Makeshift Metropolis

Witold Rybczynski
Makeshift Metropolis: Ideas About Cities
(Scribner, 2010)

Although New Yorkers often lament the inhospitable conditions that inevitably go along with living in North America’s most populated city, they all seem to secretly share the belief that the way of the life the city offers—24-hour public transportation, walkable morning commutes, and an alluring cityscape of Art Deco buildings, handsome brownstones, and contemporary buildings—is the best way to live. While Witold Rybczynski gives due attention to the appeal of living in a New York-style metropolis in his new, well-researched book, Makeshift Metropolis: Ideas About Cities, he also addresses people who enjoy green space, driving, and low-density housing: defining characteristics of many American cities. It is the evolution of our modern cities that Rybczynski traces in Makeshift Metropolis.

Rybczynski, a professor of urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design and recipient of the 2007 Vincent Scully Prize, is also the author of the award-winning A Clearing in the Distance, Home, among other books. He is the go-to architecture and urbanism writer for many publications, including the New Yorker, Slate, and the Atlantic.

In Makeshift Metropolis, the author creates a measured, easy-to-follow overview that educates the lay reader about the last century of urbanism. The majority of the book serves as a sort of modern history of city planning, explaining the milestone ideas and projects that have influenced the shape of the cities and towns we live in today. Luckily, Rynbczynski’s writing never takes on the dull tone we might remember from our high school history books; instead he writes with clear, conversational prose that makes the book quite the page-turner.

Rybczynski begins with the City Beautiful era, a time when civic art was paramount and buildings that mixed neoclassical and Beaux-Arts design qualities were erected. Landmarks such as Union Station in Washington, D.C., the Manhattan Municipal Building, and Colorado’s capitol building were all built during this time and many still rank high on the list of America’s favorite buildings. Rybczynski moves on to the Garden City movement, providing the still desirable Forest Hills Garden as a successful example and stressing the qualities of the space—a plethora of green space; neighbors that are close, but not too close; nearby amenities, and the general feeling of living in a tight-knit community. His praise for these two movements, in particular Garden City, is the author’s way of planting the seeds of his argument. He briefly overviews Le Corbusier’s Radiant City, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s whimsical Broadacre City plans which featured flying cars and strip-malls. He also devotes space to Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities. While he praises the book and agrees that city planning was forced to amend many of its practices because of it, he criticizes Jacobs for largely dismissing the City Beautiful and Garden City movements.

What is perhaps unusual about Rybczynski’s central argument is that he takes many cues from his interactions with economists, who, as he notes in the preface, are “concerned less with what the city should be than with what it actually is—how it functions.” In contrast, he states, “architects and planners are concerned with what they believe cities should be.” It is this gap between the various approaches to city planning that Rybczynski wishes to bridge in this book: he draws heavily from the wisdom of economists, but insists that planners and architects should pay more attention to the needs and desire of the people, rather than acting as the all-knowing experts.

The most compelling sections of the book are the three final chapters. It is within these pages that Rybczynski puts the pieces together. Although the ideas of planners past still inform these pages, he finally focuses on his own ideas and analysis, providing some insight into what the future may hold for our cities. According to Rybczynski, few people want to live in a densely populated metropolis; instead, people want new, smaller cities located in warm locales. And, in his final chapter, Rybczynski takes a stand, stressing that a compromise must be made. What he requests are greener and denser cities, where walking, biking and public transportation are possible. American cities, he writes, produce epic amounts of waste, use abundant resources and have high levels of carbon dioxide emissions. Rybczynski points to Modi’in, Israel as a model for the sustainable city; it bears a striking resemblance to the Garden City with its population of 50,000, mix of apartment buildings and single-occupancy homes, parks, public facilities, and town center.

While Makeshift Metropolis does not contain the groundbreaking concepts of a book like The Death and Life of Great American Cities, or the high drama of Le Corbusier’s Radiant City, a book calling for radical change was not Rybczynski’s objective. What he calls for is, ultimately, a kind of urbanism that borrows from the past, but is ready to adapt, carefully, to the future.

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