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On the Town

Cities and People: A Social and Architectural History

by Mark Girouard
Yale University Press, 397 pp., $29.95

Mark Girouard has written a book of great vitality about the way people have lived in Western or Western-type cities from the Dark Ages to the twentieth century, and about what those cities have been like. Unlike most historians of “urbanism,” who tend to organize their work around a theory of society and technology, Girouard denies having a theory or message. He writes simply, his judgments are modestly expressed, he eschews enthusiasm, pretension, and jargon. It is refreshing to find a learned book that divides town plans into the two categories of “plain” and “fancy.” Cities and People is a straightforward, descriptive account of the history and the social setting of the Western city, viewed in a traditional, chronological perspective. It is a remarkable achievement by a writer whose earlier work, with the exception of an essay on the Victorian vogue for chivalry, has been mostly concentrated on the history of the English country house. Girouard has been admired for his powers of synthesis. The present book shows him to be a writer of formidable range.

Girouard begins his book by explaining how the cities of the Middle Ages came into being and what they looked like. He sees the merchant oligarchs who dominate this scene somewhat conventionally, as the only leaders of social progress, but he is by no means without insight into medieval life, and he makes clear in one chapter how differently medieval society was organized from our own, when it was almost all in one way or another merged in the Church. The center of the book, “The City Triumphant,” is an account of what Girouard sees as the great period of the Western city. Using late sixteenth-century Rome as the model and point of departure, and concentrating on Paris and Amsterdam, he takes the big capital cities of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as his subject. Throughout he emphasizes that a “Renaissance” tradition of architecture and town planning endured in Europe until it was overtaken by the new functional needs of industrialism. The most original chapter here, “The City as Export,” brilliantly evokes the colonial cities of the ancien régime in North and South America (including an account of Pierre L’Enfant’s largely abortive plan for Washington) and British India. Girouard shows how these places related to European prototypes, but sharply describes them in their particular settings.

The last section begins with a masterly account of the “Exploding City” of the modern industrial world, from the nineteenth century—Manchester, London and its suburbs, and Paris—to the skyscraper cities of New York and Chicago. But the rest of this section is less clearly presented. “Cities Round the World” gets us to Meiji Tokyo, in which Girouard is diverted into some miscellaneous matters like water supply and sewage. The twentieth century is handled in a rather less confident way than the earlier material. “Babylon or Jerusalem” gives some account of modern “garden cities” and of contemporary US suburbs, but the author seems uncertain how much attention he wants to give to the cities we live in now.

Yet the book is a remarkable feat of literary planning, usually successful in linking the mood and visual appearance of what is now to be seen with the history of how it came to be so. Girouard compares cities diverse from one another in time and space, and does so with energy and verve, picking out common characteristics in a lively and undogmatic way. The emphasis is almost always on what is to be seen now, seldom on what is no longer to be seen, hardly ever on what was planned or dreamed but not executed. Failed utopias, the ideal building programs that were never built, are dear to many art historians but entirely absent from Girouard’s book.

The book’s main political drift is Whiggish in the British sense: the people who are seen as having power and prestige are mainly the landed and commercial oligarchies. The treatment of political power as it affects city life seems at first to be very bland; although in other books Girouard has shown himself to be well aware that power and architecture are inseparably tied together, he has very little to say about this here. The city has always provided a spectacle for the exercise of political power. Girouard is quite content tacitly to acknowledge this so long as he is dealing with Italian merchants, Dutch burghers, East Indian merchants, and great British landowners. But he is otherwise reluctant to acknowledge what has to be admitted by any historian, be he liberal or Whig, that the city has, beginning with its Roman prototype or earlier, been as often as not the showpiece for despotism (whether enlightened or not) and imperialism.

There are one or two striking examples which gloss over the exercise of imperial power. Two great town-planning demonstrations of British imperialism of the early twentieth century—the Mall in London and Lutyens’s arrangement of public buildings and routes in New Delhi—are both represented here as being in the American tradition of the “City Beautiful,” that is to say of long, landscaped garden vistas with very low density of population. The monumental aspects of these projects, with their huge arches and colonnades proclaiming imperial power, seem to have escaped Girouard.

