Unsupported browser

For a better experience please update your browser to its latest version.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

Planning lore

  • Comment

Biopolis: Patrick Geddes and the City of Life By Volker M Welter.MIT Press, 2002. 355pp. £27.50

Patrick Geddes, best known as one of the founding fathers of town planning, started out as a botanist and studied zoology under T H Huxley. He had a botanist's obsession with ordering and classification, and loved nothing more than to draw diagrams to demonstrate evolutionary progress. His diagrammatic thinking concentrated on the relationship between human society and the physical environment, epitomised in the development of towns and cities.

The irony is that, although he believed in systematic thought, his life and writings were chaotic and disordered. His career was strewn with impractical and unfinished projects, and those around him had to disentangle his ideas in order to make sense of them. Aware of that failing in himself, he was constantly on the lookout for collaborators:

in particular, from 1923 until his death in 1932, he sought to make Lewis Mumford his assistant, but Mumford wisely recognised that he could not subordinate himself to such a volcanic and dominating personality.

Now, 70 years too late, Geddes has found the ideal collaborator in Volker Welter.What Welter presents in this book is an intellectual biography, which occasionally touches on details of Geddes' life but concentrates on his ideas and their origins. He highlights Geddes as an innovative thinker, but relates his ideas to the dominant intellectual obsessions of the late Victorians - Darwinism of course, and eugenics, but also the fascination with Plato and Ancient Greece. From the French sociologist Frederic Le Play he derived his fascination with the trilogy of human activity, Place, Work and Folk.What distinguished human endeavour, thought Geddes, in contrast to animals and plants, was the ability of man to alter his environment through his labour.

Some of the ground which Welter covers is familiar, especially the stress which Geddes laid on survey and diagnosis as the basis for planning. This was intended to be more than a matter of physical survey. As he tried to show in his displays at his Outlook Tower in Edinburgh ('the world's first sociological laboratory'), and in his later planning exhibitions, what mattered was to find the social essence of a place - the continuities in its history which could be enhanced and developed. He could support the transportation of buildings from one site to another, as in the removal of Crosby Hall from the City to Chelsea in 1910, if they could contribute to the social heritage of their new setting.

The metaphysical and cultural life of the city mattered as much to Geddes as its physical condition. As he put it in 1915: 'Unless the ideal build the house - and with it the city also - they labour in vain that built it'.

The expression of that ideal was to be a temple of knowledge, or a temple of life, at the heart of the city where people might renew their understanding of man and the environment. His proposed National Institute of Geography in Edinburgh was to be one such temple, as was the Great Hall that he planned for the centre of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

The metaphysical dimension in Geddes' writings is a far cry from town planning as we know it today.Welter's book is immensely welcome as an antidote to the prevailing assumption that planning is just about land use, densities and development control. By reinterpreting Geddes he has shown that his ideas are potentially more relevant than ever.

Robert Thorne is a historian at Alan Baxter & Associates

Barragán: Space and Shadow, Walls and Colour By Danièle Pauly. Birkhäuser, 2002. 232pp. £48

There is now no dearth of books on Luis Barragán, partly thanks to the 'lifestyle' minimalism of the 1990s, though much that has been written is superficial, and the same photographs (by Armando Salas Portugal) continually recur. So Barragán can seem to be kept in aspic; at a remove all the more emphatic because his work is off the usual architectural trails, writes Andrew Mead.

This new volume profits, then, from a text by someone who has spent time researching Barragán in Mexico, and from photographs which show selected buildings in their current condition. Danièle Pauly, professor at Strasbourg School of Architecture, writes as an obvious enthusiast, so the tone throughout is appreciative. But she explores at greater length than usual the early works, including the Functionalist houses and apartment blocks of the late 1930s which Barragán more-or-less erased from his CV. She draws on interviews with his former colleagues to describe his design process (including the on-site adjustments he made and the role that craftsmen played); inspects his library to track down sources and influences; and gives real insights into his use of colour.

Here, Pauly identifies three distinct, successive periods from the early 1940s to the late 1970s, culminating in the weird and wonderful Gilardi House in Mexico City.

But as a bystander observed at the Design Museum's Barragán show in spring 2001:

'Don't try this at home.'

The book is beautifully presented, and the new photographs, mostly by Jérome Habersetzer, are as seductive as anything Salas Portugal provided. Usefully, almost 100 built works are tabulated at the end, with a note on their present state. Pauly's conclusion is perhaps overstated - 'his intimist works teach a universal lesson' - but her book brings Barragán's architecture into the 'real'world, with its magic substantially intact. Shown right is a detail of the staircase of the Gálvez House, 1955.

  • Comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions.

Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.

Related Jobs

AJ Jobs