Urban Visions: Experiencing and Envisioning the City Edited by Steven Spier. Liverpool University Press, 2002. 261pp. £22.50 'In different cities through different gazes in different times the city is constructed, ' writes the editor of Urban Visions, Steven Spier. The deliberate underambition of the collection is its ambition - to move on from urban metanarratives built around 'French theory', 'cyber-worlds' and even 'the everyday' to just particular stories that may or may not have a larger bearing, but are worth hearing either way.
Still, one paradigm of recent times remains very much intact - that of the importance of experience over form in understanding 'the city'. Actually another, still bigger, paradigm is reinforced: that of the importance of 'the city' as the way in which we come to understand modernity and thus ourselves. Ourselves being the European-American-Japanese axis of consciousness, by the way - New York, Las Vegas, Berlin, Paris, Rome, Tokyo being the usual suspects, even if, as the editorial announces with some pride, the contributors to the book are not themselves the usual suspects.Manchester, which is slightly less canonical to the 20th century, makes a welcome appearance, but only for the interest of its fall from being the mid-19thcentury industrial-urban laboratory.
The collection's decision to follow unique stories makes it something of a potpourri. This is often the case with books derived, as this is, from a conference, and it is also becoming something of a characteristic of city anthologies. I wasn't as convinced as the editor that all the writing in the book is especially accessible, but readers put off by the initial density will find the contributions become more lively as they press on.
So although the book opens and closes with contributions from German literature, Sigrid Weigel's daunting, scholarly essay on the intersection of subjective and collective memory in the writing of Ingeborg Bachmann makes for a very different read to the enchanting extract from W G Sebald's The Emigrants. And midway through the book, Paul Davies' piece on the white-collar transformation of Las Vegas comes straight from the stable of slick, informed Pop writing.
In fact the collection works, inasmuch as one paper plunges the reader into a specialist case study, only for the next to offer something more like a purview. An example of the former is Anne MacPhee's brief and helpful guide to anyone spellbound by Thomas Struth's photographs of cities (half a dozen of which are reproduced).
Other chapters, meanwhile, make very decent introductions for those readers new to their subjects - Thomas Bender on representations of New York City 1910-35;
Malcolm Miles on urban 'marketing concepts' (taking postcards as a departure point). Jörn Düwel gives about as concise an introduction to East Berlin's planning (and inability to plan) as a reader of English could hope for. The story is tragi-comic and salutary to anyone under the impression that any one approach to urban design has a claim to righteousness.
What will architectural readers in particular make of the collection? Around half the chapters directly address architecture as the prime conditioner of urban experience. Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown enthuse about Tokyo, still sounding so much like the Smithsons yet seeing the place in a completely different way. The other authors, approaching the city from the directions of literature, theory and art history, present broader urban narratives; Marsha Meskimmon, for instance, revisits the pathetic emblem of fallen women in the cities of the Weimar Republic and recovers for us the far happier 'neue Frau'.
This quietly upbeat tone pervades the book. That Urban Visions is a likeable volume may be due to its handsome production and carefully researched content, but is probably due most to its calm enjoyment of cities past and future.
Andrew Hussey believes that a Situationist virtù may yet make cities politically meaningful spaces. Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani offers a similarly optimistic vision of cities 'cooled' by the revolution in information technology, the spaces of commuter traffic handed back to intimate spatial communication, enlightened citizens strolling around the open book of the city while their iMacs at home dam up the spam.
Simon Sadler is an architectural historian at the University of California, Davis