“First, What kind of life was lived in this place, that is, Why and how did its builders build as they did?
And second, what rules with general validity and applicability did they follow?”
Carroll William Westfall, Learning From Pompeii.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014


Main Street looking West in 1865 [LOC] showing early nineteenth-
century one-, two-, and three-story brick basic buildings in the
process of replacement by four-and five-story commercial
blocks and hotels during the period preceding the Civil War. 

“All this is evident in colonial towns such as New York or Buenos Aires in which routes were not originally traced with different cross-sections or with complimentary roles, but as a chessboard of joint blocks. Time has produced in them a more or less exact hierarchy, yet partially compensating for the sequential nature of the plan, because it gives rise to routes with an insufficient cross-section to bear their hierarchical role. . .” 
Gianfranco Caniggia, Understanding Basic Building, 185

Italian School of Processual Typology 

Americans tend to think of their cities as two-dimensional grids of streets that were gradually infilled as the population grew. In fact, the way cities evolve is much more complex and interesting. Cities actually form along connecting routes in obedience to rule sets that can be recreated by a critical reading of their current fabric. According to the Italian School of Processual Typology, founded and developed by Saverio Muratori and his students, city development follows predictable patterns that are analogized to biological processes. 

As understood by this highly developed theory of urban morphology, cities grow in direct relation to generative “matrix routes.”  The routes (and the building tissue along them) are “polarized,” not only by distant destinations, but by nodes that occur along their lengths, where two routes intersect or where a route branches off. This polarization affects the intensity of development along a route, a factor which changes both in relation to factors of time (diachronic diversification) and location (diatopic diversification).  

During periods of “civil continuity,” when “spontaneous” (traditional or vernacular) building is operative, serial building tissue multiplies along a matrix route and along the secondary “planned building routes” that the city provides parallel to it. The building tissue is made up of buildings constructed according to a “typological process,” whereby the maker is guided by a mental plan that corresponds to an invisible grammar of building, passed down among owners and builders over time.  

As the city expands, it develops “aggregations” of buildings that correspond to building types.  Most aggregations are made up of basic buildings (the least personalized  kind of urban building, conditioned for the use of one or more families over time and space) or specialized tissue, which includes aggregates that correspond to special building types, like those serving government, religious, or other communitarian functions. Building tissue can exhibit seriality (made up of interchangeable elements) or organicity (characterized by peculiar shape or position). Building types continually change as specialization increases or functions are spilt off. 

By reading the city’s tissue, it is possible to recreate its development and reconstruct the formerly invisible rules by which basic and specialized tissue has been extended. Then, the planner or architect makes use of “critical conciousness” to place new buildings or features into the existing city in a way that reinforces, rather than undermines, its form.  

Richmond's Matrix Route during the eighteenth century (shown diagonally from lower right to upper left). The route corresponds to Main, Governor, and Broad streets.

The Matrix Route

Each matrix route is lined with two “pertinent strips” (a series of “built lots" along a route that relate to it). In Richmond, the form of the pertinent strip was conditioned by surveying practices learned by colonial officials and an energetic cadre of surveyors during the seventeenth century, from experience in laying out towns in Virginia over a period from the platting of the new town at Jamestown in 1620 to 1680 when twenty new towns were ordered by the government [Hughes 70]. It was also affected by the lack of previous European settlement on the land, although the influence of Indian uses on the placement of routes, river crossings, landings, fields, and settlements on European adaptation of the Virginia landscape should not be underestimated.  

By the second quarter of the eighteenth century, a century of development had resulted in a regional surveying tradition. By now, however, the planning of towns was no longer performed at the order of the government, but was done for individual landowners speculating in land. It was undertaken by roughly trained county surveyors or untrained proprietors.  The form of towns was often the result of the simple production of the requisite number of half-acre lots on a given tract of land, sometimes without regard to topography. Four of the lots were often combined into a square block. As Sarah S. Hughes has observed, similar gridiron plans are typical of towns founded by the English along the eastern seaboard and, more generally, by Europeans wherever foreign territory has been colonized, since the expansion of the Greek civilization [Sarah S. Hughes, Surveyors and Statemen: Land Measuring in Colonial Virginia. Richmond VA: Virginia Surveyors Foundation (1979) 59].  

