Jonathan Barnett is a believer (as am I) that architectural ideas have had a vital role in shaping cities. To bolster his assertion he lays out in City Design a rich history of the styles, movements, and ideas that have shaped cities from the Renaissance forward. He puts in context everything from “garden cities” to “megastructures” and places these movements in the broader arc of civic history. Particularly interesting is Barnett’s interweaving of landscape design and architecture, since few books have looked at the interdependence of the two fields and their effects on city design.
Many of Barnett’s illustrations are new. If there’s a fault, it is that some of the plans are less than two inches square. And what forensic urban designer, no matter how many times he’s seen them before, doesn’t take pleasure in perusing—without a magnifying glass—Unwin and Parker’s plan for Letchworth Village or Sitte’s plan for a garden district in Marienberg. The tiny drawings are accompanied by a tiny Univers typeface.
Barnett hasn’t written just to tell us how important design has been to cities. His book is a lament. In the very first sentence he states that “[t]he world is changing faster than current city-design practice can keep up...” Put simply, the problem is that visual ideas—ideas that can be shown in plans and pictures—no longer have the currency they once did. City design now consists of sprawl at the edges coupled with a race to build the tallest building downtown. He cites the destructive effects of much modernist theory, and also remarks on the rebuilding of the World Trade Center as a prime example of our inability to make memorable places (omitting the fact that architects participated vigorously in the process). Despite the exhaustive public attention paid to Ground Zero, he comes to the sad conclusion that perhaps what is needed most is an even more inclusive public process, more conversations with “stakeholders.”
Perhaps there is something better. Barnett makes us aware of global warming as a threat, but implicitly suggests that climate change also poses the chance to make dams and dikes more inspiring than those of Holland or the canals of Souzhou. We despair over the destructiveness of the car, at the same time America's infrastructure is in deep disrepair and some of the most mind-bogglingly beautiful autostrade in the world weave through the hills of Sicily. No one has yet given the architect R.H. H. Hugmann his due for Riverwalk in San Antonio, an open culvert for storm retention turned into one of the great urban design attractions in America.
At a smaller scale, I think of electric Zip cars and supermarkets in Miami where vehicles park on the second floor, not the first. I am sad that at Seaside, Florida, the backs of the stores in the commercial district face residential lots across the street. These lots are worth less because they look onto dumpsters and trash. City design is still with us.