My dear mum is on a mission to keep me in touch with my education (art history, with focus on architecture) despite me working in financial data ever since I actually started working. She also knows that the best gift for me is a book, so I get from her a steady supply of beautifully published books about architecture and design. This is one of the more recent gifts and I decided to read it as a breather during my Reading Ireland Month.
Another reason why I was curious about this book was few conversations I had recently with different people about how chaotic or badly designed cities and suburbs often feel. All those new suburbs where no schools or infrastructure has been built yet, not to mention any sense of community; Canary Wharf that often feels inhuman and where architects clearly didn’t think about air circulation, creating shafts where wind constantly blows, no matter what happens in the rest of London; all the time people spend commuting, all issues with cars and traffic and overcrowded public transport. All of it are things we see and experience everyday, so I was curious what Graham’s book had to say about it.
As we’re warned in the title Graham organizes his book around seven different ideas and visions of what city is and how it should be built and function. He focuses on US, but mentions examples from other parts of the world as well. In every chapter he tracks down the originator of an idea and then takes us through it’s development, examples of its implementation and quite often it’s sad consequences. Architectural and urban development visions are always utopias, they always come from the idea that people and societies can be improved by improving the living conditions. And it’s a commendable idea, but I have yet to see an utopia that went well.
The most interesting aspect of the book for me was the evolution of the idea of city itself. Cities created and expanded without any plan during industrial revolution, resulting in the horrors described so well by Dickens. By default the first reaction was to condemn the city, to try and go back to the countryside, to create small artificial communities in supposedly self-sufficient small towns – the whole Garden City Movement and what came after all the way to urban sprawl. Another way of looking at the city was still to condemn it and try to completely reinvent it, but in a more condensed way, separating and isolating city functions in different areas, building block of flats that should cater to inhabitants basic needs, standardizing everything, focusing on the individual more than on a society etc. Another interesting perspective was to actually look at the city and before rejecting it in its current state try to see what creates a good city, taking a look not only at abstract needs and ideas but also at how people in the city actually function, when and where do they form communities and using this analysis as a starting point to develop new urban designs. Yet another interesting chapter was the one dedicated to shopping malls, I somehow always though of them as the necessary evil, but reading about their evolution as an idea was fascinating, as much as I still hate them.
I found this book really interesting, even if sometimes Graham’s writing was not the smoothest, he tends to jump from one thought to another without any apparent connection, lists endless names an buildings, so sometimes I had to take a step back to actually think about the general idea he’s discussing rather than getting hung up on details, let’s be honest I am not going to remember even 10% of the names he mentions, but what I liked about this book is that it made me start thinking about city as a concept again. Made me actually take a look at how for example London is built and functions and compare it to other cities I know. It made me more aware of the space I function in, not taking it for granted and just thinking ‘that’s the way it is’, there are reasons why it was built this way, not all of them good, but all of them worth knowing, because their outcomes touch us every single day.
Food for thought.
What do you like about your city? What’s its best place and which one do you really hate?
Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska