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The age of anxiety

technical & practice - Britain's continued (and inevitable? ) ambivalence towards urbanism receives a thorough examination

The Anxious City By Richard J Williams. Routledge, 2004. 281pp. £24.99

This is a very well researched, incredibly detailed and thoroughly insightful critique of the apprehensive period in which we live, represented in a critique of British cities.

Through a series of case studies, Richard J Williams, a lecturer at the Department of History of Art at the University of Edinburgh, uses the word 'anxiety' to reflect our ambiguous relationship with 'the urban' in Britain.

On one hand, he explores the anxiety caused by the primacy and legitimacy of competing interests within a city - such as private and public spaces, and domestic life versus arenas of consumption. In this way, Williams is able to explore the unresolved physical and political tensions of everyday urban life - or, as he says, the way that the English have 'learned to be anxious in the modern city'.

On the other hand, as a counterpoint to this material exposé, he adds a metaphorical dimension, suggesting that our more modern anxieties stem from an established cultural uncertainty about the benefits of urbanity in the first place.

'The city, ' he argues, 'was long regarded as an alien phenomenon, from which those that could, fled? The English city since the 19th century has been a place of darkness that is essentially foreign.' Therefore, societal (although predominantly urban societal) anxiety, he suggests, is a product of a historical-cultural antiurbanism. With this premise established, the rest of the book looks at various ways that architects, urbanists and theoreticians have dealt with, moderated or exacerbated the consequent anxiety.

He suggests that UK urbanists' predilection for Barcelona - which he calls a moral city (a moral realm concerned with the regulation of human behaviour) - shows up a 'partial reading of the city to assuage domestic anxieties'. That we look abroad for symbols of successful urbanism says a lot about the lack of ideas, confidence and vision at home. This insight is profoundly important. To make his point, he suggests that in all the anxiety about the place of the English city within the European context, '(Richard) Rogers has become the self-appointed prophet of doom in English architectural culture'.

The chapters looking at Liverpool's Albert Dock 'as ruin', Trafalgar Square's 'architecture of civility' and the British Museum's Great Court as a dumbing down of modern cultural elitist aspiration, are terrific. I have two nagging concerns, though. One is that the chapters were slightly heavy going - for an enjoyable book, it took a long time to read.

But more importantly, I felt Williams' book had much that was new, which he didn't follow through sufficiently. For all his insights and differentiation of the various responses to historic climates of fear, he fails to inform us why these things happen, and what it represents outside the narrow confines of architecture.

My real concern is that the anxiety of which he speaks is not as eternal - or unchanging - as he presumes. Nor do I believe that this phenomenon is causally cultural, philosophical, or even 'political, ' in the narrow sense of our relationship with the state.

However, such is Williams' intelligent formulation of his thesis that even when you don't agree with him - and I agreed with a great deal - he is sufficiently engaging to almost convince. This might be something to do with the novelty of someone raising so many important areas of enquiry with such aplomb.

Williams' central thesis 'attempts to assuage (anxiety) by recourse to picturesque solutions'. With extensive reference to post-war articles in the Architectural Review, and in particular the editor-in-chief's 'Townscape' thesis written in 1949, he dissects the tension in his egalitarian postwar vision, which simultaneously retained a certain 'aristocratic worldview'. After all, the AR's Hugh Casson, Nikolaus Pevsner, Gordon Cullen, Osbert Lancaster et al were the establishment, if not at prayer, at least at the drawing board. It's hardly surprising that the end of Empire was an uncertain time for many of these people.

Williams' idea that the Picturesque was then, and is now, a defensive reaction to a cultural revulsion to 'the urban' is well argued, but his leap from Townscape to New Urbanism (Poundbury) - which, I would argue is anti-Modern as distinct to the post-war anti-authoritarianism - is unconvincing.

Even though Williams recognises that trepidation, rather than hope, was the prime mover in the late 20th century, I feel he has confined himself too much to the visual, physical representations of urbanism rather than broadening out his thesis. That being said, the research detail is extraordinary and he hits so many targets that I don't want to do anything other than recommend this book.

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