Review of Dream Cities in Urban Land

Dream Cities: Seven Urban Ideas That Shape the World
Wade Graham
Harper Collins
195 Broadway, New York, NY 10007; www.harpercollins.com.
2016. 336 pages. Hardcover, $29.99

By Martin Zimmerman, August 15, 2016

This is a book that educates, entertains, and astonishes. It is an effort that progresses along multiple paths of utopian impulse, while at the same time gushing forth with a bravado of egocentric, architectural hubris. There is Le Corbusier, the Swiss Cartesian, who advocated for the destruction of Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s Paris. Or America’s Frank Lloyd Wright, whose dream was to destroy cities altogether. Or megamall impresario Jon Jerde, whose monuments to consumerism extend from Horton Plaza in San Diego to Dubai Festival City in the Persian Gulf. All the while, the deeper understanding of author Wade Graham, who also wrote American Eden, keeps such heroics from veering totally off course.

On one level, Dream Cities purports to be a “field guide” for a neophyte audience “to give the reader the tools to identify the architectures all around us . . . to read, decode, and understand.” To make the subject matter as accessible as possible, the book titles each chapter with a single word representing a building archetype, and then pairs that word to its protagonists. The chapters conclude with a set of descriptive illustrations and a brief checklist of the archetype’s characteristics. For instance, it begins with “Castles” (Bertram Goodhue and the Romantic City) and is followed by “Monuments” (Daniel Burnham and the Ordered City), with several other chapters following.

More than anything else, Graham’s insightful narrative reveals the contrast between the seminal dream and the dream’s unintended consequences. As one navigates from archetype to archetype in Dream Cities, it becomes increasingly evident how much has gone awry. Many of the questions the author poses—sometimes skeptically, other times inquisitively—cannot be answered by a camera click or the stroke of an air brush. Rather, they serve as a portal to larger questions about whether some measure of human dignity can be salvaged from a global village that is simultaneously shrinking and expanding at a dizzying pace.

Of Bertram Goodhue’s romanticized urbs of the early 20th century: “What was new was a kind of city built on the illusion that it wasn’t a city—a city dressed as the country . . . each a castle standing alone in pastoral splendor.” Of Frank Lloyd Wright’s vision for Broadacre City, Wright apprentice and a utopian of his own, Paolo Soleri, had this to say: “There’s nothing as consuming as suburbia. It’s a . . . colossal engine of consumption . . . if Mr. Wright were alive now, he would have changed his rationale.”

Of the fallout from Le Corbusier’s Radiant City, Graham points to a mid-rise behemoth in Gdansk, Poland, that is 3,000 feet (914 m) long and houses 6,000 residents and to the Kin Ming high-rise nightmare in Hong Kong, housing 22,000. And he joins the new urbanist skeptics in drawing a wry parallel between a crispy clean, form-based new town called Celebration and the daffy cinematic spoof The Truman Show.

Dream City has its downsides. Until the very end, Graham honors the basic truism espoused by Jane Jacobs and others that—except in memory and imagination—a city is rarely, if ever, a work of art. To quote Jacobs: “To approach a city . . . as if it were a larger architectural problem, capable of being given order by converting it into a disciplined work of art, is to make the mistake of attempting to substitute art for life.”

And then, on the very last page, the author falters with an embrace of the eco-corporate idiom of Lord Norman Foster, designer of the iconic, high-tech “Gherkin” tower in central London. “Foster’s oeuvre, following in the footsteps of Fuller, Sadao, and the Metabolists . . . has become, without question, the way the world wants to build.” One wonders: Has Graham succumbed to more utopian delusions than even hecares to admit?

As far as American suburbia is concerned, the author overlooks the fact that many escapist, romanticized suburbs of the past few generations have, of late, turned out to be quite transit-friendly, densified, and socially diverse. One may hate to admit it, but yesterday’s genteel sprawl sometimes becomes today’s urb . . . or visa versa.

Minor shortcomings aside, Dream Cities deserves to be savored in one sitting, and it matters little whether the reader is a seasoned student of cities, a “flaneur,” or merely a curious bystander.

Martin Zimmerman writes frequently for Urban Land from Charlotte, North Carolina.