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Lessons from the past?


Dream City: On The Future Of Urban Space Edited by Max Stemshorn with photographs by Claudio Hils. Hatje Cantz, 2001. 142pp. £32.

(Distributed by Art Books International 020 7953 8290)

This is the latest book by Essen-based photographer Claudio Hils. It is effectively a photo-essay on five diverse cities around the world: Bangkok, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, São Paolo and Tokyo. His photographs - some taken at street level, others from the rooftops - range from strong, graphic architectural detail to more chaotic glimpses of people in their everyday lives.

Whereas Hils' high-elevation images of tower blocks give an impression of permanence, this perspective is unsettled with his equal focus on urban dereliction - sites that are being either demolished or have the potential to be redeveloped.

With a clever choice of cities, Hils has managed to reflect the shifting pattern of global urban theory. Los Angeles provided a model for considering the urban condition of the late-20th century; now the rapid urbanisation in Asia and South America has come to underpin most visions of the 21st-century city. He documents contemporary urban reality in the way that only street photographers can. They not only give us a non-polemical insight into the lives of people in these cities, but are a necessary counter to the often-idealised vision of architectural photography.

Each city is distinct and yet somehow homogenised, and Hils teases out these paradoxes, contrasting the fixed and the transient.

He draws out the real sense of compaction, replicated from city to city; but within the fabric of these places, he seeks out the voids, showing how people use every part of the urban space, whether by design or necessity.

The essays that form the second part of the book offer an interesting counterpoint to the images. They consider the historical development of European cities through Medieval, Renaissance and Modern periods, with specific reference to public spaces.

In comparing these European cities with the those of today, Max Stemshorn states that 'few public spaces in the 20th century have managed to hold a comparable fascination to the observer'.While recognising that the current scale of growth within cities such as São Paolo far surpasses that of the past, he still holds up the compact (ie European) city 'as a model that has a future'.

There is much to argue about in the essays, which have been prepared by distinguished art and architectural theoreticians, but this well-ordered and attractive book should be seen by anybody interested in the city.

David Cowlard is a freelance photographer

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