Detail from the c1865 Mickler Map of Richmond showing First, Second, and Third 
Streets crossing Main Street, showing how lots were subdivided and buildings 
placed over time in a residential area

The uninflected nature of the blocks in the gridded town of the colonial period made it possible for the lot holder to orient the buildings toward one or the other of the two streets that edged each lot. This choice was directly related to which of the two streets was the more significant route within and through the town. Since all of the first lot owners in a town were involved in promoting or conducting commercial endeavors, lot orientation was entirely based on which street carried the larger volume of the traffic each business was trying to attract.
Lots were rapidly subdivided along the most intensely used routes. Development in new towns was limited to the sides of a main street or other route (including river landings or cross streets) linking the town to sources of trade or production.  During this initial development period the majority grid may have been less than fully apparent. As the town progressively developed and expanded its range of functions, services, and civic activities, the grid was manifested in an ever-changing hierarchical relationship with the changing routes of the principal traffic.   
The grid was undoubtedly placed so as to be as closely aligned with existing routes as possible, especially when, as at Richmond (and the corresponding town of Petersburg at the falls of the Appomattox River), there was an extant, less formal settlement already on the ground adjacent to the proposed town. In an all-encompassing grid plan like that extending over the several sections of Richmond, the same process of infilling was even slower, and the grid, although there from the start, was only manifested over a period of decades as development required it. Where geography intervened, the grid was circumvented or suppressed. In this way, the grid of planned streets and blocks can be seen as a matrix which conditions the form of the aggregations of buildings and of routes, but does not block the orientation or the position of the routes and aggregates themselves. Caniggia suggests in the quote at the head of the post that American gridded cities prevent a full expression of urban hierarchy. 
The city extended along the “matrix route,” which took the form of an armature that extended from the eastern end of Main Street at the port of Rocketts to its western boundary on Broad Street. The route climbed the steep side of Shockoe Hill by means of a curving “county road” that became Governor Street. All taverns, hotels, shops, and many houses were at first located directly along this matrix route, and all civic buildings were placed in relation to it, whether facing towards it or placed deliberately away from it. 

Poles, Nodes, and Axes

The route through Richmond ran historically from the intensely settled areas to the east (Jamestown, Williamsburg, and later cities like Hampton Roads) to the resource extraction sites in the west (Siouan-speaking Indian trading centers, coal mines, tobacco plantations). The road from the east, originally “Powhatan’s Road” ran from near Jamestown to the falls and connected to an ancient path towards the mountains, later known as the Three Chopt Road. These destinations gave polarity to the city’s principal route.  According to a contemporary account, British forces, who traveled to Richmond from Westover along “the common road” entered Richmond through a wooded area between the river and the bluffs. This road intersected with a road from the high ground to the northeast which descended to the new town by following the ravine now occupied by 26th Street. The main road ran along the gently sloping terrace above the river until it reached Shockoe Creek. The road continued beyond the town to the west as a trading route. 

Nodes are significant points where routes intersected and where routes meet significant geographic features. In eighteenth-century Richmond these included the crossing of Shockoe Creek (and the falls that blocked shipping), and, to a lesser degree, the intersections of the Brook Road and the Westham and Three Chopt roads west of town. The earliest, the informally organized settlement known to William Byrd II as “Shackoes” was the site of the first tobacco warehouses. These had for many years been located on the high ground on the west side of Shockoe Creek, forming what was probably the most important node in the early eighteenth century community, before it was absorbed and obscured by urban growth. 

On a matrix route, building tissue forms at a pole or at a node between poles. The settlement established by William Byrd II at Shockoes at some point before 1730 was just such a place. It is what Caniggia would call a “proto-urban nucleus,” a village with commercial and industrial functions. The irregularity of the lots shown on the west side of Shockoe Creek on maps in the early nineteenth century show the signs of spontaneous building along a pre-existing route. This was followed by the regularizing of the matrix route within the grid of planned building routes, beginning in 1737, except where geography intervened on the slope of Shockoe Hill. Near the nodes where the routes split west and north of the city grew up small settlements at Bacon’s Quarter Branch and Scuffletown, later absorbed by the expanding urban agglomeration. 

Each urban nucleus has a center and periphery. In the same way each town is made up of secondary nuclei that exhibit their own centers, outskirts, and boundaries. These nuclei or neighborhoods exhibit both linear nodalitiy (routes that act as elongated nodes) They are measured across from the axis of the matrix route to the outskirts on either side) and punctiform nodality (a point on a route). These are measured from the center of a nucleus to its outskirts along the path of the route. Both are directly related to the matrix (principal) and secondary routes. In this kind of a system, Caniggia notes, “a complex system of hierarchies naturally forms between axes and boundaries and between nodes and anti-nodes, whose complexity depends on the expansion of the urban nucleus under review” [168].  In modern cities there are often centralizing axes (commercial streets) and dividing axes (traffic routes). Along the streets in between will be found warehouses and parking.    

