A Field Guide for Your City

Review: Wade Graham, ‘Dream Cities: Seven Urban Ideas That Shaped the World’

Circuit city, computer artwork

I’m a dabbler by nature. A little Symbolist art here, a little classical architecture there. I have a conversational level of knowledge—or at least impressions—about many things, but a mastery of almost none. I will dip my toes in new waters and paddle around in the shallows, but I’m not going for the free diving record. I don’t have the lung capacity. Being a dabbler serves pretty well, living as one does in a world of opportunity cost and lively receptions where it pays to come armed with a reference or two. If you are reading this, I suspect you may be a dabbler, too. Culture sections attract a type of languid generalist.

Welcome, friend. I have a book for you.

For dabblers, nothing brightens the day more than finding a book that is a good entry-point into a field of study—that offers a way to think about that field and organize facts rattling around in the brain. Dream Cities by Wade Graham is such a book about urban planning and architecture. The book introduces readers to the schools of architecture that have shaped modern cities. It provides a taxonomy of those schools so readers can know them "by their plumage, their calls, their habitats, and behaviors" as they explore the urban jungle.

Dream Cities is organized into seven chapters. The title of each chapter introduces one or two architects and associates them with the Platonic Form of building they designed. For example, Le Corbusier built Slabs; Frank Lloyd Wright, Homesteads; Jane Jacobs, Corals; and so on.

Each chapter follows basically the same format. First Graham sketches the details of the architects’ lives, their bodies of work, and their conceptions of what a city should look like. Then he describes the impact those architects had on the cities we inhabit today—how their visions changed over time as they made contact with reality or were taken up by students. The first part of the chapter describes how the city ought to be in the brilliant studios of the architects’ minds; the second part describes how the city actually turned out in our eminently practical yet still brilliant world. The chapters end with "field guides" to the architectural styles, including bullet-pointed lists of common features and photographs of representative buildings. The photographs—while small and grayscale—are very helpful, this dabbler reports. The rather dense lists of features, less so.

The architects profiled in the book had visions that differed dramatically. Some were radicals, offering plans that would have effectively scrapped the world they lived in and started over again. Famously, Le Corbusier envisioned a hyper-rationalist hive society, or Radiant City, that segmented communities by function, connected the segments by ultra-efficient transit systems, and boarded inhabitants in soaring cruciform towers that were heavy on function and light on form. On the opposite end of the collectivist-individualist spectrum, Wright envisioned a radically decentralized network of self-sufficient homes connected by highways and overseen by benevolent, all-powerful city managers. Every family would receive at least a one-acre plot under this plan—like a Homestead Act for the twentieth century.

Both of these visions were too costly, ambitious, and in their own ways unworkable for city leaders to implement in full. They were implemented piecemeal instead. Le Corbusier’s ideas found expression in disastrous Urban Renewal plans featuring strictly-zoned business districts that turned into abandoned wastelands after 5 p.m. and housing complexes that isolated poor residents from economic opportunity and police protection. The Corbusian ideal—scarcely more attractive on paper than in practice—was "urbicide," Graham states succinctly. Wright’s ideas found expression in the tract houses of suburbia, cookie-cutter structures that would have frustrated the oddball architect, who had hoped his plan would create space for individual expression and achievement.

Other architects profiled in the book were incrementalists whose visions did not require a blank slate. Victor Gruen and Jon Jerde, the godfathers of American retail, are the subjects of a curious chapter tracing the history of shopping malls from the Palais-Royal of seventeenth century France to the Mall of America in Bloomington. Gruen and Jerde harnessed the insights of psychology and marketing to create capitalist carnivals bustling with foot traffic and affordable attractions. More alluringly, these mega-structures offered shoppers the possibility to make and re-make their identities through shopping—an existential sales pitch, however shallow, that explains the mall’s status as a meeting place for teenagers in the 1980s and ‘90s, just as they were the strutting stage for flâneurs in Bourbon France.

There are many others, from the stirring civic monuments of Daniel Burnham to the conspicuous eco-consumption of Britain’s Lord Foster. Graham handles all this subject matter deftly, and presents it with relative evenhandedness. His allegiances are predictable and apparent—suburban forms are derided in the typical ways, while the defects of New Urbanism and ecological design are attributed to unscrupulous real estate developers betraying the revolution—but not distracting.

Graham’s choice of the term "field guides" is apt. Dream Cities is a field manual, or an especially lively introductory textbook to an interesting field of study. I recommend it to dabblers, urban explorers, and the chronically curious.