The MA Architecture + Urbanism course is the Manchester School of Architecture's taught postgraduate course which conducts research into how global cultural and economic forces influence contemporary cities. The design, functioning and future of urban situations is explored in written, drawn and modelled work which builds on the legacy of twentieth century urban theory and is directed towards the development of sustainable cities.

Monday 17 January 2011

Kevin Lynch: The Image of the City (1960)

Reviewed by Natalie MacBride


Born in Chicago in 1918, Kevin Lynch’s studious desire for city design commenced in 1935 at Yale University where he studied Architecture. In addition to his studies, he worked at Taliesin (1937-1939) which was the winter home and studio of Frank Lloyd Wright and was the place where some of Wright’s much-published designs were conceived including Falling Water in Pennsylvania and the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Subsequently, Lynch attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (1939-1940) and following this, he attained a degree (1947) in City Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which is a world leading institute for research.

After completion of his studies, his passion and enthusiasm for urban design was richly rewarded when he was appointed Instructor of Urban Planning at MIT (1948), Assistant Professor (1949), Associate Professor (1955) and Professor (1963).

After thirty years at MIT, he left to form a joint practice with Stephen Carr and it was during this time that he was commissioned to work on various city projects across America and the world over. Some of his more notable work included Boston’s Government Centre, Waterfront Park, art institutions in Dallas plus numerous other urban design projects in Minneapolis, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

In addition to his practice, he made a huge impact on the industry and made prolific contributions to the field of city planning using experimental research which he compiled over a period of five years. His study involved understanding the perception and control of movement amongst local residents of three American cities, the conclusions of which offered urban designers a new perspective for city design.

After his death in 1984, it is highly probable that his legacy has been etched onto many urban landscapes by planners as a direct and positive result of his most recognised, credible and much-publicised piece of work ‘The Image of the City’. The book was written under the guidance of Professor Gyorgy Kepes at the Centre for Urban and Regional Studies at MIT and was published in 1960 by the MIT Press.

Three Cities and Imageability

The main essence of the book examines the visual quality of the environment which is observed by Lynch as he investigates the “mental images” held by its citizens. He achieves this by focusing on the most focal and central areas within three American Cities; Boston, Jersey City and Los Angeles.

His objective was to expand upon, as well as assess his idea of “imageability” (defined as a “character or quality held by a physical object”) to find out what forms trigger lucid images in the observer. To accomplish this, he directed two types of analysis. The first entailed a field survey of the relevant areas of each city which was produced by an experienced observer who recorded the various elements and their visual impact of image frailty or strength. In parallel to the field survey, he also engaged in long interviews held with a small proportion of citizens to help establish their own personal images of the physical landscape.

Amongst his findings, he revealed that Boston was unique in character compared with other American cities, but on the other hand, there was no sense of direction, which meant it was full of orientation difficulties. It was noted that Jersey City was “formless” and indistinct in character whilst Los Angeles had a youthful arrangement that was expressed in its “grid iron layout”.

From his investigations, he proposed formulas that he hoped would begin to help designers visualise the forms that encompass them at an urban scale and offer them some fundamental principles for urban design.


In addition to the concept of “imageability”, another integral and critical aspect of the urban structure is “legibility” of the city. By this he means “the ease with which its parts can be recognised” and assembled into a logical and systematic setup. He suggests that this structured arrangement is one of the requisite components of the city’s landscape, especially in specific cases where environments are of immeasurable scale, not only in terms of area, but also in terms of “time and complexity”.

The many “cues” that are already utilised in structuring and identifying the environment comprise of “visual sensations of colour, shape, motion, or polarisation of light.” In addition to these, other senses like smell, sound and touch equally serve as vital aids in helping citizens to become more acquainted to their surroundings.

In addition to these perceptible tools, he describes the employment of other “way finding” mechanisms that also help guide the way; “the presence of others”, topographical depictions, symbols and signs. He implies that these tools have essentially helped to counteract the problem of “disorientation” and the usual feelings of panic or distress that occurs with this. However, he doesn’t completely rule out the question of “disorientation” as he links it to the “value in mystification” and the feeling of wonder that this can bring. He uses the example of the House of Mirrors and the allure that may be experienced from this. However, it must be acknowledged that “mystification” can only be an enjoyable experience under the circumstances that there must be no possibility of “losing basic form” or sense of direction and a feeling of “never coming out”. Essentially, the confusion must occur only in small areas but in a “visible whole”.