Punctiform Nodalities

Important special buildings will tend to be found at the intersections of nodal axes, where their organic form makes them difficult to place in the body of basic buildings. These buildings often have a single large room, such as a church, theatre, or hall. The special buildings, like branch libraries, schools or markets, that serve neighborhoods and their catchment area and function can change over time, and they can lose significance as the building use diversifies and expands into other building types. This can be seen in the sequence Market House [18th c]; Market House, City Hall, Assembly Hall, Jail, and Firehouses [19th c]; Market House(s), City Hall, Exhibition Hall, City Courthouse, Sheriff's Office, Police Stations, Jail, and Firehouses [20th c]. By the late twentieth century, changes in transportation had rendered the First Market House, which had once housed most of the official uses of the city, nearly obsolete.    


Each neighborhood (to use another name for what Caniggia calls “sub-modules” within the town or city) has its own axis, center, and boundary and over time, the building tissue resounds to these forces in a variety of ways. In the eighteenth century, for instance, the parallel “planned building routes” flanking Main Street in the oldest part of the city-  Franklin and Cary streets- held residential accommodations. By the mid-nineteenth century, these squares and lots housed mostly industrial tissue. Today these lots have been returned to use for residential purposes, albeit with a very different building type in play. At the same time, the block of Main Street between 13th and 14th Streets was perhaps the most intensely commercial street in the city in the late nineteenth century, and those commercial uses spilled onto Cary and Franklin in that area. 

Hierarchy of Urban Routes

The position of each element in the city and neighborhood, whether a route, a building, or a square,  in relation to nodal or antipodal points or axes, determines its identity, role, and level of continuity with its neighbors. Special buildings are also placed in relation to nodes and axes. By this rule there is also a hierarchy of routes within a neighborhood, in relation to the axis and the boundaries. For instance, according to Caniggia, the first route flanking a commercial street will sometimes be the least likely to have shops along it, rather providing access and service functions for the main street, while the second flanking street will be more likely to fill up with stores [184].       

For example, the pressure of the commercial uses along Broad Street from the late nineteenth through through the mid-twentieth century meant that it lost its former residential character as commercial tissue expanded onto Leigh, Grace and Franklin. 

Sanborn Map showing Second Street north of Broad Street in 1950
The importance of Second Street as a cross thoroughfare meant that the lots on the east-west streets like Leigh and Clay were realigned so that even some corner buildings faced Second Street (see map above). This street served as the center of African-American life in the early twentieth century, requiring a second, separate set of special buildings, such as theatres, churches, lodges, and funeral homes, to serve the segregated community. Another example of change over time is in the area along South 17th Street near the First Market in the era from 1897 to 1907, as studied by Drew Patenaude as part of an urban studies class at the University of Richmond. He documented the gradual replacement of small businesses operated by African-American merchants with consolidated warehouses and light industrial operations located between the market and the city docks.  

Sanborn Map showing the 600-800 blocks of Broad and Grace Street in 1886
Sanborn Map showing the 600-800 blocks of Broad and Grace Street in 1905
Sanborn Map showing the 600-800 blocks of Broad and Grace Street in 1905
Similarly, Charles Hancock traced the changes along the 600-800 blocks of Grace Street from 1884 to 1924 (see the three maps above). This street, one block south of the commercial axis along Broad Street, was occupied by houses and churches. By 1905 hotels and small shops were found among the houses, but by 1924 changes in population caused the residential and commercial uses to be crowded out by the expansion of the churches and hotels.   


Infill building, according to Gianfranco Caniggia, occurs where serial tissue (such as row houses) fills both sides of a matrix route. At this point the back yard (pertinent area) of the buildings occupying corner lots increase in value and is “changed into a buildable, albeit undersized lot from its previous role as unbuilt are annexed to a house.” This practice is apparent throughout Richmond, conforming to  Caniggia observation that these infill lots tend to acquire variants of the adjoining basic building, but of later date and smaller scale [Caniggia and Cataldi. Interpreting Basic Building, 139]. See the Sanborn maps above for examples.