Wednesday, December 5

Book: City Life

Witold Rybczynski's City Life: Urban Expecations in the New World tells the story of urban planning in American history. His primary focus is on the design aspects of cities, particularly the evolution of different architectural approaches. The style is casual and personal (and enjoyable), intended more as an introduction for a broader audience than an academic thesis.


Paris is known as a beautiful city, carefully designed by planning authorities for 400 years. Why are not North American cities more like Paris? Instead, our cities seem to be cobbled together by disparate forces with no coordinated aesthetic. Fashions change quickly, new technologies replace the old, and our restlessness ensures that "there is something fleeting about the American city." This is the question of this book.

There's no good quantifiable definition of a city, and there are many ways to categorize them. Kevin Lynch considered his conceptual urban models in terms of space: the cosmic, the practical, and the organic. Fernand Braudel, on the other hand, mapped the evolution of cities through time: the open town, the closed town, and the subjugated town. Both models can be combined to give a fuller picture.

Native American cultures created a variety of different city types, always careful to incorporate elements of the natural world into designs. The Spanish colonists planted gridded cities, according to a standardized Laws of the Indies code, while the French built walled cities reminiscent of the medieval era. British colonial towns, with a few notable exceptions, grew organically in an informal pattern. They quickly became the most successful and populous. Williamsburg was a prototypical American town - much greenery, housing set-backs, prominent public buildings - while Philadelphia was a prototypical large city. Abundant land assured a constant desire for growth and change, as well as individual self-sufficiency and domestic ideals.

Alexis de Toqueville gave an outsider's assessment of 19th century American cities. He was highly impressed with New England small towns and the democratic spirit they fostered, but he was less impressed with frontier boomtowns, which seemed to be thrown together to meet the needs of quickly expanding industry. He considered L'Enfant's plan for Washington D.C. overly ambitious. It did take many years for the city to grow into it's infrastructure. New York struck him as unrefined. Impressive looking mansions were actually made with artificial materials. Overall, the American city, while more socially open to different classes than European cities, was "a setting for individual pursuits rather than communal activities."

Chicago, and in particular the Columbian Exposition of 1893, exemplified the great urban boom in America. Ultimately, the commercial city won out over the governmental city. An urbane culture began to spread without an explicitly urban shell, blurring the cultural lines between rural and urban that existed in Europe. The skyscraper, made possible by the elevator, was the revered form of architecture, representing technological progress and commerce. This created a downtown commercial core in cities. Frederick Law Olmsted managed to incorporate large parks into many cities before their level of growth made it too difficult. The harnessing of electricity accelerated these changes in the modern city.

The City Beautiful movement began to inspire Americans to look at the aesthetic organization of their cities critically. Formal public buildings, civic centers, universities, and grand railroad stations were built in a classical architectural style. Many of these architects were interested in social justice issues as well as design. These "horizontal" ideals sometime clashed with the "vertical" commercial ideals of utilitarian skyscrapers. Unlike Europe, height limits were never successfully imposed. The next generation of planners adopted function over form and dismissed the City Beautiful movement as an exercise in vanity and wastefulness.

New York became a model for the commercial city around the world, and it's lessons were often emulated. Le Corbusier, already armed with his own ideological vision, considered Manhattan a step in the right direction toward his radiant city. He proposed radical plans to build the cities of the future from the ground up, but they never really came to fruition. After WWII, the government began several urban renewal projects, as a continuation of the Great Society. Most of these are now considered failures. Public housing created massive single-use zones in cities for the poor and quickly deteriorated. By the end of the 60's American cities were badly injured.

Most people who could afford to moved out of the city. Decentralization had a long history in urban planning theory, and many of the first suburbs were planned "garden cities" in the tradition of Ebenezer Howard. The goal was to capture the charm of an organic small town. Many were gated communities regulated by a homeowners association, but others were built for blue-collar workers. Raymond Unwin emerged as the leading voice of this architectural movement. Jane Jacobs was unfair to consider these architects anti-city. The much maligned unplanned subdivisions didn't really arise until after WWII.

Outdoor, traditional downtowns across the country have largely been replaced by malls. While some may see this as artificial, it must be remembered that it is the people that make up a community.

Americans have long idealized small town life, while also desiring the range of options and prosperity that city life offers. The contemporary American city is really a complex metropolitan area, made up of numerous nuclei and connections between them. Inner-cities have collapsed, and Frank Lloyd Wright's vision of a "Broadacre City" has mostly been realized. Some architects in the "New Urbanist" movement are seeking a counterbalance to the scattered city and trying to build for community. Really, we need "both dispersal and concentration in cities - places to get away from each other, and places to gather - and it's time to stop assuming that one necessarily precludes the other."

Cities may be designed by architects, but they are sustained by a community. While form may be transformed radically through time, the "urban expectations" remain the same.

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