'I live in a famous city, a city that has been sold to you in a thousand ways. A myriad of writers have set their dramas upon its ancient streets, discoursed upon its architecture and provided guides to its quads and colleges. Few even mention the Cowley Road, let alone the people who live and work there.' So says James Attlee early in his Isolarion: A Different Oxford Journey (University of Chicago Press, £12.50) and he then sets out to remedy the omission.
The book is episodic: a series of brief chapters often centred on one of the many diverse businesses that Cowley Road supports - a robemaker keeping lawyers and clerics in sartorial shape, a Moroccan butcher's, a jeweller's, a sex shop. As these vignettes accumulate to reveal the cultural complexity of the area, so another theme emerges. Attlee gets caught up in local planning debates - specifically, the council's wish to bracket Cowley Road with 'gateways', inict uniform street furniture and public art on it, and generally sanitise, regulate and market it.
Eventually the council drops the 'gateways' idea, but by the end of the book Cowley Road - and streets like it elsewhere - seem to be an endangered species, with new paving 'reminiscent of a thousand pedestrianised city centres' in place, and businesses priced out of the area by rent rises following the 'improvements'.
It's a now familiar story of the local versus the global: the tide of increasing uniformity as chains proliferate and streets succumb to banal prescriptions from the same hard-landscape catalogues. But Attlee tells the story vividly and well, and it's a book that anyone concerned for the future of their own town's Cowley Road could read with profit.
Oxford is the site of several contributions to Architecture Week 2007, which starts today and continues across the UK until 24 June. While some of the week's events are quite high-profile, others are truly 'local', and happily they don't all feel bound to subscribe to this year's theme, How Green Is Our Space? There are, after all, some other dimensions to architecture ( www. architectureweek. org. uk).