Urban Motives—Rhetorical Approaches to Spatial Orientation, Burke on Lynch’s “The Image of the City”

Pierre Smolarski, University of Applied Sciences Bielefeld


Whoever raises questions about the legibility of the city must notice that the metaphor of legibility involves the ideas of interpreting signs and symbols under different motivational accesses, which leads to the creation of different scopes of reading, understanding and acting. Thus, the legibility of the city involves the idea of a rhetoric of the city. Kevin lynch is one of the most important theorists of the legibility of the city and his ground-breaking work The Image of the City is first of all on questions concerning the influence of architectural clues and city form on the degree a city becomes legible. Therefore, he emphasizes the important role of three major terms: identity, structure and meaning. But, while his inquiry stresses identity and structure, he says almost nothing about meaning. Since Lynch has no background in theories of meaning, his work leaves a desideratum. It seems to be obvious that leaving out questions of meaning won’t lead to any kind of legibility of the city, as long as the metaphor of legibility is taken seriously. To fill this gap Lynch’s work has to be grounded on a theory of meaning which is able to explain how form influences attributions of meaning, creates scopes of understanding and, finally, affects questions of appropriate behavior. This theoretical background is given by Kenneth Burke. The thesis of this paper is that Burke describes the relation of form, situation and action by the help of what I will call the motive-circle and that this motive-circle is able to explain the above mentioned advisements. Thus, the aim of this paper is to show the rhetorical dimension of the creation of an image of the city. Since—for Lynch—our processes of orientation are based on our image of the city, the main thesis of this paper is that processes of spatial orientation have a rhetorical dimension.


Finding your way has never been more important. Getting places on time, with minimum stress, is more valuable than ever. Easy accessibility to services whether on foot, by public transit or by automobile is not just a matter of courtesy or common sense. It is an economic necessity.(Hunt 152)

Finding your way, Hunt says, is an economic necessity. I want to show, however, that finding your way has an essential rhetoric dimension. Therefore, I will examine Kevin Lynch’s inquiry, The Image of the City, in terms of the rhetorical theory developed by Kenneth Burke. The aim of this confrontation is to see what happens when Lynch’s central terms are discussed rhetorically, and to show that Lynch’s categories can be understood as rhetorical motives. In conclusion, I will show that The Image of the City can be interpreted rhetorically, and in a more fundamental way the paper should demonstrate that problems of orientation in the metropolis have an essential rhetorical dimension. Finally, I interrogate the results of the rhetorical impact I will have shown, on urban environmental design. Thus, this paper is not concerned with drawing a historical link between the development of the ideas of Burke and Lynch, but is to be understood as a contribution to current questions concerning the link between rhetoric and design in general (among others: Kaufer and Butler; Joost and Scheuermann; Hill and Helmers; Krippendorff; Buchanan) and the rhetoric of urban design in particular (among others: Mikunda; Scheuermann; Clark). Therefore, the present paper creates a distinction which has some similarities to the distinction Gregory Clark draws between land and landscape: “Landscape is not the same as land. Land is material, a particular object, while landscape is conceptual. [ . . . ] Land becomes landscape when it is assigned the role of symbol, and as symbol it functions rhetorically.” (9) In an similar way, I aim to show that elements of the city-image—which are for Lynch paths, edges, districts, nodes and landmarks—are both physical objects and conceptual ideas, and as such, the link between the two becomes a rhetorical challenge for every city dweller, and of course, urban designers.

The Image of the City

To better understand the following argument some background is needed on Lynch’s inquiry The Image of the City. Published in 1960, this work is the result of a five-year study on how people perceive their surroundings and on how they orientate themselves in their cities. For this study Lynch interviewed the inhabitants of three American cities: Boston, Jersey City and Los Angeles. He asked them to draw maps of specific points, or even whole regions of the city. Lynch overlaid the maps in order to create several master maps, which highlight the city elements important to most people. The elements become the Lynch’s central categories. Thus, he interpreted the drawn maps not only as drawings but as mental maps, upon which subjects repeatedly act. In this respect, there is a strong correlation between Lynch’s work and the concepts and discourses on mental/cognitive maps. Lynch works in the same vein as psychologists Edward C. Tolman and Warner Brown, who elaborate the concept of cognitive maps (Tolman; Brown; see for this discussion: Seifert). Since Lynch’s book combines a study on human orientation with thoughts about urban design, he also stands in the tradition of theorists of urban design and influenced the whole field of urban design. (among others: Alexander, Notes on the Synthesis of Form and A Pattern Language; Rapoport)

