JOSEPH RYKWERT entered his field when post-war modernist architecture was coming under fire for its alienating embodiment of outmoded social ideals. Think of the UN building in New York, the city of Brasilia, the UNESCO building in Paris, the blocks of housing “projects” throughout the world. These tall, uniform boxes are set back from the street, isolated by windswept plazas. They look inward to their own functions, presenting no “face” to the inhabitants of the city, no “place” for social interaction. For Mr Rykwert, who rejects the functionalist spirit of the Athens Charter of 1933, a manifesto for much post-war building, such facelessness destroys the human meaning of the city. Architectural form should not rigidly follow function, but ought to reflect the needs of the social body it represents.
Like other forms of representation, architecture is the embodiment of the decisions that go into its making, not the result of impersonal forces, market or historical. Therefore, says Mr Rykwert, adapting Joseph de Maistre’s dictum that a nation has the government it deserves, our cities have the faces they deserve.
In this book, Mr Rykwert, a noted urban historian of anthropological bent, offers a flâneur’s approach to the city’s exterior surface rather than an urban history from the conceptual inside out. He does not drive, so his interaction with the city affords him a warts-and-all view with a sensual grasp of what it is to be a “place”.
His story of urbanisation begins, not surprisingly, with the industrial revolution when populations shifted and increased, exacerbating problems of housing and crime. In the 19th century many planning programmes and utopias (Ebenezer Howard’s garden city and Charles Fourier’s “phalansteries” among them) were proposed as remedies. These have left their mark on 20th-century cities, as did Baron Hausmann’s boulevards in Paris, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc’s and Owen Jones’s arguments for historical style, and Adolf Loos’s fateful turn-of-the-century call to abolish ornament which, in turn, inspired Le Corbusier’s austere modern functionalism. The reader will recognise all these ideas in the surfaces of the cities that hosted them: New York, Paris, London, Vienna.
Cities changed again after the second world war as populations grew, technology raced and prosperity spread. Like it or not, today’s cities are the muddled product, among other things, of speed, greed, outmoded social agendas and ill-suited postmodern aesthetics. Some bemoan the old city’s death, others welcome its replacement by the electronically driven “global village”. Mr Rykwert has his worries, to be sure, but he does not see ruin or anomie everywhere. He defends the city as a human and social necessity. In Chandigarh, Canberra and New York he sees overall success; in New Delhi, Paris and Shanghai, large areas of failing. For Mr Rykwert, a man on foot in the age of speeding virtuality, good architecture may still show us a face where flâneurs can read the story of their urban setting in familiar metaphors.