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Between buildings


The City Cultures Reader Edited by Malcolm Miles, Tim Hall and Iain Borden. Routledge, 2000. 338pp. £60

Culture, Raymond Williams wrote, is one of the two or three most complicated words in the language. Equally complicated, in cities, is the relationship between urban form and urban culture. If there is a causal connection, it remains elusive. For architects and urban designers, the pattern of built and spatial form is the end result of our work. But for citizens, the important quality is not that of the urban form, but of the life that is lived between and inside the buildings - the culture of the city.

In March, I was at the St Patrick's Day parade in Birmingham, looking for signs of Irish urban culture. Some rather dull, mainly industrial inner city streets were transformed for a day into an animated landscape of Irish dancing, soda bread, Guinness, music and craic. Did the urban form create the culture? No, but it did enable it to develop satisfactorily. And in the other direction, the cultural manifestations continue to modify the urban form, which is itself a cultural product - Irish streetcorner pubs in the area are an obvious example.

We are caught at present between two opposing perspectives on the future of the city. On one side, we have what we might call the Richard Rogers picture - optimism, rediscovery of old urban virtues, rebirth of traditional high-density, mixed-use quarters. On the other, the dystopian picture - urban collapse and emigration, driven by deindustrialisation and cyberspace, a vision familiar from as long ago as William Morris' News from Nowhere.

The City Cultures Reader illustrates both. In the second case it has William Mitchell and Rem Koolhaas (twice!), though they would surely argue that their view of future urban life is not in fact dystopian, but simply acknowledges radical changes in the scale and nature of the city that are going to happen whether we like it or not.

But on the whole, the position taken by this book (if a collection of 60 edited texts can have a coherent position) is to examine and present, even to celebrate, the culture of urban life as it is: messy, dynamic, contradictory, beset by struggles and conflicts of all kinds, and unpredictable - capable of producing joy and pain, justice and injustice. This complexity is what makes it urban. Yet there are some texts included which seem to lack a specific relationship with urban culture. For example: Bachelard (The Poetics of Space), Frampton ('Towards a Critical Regionalism') and Victor Papanek (The Green Imperative), all excellent in themselves, are about living on a planet, not living in cities.

The editors have decided to make an anthology that reflects recent thinking on the city rather than one which gives a deeper historical picture - 40 of the 60 texts date from the 1990s. This emphasis produces one or two strange imbalances. Several writers included are indebted for their views on urban culture to Walter Benjamin, yet Benjamin himself, one of the greatest twentieth century authorities on the life of the street, is absent. From the present day, another prominent absentee is Richard Sennett, surely unsurpassed in relating modern urban culture to the geography of urban space.

But overall, the selections of the three editors, who have backgrounds in cultural theory, cultural geography, and architecture, are satisfyingly variegated. Texts come from a number of disciplines to rub shoulders with each other; we observe that they share friends in common, and that their juxtaposition brings out both similarities and differences between them. Together they make a rich collection in which every reader will find something new.

Joe Holyoak is a partner of Axis Design Collective in Birmingham

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