7 Hills | Urbanism & Topography [UIA 2005]

7 composition by BdM


Within the global state of the world, the identity and role of the contemporary city is paradoxically clear and undefined; it is a market of ideologies, cultures, morphologies, infrastructures and architectures, a constellation of architectural encounters, a muddling metropolitan manifestation of power and ideology. Even if these melt in the air. The contemporary city is subject of negative spin, is analyzed so to bring its failures, missed chances, never developed projects and ambition to the surface. What rests of urban and metropolitan celebration happens behind fences, walls, ditches and frontiers. Trapped in the advocacy planning of architecture, the city goes through a midlife crisis. So where do we position that midlife crisis, at the end of an evolution, or just the splendid start of graceful aging? Questions which lack clear answers. Could we image the metropolis being the embodiment of clear answers, a moldable response to civilizations desires?

Today the split between architectural and urban thinking is painful. This paper explores the reinforcing quality and quantity of architecture and urbanism through organizations, shapes, volumes and directions. In a changing world we forget the city’s image, form and geography. This image reads an identity, structure, and meaning. This paper, a mixture of intuition and ratio, focusses on an intriguing aspect of urbanity, the skeleton on which cities used to get form and organization, namely topography. Especially when it is mixed with power, ideology, and myth; when this topography announces the end of times, as is the case in the here discussed cities, cities all built expressing the utopian underground onto which myth can be constructed. That is the myth of the city with the seven heads or hills. Where does this myth comes from? I quote: ‘The woman which thou sawest is that great city, which reigneth over the kings of the earth. … Here is the mind which hath wisdom: The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sitteth.’ This quote comes out of the Bible, more precisely from Revelation 17:18,9.

Rome, 2005

For ages men wondered what that great city with the seven heads was, based on this so-called indication that the city with the seven mountains will come prominently in the picture during the last days of the world. For some this qualifying information is specific, conclusive, and irrefutable. Commonly it is associated with Rome, the citta eterna. stands on seven hills and combines a topographical peculiarity with political history of seven successive forms of government. So Rome sits atop seven hills so duplicating mankind’s occupation of the planet’s continents. For ages, I didn’t believe that theory. I was wondering: What is that great city with the seven heads? And I found the following: Brussels, Rome, Lisbon, Edinburgh, Istanbul and Amman, all have seven hills, or that is how these cities advertise themselves today. All references to Rome, all shining in the light of revelation. All silent about the upcoming Apocalypse. What follows is a deciphering of that myth. Some sprawled and grew beyond the iconographical seven, but the core of advertisement is still the seven hill city. All strangely resembling to each other, all seven hills, all differing from each other. All combining of power, myth, urbanity, architecture and topography. All celebrating the kinesthetic experience. Almost all capital cities.

I explore the following reality, conjectures and manifestoes: seven as an aspect of pagan and Christian numerology, the apocalypse according to D.H. Lawrence, an introduction in the myth theory of Roland Barthes, the urban theories of Aldo Rossi and Kevin Lynch, an introduction to the programmatic planning on ridges and in valleys of these cities. All this stems out of an urbanity left unexplored by Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City:

The underlying topography, the pre-existing natural setting, is perhaps not quiet as important a factor in imageability as it once used to be. The density, and particularly the extent and elaborate technology of the modern metropolis, all tend to obscure it. The contemporary urban area has man-made characteristics and problems that often override the specificity of site.

7, abstract and exhibition, undoes topography from obscurity and puts it forward as a planning paradigm. In this, the myth and relevance of the revelation is questioned.

Lisbon, 2004


The seven hills myth stems from the biblical Revelation and Apocalypse, texts based on ancient numerology, where seven stands for divinity, totality or perfection. The notorious D.H. Lawrence wrote down his findings on the Apocalypse as an assemblage of pagan, Jewish and Christian world views. The city with the seven hills is Babylon the Great, Lawrence wrote:

To the underground early Christians, Babylon the great meant Rome, the great city and the great empire which persecuted them. And great was the satisfaction of denouncing her and bringing her to utter, utter woe and destruction, with all her kings, her wealth and her lordliness. After the Reformation, Babylon was once more identified with Rome, but this time it meant the Pope, and in Protestant and nonconformist England and Scotland out rolled the denunciations of John the Divine.

