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Monday, June 17, 2013

Book Review: Two Books on Urbanism

Designing Suburban Futures: New Models from Build a Better Burb by June Williamson
Island Press, 2013
Paperback, 160 pages

Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in China by Bianca Bosker
University of Hawai'i Press, 2013
Paperback, 176 pages

What is the appropriate form for the city in the 21st century? How will cities deal with the circumstances—crises, really—that dominate their discourse, namely dwindling resources for a growing population? These two books look at a couple unique morphologies—the American suburb and the Chinese new town—that are worth considering in the larger context of 21st-century urbanity, though also as separate cases. While at first glance the two geographically remote types would hardly bear any similarities, they share a number of characteristics, even as one book examines cities as they are being built and the other offers alternative futures.

June Williamson's Designing Suburban Futures serves to document winning and noteworthy schemes from the 2010 Build a Better Burb competition, which asked entrants to develop scenarios for retrofitting downtowns on Long Island. This focus recalls the 2009 book she co-wrote with Ellen Dunham-Jones, Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs. But where that book is grounded in predominantly safe and neo-traditional designs, the new book veers further from the norm, depending on the predilection of the entrants. The seven winning schemes—documented thoroughly through images, descriptive text, and jury comments—offer a wide-ranging mix of solutions that balance the practical and the visionary. I could see any future implementation of these ideas drawing equally from the different schemes, particularly since they tend to focus on either buildings, landscape, or transportation—one scheme's strengths can be combined with another to address the myriad considerations.

Williamson's book is really only half a competition document. The first half, titled "Vision: A Role for Design in Suburban Resilience," includes a brief history of the American suburbs, a presentation of some design critiques of suburbia, and an outline of strategies for retrofitting the suburbs, much of it culled from her earlier book with Dunham-Jones. These are necessary parts for setting up the context for the proposals in the second half of the book, but they also make the book a more valuable document. The history of the suburbs may not have enough space to compete with books by Kenneth Jackson or Dolores Hayden, but Williamson uses the brevity to her advantage to make the evolution of the suburbs understandable through a clear and concise structure. The same can be said about the design critiques and retrofit strategies. Combined with the Build a Better Burb proposals, the book is a slim but important addition to the literature on the American suburb, an important canvas this century.

So how does a book about new towns in China relate to suburbs in the United States? Bianca Bosker's book focuses on urban areas that are designed in the manner of (mainly) European cities, and this trait points to an elimination of vernacular history; or more accurately a co-option of foreign histories. The same can be said of the American suburbs, which follow British garden cities in their layout and use neo-traditional stylings that hark back to European origins. Another similarity comes in one of the reasons for what Bosker calls "architectural mimicry": the upwardly mobile in China—a new demographic for the country—equate money and social standing with European and American lifestyles, which therefore take on different architectural and urban forms. For those in China that can afford it, living in large houses that are more disconnected from their neighbors than urban areas results in physical separation but also the social equivalent. This points to one of a number of problems that are deeper than the Disneyland-esque nature of their constructions.

Bosker's illuminating book digs down through Chinese history and a semi-anthropological study to determine why new towns modeled on alien environments are happening. No simple answers (as foreigners reading the book might want) suffice, but what is presented starts to make sense of the phenomena. For example, people in China do not place as much emphasis on authenticity as other cultures (the U.S. in particular, is infatuated with provenance in antiques and other expressions of culture), so fakes are not considered inferior. There is also the attitude that copying is necessary for learning. When these factors are combined with the removal of signs of history, an increasing wealth, and market mechanisms that play up the appeal of these new towns, their forms are understandable, but never totally justified or untroubling.

Bosker's text, it should be noted, is a blend of the academic and the journalistic. This results in a book that is thorough but a bit dense and repetitive at times. Given a topic with some apparently broad appeal—born from the striking photos documenting, for example, a transplanted Eiffel Tower—the book could have taken on other forms: a coffee table book with plenty of large color photos by professional photographers, a general-interest history, or even an architectural documentation with diagrams and drawings. As is, the book is worthwhile for charting a phenomena worthy of exploration, but for some readers the text may offer some obstacles toward understanding why China looks like Paris.

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