Concrete and Clay: Reworking Nature in New York City By Matthew Gandy.MIT Press, 2002. 344pp. £23.50
New York's Central Park looks like a natural environment, perhaps even an isolated fragment of the original landscape of Manhattan, locked in a forest of skyscrapers. It is often portrayed in films and books as a sylvan idyll, but its creators Olmstead and Vaux sculpted and dynamited hard granite for five years to build it; and today, highspeed roadways dive under and through it.
In his fascinating new book, Concrete and Clay, Central Park is what Matthew Gandy calls 'metropolitan nature'.
In order to understand urban landscapes like this, says Gandy, one must see them as a new kind of mediation between nature and culture. The park was meant to be a model of 19th-century liberal democratic hopes for life in the city, but its English picturesque design was anathema to much Irish political and intellectual opinion at the time. Yet Olmstead's aesthetic vision proved acceptable to the city's elite because it powerfully inflated land values at the moment the city was becoming a major urban centre.
It has continued for more than a century to serve as a front garden for the luxury flats of Fifth Avenue, keeping property values high; and in separating Harlem from midtown Manhattan, it helps soften the social tensions and contradictions of the capitalist city. Further, since the 1980s when a private 'conservancy' group was established to help manage and maintain the park, it is arguably not even a completely open and democratic landscape but a surveyed and controlled one. Nonetheless, Gandy believes that Central Park is still a testament to the enduring place of nature in urban design, and a symbolic space where the heterogeneity of urban life is forged into a unified realm.
But the park is just one focus of Concrete and Clay, which examines other key examples of New York's urban nature - the Croton Water System, the parkways of Robert Moses and environmental activists the Young Lords.
The Croton Water System, one of the great engineering feats of the 19th century, is usually overlooked by diarists of Manhattan because urban infrastructure is no match for supremely monumental objects like the Brooklyn Bridge. This complex system of aqueducts, dams and reservoirs, created in response to a lack of drinking water for the expanding metropolis, was a new kind of technological and cultural engagement with nature. It enabled New York to become one of the largest cities in the world.
In the 1920s-30s New York was framed by a new series of bridges, parks and roadways built under the supervision of master builder and moderniser Robert Moses. Like most critics, Gandy identifies two Moses: the inter-war champion of 'urban pastoral' highways that extended the tree-lined boulevards into the hinterlands, and the post-war moderniser and facilitator of big, ugly urban roadways. Yet Gandy finds that Moses' role as an omnipotent developer is exaggerated - it was the national policy favouring motor cars, highways and suburbia that made the real difference in American urban form.
But this is to overlook Moses' role in establishing national policy and his ability to bring big federal grants to New York. For Gandy, Moses illustrates the failure of 19thcentury planning ideals, and the failure, too, of the Modern Movement to develop a workable set of relations between itself and nature. This created a divide between urban design and nature that continues today.
Concrete and Clay is a history written by a geographer. Gandy's influences are Manuel Castells, Mike Davis, Marshall Berman and - like many urbanists today - Henri Lefebvre, especially in his chapter on the Puerto Rican street gang and political organisation, the 'Young Lords'.
Its attack on environmental racism, and attempts to redress the filthy condition of its East Harlem streets with demonstrations of public sweeping and trash-burning, extended the idea of home into a wider space of the city. This was copied by environmental activists all across America, making the demand for clean streets a revolutionary act.
For a city as important as New York, surprisingly few books have attempted to take in all of its dimensions. Books that give the best picture of the city are narrower than a full-scale assessment: for instance, All That is Solid Melts Into Air by Marshall Berman, and Rem Koolhaas' Delirious New York. Certainly no one has attempted a contemporary analysis of New York as Mike Davis has done of Los Angeles.
Does Gandy come close to Davis' powerful City of Quartz? No, but he goes further than any author in recent memory in unearthing the complexities of Modernism and New York. What Davis does in his series of books on LA is combine detailed research with an ability to divine the intricacies of cultural moments that capture the city's uniqueness. Gandy does not quite accomplish this, but his book comes alive when he extends the definition of landscape and writes about the Young Lords.
He might, for example, have extended his notion of metropolitan nature to include the process by which the city and developers trade potential air rights to construct the public plazas, and the landscape of tenements that is a dominant feature of the city.
But this is a quibble compared with his success in seeing through the city's often overwhelming physical presence.
In his analysis of Central Park, Gandy recognises that the greatness of the space is not just in Olmstead's initial design but in its ability to adapt to the changing city and its people. This is something that New York would do well to remember as it plans for the site where the World Trade Center stood.
William Menking is professor of architectural history and theory at the Pratt Institute, New York