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City Lights

Laws of the Landscape: How Policies Shape Cities in Europe and America

Pietro S. Nivola
Brookings Institution Press, 126 pp., $14.95 (paper)


A magazine editor compiling a millennial list recently asked me which city I thought would qualify as the Best of the Millennium. This is a frivolous question that leads to serious reflection. To begin with, what exactly does “best” mean when it comes to a city? Once, the answer was easy—best simply meant biggest. When Samuel Johnson told Boswell, “No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford,” he was describing the largest city in the world. Eighteenth-century London had one million inhabitants, not a large city by today’s standards when there are more than twenty so-called megacities whose population exceeds ten million. Yet few would suggest that such behemoths as Mexico City or São Paulo contain “all that life can afford.”

If best is taken to mean most beau-tiful architecturally, or best planned, or most admirably sited, there are many candidates. I would nominate sixteenth-century Venice (for beauty), seventeenth-century Amsterdam (for planning), and modern-day Rio de Janeiro or Hong Kong (for their sites). Best can mean most economically powerful, as Philadelphia was in the nineteenth century, or politically powerful, as London was during the British Empire, or Moscow during the cold war. Or the best place to live. The United Nations recently judged Toronto to be among the most livable cities in the world. The UN measured civic amenities, urban services, governance, and levels of pollution and crime. Yet how is one to compare Toronto, which Peter Ustinov once described as New York City run by the Swiss (actually, Chicago run by the Swedes would be more accurate), with quattrocento Florence, say, a city of sublime architecture and despotic politics, or eighteenth-century Vienna, where you could hear the music of Mozart and Haydn but there were no sewers?

Perhaps the best city is simply the one that the most people admire. At any particular time there is usually one city in the world that is seen as exemplary, whose architecture is emulated, whose institutions set the fashion, and whose manners and way of life are taken to be the international standard. London during the nineteenth century, Paris during the first half of the twentieth, and New York City today were—are—such cities. Their primacy is measured by their influence. Few cities have been as influential as Rome, a city that during the last millennium exerted a rare influence on Western culture, not once but twice. The first time, in mid-millennium, the crumbling ruins of antiquity provided Renaissance architects from Brunelleschi to Palladio with models which they used to create a great humanist architectural revolution. The second time, Rome’s Baroque architecture and the grand designs of Sixtus V combined to create a city that inspired succeeding generations of town planners: L’Enfant, Baron Haussmann, Charles McKim, Albert Speer. Hardly eternal, but it had a good long run.

It is much too early to speculate about the most influential city of the coming millennium, but what about the twenty-first century? Will one of the so-called world cities—New York, London, Tokyo—that are so powerful today still dominate the scene one hundred years from now? Will Shanghai, or some as yet unbuilt Chinese city, take the center of the stage as the People’s Republic flexes its demographic muscles? Or will the megacities become so swollen with population and pollution that people will admire a small city whose prosperity, climate, and natural surroundings create a particularly agreeable place: Vancouver, San Francisco, Sydney?

The future of cities is hard to predict. Few would have guessed in 1950 that Berlin, ruined, divided, and isolated from the West, would fifty years later be on the brink of becoming the premier city of a united Europe. Or that Moscow, for decades the grim, self-confident headquarters of global revolution, would end the century by slipping into economic decline and gangsterism, while some of its neighborhoods are now more attractive than they have been for many years. Or that Shanghai, once known as the Whore of China, would come to resemble Houston. Yet we should have guessed, for cities have always exhibited a remarkable resilience. In that regard, “dead” cities like Pompeii or Chichén Itzá were exceptional. Urban history is punctuated by disasters—the Rape of Rome, the Great Fire of London, the Chicago Fire, the San Francisco earthquake, the destruction of Warsaw—that are followed before long by urban rebirths. Once a city sets down roots in a particular place, even if briefly, as in the cases of Chicago and San Francisco, the urge to rebuild seems unstoppable.

Cities have often been threatened by technology. Directly, in the case of gunpowder and the atomic bomb, and indirectly, in the case of inadequate sanitation (which contributed to the great urban plagues of the fourteenth century) and the automobile (whose freeways destroyed many American inner-city neighborhoods in the 1960s). Today some writers point to the Internet- driven dispersal of commerce, industry, housing, and recreation as portents of a future without cities—or, at least, without important cities. Yet cities show no immediate signs of disappearing; far from it. While the old manufacturing centers of the northeastern United States have had heavy losses of jobs and people over the last fifty years (a loss hidden, in the case of New York City, by large-scale immigration), most cities, particularly the new cities of the West and Southwest, are growing vigorously. The annual lists of “best places to live,” which often cite small towns and coastal counties, also regularly include cities such as Seattle, San Diego, Austin, and San Francisco. Indeed, despite the suburbanization of the mid-dle class, the continued importance of metropolitan regions as places of innovation and prestigious centers of finance, fashion, and media is one of the significant, and unexpected, developments of the last decade. It is the dot-com millionaires, the e-commerce venture capitalists, and the new technology adepts who are often most drawn to cities. Cities continue to be the stage where economic strivers can strut their stuff.

