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…

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