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Monday, May 25, 2009

Book Review: Urban Design

Urban Design edited by Alex Krieger & William S. Saunders
University of Minnesota Press, 2009
Paperback, 320 pages

In 1956 Harvard University held its first Urban Design Conference, organized by José Luis Sert and featuring prominent architects, planners, historians, and critics. The proceedings were published in Progressive Architecture that year, but a reconsideration of the conference, the ones that followed, and the field they spurred took fifty years. Harvard Design Magazine devoted two issues (numbers 24 and 25) to the origins, the evolution and the current state of urban design. This book collects the essays and discussions from those two issues, following on the heels of previous readers from Harvard GSD's magazine.

Being a Harvard publication on a Harvard conference, the content is, not surprisingly, self-referential and from a number of Harvard GSD professors, among others outside the school. Nevertheless many of the essays are highly critical, taking aim at the co-option of the field of urban design by architects, for example, at the expense of contributions by planners and landscape architects. Essays like Michael Sorkin's "The End(s) or Urban Design" and Richard Marshall's "The Elusiveness of Urban Design" paint a less-than-flattering portrait of a field that has a hard time defining itself, much less being understood by those not practicing it. This skepticism permeates, often referring back to the first conference and similar attitudes being raised at the time. One wonders if the most important act for urban designers is to come to a consensus on the roles and directions of the field, to give it credence like the Congress for New Urbanism, a movement whose presence permeates the collection like a clumsy step-sibling nobody wants to take seriously. Emulating New Urbanism, in terms of solidarity and organization, should be worth considering for academics and practitioners eager to implement designs more environmentally sensitive, diverse, creative, and attuned to contemporary conditions than the popular movement.

For those who own issues 24 and 25 of Harvard Design Magazine, this collection does not offer anything new. It actually omits many illustrations from the magazine, most likely to save space and make the volume's bulk less intimidating. For those without the magazines this collection is a great resource for negotiating the realm of urban design. It is part history, criticism, and speculation, featuring today's prominent architects, planners, historians, and critics. Readers interested in seeing urban design projects though must look elsewhere. But readers looking for a solid theoretical backbone for understanding the field of urban design can't do much better than start their journey here.

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