What attracts people to cities, whether they are young entrepreneurs flocking to Boston or retirees moving from the suburbs to downtown Philadelphia, is what Joseph Rykwert calls the “seduction of place,” the title of his new book. “Sociologists, traffic experts, and politicians have all written at length about the city and its present problems,” he observes. “Reading them I have always been struck at how little the physical fabric of the city—its touch and smell as well as its sights—occupies their attention.” Rykwert is surely right. Cities are centers of power, employment, and innovation, but they are also human creations, artifacts, and create their own distinctive moods.

Rykwert, who long taught at the University of Pennsylvania, where he recently retired as Paul Philippe Cret Professor of Architecture, was trained as an architect in Britain but is widely known as an architectural critic and historian. He is the author of the influential On Adam’s House in Paradise: The Idea of the Primitive Hut in Architectural History. His first book, The Idea of a Town, dealt with town-making rituals in ancient Greece and Rome; in The Seduction of Place his concern is the modern city, and how it got that way. He brings his wide knowledge of the built past to the subject, but avoids the common trap of considering urbanism as architecture writ large. “A city can never be a unified work of art or a beautiful object,” he writes; “all sorts of things buffet and push human intentions about.”

The buffeting, and its effect on the physical fabric of cities and on our experience of them, is the subject of The Seduction of Place, which skips nimbly about the globe. While it does not present any startling new ideas, it provides a reflective overview of several hundred years of urban history. Since Lewis Mumford’s City in History, there have been several encyclopedic urban histories, notably Spiro Kostof’s two-volume survey, The City Shaped and The City Assembled, and most recently Peter Hall’s monumental Cities in Civilization. The Seduction of Place reads more like a graduate seminar, far-ranging, idiosyncratic, discursive, with the erudite professor speculating at length and regularly digressing along the way.

Points of orientation are essential for any sane urban or rural living,” Rykwert writes, reminding us that one of the drawbacks of modern cities is their lack of particularity. The combination of housing and offices that are designed according to well-established real estate development formulas produces a homogenous and standardized urban landscape. So do franchised hotels, stores, and restaurants. The gains in convenience and economy may be great, but so are the losses in individual identity. All the more reason, Rykwert argues, to pay attention to public and quasi-public buildings—city halls, courthouses, museums, concert halls. He devotes a chapter to civic architecture and recounts the stories of the building of the League of Nations headquarters in Geneva, the United Nations in Manhattan, whose site was provided by the Rockefellers, and federal buildings in Washington, D.C.

He also includes a discussion of the architecture of Beijing, which, under the influence of Soviet Russia, adopted a “spiky Russo-Palladian-Chinoiserie style.” He sees the dramatic new Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao as a model for other public buildings, which “must now receive the sort of attention that can give them an analogous drawing power.” The new generation of US federal courthouses, designed by distinguished architects like Richard Meier, Robert A.M. Stern, and the firm of Pei Cobb Freed, may suggest the beginning of such a trend in this country.

Good buildings make better cities, but what has influenced the appearance of American cities more than architecture is the automobile. Rykwert, who confesses to not being a driver, devotes some space to the impact of the automobile on city life. Here he tells a familiar story, quoting Charles Wilson, president of GM—“What’s good for General Motors is good for America and vice versa”—and characteristically providing interesting digressions. For example, Daniel Burnham, who devised the Plan of Chicago in 1906–1908, was a keen driver who owned no fewer than three cars; but he produced a wonderfully Parisian-style design that paid only lip service to automobile traffic (unlike Le Corbusier’s notorious 1925 plan for Paris, which would have knocked down some of Paris’s most attractive quartiers). When Raymond Unwin, the chief architect and planner of the British Garden City movement, visited New York City, he made an alarming study showing that if only one tenth of the 14,000 people who worked in the newly built Woolworth Building owned cars and drove them to work, they would need six to seven miles of roadway to accommodate them during the day. “Owing to the fact that the motor car is used in America by people who do not employ a chauffeur,” observed Unwin, “the question of parking cars already presents an unsolved problem.” That was in 1922.

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