Book review: American Urban Form
American Urban Form: A Representative History
Sam Bass Warner and Andrew H. Whittemore
Drawings by Andrew H. Whittemore
180 pages, MIT Press. 2012.
The history of any American city is going to be marked by representative events: the Great Fire, the consolidation of the five boroughs, the earthquake of 1906 have all had indelible effects on their cities. Nevertheless, American cities as a whole have all been shaped by similar forces, as I mentioned in my post on the classic forms of American downtowns. Postwar federal urban policy and the role of the automobile have been particularly strong influences, but the US.
That post, in fact, was inspired by American Urban Form, a slim volume out earlier this year from the MIT press that aims to present a streamlined, genericized history of the American city from colonial to modern times. Warner and Whittemore present the history of “the City,” an amalgamated form of New York, Boston and Philadelphia, depicting it at several key junctures in US history, ranging from a colonial village in the 1600s to the global city of 2000.
They describe how a small colonial town on an isthmus develops into a flourishing mercantile trading village, which in turn explodes into a glittering late nineteenth-century industrial metropolis, which after surviving postwar urban renewal and suburbanization emerges as the burnished, slick global city we know today.
The key strength of the book lies in its presentation of this vague city, and its clear focus on design. There is certainly not a paucity of history of American cities and suburbs. But American Urban Form focuses on exactly that: explaining how the commercial buildings, houses, government institutions, roads and rails were organized. While the contributing factors — such as prejudice against African-Americans, tenement laws or the rise of the automobile — behind the spatial organization of the cities are of course discussed, they are brought up insofar as they explain these physical changes.
The book is definitely focused on the United States, and isn’t a comparative, but I think when coupled with some other volumes — Downtown by Robert Fogelson and City Life by Witold Rybczynski — it goes toward answering that “why do American cities look like this and European cities look like this?” question that often pops up.
Whittemore’s drawings are particularly beautiful and useful, especially the ones that compare the “State Street” from its colonial roots to its twentieth-century majesty and the comparisons of superblock and public housing. Each chapter opens with a two-page spread showing the City’s Subjectively, I’m a big fan of pen-and-ink line drawings, which the book features.
The only minor quibble I have is that the book reads very much as a history of the Northeast metropolis, and to a lesser degree the Midwest industrial metropolis. While my current town of Chicago is pretty aptly described by the book starting with the 1895 chapter, my hometown of Los Angeles doesn’t really fit the narrative here at all. Depending on their age, other Sunbelt cities may only loosely correspond to the book.
But it’s just a small quibble. Overall, it’s a lovely concise volume, a useful read for anyone who wants a history of “the American city” without the history of any particular one, especially for someone into design.