However, in addition to his account of what guiding mechanisms were available during his research, other technology has evolved and other “way finding” devices now exist. For instance, mobile phones containing mapping applications such as Google Maps and satellite navigation equipment with Global Positioning System software are just a few of many, relatively recent and modern forms of technological instruments that are accessible to the majority of people. Both these technologies have consequently altered the dynamics of how citizens are able to navigate their environment.

Identity, Structure and Meaning

Lynch breaks down the “environmental image” into three separate components of “identity, structure & meaning” and verifies that “in reality they always appear together”. Firstly, he implies that image identity requires the recognition which can only be conveyed if the object has a clear distinction and difference from the presence of other elements. Secondly, the structure must express a “spatial or pattern relation of the object to the observer and to other objects” around it. Finally, the structure must have some sentimental value and “emotional” meaning to the viewer.

He also signifies that “meaning” is also a “relation” to the object, however, “spatial or pattern relation” are much different from the “relation” of “meaning”. For an example of this, he refers to “an image that is useful for making an exit must require the recognition of a door as the distinct entity, of its spatial relation to the observer and its meaning as a hole for getting out”. He suggests that these components are inseparable and that the visual recognition of the door is fused with its meaning as a door.

The City Image and its Elements

Lynch also focuses our attention on the effects of “physical” and “perceptible objects” which are fundamental forms in evoking a strong environmental image. His five years of solid research spent on this subject allowed him to acquire sufficient information in order for him to be able to offer urban designers various techniques for optimising and creating the perfect city using these specific forms. His forms are defined as physical attributes and are distinguished as “five elements”; “paths”, “edges”, “districts”, “nodes” and “landmarks”.

For example, the definition of a path is an element which acts as a channel through which an observer can move and a node is an element which may be a point of concentration where people can meet up like Piazza del Popolo or the Trevi in Fountain Rome. These are just a brief description of two of his elements, however, there are many other examples he uses for these and each of the remaining elements.

The definitions he provides for each of these five elements can perhaps be understood as a set of disconnected elementary definitions. However, what they individually and more importantly stand for is possibly disregarded and is due to the fact that citizens normally perceive these elements as interconnected parts that create a whole city form.

Lynch’s clear and apparent rationalisation of each element is explained in such a concise way that perhaps he wanted these elements to represent a set of design-like implements for urban designers to use so that the creation of harmonious environments could be accomplished and be read as legible whole forms by its inhabitants.

According to his study, these individual elements are what help to create a sense of “identity and structure” so that the observer can effortlessly navigate their environment. However, in conclusion to his proposal for creating a lucid and apprehensible environmental image of the city by using these specific elements, he also wants them to be interpreted as forms that depend upon each other; consequently they can then create a unified and complete setup so that a legible environment can be presented to the observer.

Form Qualities

With regards to providing an alternative way for understanding the roles, as well as the physical characteristic of these five components, he produced some intuitive and diagrammatic representations of them which were labelled “singularity”, “form simplicity”, “continuity”, “dominance”, “clarity of joint”, “directional differentiation”, “visual scope”, “motion awareness”, “time series” as well as “names and meanings”. These were also considered as a means to visually communicate the definitions that he proposed for creating powerful and visual experiences of the city image.


Although the majority of his study focused on the “identity and structure” of elements and their “patterning”, it was perhaps intended that these elements were to be perceived as only a guide to help structure over time the prospective city as a whole pattern so that it can a achieve a visible and all-embracing image.

He also suggests that “the spatial organisation of contemporary life, the speed of movement, and the speed and scale of new construction all make it” necessary and achievable to create “large-scale imageable environments.”

The book was an accomplishment at its time of release in the sense that for some urban designers it was a convenient and useful instrument for composing the ideal city. However, some of its content may be left open to some critical scrutiny and concern because he seemingly addressed city design in a rather linear way and placed little emphasis on the complexities that surround the sociological aspects of city life.

The contemplation he does give to the social aspect of design is addressed in a more abstract and subtle manner when he concludes that a vivid image is the stimulus for elevating the experience of a city to an advanced new level for the observer. In addition, he believes the city should not only be “organised,” but “it should speak of the individuals and their complex society”. And finally, it must carry some “'poetic and symbolic” meaning and be able to retain as much of its historical past.

1 comment:

  1. I am a masters student in Aberdeen at RGU we are doing an urban design project in China, completely different! I am considering whether or not Lynch's ideas are 'legible' to apply to a Chinese city, anyone got any views/ opinions?



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