Space and Place in Novigrad

Space is more than just a vacuum. We tend to think of it as a hollow void into which ‘real things’ are placed, but the reality is more complicated than it seems. The secret is that our relationship with space is a two-way street. We can shape space, but it can also shape us. This makes architecture a powerful tool.

Rooms, buildings, and cities provide shelter, but they also affect our worldview. Built environments like these inform our understanding of the natural order, structure our interpersonal relationships, and define our sense of self. Since we express our cultural values when we modify the world around us, the places we create become sites of social negotiation that justify our preconceptions about normality. The prevailing attitude about things like race, class, and religion is reflected in our creations. These creations then go on to justify the views of their creators. Simply put: space is a machine for producing and reproducing the dominant social system.

Game worlds operate in much the same way.

What kind of social systems are there in a game world like the Northern Kingdoms? In designing The Witcher 3, the game’s developer, CD Projekt, wanted its world to be as complex, nuanced, and elaborate as our own. Novigrad in particular stands out for its depth and detail. The city is roiled in conflict and strife: dwarves and elves are blamed for its economic misfortunes, mages are burned at the stake, and the poverty-stricken masses look to organized crime for their salvation. In creating Novigrad, CD Projekt gave spatial expression to issues like race, class, and religion by establishing a series of physical polarities. These various distinctions - high/ low, clean/ dirty, empty/ crowded, aligned/ unaligned, durable/ perishable, and planned/ improvised - largely define the city as a place.

Verticality is an important aspect of Novigrad's design

Verticality is one of Novigrad’s most characteristic features. Rising up from Velen’s marshy plains, the city slowly culminates in the lofty towers of Temple Isle.

Verticality structures the city’s physical geography, but also its human geography. The higher districts like Temple Isle and Gildorf are home to only a single demographic: wealthy human worshipers of the Eternal Fire. Novigrad’s lower districts like Farcorners, Glory Lane, and the Bits have to accommodate everyone else.

This contrast between high and low is made material in the city’s tallest building: the Great Temple of the Eternal Fire. Towering over Novigrad, this prominent structure dominates the surrounding district - and the local skyline. With its high halls and hot hearths, it stands right at the heart of Temple Isle’s cultural identity, but lies beyond reach for even the majority of those who follow the faith. Its imposing doors will open for only a select few. (Ciri proves the rule). Similar to the rest of Temple Isle, the building is characterized by a strong focus on exclusivity: access to the interior is even protected from non-humans and mages by an army of ruthless Witch Hunters. Take a stroll over to nearby Gildorf and you’ll find that establishments like the Passiflora are equally discriminating.

The Great Temple of the Eternal Fire looms large over Novigrad

The areas near sea level are some of the seediest. Providing safe harbor to elves, dwarves, and mages, the lower districts like Farcorners, Glory Lane, and the Bits are home to the city’s least reputable citizens. Holing himself up in Glory Lane, the underworld boss Francis Bedlam can even be found in a ramshackle fortress known as Putrid Grove with a few dozen mages like Triss Merigold. Mired in the muck and mud of the nearby dockyards, Glory Lane is well below the wind-swept streets of Temple Isle. Surrounded on all sides by entry points, there’s at least one good thing to be said for the place: it’s relatively welcoming. Temple Isle by contrast can only be accessed by crossing Saint Gregory’s Bridge. What else would make Dandelion want to set up shop in the Rosemary and Thyme?

Temple Isle contrasts sharply with the lower parts of the city

Farcorners barely rises above sea level

Novigrad is surrounded by swamp, so elevation and sanitation are necessarily related. The higher districts like Temple Isle and Gildorf are immaculate, but the lower ones like Farcorners, Glory Lane, and the Bits are an absolute eyesore.

The city’s entirely human elite is at home in Gildorf. Maria Louisa La Valette and Henry var Attre even have neighboring villas. With its perfectly polished cobblestone streets, these recent residents most likely chose the district for its remarkable spotlessness. Everything is neat and tidy. Glory Lane’s muck and mud is nowhere to be seen. Surrounding their property with an impressive perimeter wall, the var Attres were even able to offer themselves a bit of green space in the form of a private garden. The rest of Gildorf isn’t quite as charming, but there’s still plenty of greenery. The wishing fountain in particular makes for a pleasant place to stop and chat. (Triss in any case rather likes it).