The book is accessible due to its clear categorisation and usable distinction of ‘only’ five basic elements of every city-image. Given this fact, and that Lynch coined the words ‘imageability’ and ‘wayfinding,’ it is easy to see why Lynch’s work has such an enormous impact on the study of urban orientation processes. For Lynch imageability means “that quality in a physical object which gives it a higher probability of evoking a strong image in any given observer.” (9)1 In The Image of the City, Lynch takes up the challenge of analysing the mental images that allow city-dwellers to orientate themselves.

Lynch describes the city in the following way: “At every instant, there is more than the eye can see, more than the ear can hear, a setting or a view waiting to be explored. Nothing is experienced by itself, but always in relation to its surroundings.” (1) As such he describes the complexity of the city as an aesthetical overtaxing of the recipient, which has its classical locus in artwork. Immanuel Kant’s aesthetical idea2, which gives rise to more thoughts than could be named in a single term (§49), may stand implicitly behind Lynch’s description of the city. The complexity of the city and the continuous stimuli it offers will lead to overstimulation unless the recipient is able to overcome it through the strategy of fragmentation. “Most often, our perception of the city is not sustained, but rather partial, fragmentary, mixed with other concerns.” (Lynch 2)

On the one hand, because of the complexity of the city and—in response—the fragmentation, our city-image is characterized by a principle ‘interminableness’ of the ideas of imagination. “There is no final result, only a continuous succession of phases.” (Lynch 2) From this point of view it is evidentially clear that the city confronts us vehemently with problems of orientation, since orientation has the function to create within this principle ‘interminableness’ of the ideas of imagination a specific idea which allows us to find partial endings. Thus, on the other hand, our city-image might be incorrect in detail, but has to be simplified, graspable and endingly. Or to put it more generally: Orientation has the function to create certain scopes of action under uncertain conditions. Lynch also calls this specific idea an image, but he means by this something which alternates between an idea and a map.3

Lynch’s book The Image of the City is about the image, interpreted as a partial endable (cognitive) map, a kind of graphic snapshot of the urban structure, which does not have to be adequate or correct in detail. He is asking what the categories are that can give us partial endings and, as such, structure our image of the city. These categories are paths, edges, districts, nodes and landmarks. According to Lynch, every mental map helping us to orientate ourselves in urban environments is built upon an interaction of these five categories. That’s why he simply calls them in an Euclidian way, the “elements of the city-image” (46).

Mental maps have, because of their fragmentary status, a relation to the manifest urban forms. My thesis is that this relation is similar to the relation Burke describes between terminology and reality: “Any given terminology is a reflection of reality, by its very nature as a terminology it must be a selection of reality; and to this extend it must function also as a deflection of reality.“ ( LSA 45) Therefore we must introduce the concept of orientation that Kenneth Burke develops in Permanence and Change—An Anatomy of Purpose. We will see how the reflective, selective and deflective character of the elements of the city-image involves the idea of a rhetorical dimension in urban orientation processes.

The Circular Motive Structure

Burke’s concept of orientation is based on four pivotal terms: situation, motive, symbolic action and form. These four terms are—for Burke—inseparable from, and circularly bound to each other so that it makes in principle no difference where to start. To unfold what is meant by these categories it is important to show how motives correlate and interact with situations and lead to and arise from symbolic action, and finally, what the function of form is in this context.

The term “motive” is one of the pivotal terms in Burke’s whole work. Motive does not mean an isolated reason to explain in a criminological sense human action, but rather it means a linguistic pattern of explanation and justification to describe a situation so that an act becomes comprehensible. Motives are, like Burke says, “shorthand terms for situations” (PC 29). That is to say, motives were expressed through linguistic forms, which symbolize experience and create a connection to reality. “Reality, to outline Burke’s ontological background, is constituted through linguistic constructed relations and that’s why reality is always an interpretation of reality.”4 (Holocher 112, see: PC 35) It is reflected, selected and deflected by our terminologies. For Burke, motives are terms of interpretation, and on the basis of these terms reality can be interpreted as a specific, nameable reality. Since interpretative approaches to reality always structure the thus interpreted reality within a larger frame of orientation, motives are therefore regulatory and meaningful parts of orientation. Motives are like atoms of orientation; you build them to interpret your situation.5

Two aspects of motives are also important to note. First, the naming of a motive is not irrelevant. Language itself is a motive and not only a medium for description of motives. “The names we give to motives shape our relations with our fellows. Since they provide interpretations, they prepare us for some function and against others, for or against the person representing these functions. Moreover, they suggest how we shall be for or against.” For example: “Call a man a villain, and you have the choice of either attacking or cringing. Call him a mistaken and you invite yourself to attempt setting him right.” (Blankenship and Murphy and Rosenwasser 77, see: PC 4)

Second, it is remarkable that motives create a scope of action, widening it and at the same time restricting it. When Burke says motives are shorthand terms for situations, then it follows, motive is to situation like act is to scene, as so far as a motive always includes strategies to handle situations. It is in this respect important to note that situation is not to be seen as something which lies before any motivated access and is quasi-objectively given, so that it could be said motives were responses to situations, but are rather circularly bound to each other. To quote Burke: “One tends to think of a duality here, to assume some kind of breach between a situation and a response. Yet the two are identical. When we wish to influence a man’s response, for instance, we emphasize factors which he had understressed or neglected, and minimize factors which he had laid great weight upon. This amounts to nothing other than an attempt to redefine the situation itself. In this respect our whole vocabulary of motivation is tautological.” (PC 220) What Burke here calls tautological is describing the circular relation between motive and situation and is a result of the recursive nature of every orientation-process. Werner Stegmaier calls this the paradox of self-reference: “The self-reference is justified by the external reference; the external reference of orientation is the sense of its self-reference.“6 (13) So tautological here does not mean tautological in the argumentative sense—in short, that it is ineffective. Tautological means the possibility of transformation so that motives can function as shorthand terms for situations.

The Elements of the City Image

After this short introduction into Burke’s term motive, we have to come back to Lynch. The question we want to raise now is whether Lynch’s elements of the city-image could be understood as Burkean motives and if so, what this means for urban orientation processes and wayfinding design matters.

The five elements of the city-image map can be classified as following: punctual elements (nodes and landmarks), linear elements (paths and edges) and a laminar element (districts). These elements are characterized by specific forms and functions. Let’s see what happens when these elements are not treated primarily as signifiers for an urban form, but as action leading motives which are created based on form-clues.

