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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

September 17, 1995|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

CITY LIFE: Urban Expectations in a New World by Witold Rybczynski (Scribner: $23; 256 pp.) "Once we accept that our cities will not be like cities of the past, it will become possible to see what they might become," writes Rybczynski toward the end of "City Life." The book begins, in thought and deed, with a dinner conversation in which his friend Danielle asks him why our cities can't be more like Paris, elegant and impressive, and why the architects have abandoned us. In answering this question, Rybczynski relies, among others, on the observations of Alexis de Tocqueville (made in 1831) who claimed that "Democratic peoples . . . cultivate those arts which help to make life comfortable rather than those which adorn it." At the end of the chapter on civic art, the author writes that "the demise of civic art and the City Beautiful was inevitable . . . the decline of the bourgeoisie and its replacement by a catch-all Middle America would take the American city in a very different direction." Uglier! you mutter under your breath; commercialism makes ugly! No, no, says Rybczynski. Malls can be places where people rub shoulders and meet "their fellow citizens in a non-combative environment--not behind the wheel of a car, but on foot." Is this the most we can hope for? We shed our nostalgia for this, instead of dreaming of the Place de l'Etoile and the Champs Elysees? A nonviolent place to rub shoulders with other shoppers? He is fascinating, he is a gorgeous writer, but I'm with Danielle on this one. The note of resignation is as sad and lovely as rain on a corrugated tin roof.

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