Witold Rybczynski
Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster Inc. 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020; www.simonandschuster.com 2010. 256 pages. $24.00, hardcover.

kozloff_150Urban design and city planning are rich in history, with notable names and places scattered across time. Despite this, there is a growing notion, according to American sociologist Nathan Glazer, that self-interested individuals, or communities, are better at planning than a “disinterested party—the [professionally trained] planner.” Focusing on this notion, Witold Rybczynski, in his book Makeshift Metropolis: Ideas About Cities, presents a primer on planning history and contemporary approaches, with a compendium of theories, strategies, successes, and failures.

Rybczynski, the Martin and Margy Meyerson Professor of Urbanism and a professor of real estate at the University of Pennsylvania, uses the term makeshift metropolis to describe “the American City as an unplanned, almost anarchic arena for individual enterprise.” Throughout the book, he returns to the notion of gradual change, based on an urban design plan’s goal of creating “a loose framework that will accommodate [a gradual city building] process, acknowledging that the future is usually impossible to predict.”

Rybczynski pays homage to individuals responsible for laying the framework for sound city building. Among those mentioned are Charles Mulford Robinson, responsible for coining the term “city beautiful,” who said, “Cities are not made to be looked at, but to be lived in.” The notion of planning and urban beautification was introduced in the United States via Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, with much credit due Daniel Burnham. Later, the transformation of city beautiful to city monumental was symbolized by the 1902 McMillan Commission plan for Washington, D.C., itself an update of Pierre L’Enfant’s late-18th-century plan, termed “an American balance of precedent and innovation.”

Rybczynski chronicles planning milestones such as Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City; Le Corbusier’s towers in a park, or “Radiant City”; and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City. Later, Jane Jacobs, as a writer for Architectural Forum, and William “Holly” Whyte, as a writer for Forbes, took the pro-urbanism baton and an anti-Corbusier stand. Noting that “vertical living, cultural complexes, and large plazas were integral to Le Corbusier’s urban ideal,” Rybczynski cites the Pruitt-Igoe urban housing project in St. Louis, Manhattan’s Lincoln Center, and Boston’s City Hall Plaza as examples of the failure of such large-scale interventions. Nonetheless, apartments with park views—such as those that line Manhattan’s Central Park—provide some validation of the towers in a park idea, though they include, Rybczynski points out, “bourgeois amenities that Le Corbusier would have detested,” such as doormen.

Further, Rybczynski notes the shift in perspective in city building from Frederick Law Olmsted’s generation of park designers, who saw their creations as an antidote to the surrounding industrial city, to today’s designers, who see parks as an integral part of their urban surroundings. The chief lesson of contemporary planning is that “homebuyers value planning and design and will accept higher densities when these are associated with a sense of community,” he writes.

While the first half of the 20th century was the Age of Planning, the period after 1970 was the Age of the Market, or “urbanism based on popular demand,” as merchants, businessmen, and entrepreneurs shaped the city, says Rybczynski. Nonetheless, government remains important in addressing infrastructure and transportation needs, as well as representing community concerns. This is prevalent especially along waterfronts, where there is a shift toward focusing on tourism and entertainment, and in other large-scale urban developments.

Rybczynski reviews the history of waterfronts as both places of aesthetic and recreational escape and as industrial and port settings. As shipping has evolved, so, too, have urban waterfronts. Urban ports became inefficient for larger ships and the need for quick conveyance, so, starting with San Antonio’s River Walk in 1941, and later San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square in 1962 and Boston’s Quincy Market in 1974, waterfront tourism took hold as an urban redevelopment strategy.

Continuing with descriptions of other urban megaprojects, Rybczynski points to some successful places (Battery Park City in New York and Reston, Virginia), some unsuccessful projects (Philadelphia’s Penn’s Landing), and some interventions whose success is yet to be determined (the World Trade Center and Brooklyn Bridge Park). He combines this discussion with an examination of what has been termed the Bilbao effect—the large-scale urban development success in Bilbao, Spain, largely attributed to a singular building, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. Calling it instead the “Bilbao anomaly,” Rybczynski illuminates failures of other such strategies, including Daniel Libeskind’s Denver Art Museum and Steven Holl’s Bellevue Arts Museum in Bellevue, Washington, among others.

History has unveiled a series of unintended consequences of various approaches to city building. For example, city beautiful gave way to downtown monumental buildings, not to beautification of the entire city. Le Corbusier’s towers lack appeal or often are affordable only to the wealthy rather than to workers. And, finally, though new urbanism focuses on remaking central cities, its greatest successes have been in the suburbs. Nonetheless, Rybczynski notes that the basic tenets established by urban planner Raymond Unwin in the early 20th century remain valid: “compactness and variety in design, heterogeneity in house types, walkability, and a compact appearance of neighborliness.”

In presenting his city building lessons, Rybczynski emphasizes three key points. First, it is a mistake to ignore centuries of urban history. Second, in a nod to reconciling a changing world with standard truths, he writes, “while modern technology . . . can be a powerful force for change, new technology does not automatically require the city to be reinvented.” And, finally, with a reference to Jacobs, Rybczynski recalls that “urban amenities such as streets and parks work best when they are intensively used—one of the keys to urban vitality is density.”