The Linear Elements

Lynch says: “For the most people interviewed, paths were the predominant city elements” (49) and he characterizes paths as with continuity and identity attributed vectors through urban space. Thus, paths are shorthand terms for a situation, which Lynch describes as courses of motion with “directional quality” (54). The crucial point is not that paths and situation are associated, but that they are identical. By describing a situation—in this case where courses of motion with directional quality take place—as ‘following a path,’ and by describing the manifest urban form on which someone could be situated while ‘following a path,’ as a ‘path,’ as an element of the city image, is by the same token to describe the situation as course of motion with directional quality. This is exactly the circular relation between motive and situation which is caused by the fact that “our whole vocabulary of motivation is tautological.” (Burke, PC 220) To put it otherwise, it seems to be evident that the existing path as a manifest urban element does not involve the path-situation as such. It can also be treated as, for instance, an edge-situation. Or to express it more radically, there is no path in urban landscape that pre-exists before naming, and thereby perceiving it as a path; This is because naming a situation invites you to overcome it, which by the same token is created through naming. And to name something as something, which it is not, is no more than a metaphorical extension, or as Burke calls it in Permanence and Change a perspective by incongruity. Like every sidewalk is often interpreted as a path by walkers and interpreted as an edge by drivers, the sidewalk itself is neither a path nor an edge. To take another example, a riverbank in a city is for Lynch a typical example for an edge. Lynch characterizes edges mainly ex negativo as those linear elements which are not paths. This means that they are “not used or considered as paths by the observer.” (41) While paths are coordinate axis’ in the city-image, edges are lateral references. Their imageability is increased if they are entirely visible and uninterrupted. Thus, as lateral references it seems that edges do not invite people to act upon them. But edges can involve motives too. Because edges enclose, divide areas and limit accessibility, different motives can occur to handle an edge-situation. While taking a walk on the (above mentioned) riverbank, it is simply treated as a path involving you as in a path-situation without awareness of its edge-quality. A surrounding city wall—also a good edge example—could be treated as a path too. Parcour-runners have raised this to an urban sport. They treat edges as paths and are—in contrast to the riverbank-flaneur—of course in every moment aware of its edge-quality. Beside this ‘along-motive’ of the flaneur and this ‘crossing-motive’ of the free-climber, the main edge-motive—regarding an edge as an element of the city-image whose main quality is to function as a lateral reference—could be named as ‘division-motive.’ Edges, like rivers, highways or railways often cut the city into pieces, dividing parts associated with one kind of character from parts associated with their opposites. The highway through the German city of Essen, for example, divides the wealthy south from the poorer north.

If we do not understand manifest linear urban forms as paths or edges, but as indicators which create path-motives or edge-motives, we can emphasize the relation between urban structure and meaning. And because of the circular connection of motive and situation, it is possible to focus on matters of action more closely than Lynch does.

Let’s see the effects in the following example: I like to ride via bicycle through the City I live and work in. Via bicycle I know exactly the shortest way to the place I work. Knowing exactly the shortest way means that I have trained an ability to interpret a direct line of given manifest urban forms as paths (sometimes even against the traffic rules). If I have to guide a friend using a car, my trained ability functions mostly as a trained incapacity in mean-selecting and my orientation will often fail. There are one-ways I can’t go through, there are sidewalks I can’t use with a car and of course I can’t use the same parking-place for the car, I use for my bicycle. In short: To interpret the direct line of given manifest urban forms still as paths shows that my orientation, my trained incapacity functions as blindness. So I need a re-orientation. If, like Robert Wess says, “Orientation is trained incapacity [and] re-orientation is perspective by incongruity” (69), I have to change the perspective to redefine the situation itself. Paths are no longer paths, some are edges and some are nodes. Landmarks are no longer landmarks, edges no longer edges–some are paths (like the local highway). This example is, of course, simplifying a complex problem. But the challenges we are confronted with are basically the same in more complex situations. For example, try orientating yourself at a foreign university-campus, in a large hospital, or in a foreign city.

The Punctual Elements

Lynch mentioned two kinds of punctual elements of the city-image: nodes and landmarks. While landmarks are point-references which the observer cannot enter, and whose function in orientation-processes is more or less passive, nodes are enterable active points. Lynch describes nodes in two ways: “Nodes are points, the strategic spots in a city into which an observer can enter, and which are the intensive foci to and from which he is traveling. They may be primarily junctions, places of a break in transportation, a crossing or convergence of paths, moments of shift from one structure to another.” (41) Nodes, like main junctions, are points of decision. Their recognisability and imageability correspond with their demands that the observer act. This demand–the demand to decide to change direction or to hold the lane–is what makes a junction become a node. While we cross many junctions on our daily commute, we do not usually interpret all of them as a demand to act; most of them are so unimportant for us that we cannot even remember having crossed them. Like the designer Markus Hanzer says: “We like to remain true to a path once we have chosen it until we stumble across new possibilities. We don’t examine every available symbol to make a decision; we just look for indications that seem to confirm the path already taken instead. Our view is selective.” (24)