Gildorf is very prim and proper

Glory Lane offers gorgeous waterfront views, but only a handful of the city’s elite have bothered to notice. None have willingly taken up residence. (Triss wasn’t thrilled to leave Hierarch Square). Maybe it’s all the muck and mud? With its broken windows and rotten beams, the signs of decay and disrepair don’t take long to come across. Head over toward Crippled Kate’s and you’ll be amazed that some of the district’s buildings are still standing. The sea spray clearly hasn’t been kind: water damage is a common sight. (Posters and graffiti hide some of the stains, but the problem is pretty widespread). Farcorners isn’t much nicer. The Witch Hunters and Temple Guard have taken to impaling non-humans near the Glory Gate, so there isn’t much interest in keeping the streets clean. It’s hardly rare to stumble upon a stray corpse while you beat around those back alleys in the Bits, either.

Glory Lane offers beautiful views of Temple Isle, but the district is pretty scummy

The sea spray hasn't been kind to Crippled Kate's

The muck and mud down in Dockside didn’t come from nowhere. The inhabitants made it by clomping around. Related to cleanliness is another characteristic feature of the city: congestion. Some districts are mostly empty, but others are cracking at the seams.

Spend a bit of time in Gildorf and you’ll pick up on something strange: the inhabitants have almost completely vanished. The merchants and entertainers are plentiful, but where have all the shoppers and showgoers gone? There’s an outdoor concert in the central square that’s pretty pleasing, so you’d expect a few bystanders to be enjoying the band. (They even play at night). Maybe everybody’s getting down at the Passiflora? They do brisk business in there, but surely the girls can’t be turning tricks that fast. Where is everybody? Courtly manners won’t get you an answer to this question. You’ll have to peer through some windows. (You can also try opening doors). Look around for long enough and you’ll find that most houses in the district actually have more rooms than people. In other words, the inhabitants didn’t vanish. They were never there to begin with. Gildorf is a gated community for the few dozen people who can afford a bit of leg and elbow room.

The Passiflora couldn't possibly hold every Gildorf resident

Walk down the stairs behind the central square and you’ll be in the Bits: Novigrad’s home for the huddled masses. Poke around some houses in the district and you’ll find that most of them are jam-packed with people. The streets are pretty crowded, too. Glory Lane is nearly as bad. The sights, sounds, and smells of maritime activity are inescapable in the district: sailors can be found unloading their cargo at almost any hour. Most of their goods end up across the canal in the crowded Fish Market. The prostitutes plying their trade over in Lacehalls keep things pretty busy, too.

Districts like the Fish Market are full of people

Some of the differences between districts like Temple Isle and Glory Lane aren’t apparent at ground level, but you can still spot them if you adopt a new perspective. Alignment is one of these.

Towering over the city, the Great Temple of the Eternal Fire is Novigrad’s cultural cornerstone. It also dominates the surrounding area. Some of the houses in Temple Isle seem to share its alignment, so the building could even be said to structure the district’s urban planning. The same thing happened in Hierarch Square. Pointing in the four cardinal directions, buildings like the Kingfisher Inn, the Butcher’s Yard Theater, and the Vivaldi Bank show a common spatial arrangement. Similar to the Great Temple of the Eternal Fire, the marketplace in Hierarch Square provides a point of reference for the layout of the surrounding area. Gildorf isn’t any different: most of the houses in this district are aligned relative to the central square.

Many of the buildings in Temple Isle share a common spatial orientation

The marketplace in Hierarch Square structures the area's urban planning

Novigrad’s other districts have no spatial unity. Without a landmark like the Great Temple to the Eternal Fire, they lack a point of reference to structure their urban planning. Places like Farcorners, Glory Lane, and the Bits are nothing more than a hodgepodge of houses. This makes getting lost in them rather easy. The roads in the Bits for example often weave and wind their way into a series of dead ends. (The local thugs like to use this feature to their advantage). Glory Lane isn’t much better. The district’s plan is highly irregular: buildings are set against each other awkwardly and stick out into the street. There’s nothing holding them all together - not even the road network.

Places like the Bits lack spatial unity

Glory Lane is a hodgepodge of houses

The distinctions concerning race, class, and religion between the city’s various districts are even reflected in their building materials. The houses in Silverton, Hierarch Square, and Gildorf are mostly made from durable substances like stone and glass. The ones in Farcorners, Glory Lane, and the Bits are exclusively wood and plaster.

