City ways: urban visions past and future.

Author:King, John
Position:Makeshift Metropolis: Ideas about Cities - Book review


By Witold Rybczynski, Scribner, 240 pp., $24

By their nature--an odd word in this context--large cities at once invite and defy contemplation. Their sheer intensity prods us to make sense of what we see, but by the time we think we've grasped what makes a city tick, new elements will almost certainly have been added to the mix.

That's true of anyone who spends time in an urban setting, and it's true of Witold Rybczynski, an urbanism professor at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the nation's most engaging chroniclers of the ways that architecture and cities overlap. His new book, Makeshift Metropolis: Ideas About Cities, is in some ways his most ambitious: Rybczynski not only wants to explore the theories that shaped our urban world, he seeks to define "the kind of cities that the present environmental crisis suggests that we need." Yet for all the book's good qualities--and there are many--it ultimately feels more dated than daring.

In the preface, Rybczynski writes that "this book summarizes what I have learned about city planning and urban development" and that air of diffident ambition captures what follows. We meet Charles Mulford Robinson, who laid the groundwork for the City Beautiful movement of the early 20th century, and Ebenezer Howard, whose vision of "garden cities" is embodied in the most picturesque suburbs of the same era. Rybczynski introduces us to Le Corbusier with his towers in the park (the architectural provocateur is no favorite of the author) and Jane Jacobs with her eyes on the street, right up to Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and how the popular success of its rhapsodic titanium swirls fueled the past decade's pursuit of iconic spectacle.

All this is presented with informed ease. Rybczynski is deft at conveying, in a phrase, scenes we know in our gut--as when he describes upscale suburban landscapes where "a new community needs but lay down fiber-optic cables, build a walkable downtown, and entice a Whole Foods and a Target to be competitive." He also shows the broad impact of seemingly discrete technological innovations: how the shopping cart enabled the landscape of big-box retail ("making up in practicality what it lacks in elegance") and how the classic urban waterfront of longshoremen and finger piers was made obsolete in 1956 when the first tanker filled with shipping containers, the Ideal-X, sailed from Newark, slashing the cost of shipping a ton of...

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