“Now is the winter of our discontent; made a glorious bummer by lockdown talk”, as the Bard would say today. As we huddle indoors, in various states, surrounded by failed plans for quarantine and the vaccine (st)rollout, we need a positive plan to cheer us up.

So, I’m offering up a little design brainteaser, in the spirit of last week’s discussion of Edward De Bono’s lateral thinking. Below is a short story in the mode of Italo Calvino’s book Invisible Cities, describing a hypothetical city. Your task is to draw the city’s plan from reading the story, which is full of puns and literary clues. 

In solving this problem, it may help to know that it was written for architecture students to solve, and I used it as their first project for the ten years I taught first year at three different architecture schools. I should apologize in advance to the 750+ former students (some now teachers themselves) for whom this may bring back horrors of their loss of innocence in their first year.

This puzzle was a key starting point for a radical re-organisation of how architecture teaching is started. Having discerned the city plan, students designed buildings within the city, analyzed aspects of urban design and planning, refined their buildings and interiors; all within their first semester. But more of that next week, when I reveal the plan, and the controversial curriculum that followed. 

For now, here’s the story.


At dawn, travelling northward, Axel and Ingrid come upon the southern gate of Opus Musivum, a city that provides a different path for each on its planned streets. Within its encompassing four-square city walls the plan adopts an order made for a time of kings and queens, bishops and knights, but incudes an avenue against the grain. Now, in the early 21st century, it is a compact and comprehensible city, a combination of traditional urban design and the contemporary architecture.

This gate, one of four, is three quarters west on the city wall and offers several paths. Axel’s way is Opus Avenue, a grand street heading NNE through Central Park to another gate, in a mirror reverse position on the north city wall. This avenue takes him past all sectors of the city, revealing the city's contrasts but not its secrets.

Taking a different route, Ingrid will cross his path several times. She heads 2 blocks north and sees the Art Gallery on the NE corner and the university in the blocks to the West. She turns east along Hologram Street past the Gallery and crosses Axel’s path at the Museum (in two parts) and then the Library, equally sharing the Park frontage. Next stands the Cathedral. To her right are a mix of galleries, cafes, stores and housing (and used car yards) of SoHo. 

She rounds the Cathedral to port and heads north between the Parliament (left) and Law Courts (right). In the city blocks to the east are the Civil Service, Police, Gaol and commercial and corporate HQ's. She turns left again at the halfway point, heading west between the Parliament and Town Hall she enters Central park and meets Axel at the Central Fountain.

He has passed the Shrine, Statuary and Rotunda, discerning the work of two landscape hands, one Boullee, the other Rousseau, dividing the Park the same way as the Avenue divides the city. Looking south they see the fronts of the Library and Museum are of two different orders. Axel continues on. 

Ingrid sees an inverted Lion and WW in the fountain pool, and heads west to enter the manufacturing district: a constructivist carpet of sawtooth roofs, cranes and aerials stretching to the city walls. Passing between signed towers she turns north towards the stadium and hospital. Walking between them to the next intersection, looking left is the PoMoHo gateway.

To the NW she regards apartment towers, but Ingrid turns right and is almost been run over by an ambulance at the emergency entrance of the hospital. On one side she passes the Shopping Mall that faces the park, to the other lies a bohemian area of discount stores down to the port.  Between buildings festooned with flags and signs she can see water and wharves.  

She heads back towards Axel, meeting him at two Flat Irons housing the Opera and Cinema. To the east is the film studio. Axel continues on and sees the Port to the left beyond the Cinema, whilst Ingrid admires the Film School on her right as she heads toward apartments north of the commercial district.  

Walking past the Film School, she can see north to the Gate and sea beyond.  Meeting Axel at the gate they have passed between buildings making a colourful finale. They leave a city of six sectors, and wander east along the shore, the lights of the city glowing in the enveloping dusk. 


Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Tone does not read Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Linked In. Sanity is preserved by reading and replying only to comments addressed to [email protected]