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Design for daily life

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Everyday Urbanism

Edited by John Chase, Margaret Crawford and John Kaliski. Monacelli Press, 1999. 184pp. £25

When Reyner Banham wrote his infamous Los Angeles: the Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971), it caused a stir. Alongside the high Modernism of Ellwood, Eames, Schindler, Neutra et al, Banham also wrote about freeways, strip developments, fast food outlets, surfboard design and other ordinary urban paraphernalia. Architecture and design, Banham suggested, were not just confined to works of art by famous individual designers, and could also be found in more unexpected parts of the city.

On the surface, the essays and designs in Everyday Urbanism seem to reinforce the quotidian interests of Banham's book. Focused almost entirely on Los Angeles, it depicts the schoolyards, pocket parks, alleyways, food outlets and other non architect-designed aspects of this city.

On deeper inspection, however, Everyday Urbanism is a very different animal. Where Banham's working method was decidedly art historical, roving the city as a kind of detached and amused observer, and interpreting things primarily for their formal or iconographic meaning, Everyday Urbanism has a far more sophisticated understanding of cities, history, criticism and, ultimately, architecture.

In part this is because of the notion of everyday life which underlies the book. Drawing from theorists such as Henri Lefebvre, Guy Debord and Michel de Certeau, the editors comprehend the everyday as the connective tissue which binds daily lives together, as an entity which is at once practised, codified and experienced.

This is an everyday life of different peoples (Americans of African, Korean, Mexican, East European and many other ethnicities), different practices (gardening, food selling, sitting around), and different things (trash cans, fences and signs, bed mattresses), and not just of kitsch signage which can be safely brought under the rubric of aesthetically- pleasing objects.

Everyday Urbanism enables us to understand cities and their architecture as a kind of new semiology, a set of signs and pointers to people of all kinds and to their various life activities. Far more than this, however, it also conveys a more politicised idea than Banham's fey liberalism ever did, of the city as a set of contested practices, often fragmentary, competing and overlapping.

These contested practices mean that the book is as much about the tactics and processes by which people construct their everyday worlds as it is about the objects and spaces they create.

Notable parts of the book are those which deal with the bricolage gardening and landscaping techniques of Ernest Rosenthal (a fantastic space tucked away in Laurel Canyon), and the mechanisms of exchange for trash enacted in back alleyways all across la. Specific design initiatives include the creation of micro-spaces for sitting and dog-walking (include a special dog-oriented water fountain), and mobile vending devices constructed for itinerant food and commodity sellers.

As the editors point out, it is not easy to capture or promote everyday life (and there is a useful, if short, essay by John Kaliski on the history of such attempts, from Le Corbusier and Team X through Victor Gruen and Jane Jacobs to Rem Koolhaas, Andreas Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk). Such design, they suggest, should focus less on individual buildings or city masterplans, and more on the in-between areas of urban design, using a discourse of collaboration which responds to the complexity of everyday life; and which ultimately, they hope, will help produce a design vocabulary for the quality of life.

Such ambitious intentions are, of course, far beyond the scope of any one text, particularly when, like this, it focuses so narrowly on a single city. Nonetheless, Everyday Urbanism is a welcome contribution to a burgeoning area of critical discourse and architectural design.

Iain Borden is director of architectural history and theory at the Bartlett

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