Arguably, also, the Whig approach has influenced the organization of the book. It was, of course, absolutely necessary that Girouard should be selective: any attempt to deal with all the big Western cities would have reduced the book to a boring catalog. But it is noticeable that the main omissions among European cities are—with the exception of Paris and Rome, which could hardly have been omitted—the princely and imperial ones. Madrid, the classic example of an early modern city created by royal decree, is scarcely mentioned, and there is scant treatment of St. Petersburg, the other major imperial creation. The capital cities of the Austro-Hungarian empire are snubbed in the same way: Vienna gets little mention until the nineteenth century, with the development of the Ring, and later for an affectionate commendation of the Karl Marx Hof. Prague, which has a not negligible or ugly patrimony of ancient building, is also ignored.

This “Whig approach” may have encouraged Girouard to undervalue one important function of certain great cities, that of public administration. In analyzing the medieval city, which he does in an informed and sensitive way, he tends to let himself be carried away by the obvious current of merchant enterprise and civic independence, and to play down royal power. His treatment of Paris, which was for many centuries the capital of a more or less absolute monarchy, is in this respect interesting.

The main reason for the importance of Paris in the preindustrial era was the presence of the royal court in the city or nearby, though plenty of economic and geographic factors reinforced its preeminence. Girouard acknowledges this, but does not always pursue its consequences. When he comes to the early modern period he dwells on the social importance of the ennobled lawyers, who staffed the Parliament of Paris, in a way not really justified by the facts; it is untrue that they formed a “city aristocracy,” if we mean by that a specifically civic nobility like that of Genoa or Venice. Girouard wants to represent all urban cultures as culminating in the “polite society” of the eighteenth century, and to this end he rather neglects the monarchies on which the “polite” oligarchies rested. He minimizes the propagandist aims of most of the urban projects of the French kings (and, indeed, those of their Napoleonic successors) or explains them by a banal observation such as that they wished to “boost their image.” In the same way, Westminster and Whitehall are passed over rather quickly when Girouard touches on London. The relative independence of civic from national government in London, which was repeated in the North American cities, has perhaps affected the way Girouard—although he acknowledges the distinction—deals with cities where conditions were very different.

Like other historians of urbanism Girouard dwells at length on late Renaissance Rome; rather surprisingly he doesn’t try to dethrone Pope Sixtus V, the tyrannical Counter-Reformation zealot, from the pantheon of liberal and bien pensant town planners. The bishop of Rome was the only one of the medieval bishops of any account to remain the chief representative of public administration in the city; this had been the situation in many places after the end of the Roman Empire, but only in Rome did it continue. Rome was also the pattern for the later modern cities which depend on public administration for their very existence. These expensive havens for public service industries—financed, resented, and disliked by the rest of us—form an important category of modern cities that Girouard neglects to identify clearly. Washington, Canberra, New Delhi, Brasilia, post-1870 Rome, and now perhaps Brussels all come into this class.

Bloated and nasty as it is and was in many ways, Rome has influenced us all; Girouard’s appreciation of the Renaissance and baroque Rome is a sensitive one. His feeling for the social flavor of a town and a period is shown to advantage here: I especially liked his appreciation of the way in which Counter-Reformation Rome managed to combine theoretical intolerance of a very high order with practical arrangements that gave its cosmopolitan population an astounding freedom of opinion. He even compares Counter-Reformation Rome with Berlin in the 1930s: “a tolerant city landed with a regime which it disliked but had to live with.”

It would be surprising, given the worldwide range of his book, if Girouard had managed to get every street corner right. He makes a few slips about Rome. I do not think that Piazza del Popolo (which is far from the Via Paolina—or did he mean Via Paola?—which he places next to it) was very influential on other street plans before the late baroque: perhaps not even much before Valadier’s changes in the early nineteenth century. The ubiquitous influence which he assigns to it seems rather odd, and I wonder if he was not sometimes thinking of Piazza di Ponte, which is the terminus of Via Paola at the other end of the city.

Both apropos Rome and other cities, Girouard shows he is aware of the vanity of the idea that the great axially planned thoroughfares, which began in the Renaissance, and the ceremonial piazze and places that sometimes accompanied them, were means that automatically achieved the ends that government proposed for them, without the investment produced by private citizens for their development. The early modern governments did not have the resources to finance huge programs of urban renovation directly; they had to use their control of bylaws favoring urban development, and to resort to all sorts of other stratagems to attract urban investment. One of the great virtues of Girouard’s approach is his awareness of the laws of supply and demand, which are not always greatly regarded by modern town planners, though they are painfully present to practicing architects. He cites, for example, Louis XIV’s abortive “Place Louis-le-Grand” of 1685, which stood as empty façades put up by the royal masons with no buildings behind them, until the developers were much later persuaded to move in and to turn it into what became, eventually, the Place Vendôme.

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