Lynch’s impressive thesis is that the difference between a junction we even can’t remember and a junction which functions as a node, is not only given by the fact that nodes are points where we can decide to follow main roads, or that we can move faster or more directly by changing our ways only at node-junctions (which is probably not true). He asserts rather, that the difference is primarily a difference in architectural and urban forms which demands us to act. Or to put it otherwise, form gives us clues to interpret a given situation as a node-situation and by interpreting it as a node-situation, form invites us to act upon it the appropriate way. “However, if symbols persuade us to change directions we tend rebuild our thoughts to make wrong paths, detours and zigzag courses look like straight lines. So the world of symbols doesn’t only help make decisions, it also changes, often subconsciously, our motives, intentions and goals.” (Hanzer 24) That is, form invites us to create node-motives.

The second description of nodes is the following: “the nodes may be simply concentrations, which gain their importance from being the condensation of some use or physical character, as a street-corner hangout or an enclosed square. Some of these concentration nodes are the focus and epitome of a district, over which their influence radiates and of which they stand as a symbol. They may be called cores.” (Lynch 41) Cores are not primarily points of decision; they are remarkable punctual elements of the city-image whose characteristics influence our view of whole districts. Because of their direct relation to districts, the issue will be discussed in the next chapter.

“Landmarks are another type of point-reference, but in this case [in contrast to nodes] the observer does not enter within them, they are external. They are usually a rather simply defined physical object: buildings, sign, store, or mountain. Their use involves the singling out of one element from a host of possibilities.” (Lynch 48) Thus, landmarks help to create radial coordinate axis around a punctual reference; they “symbolize a constant direction” (Lynch 48) and therefore need to be visible over long distance and identifiable as singular objects. Lynch notes that visitors who are unfamiliar with the city make an extended use of such ‘rough’ landmarks for orientation purposes, while familiar observers rely on more subtle landmark-tools: “Other landmarks are primarily local, being visible only in restricted localities an from certain approaches. These are the innumerable signs, store fronts, trees, doorknobs, and other urban detail, which fill in the image of most observers. They are frequently used clues of identity and even of structure, and seem to be increasingly relied upon as a journey becomes more and more familiar.” (Lynch 48) There is one common quality in the use of both rough and subtle landmarks: “Since the use of landmarks involves the singling out of one element from a host of possibilities, the key physical characteristic of this class is singularity, some aspect that is unique or memorable in the context. Landmarks become more easily identifiable, more likely to be chosen as significant, if they have a clear form; if they contrast with their background” (Lynch 78). There is, like Klaus Sachs-Hombach and Jörg Schirra mention in Bild und Wort (Schirra and Sachs-Hombach 2006), a figure-ground-difference to be created by the observer. Since the differentiation of what is figure (what is meant?) and what is context (as what is it meant?) is the basis of all semantic identification; this difference becomes the basis on which the observer may act in correspondence to landmarks. The process of ‘singling out’ is once more a process following the invitations of form-clues which are given not only by the architectural and urban form, but also by environmental graphic design, signage and orientation-tools like maps and way-descriptions.

