BOOKS A battle between Jekyll and Hyde Cities for a Small Planet by Richard Rogers. Edited by Philip Gumuchdjian. Faber and Faber, 1997. 180pp. £9.99
Like the Reith Lectures of 1995 from which it was developed, this book deals with a paradox: cities are abominable places that are destroying the planet, but they are also vibrant, convivial, life-enhancing centres of civilisation. In a switchback series of optimistic and pessimistic passages that is sustained for the full length of the book, the author tries to produce a synthesis from these two positions, starting out in pessimistic vein but invariably ending up firmly on the optimistic side. The book thus takes on the character of a Jekyll and Hyde battle between extremes that is never properly resolved.
According to the opening chapter, cities are responsible for accelerating the rate of terrestrial pollution and erosion; destroying our ecosystem; threatening humankind's survival; generating the majority of greenhouse gases; undermining the ecological balance of the planet; being built at a phenomenal rate and density with little thought for future environmental or social impact; producing disastrous social instability that is further driving environmental decline; creating ecological and social problems that dominate the human scene; increasingly polarising society into segregated communities, and having become little more than no-man's lands for scurrying pedestrians or sealed private cars (specifically those with tinted windows and central locking) that 'prevent people from participating in street life'.
This sounds bad, but in the next chapter Dr Jekyll makes his appearance and prises Mr Hyde's fingers from the word processor. The picture immediately brightens. To turn city life around, we learn, it is only necessary to 'demand fundamental changes in human behaviour, the practice of government, commerce, architecture and city planning'. Nowhere is it acknowledged that this is rather a tall order. Instead the alleged means of bringing it about are painstakingly broken down into bite-size morsels, like the step-by-step instructions for personal salvation offered by the Church of Scientology. Indeed, the thoughts of Richard Rogers and the formidable editing skills of Philip Gumuchdjian, invisibly joined as they are here, often rise to a soothingly incantatory tone reminiscent of the late L Ron Hubbard.
When strolling through Europe's great public spaces - the covered Galleria in Milan, the Ramblas in Barcelona, the parks of London or the everday public spaces of markets and local neighbourhoods - Richard Rogers tells us that he 'feels part of the community of the city.' This is convincing, for he writes easily, not only of London and Paris, but of Shanghai, Marrakesh, Venice, Rotterdam, Ciritiba in Brazil and other places known to even fewer people.
Subtly, in his emollient flow of words, he contrives to move architecture up from fourth to first in the hit-list of 'fundamental changes'; and not just architecture but, to judge by the vast majority of the illustrations, the architecture of the Richard Rogers Partnership in particular. To be sure there are occasional bleak moments when Mr Hyde reasserts himself - he obviously got to work on the city government of Shanghai and persuaded them to build roads for cars instead of accepting Dr Jekyll's enlightened ped-o-cycle city plan - but in general the answer seems to be the eternal sustainable city of the rich with its sunshine, tourists, sidewalk cafes, parks, rivers, great architecture, great restaurants, conviviality, vibrance and the unspecified 'street life' that Rogers finds most acceptable.
As Charles Jencks once advised in relation to another matter: whenever faced with two extremes, always pick a third. Perhaps the kindest thing one can say about Cities for a Small Planet is that its author follows this counsel to the letter.