MIT Institute Archives & Special Collections

Sketch Map of Boston, 1955:
Notes from Kevin Lynch's
Image of the City Project

Kevin Lynch (1918-1984) studied architecture with Frank Lloyd Wright, earned a B.S. in City Planning at MIT, and taught courses on the urban environment at the Institute for thirty years. His work, especially his theory of city form and studies relating to human perceptions of the city and how they should affect city design, was highly influential. Five years of field work co-directed by Lynch and artist Georgy Kepes in the late 1950s under the aegis of MIT’s Center for Urban and Regional Studies led to the publication by the Joint Center for Urban Studies (MIT and Harvard University) of The Image of the City in 1960.

Sketch Map of Boston, 1955The book, wrote Lynch, is “about the look of cities, and whether this look is of any importance, and whether it can be changed. The urban landscape, among its many roles, is something to be seen, to be remembered, and to delight in . . . Looking at cities can give a special pleasure, however commonplace the sight may be. Like a piece of architecture, the city is a construction in space, but of a vast scale, . . . perceived only in the course of long spans of time . . . At every instant, there is more than the eye can see, more than the ear can hear, a setting or view waiting to be explored. Nothing is experienced by itself, but always in relation to its surroundings, the sequences of events leading up to it, the memory of past experiences . . . Every citizen has had long associations with some part of his city, and his image is soaked in memories and meanings . . . This book will consider the visual quality of the American city by studying the mental image of that city which is held by its citizens.”

Field notesBoston was one of three cities targeted by the study. Lynch dispatched research associates into Boston neighborhoods on foot and in cars (chauffeured by others, who drove according to directions given by the researchers). The researchers were given the assignment of drawing maps and recording observations. Seen here are excerpts from the field notes of one such researcher, along with the sketch map he produced on November 17, 1955:

“[The] South End . . . is the strongest in physical qualities, though I am less sure of its boundaries than for Back Bay and Beacon Hill . . . There is a strong differentiation in its gridiron street system: n-s streets are residential, narrow, highly traveled; e-w streets are more commercial, have fewer . . . apt. bldgs . . . and are very heavily traveled . . . As I walked through this area it seemed like . . . a visible symphony: a theme and constant beat, or rhythm, with a thousand variations within the theme. The stronger variations are expressed in groups of 5-15 houses . . . suggesting the periods and different builders involved. Other variations, like brightly painted doors, individualistic planting, etc., are expressive of the people who live in each house. To me, this is the ideal of urban neighborhoods: an imposed discipline and order, strong enough to bind together but not so strong as to blot out the individual’s self-expression.”

The Papers of Kevin Lynch (MC 208) include research notes, working papers, interview transcripts, trip diaries, course notes used for teaching, and other materials. The collection is available for research at the Institute Archives and Special Collections, Room 14N-118.


Object of the Month: August 2003

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