatory plan, causing a more heterogeneous development than the originally conceived.

We are going to analyse the past and the present of different planned cities through three post, starting with the pre-modern cities, which were built before 1950.

La Plata, Argentina.

Plaza Moreno and City Hall. Photo by Beatrice Murch via Flickr

After the process of federalization of Buenos Aires in 1880, the province of the same name needed a new capital. This is how La Plata emerged, a city designed under the strong influence of the hygienist movement, which was very popular at that time in Europe, and which considered that cities had to have a geometric order that allowed regularizing open spaces and ensuring adequate sanitation for the people.

The urban layout of La Plata is based on a grid inscribed within a road ring that surrounds the city. In the centre is located the main square, an element which is present in most Latin American cities, reaching diagonal lines that connect at the vertices of the main square. La Plata also represented the arrival of a new era in urban planning for both Argentina and South America, as it is also the first city to have electric lighting and tram services in that continent.

Masterplan of La Plata. Source

Satellite view of La Plata. Source: Google Earth

136 years after its founding, La Plata has expanded far beyond its founding ring, replicating the grid pattern of the original plan, although without extending or replicating its diagonals. This is notorious in sectors such as San Carlos and Los Hornos. Other sectors such as City Bell and Villa Elisa have followed with less rigor the grid pattern, expanding to the north, very close to reaching the metropolitan area of Buenos Aires.

Great Buenos Aires and La Plata (down right). Source: Google Earth.

Canberra, Australia.

Photo by Benjamin Oakley via Flickr  

The model of the Garden City of Howard set a radical change for the development of urbanism of the late nineteenth century. By the turn of the 20th century, this conception of the city had become popular outside of Europe, and it would be precisely on the other side of the world where this idea would be taken to another level.

The reason: the construction of a new federal capital for Australia, located 300 km south of Sydney, which would house the seat of Parliament and other government institutions. The design was chosen through a contest, which won the proposal of American architects Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin, who devised a master plan consisting of circles and diagonals, which delimited the different sectors of the city.

Canberra Masterplan. Image by Archives ACT via Flickr

Satellite view of Canberra. Source: Google Earth

Currently, the design of Canberra is the subject of praise and criticism. The city has been highlighted as one of the capitals with the highest quality of life in the world, which in turn is recognized as one of the cities with the highest bicycle mobility in Australia. On the other hand, some of Griffin's design critics have pointed out that precisely the enormous scale of its green areas has contributed to make Canberra a physically segregated city with a rather low density, elements that hinder the cohesion and social integration of its citizens.

Old and New Parliament Houses. Photo by Simon Clancy via Flickr

New Delhi, India.

India Gate. Photo by Edmund Gall via Flickr

There is no doubt that the capital of India is one of the best-known examples of cities built from scratch. Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and Sir Herbert Baker, this city was created to house the seat of government of the British Raj, replacing at that time the populous city of Calcutta.

Original plan for New Delhi. Image by Marten Kuilman via Flickr

Satellite view of New Delhi. Source: Google Earth

The design of New Delhi could be framed between the movement of the "City Beautiful", also influenced by the Garden Cities. The new capital was implanted just to the limit of the old Delhi, with a strictly geometric layout, with wide avenues and esplanades that contrast with the chaotic and intricate urban fabric of the old city.

88 years after its completion, New Delhi has been absorbed into the massive conurbation of the National Capital Territory, a metropolitan area that exceeds 25 million inhabitants. Although the development of the city largely followed the parameters of the original computer plan, New Delhi has been constrained to its form, while the rest of the city has grown more capriciously.

Rashtrapati Bhavan. Photo by Capacity Media via Flickr

Quezon City, Philippines.

Memorial Circle. Source

One of the last urban utopias that preceded the full entrance of the modern movement as a global phenomenon, was the planning of Quezon City. Designed by President Manuel L. Quezon, this city was designed to serve as the new capital of the Philippines, replacing the historic Manila, which had acted as the seat of government since the Spanish colonial period.

District of Intramuros, Manila (1930s). Source: AP News Wirephoto

The Quezon City master plan, approved in 1949, was designed by the architects Juan Arellano, Harry Frost, Alpheus Williams and Louis Croft. After the destruction during World War II, the new capital would welcome hundreds of thousands of inhabitants and workers in a city with wide avenues, monumental esplanades and green areas, organized in different quadrants according to the type of use (residential, commercial, etc.). The Diliman Quadrangle, planned to serve as the venue for the 1946 World's Fair, is one of the original design elements that were built.

Masterplan for Quezon City. Source
Satellite view of Quezon City. Source: Google Earth

Although the history of Quezon City as the capital of the Philippines lasted only 28 years, some elements of Frost's plan are still visible today. Quezon Avenue and the Memorial Circle with its obelisk are the symbols that represent the idea of a prosperous and monumental city, which was half done, mixed within the urban chaos of the congested Metro Manila.

Busy street in Metro Manila. Photo by Marco Verch via Flickr

More about...

Urban history of La Plata

Blog about Canberra:

New Delhi urban development:

History of Quezon City:


  1. Perhaps what made these work was they were Classic Plan cities - designed like we built cities before planning ruined them hahaha.

  2. Good work done. Nice publication


Post a comment

Popular posts from this blog

Five new centres of contemporary architecture

Many cities in the world that stand out for their ancient architecture, for their medieval fortresses or for the richness of their baroque and neoclassical buildings. However, there are more and more cities that are standing out for their bold and contemporary developments, which have become increasingly recognized internationally. The following cities are part of this group of new “hubs” of contemporary architecture:

Endless canals and picturesque houses. That is perhaps the most common image of Dutch cities. Rotterdam, however, has decided to dissociate itself from this traditional image and has embarked on a daring urban transformation that has captivated architects and designers from all over the world.
Named now by many as “the most futuristic city in Europe”, Rotterdam has become a “laboratory” for the exploration of bold and even controversial architectural projects. From bus stops to bridges and high-rise buildings, this city has left behind the destruction of the wa…

How are cable cars improving mobility and reducing segregation in Latin America?

Cable cars are systems used to transport people and goods to places where using other means is much more complicated and expensive. Traditionally cable cars have been installed in tourist attractions such as theme parks and winter resorts, however, more and more cities around the world are taking advantage of their potential, using cable cars as part of their mass transit network.
In countries such as Colombia and Bolivia, where several of its main cities are located in areas of complex topography, cable cars have become a practical solution for mobility. From Medellin to La Paz, these systems have transformed the urban trips of millions of people, improving accessibility to the districts furthest from the central areas, which were difficult to access through traditional transportation systems.

La Paz, the seat of Government of Bolivia and one of the highest cities in the world, is an example of how cable cars can become the main structure of the entire urban transport network. The m…