The Language of Towns and Cities is a misleading title for a publication which, at 781 pages and 4.2kg, is more of a handsome lookbook for a safe and polite approach to city making than the “encyclodictionary” of urbanism it claims to be. It begins by explaining how traditional streets and squares (here largely defined by private buildings and the careful placement of civic ones) are the fundamental principles of urbanism; the tools to save the world from its current “crisis”.
This is the beginning of what is less an encyclodictionary, and more a manifesto for new urbanism. Indeed, the explicitly utopian rhetoric of The Language of Towns and Cities places it in a long line of glossy, large-format works of new urbanist pedagogy. Its contributors include high-profile advocates and practitioners including Léon Krier, the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment, James Howard Kunstler, Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk.
The problem with the reforming, universal approach to the city that these writers advocate is that it assumes that harmony and coherence are the definition of beauty. It is an approach that ignores what many design professionals are actually interested in: excitement, noise, complexity and spectacle – even dirt, disorder and incoherence. The book has no examples of towns or cities developing in unexpected ways as they do in messy reality. Missing is the unintentional “everyday urbanism” of New York and Los Angeles, the amazing adaptive architecture of Tijuana and Casablanca, and the sheer scale of Asia and Africa’s rapidly urbanising regions.
There is, however, room for six pages on Lutyens’ New Delhi. The book also lingers over joyless model towns such as Poundbury and Val d’Europe, which attempt to reconstruct the architecture and urbanism of medieval Dorset and Haussmann’s Paris but are instead vaguely patronising and overwhelmed by superficial detail. Both towns employ a didactic visual syntax that is shorthand for community, safety, sustainability and what the urbanist Alex Krieger calls “a rather middle-class notion of the good life”.
The dictionary’s entries consist of urban terms, hundreds of photographs, case studies of places, some key figures from the history of architecture and planning, diagrams, maps, sample pages from pattern books and cartoons. Many of these, such as a small entry on geometry with simple but effective diagrams, will be useful to both students and professionals. Another effective entry is devoted to what Gordon Cullen termed “anticipation” – the counterpoint between the known and unknown in a street. But too often the dictionary’s contents is frustratingly simplistic, raising questions about its intended readership. One double-page spread is taken up with photographs of fences (a chain link, a picket, a stone wall, a row of trees, a velvet rope, bollards); an entry for “Dogs” features a photograph of a labrador wearing a hat, scarf and glasses – the kind of thing one would expect to see in a Wiki stub, not in the pages of a book published by Rizzoli.
The book’s highly selective approach to content demonstrates its theoretical and ideological bias. “Megacity” is confined to a 14-word bullet point while “Meadow” gets a whole page; “Postmodernism” is missing where sections on “Porches” and “Planters” are included. At once rambling and contrived, The Language of Towns and Cities constructs a vision of what urbanism ought to be rather than what it is, and makes one wonder exactly whose towns or cities are significant to its author.
The Language of Towns and Cities: A Visual Dictionary. Edited by Dhiru A Thadani. Rizzoli. £60