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The Mystery of Cities

The City Shaped: Urban Patterns and Meanings Through History

by Spiro Kostof
Bulfinch Press/Little, Brown, 352 pp., $29.95 (paper)

The City Assembled: The Elements of Urban Form Through History

by Spiro Kostof
Bulfinch Press/Little, Brown, 320 pp., $50.00

Cities Without Suburbs

by David Rusk
Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 147 pp., $13.95 (paper)

There is so much bad news about American cities that it’s surprising to discover that they are not shrinking but growing. According to the last US census, the twenty-three largest cities, which have populations over one half million, grew by 6 percent in the period between 1980 and 1990; the forty medium-sized cities with populations between one quarter and one half million increased by 20 percent in the same period; as for the 131 cities with between 100,000 and 250,000 people, they have grown by more than 15 percent, and today, for the first time in the twentieth century, they are home to more people than the great metropolises.

If this urban expansion has not had much attention, it is probably because the form of these cities is both brash and ambivalent. “Impressive in scale but limited in vision, creating new opportunities but also providing massive new problems,” wrote Asa Briggs.1 He was describing Victorian cities in Britain, but he may as well have been writing about the American city of today: spread out, socially fragmented, recklessly entrepreneurial, relying almost completely on the automobile, often lacking a clearly defined center, and without the trappings of urbanity that have characterized cities in the past. In the eyes of many, a distinctly un-urban place.

But what is a city? Lewis Mumford asked the question more than thirty years ago in the opening of his great work, The City in History. Although Mumford never provided a single, simple definition of a city, he did point out that neither size, nor population density, nor physical extent, nor function provided reliable yardsticks. The cities of ancient Greece, for example, with only a few thousand inhabitants, were the size of today’s small towns; indeed, Aristotle maintained that the ideal city should contain about 5,000 people, and that a settlement with 100,000 inhabitants could no longer be considered a city. In medieval Germany, towns of 3,000 inhabitants were granted the status of cities, and in medieval France, there were numerous examples of walled cities with as few as 200 or 300 households, that is, probably no more than 2,000 or 3,000 people. In the American Old West, the grandly named Dodge City, which was laid out in 1872, was described by a contemporary visitor as consisting of about a dozen frame houses and two dozen tents, beside a few sod houses. Even in its heyday, when Dodge City had the reputation of being the Western frontier’s wildest town, rivaled only by Deadwood and Tombstone, the permanent population was probably well under one thousand people, by today’s standards a small town.

Most people take it for granted that there is an important difference between a city and a town, a difference of kind as well as degree. It comes as a surprise, then, to discover that in most of the European, languages, the same word can be used to refer to a “city” and a “town.” Some languages, like German, French, or Polish, do not distinguish between them at all; a city is a ville and a town is a ville. This suggests a view of cities and towns that recognizes continuity rather than differences, as if cities were larger versions of towns, or vice versa. On the other hand, in English, and especially in American English, the perceived difference between cities and towns, especially between big cities and small towns, is considered paramount.

If size doesn’t define a city, perhaps population density does. Medieval European cities were closely packed behind defensive walls, and the citizens were privileged to live inside the walls—the poor lived outside, in the suburbs or faubourgs. But the vast Chinese cities from the Yuan dynasty onward were spread out and included affluent suburbs, and many modern American cities are exceedingly expansive—the city limits of Houston encompass more than five hundred square miles. On the other hand, there are many large cities in souther Africa where the presence of farm animals and agricultural land, for example, suggests a vastly expanded rural village rather than a town. But then, in the early nineteenth century, foraging pigs were a common sight in New York City streets.

The functions of cities can vary widely. Cities have been vividly described by Jane Jacobs as places of commercial exchange and industrial innovation, but in many Greek cities all commerce was explicitly forbidden, and Mumford makes a convincing case that the three cities that stand as the best example of Greek urban culture are Delphi, Cos, and Olympia. Delphi was an oracular religious center, Cos was a combination sanatorium, research hospital, and spa, and Olympia was the site of quadrennial athletic games. Noncommercial cities are equally prominent. Few cities are as influential as the holy cities of Rome, Jerusalem, and Mecca; one of the most charming cities in Europe, Venice, has been a sort of amusement park, as Mary McCarthy put it, for almost three hundred years; and Las Vegas, a city that stands as an almost mythic symbol in the imaginations of millions of Americans, is purely a play-town. There is no longer a single city associated with sports, but it is indisputable that for many Americans what distinguishes a “big” city in the United States today is not its size, or how tall its skyscrapers are, or the influence of its newspaper, but its ability to attract a major-league baseball team.

