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SimCity - From the Tigris to the Metropolis

by Mark Peres

August 3,2004

I was in the office of a realtor friend the other day, and he showed me aerial maps with push pins showing where the next housing developments were planned. I stood there transfixed. I love to look at photographic maps of the city, listen to talk about new buildings and urban planning, and imagine the future. I suspect it’s an impulse that has been shared by millions of builders (and would-be artisans like me) since the dawn of civilization – a creator instinct to shape the environment and leave behind a better place.

Not too long ago, a man stood by a river, beside his mud hut, contemplating his place in the universe. He drew a design for a minaret, brought two bricks together well, and architecture was born. The high priests marveled, for the building lifted the spirits of the villagers, connecting shelter with the eternal. The king decided a grand civic place was in order. Two larger huts and an intersection followed. Somewhere in Mesopotamia, the building of things as culture began.

In a brief history of time came ziggurats in Sumeria, hanging gardens in Babylon, terra-cotta palaces in Persia, great pyramids in Giza, ionic columns in Athens and amphitheaters in Rome. Emperors commissioned arches and Popes built basilicas. Throughout our world, farmers and craftsmen, money traders and penitents, collided in the marketplace of love and war. Onward came the rush of events and the rise and fall of design: Byzantine domes, Islamic citadels, Venetian fountains and Indian temples. The old became new as classicism revived, and the new became old as modernism wiped it away. Industry brought steel spires and chimneys, row houses and machines. Town planners separated residences from factories, gilded wealth built gilded mansions, and up went skyscraping cathedrals of commerce. From Art Deco to Art Nouveau, from Bauhaus to Deconstructivism, from ranch houses in the suburbs to New Urbanism in greenfields, the impulse remains the same: to build what it means to live.

In the late 20th Century, SimCity, a game of its age captured the game of the ages: creating a functioning society with limited resources. In the game, the player, with a vantage point from on high, selects terrain, reshapes rivers and mountains, builds roads and houses, trades off countryside for power plants, chooses between schools and bridges, considers taxes and toll booths, constantly balancing order and chaos.  It is what we do everyday. It is the role of the gods that has been ceded to men since the first architect claimed ownership over the human and divine.

In shaping civilization, in shaping our city, we have a choice between the banal and bringing two bricks together well. In Charlotte, a mid-size trading post in the Piedmont, we can claim a broader heritage and aspire for a consciousness of beauty and art in our built environment. It requires the hubris of flying close to the sun and trade-offs. It requires liturgy. It requires a love for the aerial map.

Today our choices lead us to the metroplex: a region of towns and edge cities, of sleek light rail and multimodal stations, of hybrid cars and pocket-size interactive urban parks. Our high priests and kings debate calling and legacy. Our citizenry collide on the corner of Trade and Tryon. Our architects dream of shelter and the universe. Inevitably, we push forward into a new age of design.

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