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Joseph Rykwert and... the pursuit of the Utopian city

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Clare Melhuish reviews...

Joseph Rykwert's third and final lecture in the Jane Jacobs series concluded with the somewhat startling assertion that 'unless we configure our cities towards a Utopia, we are not doing our job'. The scanty nature of the subsequent debate suggested there were more than a few people in the audience who were somewhat mystified by the thrust of his discussion. Contemporary debates about the city and Jacobs' ideas - whose position was premised on a belief in the primacy of urban processes and communities - are pitched against Utopian formal images.

Rykwert's lecture encompassed a historical survey of the development of formal city planning. It ranged through L'Enfant's Washington, to Haussmann's Paris, Emperor Franz Josef 's Vienna, and the Garden City and City Beautiful movements of the UK and US respectively in the early part of the 20th century. He summed up the major point of contrast in urban planning over that period to current thinking about the city, as: 'Spoiling the vista was a major consideration in 1900, ' but is 'no longer relevant.'

However, one might argue that one recent case, the public inquiry into the Heron Tower, shows this is not exactly true. Rykwert's uncritical implication that 'spoiling the vista' ought to be a major planning consideration today, for the sake of the city as image, was strange.

His account of the building programmes imposed on Paris and Vienna, in the name of 'visual ordering', made it quite clear these initiatives were driven by motives of political control, and the desire to establish 'world city' status in an increasingly competitive, globalising capitalist economy. Yet there was no explicit discussion of this dimension, and certainly no reference to the plight of the grass-roots communities who not only had no say in the matter but also suffered directly from the surgery carried out on the city fabric. Such sufferings were examined in the anthropological research of Felicity Edholm and her study into the fate of working-class women in Haussmann's Paris.

Likewise, the remarkable claim for the British new towns in the 20th century as 'an unqualified success', seemed to be made entirely without reference to anthropological research into the alienation experienced by people who were relocated to those settlements.

It was hard, then, to square Rykwert's apparent endorsement of Kevin Lynch's 'urban imaging'.

This process encourages ordinary people to describe verbally and in drawings their own individualised or collective images of the city they know through everyday inhabitation. This can then be compared to the city of unspoiled vistas, boulevards and public buildings which appears to represent the basis of the 'model' which Rykwert believes planners need to 'do their job properly'.

Unfortunately, the former may, demonstrably, bear very little relationship to the latter.

Joseph Rykwert's 'Anthropology and the City' lecture series took place at the London School of Economics

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