The beast that will rule, according to the Revelation, is the last grand world empire, the then horns are ten kingdoms confederated in the empire – which is Rome. The myth of the seven hills goes back to an old meaning, old meanings of what Lawrence stated: ‘old meanings control our actions, even when our minds have gone inert.’ This exciting inertia make that several cities market themselves as modeled on Rome. Istanbul was in a strange way modeled, due to its seven hills in the old city, to Rome, but we also know that Brussels is now the capital of another grand world empire, namely the capital of the European Union. As Lisbon was once the capital of its own world empire.

The seven hills combine myth and reality, seduces and imposes. Roland Barthes defined mythology as a combination of semiology inasmuch as it is a formal science, and of ideology inasmuch as it is an historical science: it studies ideas-in-form. Are these cities then studies of Rome’s-in-form? Got Rome dispersed and updated throughout the history on several places of the world? For Istanbul and Amman the link is logic, both in trading and culture, determined both the history of Europe as of the Middle East. And the others? Again Barthes delivers the answer, as for him ‘myth hides nothing and flaunts nothing: it distorts; myth is neither a lie nor a confession: it is an inflexion.’ Are Brussels, Lisbon and Edinburgh Roman inflexions? Second-rate distortions of Rome’s empyreal blueprint? Myth is ambiguous; it delivers a clarity that is euphoric. Seven hills are euphoric references and lead to the quantification of a quality, of which Barthes wrote: ‘By reducing any quality to quantity, myth economizes intelligence: it understands reality more cheaply.

Istanbul, 2004

In this seven-story, the role of myth is clear, it is a ceaseless, untiring solicitation, an insidious and inflexible demand for mankind to recognize themselves in this image, eternal yet bearing a date, which was built of them one day as if for all time. Edinburgh is a good example. Until early nineteenth century consisted out of three hills, the urban expansion demanded by industrialization, population and infrastructure, made the city go beyond its three hills and opened the way for myth as an Edinburgh commentator states: ‘It must have been a 20th-century marketing man who claimed for Edinburgh the topographical distinction of Rome, adding Scotland’s capital to that mysteriously expanding list of European cities built on seven hills. As if some mystical urban virtue were endowed by such specific hilliness.’ In Brussels, seven means going beyond the normal, as Brussels had seven kings ruling them, consisting out of seven parishes that are linked to the seven elements, planets and guilds that ruled the city.

Edinburgh, 2005


Analyzing cities with seven hills doesn’t intend to show their exact matching or overlap. Rome isn’t Lisbon, as Istanbul isn’t Edinburgh. Maybe it is the panoramic experience of the city and the way representation determines is. Villa Borghese, Castle Hill, The Basilica of Koekelberg, Sulthanamet,… Although in topography difference rules, these cities grew in the same logic, occuping by each urban extension another hill, all filling in the valley with a strange mixture of commerce and infrastructure. More interesting is the programmatic infill of these hills and valleys; for instance the topographical, physical and psychological and physical opposition of downtown and uptown, of bourgeoisie and the people. Therefore we need to go back to the core of urbanism, the essence of shaping metropolisses and cities, to the logic, ratio and architecture of the city.

It means putting urbanity, metropolitanism and citiness on the agenda, so to create the architecture of the city, and not let haphazard architecture rule for ever, transforming the metropolis in a random and bizarre bazaar of archipelagoes. As the logic of the city is the logic of its topography, our thrill for the seemingly unplanned, is a thrill for the myth of the unplanned. Look in Istanbul where the business areas and Hilton Hotel is located, look in Amman where the temple, amfitheater and international hotels are located, look in Lisbon how nightlife runs into shopping into the castle, look how all cities define their relation with the water that surrounds them or runs through them. Hills are perfect for dominance and manifestion, it’s image, is it of monumental form or single high-rise, gives the city a visual boost of possibility, of belief that progress and ideology can overlap. In 1893, the mayor of Brussels, Charles Buls, a parttime thinker on architecture and urbanity, as all mayors of important cities aspire to be, wrote a tract on the Esthetiques of the City. I quote:

How much more interesting and more alive will be the work of the architect who, taking up piece by piece, the difficulties of his problem shall have completed a city view by a monumental group, adapted to the topography of its site (…) Brussels shares with Lisbon, Edinburgh and Constantinople the advantage of being built on [an] uneven site, and thus offering varied points of view over the lower quarters and over monuments.