Nevertheless, whatever else they are, cities are also physical artifacts. They are not the biggest man-made objects in the world—they are not as big as works of pure engineering like the Great Wall of China or the Panama Canal, or the continental telephone system—but what they lack in extent they make up for in visceral impact. The US telephone system is huge but largely invisible, and only a small part of the Great Wall can be seen at a time—the immensity of these creations makes itself felt only in the imagination. But a city is experienced all of a piece. That is why great city views, whether of Paris spread out below the heights of Sacré Coeur, or the crowded island of Hong Kong seen from Kowloon, or lower Manhattan looming over the Staten Island ferry, are so moving. Such views are a potent reminder that the construction of cities represents a great human achievement. “It was divine nature which gave us the country,” wrote the Roman scholar Marcus Terentius Varro, “and man’s skill that built the cities.”

The city as artifact is the theme of Spiro Kostof’s The City Shaped and its companion volume, The City Assembled, which together comprise the most ambitious review of urban form since The City in History. Like Mumford, Kostof takes as his theme the city in a historical setting, although he broadens the scope and includes cities in China, Japan, India, and Latin America. Unlike Mumford, however, he does not organize his material chronologically but thematically, for his intention is not to study cities as examples of a sort of evolution (or devolution, as Mumford would have it) but to examine the art of making cities in different historical periods.

Economists see them as engines for commercial development, sociologists as settings for human behavior, and art historians as settings for works of architecture. Kostof was a professor of architectural history at the University of California (he died in 1991), and his subject is urban form, that is, the way in which buildings are arranged in a city, and the patterns of the public spaces: the streets, squares, and parks. His aim is not so much to judge the success or failure of these arrangements, as to understand their cultural meanings and to define the processes that produced them. In this, he succeeds admirably.

The City Shaped describes five approaches to urban form that have been used throughout history in a variety of cultures: cities that have evolved according to organic patterns, cities planned as grids, symbolic and diagrammatic layouts, the Baroque plan, the urban skyline. This scheme is roughly historical since the organic plan corresponds to the medieval town, which eventually gave way to the grand devices of Baroque town planning—including long axial views—which in turn were supplanted by the vertical modern city. On the other hand, grids have existed since the time of the ancient Greeks and are a constant theme in town planning, whether in eighth-century Heijokyo, Japan, thirteenth-century Suzhou, China, eighteenth-century Philadelphia, nineteenth-century Barcelona, or in twentieth-century English new towns. Similarly, towns whose layouts incorporate political or religious symbolism appear at different periods: as exquisite starbursts in the fortified towns of the European Renaissance, as religious mandalas in Hindu India, as imperial diagrams in British New Delhi, or as a great political symbol of democracy in Washington, DC.

Washington, DC, was planned mainly by Pierre Charles L’Enfant, and New Delhi was the work of Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker, but most cities, as Kostof underlines, “came about without benefit of designers, or once designed, set about instantly to adapt themselves to the rituals of everyday life and the vagaries of history.” The strength of The City Shaped is that, unlike many books on city form, it avoids the idealized theories of urban design—and the proposals for idealized but unbuilt cities—and deals, instead, with the messy, haphazard, and often makeshift processes according to which real cities are fashioned.

Several years ago, Kostof was the host for a public-television series titled America by Design. This experience obviously colored the organization of The City Shaped, which is handsomely illustrated and is as much a book to be looked at as read (there are more than 350 illustrations, many in color, all beautifully printed). There are not only diagrams and plans (which urbanists and architects will appreciate) but also reproductions of paintings, engravings, and drawings, as well as many interesting photographs. The analogy to a television documentary does not end there. The five long chapters resemble one-hour episodes: in each, a general theme is introduced and the reader is presented with a kaleidoscope of visual images and written descriptions. Kostof is particularly skillful at weaving together unexpected material.

The chapter on “The Urban Skyline,” for example, includes not only a predictable discussion of American twentieth-century skyscraper cities, but also descriptions of medieval and Renaissance towns. In addition to such well-known examples as New York and Chicago, Kostof introduces the skylines of Moscow, Jerusalem, and Edinburgh. He provides some arresting urban images: post–World War II Moscow, with its pompous ring of high-rise buildings, a mid-nineteenth century panorama of Istanbul, punctuated by the domes and minarets of several mosques, and contrasting views of London, one—painted in 1746 by Canaletto—a beautiful skyline of church spires (the majority built by Christopher Wren), and a 1990 photograph in which the dominant monument is the grossly overdone tower of Canary Wharf, a lonely symbol of financial miscalculation and architectural hubris.

  1. 1

    Asa Briggs, Victorian Cities (1963), republished by the University of California Press in 1993.

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