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Book Review

The 'Seduction' of All Cities Great and Small

THE SEDUCTION OF PLACE, The City in the Twenty-First Century; \o7 By Joseph Rykwert\f7 ; Pantheon; $27.50, 320 pages

July 13, 2001|ANTHONY DAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"The Seduction of Place" is an engaging ramble through the history and character of cities around the world. Although its subtitle is "The City in the Twenty-First Century," it offers not so much a prescription for building and managing cities in this new century as a look at what the lessons of the past say about their development in the future.

Rykwert, professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and author of 10 previous books, including "The Idea of a Town," presents two principles that undergird the issues in this book. The first is that cities do not develop "naturally," as some economists suppose, but are the result of a myriad of forces, including governmental decisions. And the second is, simply, that in cities that succeed (where citizens like to live) there are "identity points"--buildings, monuments, public spaces--that tell you that you are in that city and nowhere else.

On the first point, Rykwert sees the growth of citizen participation in governmental decisions around the world as a hopeful sign that the will of governments or the impersonal workings of "the market" can be modified for the benefit of the citizens and city dwellers. He cites, as examples, the creation of cooperatives selling the produce of local growers in Santa Monica and the lively integration into Philadelphia civic life since 1995 of all people in the city, down to its street people.

"Two successive waves of dispossessed populations rose over the cities of the world," Rykwert writes, "flooding the urban fabric and swelling it to the breaking point." The first, he says, occurred in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The second (and larger) wave, he continues, started 50 years ago, transforming "Cairo and Moscow, Bombay, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Sao Paolo--but most of all Mexico [City]."

Much of "The Seduction of Place" is about the cities of the first great population boom--notably Paris, London and New York. But not just those. Pope Sixtus V's grandiose reconstruction of Rome between 1585 and 1590 made an indelible imprint on city planning. On top of the standard orthogonal grid design of city streets--which Rykwert says dates to towns founded by the Roman legions and based on the grids of Roman cities--Sixtus V imposed avenues radiating obliquely to the right-angled grid.

These avenues afforded pilgrims easy access to Rome's Christian monuments and set a pattern for later developments in Paris, Versailles and Vienna. Sir Christopher Wren's similar plan for the reconstruction of London after the Great Fire of 1666 was rejected by the authorities, but Sixtus V's vision, as refined and defined by French engineers and architects, found expression in Pierre Charles L'Enfant's plan for America's federal city.

L'Enfant's plan, like those of urban planners after him, was an attempt to coax order out of the swampy chaos of a wilderness. At the same time, European planners were trying to impose order on urban populations that swelled because of the privatization of formerly common lands and the lure of employment in the new urban factories of the Industrial Revolution. A principal element in the creation of the new European cities, the reader discovers, was the construction of sewage and waste disposal systems essential to the health of the populace.

Until the middle of the 19th century, London and Paris were in this regard similar to parts of Mexico City today.

Rykwert also looks at the new national capitals of the last century and finds that the least ambitious of these--Chandigarh in India and Canberra in Australia--have been those most successful (meaning the most agreeable to live and work in) while the more grandiose--New Delhi in India and Brasilia in Brazil--have been the least successful.

Noting the attention given to Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, Rykwert writes that "the museum has become the only universally recognized institutional building" and its design "unprecedented as a type in modern cities." Museums, he mordantly adds, "have become cult buildings of a global religion that offers the advantage and the disadvantage of imposing neither doctrine nor any rule of life." Insights like that make "The Seduction of Place" a rewarding jaunt through urban history.

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