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Imagining the Modern City

by James Donald. Athlone Press, 1999. 216pp. £15.99

'In the subjective life of the city dweller, there are no clear-cut boundaries between reality and imagination,' says James Donald, a London-born academic, now professor of media at an Australian university. The books that we read, the films, photographs and paintings that we see, shape our perceptions of any street that we walk. So what are the implications for future built reality, for urban policies and architecture, of this subjective city that we all carry with us? Donald attempts an answer.

Dickens, Baudelaire and Virginia Woolf are among the literary sources; films include the inevitable Metropolis but also Passport to Pimlico and Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing; and a (sometimes overwhelming) crowd of cultural theorists appears. Occasional well-chosen photographs punctuate the analysis.

Unsurprisingly, Donald has little time for totalising schemes in the Radiant City mould which 'try to impose the rationality of the 'concept city' on urban life.' But he is sceptical too of Richard Rogers' piazza- and-pavement cafe scenario, finding it altogether too bland. 'The arts of living in the city are more demanding, more diverse, and more ingenious than Rogers suggests.'

What emerges in the latter part of the book is the author's political agenda, his desire for 'a radically pluralistic and democratic society'. He argues for 'our right to a different urbanity, an ethic that acknowledges indeterminacy and the inevitability of desire and violence without renouncing hope in the negotiability of our living together.'

No doubt the sentiment is admirable, and the material he has considered in previous chapters has been marshalled to support it. But anyone seeking pointers towards future urban design will find this conclusion both pious and imprecise. A brief discussion of Parc de la Villette, in which Donald approves Tschumi's attempt to 'build in flexibility, tolerance, difference', hardly adds substance.

For all the book's incidental insights, it dissatisfies. There is little sense of Donald's own direct imaginative engagement with the city he purports to love; everything is mediated as he sits at his desk. The relentless succession of sources eventually palls.

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