- Rethinking the American City: An International Dialogue ed. by Miles Orvell and Klaus Benesch
Rethinking the American City is the product of a “conversation on American cities” held in Munich by a group of interdisciplinary scholars primarily from American studies and architecture, with a strong cultural history focus. Its motivation, according to the volume editors, was that “cities deserve renewed attention because they mirror many of the most important issues that have dominated cultural and American studies for several decades.” After a brief foreword by urban scholar Dolores Hayden, the book presents nine essays dealing with the subjects of energy, sustainability, the multicultural city, ruins, aesthetic space, designing the city, mobility, the digital city, and the future city. Each essay is followed by two extended responses.
Preparing a review of a book of essays dealing with a multitude of urban-oriented topics is a daunting assignment. I found the articles to be largely informative and challenging, as I did the responses. The work begins with David Nye’s concise discussion of the role of energy in American urban transportation and the spatial transformation of the city. Complementary to it is Klaus Benesch’s presentation on “Mobility,” focusing on the conflict between place and movement and the linking of the latter to modernity and progress. Andrew Ross offers a discussion of sustainability, maintaining that cities are the only locations where “efficient low-carbon living [could] be achieved on a mass scale,” using Phoenix as the model of [End Page 1005] unsustainable development. He also argues that the “key to sustainability lies in innovating healthy pathways out of poverty for populations at risk.” And Miles Orvell, in a pertinent and related comment, agrees that cities are more ecologically sound than suburbs, but also notes that “greening” needed to be realized as a growth rather than anti-growth strategy.
The issue of “cycles of creative destruction” produced an especially stimulating essay by Mabel Wilson, who focuses on the destruction and redevelopment of Chicago’s Cabrini-Green. Equally insightful, Miles Orvell examined the different meanings of “Ruins”: do they represent a “necessary image of our past history;” do they represent a “rebuke to capitalist notions of endless progress”; or are they part of “a natural, and therefore inevitable,” cycle that relates to city organic growth and decay? Jeffrey Meikle complemented these two presentations by tracing visions of the “Future City.” In a pessimistic conclusion, he notes that while “the modernist future city is still sometimes invoked as a compelling vision … the metropolis of tomorrow seems more likely to be a product of decay and sporadic attempts at renewal.” Malcolm McCullough, in his essay on the “Digital City,” seems equally dismayed by the prospect of a future metropolis in which information superabundance replaces the “read/write” city with, as Georg Simmel warned a century ago, endless distractions. Other essays, by Albena Yaneva and David Lubin, stimulating in their own right but with a scant historical frame, are focused primarily on design and architectural issues and the different uses of public space.
This volume, therefore, although somewhat short on history, offers a stimulating introduction to a number of ideas about the city and its cultural and spatial aspects that historians of the built environment may not have encountered.
Joel Tarr is professor of history and policy at Carnegie Mellon University.