Brussels, 2005

In the case of topography we talk about this in terms of what Kevin Lynch calls ‘A striking landscape is the skeleton upon which many primitive races erect their socially important myths.’ This focus on reconsidering, rethinking and reworking on the physical environment resurrects the legacy of one of the last manifestos on the urban condition. Kevin Lynch produced a key manifesto for the city, according to Rem Koolhaas. Koolhaas stated lately the problem of the contemporary city as follows:

Between 1900 and 1980, when their cities more than doubled, Europe and America produced their key manifestos. (…) The stream stopped abruptly exactly at the moment where urbanization on both continents reached a plateau, around the ‘70s: now tracts were written not about how the city should be constructed, but based on interpretations of the city as it existed.

I think it is time to explore the sources of this stream again. As some kind of nineteenth century discovery trip towards the sources of the Nile or the Amazon. AS the source is as imported as the trip, the avoiding of rocks as important as fishing in troubled waters. So let’s reconsider as a first stop in this metropolitan heart of darkness journey, Kevin Lynch. Kevin Lynch didn’t just interpreted the city as is exited, writing with The image of the City a manifest on how the city can be constructed and even reconstructed. He explained the issue of physical environment as the agenda for his image of the city as follows :

Since the emphasis here will be on the physical environment as the independent variable, this study will look for physical qualities which relate to the attributes of identity and structure in the mental image. This leads to the definition of what might be called imageability: that quality in a physical object which gives it a high probability of evoking a strong image in any given observer. It is that shape, color, or arrangement which facilitates the making of vividly identified, powerfully structured, highly useful mental images of the environment. It might also be called legibility, or perhaps visibility in a heightened sense, where objects are not only able to be seen, but are presented sharply and intensely to the senses.

Cities with seven hills all are visual combinations of mental, physical and mythical images of the environment. An urban environment that deals with heights, overviews, landmarks, axis’s, monumental, stairs, sometimes monumental groups and forms, all leading to a processes from one environment into the other. Today, these cities, Amman, Brussels, Edinburgh, Istanbul, Lisbon and Rome, are without doubt all characterized by kinesthetic sensations. Whether it is by foot, car, public transport or bicycle, the sensations of dropping, turning, climbing and twisting is celebrated till the point of urban energy. Hills can mean a point in a journey; different hills give different visual extensions and overlaps to the shape of the site. A constellation that from one hill could seems to align, turns into a circular setting from another hill. One these hills, whether it the Haga Sofia in Istanbul, the Justice Palace in Brussels, the Capitol in Rome or the Castles in Lisbon and Edinburgh, a program of dominance gets form. As some kind of panoptical planning in reverse, the most strategic location there isn’t a void (although Edinburgh, due to the underground and steepness of its hills proves me wrong, but it’s program there is a park with an exhilarating view over the city, although on that green hill it has some kind of sculptural antenaa) but a landmark, a point of identification. There used to be the tendency to built on top of the hill, where possible, landmarks with a clear form; having a delicate contrast with their background; and prominence of spatial location. A planning strategy in which the figure-background contrast seems to be the principal factor. Or was it like that in what one would call traditional planning? Nowadays the hills of Istanbul, Amman, Brussels and Lisbon are taken over by temporarily manifestations of height, ineloquent and shabby but amazing manifesting skyscrapers, that perfectly fulfill their dominant role but seem to be devoid of any quality. The effect of this logic and planning strategy, meaning to build both programmatic and visual dominance on hills (as is the case in Brussels, a Justice Palace on a hill, in Istanbul a mosque, in Rome a shrine celebrating Italy’s independence, the public parks of Lisbon), this dominance Lynch defined as follows: ‘Where physical homogeneity coincides with use and status, the effect is unmistakable.’ But first a small correction, let us go back to the issue of Lynch in which he claimed that the underlying topography, the pre-existing natural setting, is perhaps not quiet as important a factor in imageability as it once used to be. In the paragraph following that he redirects himself, giving the impression that it is actually more important than before, but that we don’t realize it or aren’t interest in it. Lynch states:

Nevertheless topography is still an important element in reinforcing the strength of urban elements: sharp hills can define regions, rivers and strands make strong edges, nodes can be confirmed by location at key points of terrain. The modern high-speed path is an excellent viewpoint from which to grasp topographic structure at an extensive scale.

Amman, 2004

One of the last, and also ultimate, manifestoes on the city was ‘The architecture of the city’ by Aldo Rossi. He distincts two main organizational systems that form the city. First is the system that sees the city as a product of functional systems; the second sees the city as a spatial structure. As a functional system the city is analyzed and approached from political, social and economical systems. As a spatial structure, the city is architecture and geography. The city intertwines and reinforces those two systems. The functional system sprawl coincides with accidents and seems to be whatever. The spatial system seems to be an alibi. The strongest development, Amman is just the city that doesn’t play that game, in the seven cities happened in an era where form, spatial impression, politics and all coincided with a spatial and urban program which makes these cities still visually seductive. Around the seven hills a halo of temporarily functional systems play hide and seek. Built with the idea of totality one can see currently see its decline. That is what theoretically one could think. But topography has an agenda going beyond the temporarily storage of architecture. Unaware, unconscious and unavoidable it mixes the functional with the spatial. In The Architecture of The City Rossi also refers to Les villes et les institutions urbaines of Henri Pirenne who analyzed the proportions between cities and institutions, a proportion getting organized by places and monuments. That wants to say: the physical reality of the city in all her permanence, these spaces play on important role in the political events and institutions that determine the urban evolution. Rossi stated that the uniqueness of place is determined by space and time, by topography and from and ultimately is the theater of events and memory. Collective phenomena forcing us to take a closer look to the relation between place and human, between ecology and psychology. For the here discussed cities could it be that the psychology, due to the mythical seven hill status of these cities, of all these urbanities are family of each other? Are they different fruits hanging on one and the same tree?

Small introduction to the image of seven

To explore in wholeness the seven hill cities’ growth and evolution, goes beyond the purpose of this paper. Discussing the nature and history of Amman, Brussels, Edinburgh, Istanbul, Lisbon and Rome, is plunging into centuries of urban metamorphosis and changing empires, styles, opinions. Even of changing topography. It is a history of raging fires, earthquakes, classicism, population, religion, politics, culture,… and all the first functional systems that Rossi defined. Even making a spatial comparison between the seven cities ask for time and space. The story of the eight circles of Amman, which curl and swirl up the different hills and are Amman’s major spine of urbanity since it boomed after the second World War. All religious and ideological digestion the Istanbul hills underwent the last thousand years, its invasions, its burning down and resurrection, it sprawl beyond eternity, is worth considering. This Byzantine and Ottoman navel of the world was modeled after Rome, this Constantinople was a different Rome, peopled largely by Romanized Greeks, where Latin was the language of government and Greek was spoken in the streets. It become a seven hill theater in which ‘the urban world of the Byzantines would become more and more an orientalized maze of passageways and chambers dedicated to Christian mysticism or palace conspiracies, with the public realm drained of civic meaning and reduced to the marketplace.

Rome, 2005

Or departing from Rome’s fabled seven hills, of which the Palantine Hill is the most thoroughly encrusted with myth and history. The Palantine where Romulus founded his fortified village of Latins around 150 B.C., where the republic was formed. Rome where history competes in an arena of seven hills, where since the fall of the empire and the many incursions, sackings, and takeovers that ensued, for ages Rome has been divided into two basic geographical entities: the abitato, where people live, and the disabitato, the empty quarters. Rome which currently undergoes a reawakening and a urban renaissance by modern architecture, helped by Hadid and Meier. A modern grandeur and scope going beyond the ancient and baroque. Rome, out of the six, the one with the smallest hills, baby hills in topographical terms, no more than fifty meters high, as though formed deliberately for human pleasure, easy to climb, and they afford views that are splendid but not dizzying. They have all worn away since the height of the empire. The age-old debris, natural or man-made, has washed, blown, or shaken off the Palatine over the centuries and buried the little that is left of the ruins in the modest valley below it under many meters of loess so that the architectural treasures not previously salvaged had to be dug out laboriously in the modern era.

