Urban visions past and future
By John King
December 1, 2010
Makeshift Metropolis: Ideas About Cities, 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 cargo from about six dollars to just 16 cents.
History is the book’s strongest element, both for the way it unfolds and for the detached but discerning insights it provides along the way. Rybczynski’s underlying premise is that distinct theories of planning and urbanism shaped the city of the past century—persuasive people made their case, struck a chord, and won support—but also that the theorists themselves rarely anticipated where their theories would lead. The garden cities that Howard envisioned as self-contained economies attracted residents but not employers, a foreshadowing of the jobs-housing imbalance that plagues so many metropolitan regions today. Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities still defines what we look for in a big-city neighborhood, but there’s no evidence that Jacobs foresaw an age when tourism and artisan coffee would be key factors in the cycle of death and life. What rarely gets taken into account, Rybczynski suggests, is that “the public actually knows what it wants or, at least, it recognizes it when it sees it.”
Yet the same disconnect can be applied to Rybczynski’s book, for his “public” is but one facet of the population shaping today’s most intriguing urban cores.
This is an era of bootstrap urbanism, where large projects are stalled but street-level creativity reshapes expectations of how we might define a city’s quality of life. Urban agriculture may sound like nothing more than this season’s fad, but it’s being pursued with the blessing of local governments, not only in places like San Francisco, but in Rust Belt cities like Cleveland. The notion of bicycles as a legitimate transit option has moved from the fringe to a place surprisingly near the mainstream, as seen in the creation of separated bike lanes on prominent Manhattan streets.
Yes, the classic post–World War II suburb offers the lifestyle that a majority of Americans have pursued in recent decades, but to extrapolate that norm without question would be like assuming, in 1957, the infinite hegemony of finger piers. What’s missing from Makeshift Metropolis is what’s hinted at in its title: the sense that neighborhood activism in urban settings might itself be changing shape, from the proudly defensive tactics of Jacobs’s era to an adventurous experimentation on the part of people who love cities but aren’t afraid to (re)define them in fresh ways. Their absolute numbers might not be large, but their cultural influence is likely to grow.
None of this seems to have registered with Rybczynski. In the book’s final chapter, “The Kind of Cities We Need,” he demonstrates a distinct lack of enthusiasm when he states that “if Americans are to significantly reduce their carbon footprints, they will have to consider densification.” And though he intones that “piecemeal urbanism has a long and proven track record,” the latest model he holds up for emulation is The Yards in Washington, D.C.—a $1.7 billion development by the behemoth Forest City Enterprises, planned by a cadre of designers led by Robert A. M. Stern.
“The urban lessons of the last hundred years should not go unheeded,” Rybczynski argues at the end of Makeshift Metropolis. He’s right, and this book will keep those lessons in circulation. But there’s another lesson to be had from modern American cities: they will continue to change, often in ways we can’t predict.
John King is the urban design critic of the San Francisco Chronicle.
Comments are closed for this post.