The Laminar Element

The laminar element upon which the observer constructs his city-image are districts. “Districts are relatively large city areas which the observer can mentally go inside of, and which have some common character.” (Lynch 66) As an element of the city-image, and therefore, an element of a mental map, the district remains a mental concept only able to be entered mentally. But by identifying a manifest urban form as an indicator of a district we are able to enter it physically. Thus, districts are containers with a specific character which contain nearly everything: concepts, experiences, places, and events—each district gives rise to different expectations about the probability that any of these things could occur. Out of these differences in expectation, the district derives its specific character; this character, in turn, influences our feelings and behaviour in each district. A main part of what is meant when we say ‘I am in London-Soho, Berlin-Kreuzberg or New York-Brooklyn’ derives from a kind of container/things-contained relation. To clarify this point, we can refer to the first chapter of Burke’s A Grammar of Motives which is about “container and things contained” (GM 3). Here he distinguishes between scene and act and shows the meaningful relation between them in the scene-act-ratio. The “stage-act contains the action ambiguously—and in the course of the play’s development this ambiguity is converted into a corresponding articulacy. The proportion would be: scene is to act as implicit is to explicit.” (GM 7) Of course, this quotation could stand for the whole work we have done till now. What we have shown by discussing the linear und punctual elements as motives is based on the implicit-explicit relation of scene and act, of situation and motive. In the now given context of discussing districts as containers the idea behind this quotation becomes strongly relevant. Burke emphasizes relating to the scene-act-ratio one important limitation: “One could not deduce the details of the action from the details of the setting, but one could deduce the quality of the action from the quality of the setting.” (GM 7) The Lynchean elements (paths, edges, nodes, landmarks and of course districts) are scenes in this way, they contain ambiguously a quality of appropriate action. This means the scene consists of (ambiguous) clues on which the rhetorical category of the aptum (acceptability, adequacy, fittingness) is created, which is probably the only measurement to judge the quality of the action. In this context a variety of important questions arise: What is the quality of a specific district? That is, what is the specific character of the district-container upon which action leading motives are created, and from where does this character derive? Of course, this question is much too broad to be answered in this text since it involves the demand to formulate a whole theory of meaning of the built environment. The character of any given district derives from many sources: literature, poems, artwork, experiences of its inhabitants, political decisions, architectural form, myths and oral traditions and much, much more. That’s why we want to focus on just one building block, one part of this question which remains in our research question focusing on Lynch: how does the above mentioned second type of node—the core—influence the character of the container in which they were contained? Cores, as we saw, are points of thematic concentrations. As such they are meaningful architectural forms which have certain similarities to landmarks. But while landmarks have to be unique objects visible at a distance, cores “are the focus and epitome of a district, over which their influence radiates and of which they stand as a symbol.” (Lynch 41) From the various elements contained in the district (container), cores are prototypical elements. This means, following the prototype-theory developed by Eleanor Rosch, that cores are not only elements of districts–they are the best example of that category. If someone asks for an example of the category ‘bird,’ the answers robin, sparrow, penguin and ostrich are not equal. Although all these are not more or less birds than any other–they are all 100% bird–the first two are thought of as being ‘more bird’ than penguins or ostriches. They are prototypical for the category ‘bird.’ Like Rosch, and later George Lakoff pointed out, prototypes are those elements of a category which are highly memorable and easy to identify as a member of the given category. Moreover they structure the whole category; they influence the production of examples, create an asymmetry in similarity ratings7, an asymmetry in generalization8 and are follow the effects of family resemblance9. Thus, it is clear that cores as prototypes have a great impact on the perception of the district. A main part of the character of the district derives from the character of its core. For example, there are many places in Berlin, Mitte (the central district of Berlin), but ask any passer-by where the city center is, and he will point you to Alexanderplatz. This illustrates that Alexanderplatz is a core which could symbolically stand for the whole district—even the city. Or, to take an example from Lynch: “Louisburg Square [in Boston] is another thematic concentration, a well-known quiet residential open space, redolent of the upper-class themes of the Hill, with a highly recognizable fenced park. It is a purer example of a concentration than is the Jordan-Filene corner, since it is no transfer point at all, and was only remembered as being ‘somewhere inside’ Beacon Hill. Its importance as a node was out of all proportion to its function.” (76)

More research must be carried out to evaluate the degree to which cores function as prototypes of districts, but it seems evidentially clear that if cores have such an enormous impact on the generalization of districts, much of what I have called the district-motive derives from the core-motive and from the scope of action manipulating associations related to the core. Part of the quality of districts seems to be deducible from the quality of their cores, and from this we can deduce the quality of the action which takes place in accordance to districts. And, since districts may have different cores for different people at different times, the quality of this deduction depends on the selection of a core as prototypical.

To conclude, the ‘elements’ Lynch is describing are always terms which are interpreting any given situation as a such-and-such-situation, and thereby have a bearing on the scope of action. That’s why we can characterize these elements as motives. There are two main benefits given by this characterization; because of the circular connection of motive and situation, it is possible to focus the matter of action more closely than Lynch does. This matter of action is describable as ’symbolic action.’ On the other hand, the symbol based nature of urban orientation shows evidently that there is a rhetorical dimension in orientation. The problem of orientation becomes essentially a rhetorical problem.

