Why do cities look the way they do? Because of processes, argues Richard J Williams. It isn’t the most tantalising introduction, but things do improve when Williams introduces those processes – money, power, sex, work, war and culture – which he then tackles across six chapters. The central premise, which he announces early on and frequently returns to, is that cities are not planned or designed, rather they grow organically due to the flow of these processes. The strength of this assertion means the book sometimes reads as a bit of a dig at architects (some of whom Williams names) who might think they play more of a role in the design of cities than Williams thinks they do.
A much more philosophical book than expected – Freud, Foucault and several others are all employed in this discussion – the book is as much about our perceptions of cities and the images we create of them in film, as about the bricks and mortar reality. Nevertheless, there are also many concrete (no pun intended) examples of actual buildings and city spaces (largely in northern hemisphere towns with a fairly strong bias towards London and the UK) and the way they have been moulded by one or more of the processes above. Examples include buildings with glass walls such as the Greater London Assembly and the Reichstag, apparently designed to project political transparency; the sanctioning of gay spaces by authorities who have realised that such areas can encourage entrepreneurship; and the mass conversion of industrial warehouses into creative spaces.
These examples are the most interesting parts of the book, offering intriguing insights, such as the fact that the design of London’s Walkie Talkie building (which features bulging upper floors) acknowledges the rental market – because upper floors can attract higher rents than those below. Between these examples rests a fairly academic discussion, perhaps more appropriate for the serious scholar of cities than the light reader – one for whom discussions of counterhegemonic power, Foucault’s views of the plurality of sex, and buildings that ‘cultivate a sense of contingency’, pose no fear.
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