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Succinct city primer

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The Urban Condition: Space, Community and Self in the Contemporary MetropolisBy Dirk de Meyer et al (GUST, The Ghent Urban Studies Team). 010 Publishers, 1999.464pp. £23

The Urban Condition, produced by GUST, The Ghent Urban Studies Team, pulls no punches: it aims at a complete metatheoretical overview of urbanism today, while simultaneously providing a range of detailed studies of particular cities, buildings, and urban cultures. Where other, similarly-minded texts have tended to focus on particular themes such as privatisation or the everyday, or on individual cities such as Los Angeles, Tokyo or Mexico City, GUST attempts to show it all, relating the theoretical to the concrete, and vice-versa.

The book comes in two distinct parts. The first deals with metatheory, and in essence provides an extended literature review. Given the vast array of writings on urbanism in the past decade, this is a useful contribution to the field, particularly as GUST has taken its task very seriously indeed.

The section on space details the current tendency in cities to blur the hierarchical distinction between core and periphery with new patterns of simultaneous concentration and decentralisation, discontinuous landscapes and voids, and chaotically mixed functions. The section on community pursues the sociological theme of increasing individualisation, whereby tensions arise between emancipatory, multicultural forms of society and more segregated and isolationist desires. The last section on self - which for me was the most original synthesis on offer - deals with themes of phantasmagoria, alienation and bodily experience.

There are, of course, some problems here.

Why, for example, does GUST follow the current trend of more or less ignoring the issue of class, while foregrounding gender, race and sexuality?

Why is the production of space seen as unproblematic, analysed as a set of results rather than processes? Why are the cities explored (as with the case studies which follow) predominantly from the standard Western Europe-Northern America axis?

But these are really relatively minor shortcomings. Given that the first part takes up less than 150 pages, I cannot think of a better and more succinct overview of current urban concerns and theories.

As GUST rightly realises, cities, urbanism and architecture cannot be understood purely as abstracted themes, but also necessarily involve peoples' lives, practices and experiences. So the 18 essays in par t two, arranged under the tripartite categories of Space, Community and Self, provide exactly this.

These case studies offer enough variety to suppor t the wide-ranging par t one, and should entice most readers to dip in at various points.

High points for me are Kevin McNamara on LA's CityWalk as a movie set and place of race contestation, Jude Davies and Rene Boomkens for their post-Banham, post-Venturi rethinking of driving experiences, and Kristiaan Borret on urban voids and the work of the Dutch landscape architect Adriaan Geuze. More quirky but equally inspiring are Anne Gotman on the Arc en Ciel AIDS centre in Paris, and Trui Vetters for her consideration of maps in the context of Jim Jarmusch's film Night on Ear th.

There are times when I wanted to read more about architecture and what one might fondly call 'real spaces'; certainly I could have done without the last four essays all dealing with cities represented in literature. But perhaps the real drawback of The Urban Condition is that, for all its metatheoretical framework, it offers no substantive thesis, no firm proposition for the reader to debate. Nonetheless, for someone seeking a general introduction to urban conditions today, this is a good place to start.

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

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