City Form

The rationalistic chapter ‘City Form’ in The Image of the City, which sounds a bit like the introduction into Descartes meditations, aims to raise the legibility of the city by increasing the clarity and distinctness of the city-image. Lynch emphasizes the function of the architectural and urbanistic form as the following: “Above all, if the environment is visibly organized and sharply identified, then the citizen can inform it with his own meanings and connections. Then it will become a true place.”(Lynch 92) Thus, when Lynch describes form as the possibility that one part fits to another, then a certain similarity to Burke’s statement that “work has form insofar as one part of it leads the reader to anticipate another part” might be seen (CS 124). Indeed both authors emphasize the receiver-orientated function of form, but Burke understands form first of all as “the way of uniting motive and symbol, situation and act” (Blankenship and Murphy and Rosenwasser 84).

This ‘way of uniting’ has its meaning, if transferred to the context of urbanistic form, not in a reduction of the orientation-problem to a problem of distinctness, but form becomes the smallest building block in a rhetorical process. No persuasive orientation happens, even when motive, symbol, situation and act have become a chosen and communicable united form, in the absence of identification. In successful cases, the recipient identifies himself with the form after the city planner has chosen this urban form in reference to his identification with the (probable) recipient. This process, on another level, is based on the semantic identifications that arise through metaphorical extensions. Lynch lacks the rhetorical dimension of urban orientation precisely because the process of identification in this doubled form is the key concept of rhetoric. It is not, as Lynch says, that a distinct structure and a clear legibility of the city-image gives the citizen the possibility to “inform it with his own meanings and connections”—or to identify himself with the city. It is, rather, a question of how motives, symbols, and situations and acts become a communicable unit, which allow/invite the recipient to identify with them or not. Distinctness is only one way of uniting and probably not the clearest.

Some Remarks on Urban Environmental Design and Signage

The main task of urban environmental graphic design, orientation-design and signage-design is to deliver indicators that may help to identify situations. In conclusion, the identifications of situations dependent on these indicators have to be understood as motives. The main task of every environmental graphic design is to create motives—to create action-leading interpretations of situations. This motive creation is rhetorically based on semantic identifications of physical urban forms as situational, which makes it possible for the city dweller to handle the involvement in that (conceptual) form. This is the creation of the situation-motive-action-circle. From here it would be possible–though not in this essay–to formulate a rhetorical inquiry concerning environmental graphic design that focuses not on way-showing, but on motive-creation. The main question should be whether there is a motive persuasively expressed. That is one reason why the way-finding-processes have to be based on form-finding-processes. Based on this we could discuss projects such as The Legible City projects (Bristol, London, Melbourne, Sydney, etc.) in terms of motive-creation. The idea behind this project is that because of the increasing number of visitors and inhabitants the city of London has to—in the truest sense of the word—motivate people to use their feet as transportation instead of using tubes or buses. This relies on the observations that many stations and other locations are quicker to reach as pedestrian than by any other transportation system. “From Covent Garden nine out of ten adjacent stations are quicker to walk.” (Bauer and Mayer 238) Though my analysis of the rhetorical dimension of the Lynchean elements of the city-image does not provide enough detail to carry out an discussion on the wide variety of solutions found in The Legible City project and others, we can still ask whether there are, for example, node, path or edge-motives expressed through the design of guidance systems and signage. More research has to take place to answer these questions. However, a rhetorical theory of design—concerning not only questions arising with Lynch, but also questions concerning the identification-potential of different typographies and pictograms, map-making and map-designing, the motives expressed through categorization given by legends, and many more—is called for.


