Monday, January 17, 2011

Book Review: The Liberal Monument

The Liberal Monument: Urban Design and the Late Modern Project by Alexander D'Hooghe
Princeton Architectural Press and the Berlage Institute, 2010
Hardcover, 112 pages

At the end of Alexander D'Hooghe's 100-page manifesto-like book "that challenges all of the accepted truths of urban design" is an imaginary conversation between Ernst Cassirer, Sigfried Giedion, Louis I. Kahn, Fumihiko Maki, and Josep Lluis Sert, the book's protagonists. The format of this section lends itself to explaining the main ideas of the book, and doing it in an accessible way. That said, I'm surprised it did not come at the beginning of the book. (I may not be the only one, the conversation's footnotes are #1-8, while the book begins with footnote #9, an error I'm guessing was created by the book's potential last-minute reorganization.) At the beginning of the book, the conversation would have given the reader most of the ideas, allowing the short chapters that comprise the book to be more easily digestible but also with a clearer purpose. As is, the conversation helps make sense of the preceding, the at-times dense and abstract ideas about urban design, monumentality, sprawl, myths, utopia, abstraction, "group form," and the avant-garde.

D'Hooghe's book, culled from his 450-page dissertation at the Berlage Institute and Delft University of Technology, asks what urban design can do to deal with sprawl, something it does not seem capable of addressing in any meaningful or successful way. Given the conversation, the canvas for the ideas is the middle of the 20th century, when urban design was first articulated as a unique discipline and modernism was tested on a large scale. Yet in the years since suburban sprawl has rose to the fore, hence the author's and protagonists' focus on large civic projects, nodes of concentration among the suburban canvas. It's an intriguing if incomplete idea that runs counter to projects that "retrofit suburbia," tackling sprawl via infill strategies. D'Hooghe sees a future for the monumental in urban design, whatever that form may be.