City Life

Witold Rybczynski

Read October 2005

Writers like Rybczynski are a bit of a hit and a miss. Sometimes their work is just so; other times, you sense they're stretching themselves to shill. Fortunately, this book is closer to the former.

The book is far from ``sweeping'', as its rear cover claims, but I did appreciate many of Rybczynski's sharp observations. Writing in 1995, he tells us (pg. 20) about the building ambitions of British and French presidents in contrast to American ones: a sharp and ironic contrast, surely, to Washington and, especially, the architecture-crazy Jefferson. (When it comes to dwellings the third member of America's holy trinity, Lincoln, also has an affiliated iconic dwelling, though it is perhaps less dramatic.) He identifies the origin of the words ``city'' and ``town'' (pg. 38-39) and points out that those two words give English a distinction not found in many other languages. He finds power in grids (no pun intended), saying they are ``lifeless only when seen from the air'' (pg. 45), a partially convincing response to commentators like MacLean.

Rybczynski's discussion of grids mentions San Francisco, which I find a curious example. I find San Francisco's maps one of the most misleading in the world: the grid implies a certain regular simplicity that the elevation profiles harshly mock. Why don't traditional San Francisco maps present elevations, or feature the chevron markings found on bicycling maps? Indeed, maps make virtually no appearance in this book, despite their obviously normative role in defining city life.

The analysis in this book is also surprisingly limited in both time and space to relatively contemporary cities in the US. We never, for instance, hear about wonderful but also shocking cacaphony that constitutes a city like Mumbai. Even then, his examples are more limited than they should be. For instance, when discussing his dislike of zoning (pg. 92), he describes tony little Woodstock, Vermont. But a much more compelling example would (sprawl aside, which doesn't seem related) be a city like Houston, which shows that even today, the absence of zoning can organically lead to pockets of spectacular urban living.

There are other problems with the book. Despite its title, it's more about cities than it is about life. The latter part of the book is a bit of a bore. I also think he rather misses the problems that cars create, and his praise of garden suburbs is a bit weak. But despite these things, it's a good primer for people who have never before thought about urban planning issues.