By forcing a confrontation between Lynch and Burke, I have proven that Lynch’s ‘elements’ of the city are terms of interpretation. The crux of my argument is that Lynch knows that his elements are terms of interpretation and therefore fall under a rhetorical theory, but he ignores the consequences arising from this.10 To quote Lynch, Charles Street “acts ambiguously either as linear node, edge, or path for various people at various times. Edges are often paths as well.”(65) Take an almost common highway as an example: it might be interpreted as a path, or as an edge, or maybe even as a main part of a district. Of course it is possible to interpret it in part as a landmark, and it probably is often interpreted as a node. It seems to be that everything can be interpreted as everything else. Thus, I might be forced to say that a distinction of elements which does not make any difference is ineffective and in this way meaningless. But I am not forced to this conclusion; Burke has shown that from the fact that these elements are terms of interpretation, we do not have to conclude that they are useless, since to interpret something as something different is always circularly connected with the creation of a situation, which leads to a specific scope of action. Thus, interpreting the Lynchean elements of the city-image as Burkean motives, is nothing other than giving these elements use and meaning by embedding them in rhetoric. What Lynch lacks is a theory of meaning in the background of his inquiry that would enable him to show what it means to see the elements of the city-image as terms of interpretation. This theory of meaning might be implemented by the new rhetoric.


1. “It is that quality in a physical object which gives it a higher probability of evoking a strong image in any given observer” (Lynch 9)

2. Immanuel Kant wrote in Kritik der Urteilskraft: „Unter einer ästhetischen Idee aber verstehe ich diejenige Vorstellung der Einbildungskraft, die viel zu denken veranlaßt, ohne daß ihr doch irgendein bestimmter Gedanke, d. i. Begriff, adäquat sein kann, die folglich keine Sprache völlig erreicht und verständlich machen kann.—Man sieht leicht, daß sie das Gegenstück (Pendant) von einer Vernunftidee sei, welche umgekehrt ein Begriff ist, dem keine Anschauung (Vorstellung der Einbildungskraft) adäquat sein kann.“ (Kant § 49.)

3. See Wagner and Seifert. Both point out that Lynch’s term image alternates between a drawn, visual map, a cognitive map and a collective and shared idea. Moreover, Lynch wanted it to function as a design-device for urban architects and city-planners.

4. Original: “Wirklichkeit, so kann man Burkes ontologisches Verständnis zusammenfassen, konstituiert sich aus sprachlich konstruierten Beziehungen und ist daher immer eine Interpretation von Wirklichkeit.”

5. To quote Burke: “Motives are subdivisions in a larger frame of meaning; this larger frame of meaning is [ . . . ] an orientation.” (Burke, PC 19)

6. Original: „Der Selbstbezug ist auf den Fremdbezug ausgerichtet, der Fremdbezug der Orientierung ist der Sinn ihres Selbstbezugs.“ (Stegmaier 13)

7. “Less representative examples are often considered to be more similar to more representative examples than the converse. Not surprisingly, Americans consider the United States to be a highly representative example of a country. [ . . . ] Subjects considered Mexico to be more similar to the United States than the United States is to Mexico.“ (Lakoff 41)

8. “New Information about a representative category member is more likely to be generalized to nonrepresentative members than the revers.“ (Lakoff 42)

9. “Characterizing ‚family resemblances‘ as perceived similarities between representative and nonrepresentative members of a category, Rosch showed that there was a correlation between family resemblance and numerical ratings of best examples derived from the above experiments.“ (Lakoff 42)

10. In The Image of the City Lynch gives three terms to structure his inquiry: identity, structure and meaning. “A workable image requires first the identification of an object, which implies its distinction from other things, its recognition as a separable entity. This is called identity, not in the sense of equality with something else, but with the meaning of individuality or oneness. Second, the image must include the spatial or pattern relation of the object to the observer and to other objects. Finally, this object must have some meaning for the observer, whether practical or emotional. Meaning is also a relation, but quite a different one from spatial or pattern relation.” (Lynch 8) It may not be quite right to say that Lynch ‘ignores’ the consequences since Lynch only focuses on identity and structure of the city-image and leaves out the difficult work on meaning. Thus, in this context ‘to ignore’ means not that Lynch merely ignores, but that his inquiry is constructed under the condition ‘to ignore.’

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