Witold Rybczynski

Critic; Academic; Writer / Architecture / United States / School of Design, University of Pennsylvania

Witold Rybczynski’s Notable Books of 2013

2 books
Robert A. M. Stern
David Fishman
Jacob Tilove

A few years ago, when I heard that Robert A. M. Stern was compiling a book about garden suburbs, I imagined that it would be an elaboration of his and John Massengale’s The Anglo-American Suburb, a slim 96-page monograph published by AD in 1981 (now hard to find—my copy is a xerox). Instead, Stern and his co-authors, David Fishman and Jacob Tilove, have produced a 1,072-page behemoth, beautifully designed by Pentagram, that is a global Baedeker to the long and interesting history of the planned suburb.

Garden suburbs—as opposed to sprawling subdivisions—are only a part of the topic, for the book also covers the garden city movement, industrial villages and company towns, and resort garden suburbs. In fact it is a comprehensive history of suburban planning between 1900 and 1940. The scope is international. Every European language has a term for “garden city”—cité jardin, gartenstadt, città giardino, cidade jardim, tuindorp, miasto-ogród—and the book documents projects all over Europe and North America, and also ranges as far as Brazil, Israel, Japan, and Australia. There is no doubt that Paradise Planned will become the prime source on the subject.

The book is carefully researched and provides ample information about the backgrounds of scores of projects, many today forgotten, most rarely published. It shows how deeply the idea of the garden suburb was embedded in the public consciousness, and how it influenced not only garden city advocates, but architects and planners worldwide, including modernist pioneers Eliel Saarinen in Finland, Lewerentz in Sweden, Dudok in Holland, and Le Corbusier in France.

The authors include such early prototypes as John Nash’s Blaise Hamlet and Regent’s Park, but chiefly the book confines itself to the 20th century, with World War II as the cut-off date. Stern the polemicist could not resist an epilogue, however. “The Fall and Rise of the Garden Suburb” updates us to the present-day: Seaside, New Urbanism, Poundbury, and the traditional town planning movement. It also includes Stern’s own contributions such as his seminal 1976 project, Subway Suburb, and the Disney community of Celebration. Stern and his co-authors describe the 150-year-old tradition of the garden suburb as “the core of modern city planning.” A provocative claim, but then this book can be seen as a gauntlet flung—if a 14-pound tome can be flung—in the face of modernist urban theory. “Suburbs will not go away nor should they,” Stern and company write. “Planned as part of the metropolitan city, the garden suburb is the best template yet devised to achieve a habitable earthly paradise.”

Bruce Katz
Jennifer Bradley

The headline in New York’s Daily News of October 29, 1975, famously read, “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD,” characterizing the federal government’s disdain for the Big Apple’s financial woes. There have been no similar headlines recently but there may as well have been, as a fractious and ineffective Congress seems unable—or unwilling—to craft effective national policies to deal with the urban fallout of the current Great Recession.

The economic slow-down, which began in 2008, hit cities and metropolitan areas particularly hard but, as Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley point out in their provocative book, this time federal inaction has had an unexpected effect. It produced what they call a metropolitan revolution, a sort of power inversion in which federal inactivity in urban affairs has spurred local initiatives. “Nearly four years after the recession’s official end,” Katz and Bradley write, “it is clear that the real, durable reshaping is being led by networks of city and metropolitan leaders—mayors and other local elected officials, for sure, but also heads of companies, universities, medical campuses, metropolitan business associations, labor unions, civic organizations, environmental groups, cultural institutions, and philanthropies.”

The reshaping they describe in numerous examples—New York, Denver, Cleveland, and Houston are discussed in detail—takes political, economic, even global form, but it also has a physical component. One example is urban and suburban “innovation districts,” enclaves of mixed-use, often adjacent to research universities and medical complexes, whose urban design enables key attributes such as high density, proximity, and walkability. Jane Jacobs would approve.

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