The city’s fanciest buildings are characterized by their use of stone. This takes various forms, but each one communicates the same sense of permanence. Many houses in the middle-class district of Silverton for example consist of a wooden superstructure atop a lower course of irregular stonework. Some even have a decorative brick facade like the stately buildings in Hierarch Square. The architecture of this latter district ranks among Novigrad’s most impressive: the Vivaldi Bank in particular stands out for its dramatic masonry. Its wide arches and soaring clerestory probably wouldn’t even be possible with any other material. Similar in construction to the ones down the hill in Silverton, the houses in Gildorf are notable for their beautiful bay windows. Laid into a metal frame, the glass panels on buildings like the var Attre Villa can be surprisingly durable. They’re also a status symbol. (Most of the houses in Silverton don’t even have them). Several buildings in the area take this focus on stone and glass to the extreme: the Passiflora for example is almost entirely made from these two materials. The place definitely exudes pleasure, but also power and pretension. (The Rosemary and Thyme is a lot more down to earth).

Many of the buildings in Silverton have stone elements

The buildings in Gildorf are mostly stone and glass

The houses in Farcorners, Glory Lane, and the Bits are notable for their almost complete reliance on perishable construction materials like wood and plaster. Spend a few minutes in Farcorners and you’ll notice that only a few buildings in the district have walls made from brick or stone. Some near the dye vats have stacked stone corners and windows, but the majority seem to be wattle and daub: soil, clay, and straw held in place by a wooden lattice. The same could be said for Glory Lane and the Bits. With its three floors and elegant balcony, the Rosemary and Time is a good example of how versatile this construction material can be. The building pales in comparison to the Passiflora, but its wattle and daub superstructure probably wouldn’t allow for such high ceilings or a fourth floor. Marabella even passed on the plaster entirely for her School for Tots: Novigrad’s only educational institution is little more than a log cabin.

The houses in Farcorners have only a few stone elements

Marabella's School for Tots is just a log cabin

The buildings in various parts of the city diverge in their formal characteristics, too. The entirely human upper crust can afford to live in well-designed houses, but everyone else has to improvise.

The buildings in wealthy places like Temple Isle, Hierarch Square, and Gildorf show all the signs of a planned construction. There’s a clear focus on ordering principles like symmetry, hierarchy, and rhythm. The Kingfisher Inn for example consists of two separate components of different size that have been organized around a central datum line. This gives the building order through hierarchy. Both components are individually symmetrical, but the subordinate one also has a few added elements of rhythm like the seven columns below the balcony. With its pillared clerestory and precisely placed windows, the nearby Vivaldi Bank is even more extreme in its use of symmetry. Communicating power and prestige through strict adherence to this highly artificial structure, the var Attre Villa in Gildorf was designed in much the same way.

The Kingfisher Inn uses symmetry and rhythm to create order

The Vivaldi Bank is heavy handed in its use of symmetry

Novigrad’s others districts are characterized by their lack of architectural order. Glory Lane in particular is notable for its improvised buildings like Hattori’s Workshop and Crippled Kate’s. Leaving traces of their passing in the form of added elements and renovated spaces, many of these have clearly been modified over time by their successive inhabitants. This gave most of Glory Lane’s buildings a modular appearance. With its relatively pleasing hierarchy and rhythm, the Rosemary and Thyme is actually the only regular structure in the district. Many of the houses in Putrid Grove by contrast have been furnished with balconies, decks, and sheds along their outer walls. Several houses have even been given additional rooms and floors. (They’re made from different building materials). Improvised elements like these put the district in sharp opposition to the rigid regularity of places like Temple Isle, Hierarch Square, and Gildorf.

The buildings in Glory Lane are mostly improvised

Novigrad is being slowly torn apart by its internal divisions, but is there anywhere that its people can assemble despite their differences of race, class, and religion? There seems to be one such place: the Butcher’s Yard Theater. (The brothels make for pretty good melting pots, too). Located immediately to the south of Hierarch Square, the Butcher’s Yard Theater sits in the perfect place for some social mingling: the middle of town. This takes place whether anyone wants it or not. (They don’t). You have to get in contact with a doppler called Dudu at one point in the game, but he’s trying to maintain his cover by assuming human form. This makes finding him rather tricky. You discover that he’s an avid theatergoer, so you end up communicating with Dudu by means of a play. This involves hiring some elven jugglers from the Bits and a few rough-and-tumble thugs from Dockside as theater personnel. The patrons are mostly wealthy human worshipers of the Eternal Fire from places like Temple Isle and Gildorf. In other words, you have to round up a cross section of the city’s population. Hopefully a fight won’t break out.