The topography of seven hills combines the fragmented with the wholeness. A combination that stiffens and loosens up through history. Like in Lisbon, a river and seaport city. By this condition, as the Istanbul peninsula is surrounded by the Bosporus, it is the strategically located, defended by its castle and walls, backed up by its port, the old city huddled around the hill of the castle and then spread along the valleys that frame it. In Lisbon Baixa (Downtown) is the city’s centre, rebuilt after the earthquake of 1755 and is a conjugation of political pragmatism and architectonic and urban rationalism. Lying between Praça do Comércio and Rossio, it is remarkably modern. In contrast to labyrinthin of the old city, it is laid out in a grid system, the central axis being the Rua Augusta. The same kind of classicism and urban upgrade we find in the Edinburgh-extension of the eighteenth century. When the Old Town and the Royal Mile got a dependence in King George Street and Princess Street, the spine of the New Town, built on the hill facing the medieval Manhattan. Between the Old Town and the New Town, a railway infrastructure replaced the swamp. As for Amman this logic urban dichotomy doesn’t work. The city exploded after the Second World War and swarmed on top of the hills. Nowadays that structure is replaced by landmark, giving the visual gravity by the hotels, centers and skyscrapers put around the circles. As for Brussels, evolution went different. Landmarks were built first, replaced, upgraded and renewed. At the same time the city and infrastructure leading towards this landmarks filled the space in between with houses and commerce. To go back to Lisbon and Baixa, opposite of the hill on which the fortified castle stands, there is the Bairro Alto was the first planned urbanization outside the medieval city. Construction began in 1513 it immediately attracted the bourgeoisie. The Jesuits settled here and the monasteries, churches and palaces of the nobility were erected. Bairro Alto is surrounded by quarters dotted with civil and religious buildings and small squares and gardens. The other hills offered space for gardens. In the east valley the Avenida da Liberdade and the west valley of São Bento, the sequence of gardens and buildings stretch along the western hill and offer some of the most interesting urban scenarios of Lisbon. It affords a series of panoramas that makes it one of the best belvederes in the mosaic of the city, the name Sétima Colina is highly appropriate.

Brussels, 2005

Seven – the Apocalyptic Conclusion

After this introduction on seven hills, topography and myth, I need to go back the essence, namely revelation and the apocalypse. According to Damian Thompson in The End of Times the etymology and its cultural infill are as follows:

… apocalypse, from the Greek Apo-calyptein, meaning ‘to unveil’. Apocalyptic literature takes the form of a revelation of the end of history. Violent and grotesque images are juxtaposed with glimpses of a world transformed; the underlying theme is usually a titanic struggle between good and evil, though the narrative tends to be obscured by complex allegories rooted in number-mysticism.

Within each of the seven cities their lays a lesson and a challenge for urbanity, namely how to transform a mythical quantity into a topographical quality. As this field of topography, as a spatial system, today is obscured by planning policies as a functional system, the Image of the City is all we have. There we should as architects, urbanists, politicians, developers, invest time, energy, discourse and design in dealing with this exciting topic of topography. Otherwise the architectural apocalypse could be closer than we think.

During the UIA 2005 XXIInd Congress [2005, Istanbul] Bert de Muynck lectured on 7, myth and topography on 5th of July 2005 at 15.00 in main Congress Hall G1, Lufti Kirdar Convention Center, Istanbul, Turkey.



Lisbon | View from 2 hills | September 16, 2008
Lisbon snapshots | Part II | April 22, 2009
Lisbon snapshots | Part III | May 4, 2009
Brussels snapshots | May 5, 2009


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