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Dream Cities Review in New York Times

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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;
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.

Profile in Pepperdine Magazine, Summer 2016

"Urban Legend," Cover story by Gareen Darakjian.

Urban Legend


A childhood curiosity about the world around him propelled School of Public Policy professor Wade Graham into a lifelong exploration of the landscapes that define our lives.

By Gareen Darakjian

“We are strangely well trained in our culture to not see what’s around us,” suggests Wade Graham, adjunct faculty at the School of Public Policy, landscape architect, historian of modern urban life, and author. In his latest book Dream Cities: Seven Urban Ideas That Shape the World, Graham laments that even the most educated individuals are unaware of and possibly apathetic to the structures that form the backdrops to their lives.

Graham grew up 90 miles north of Los Angeles, up the coast of California in Santa Barbara, an idyllic destination that has historically beckoned artists and visionaries to the tony enclave tucked between lush green hillside and deep blue sea, a sort of Mediterranean utopia lined with red-tiled roofs.

His childhood home was what he calls a “developer version” of a Case Study House, styled in a California mid-century modern design with glass walls, post-and-beam construction, and a Danish sensibility throughout. His mother, a professor, design enthusiast, and restaurateur, spent much of her time perfecting the abode and developing its garden in the style of Lawrence Halprin, a pioneer of modern landscape architecture. In a house soaking in postwar modernism, Graham was exposed to the ideologies of David Gebhard, an architectural historian and Santa Barbara architecture preservationist, by way of his father, himself a revered historian and decorated academic.

Graham’s foray into the study of urban landscapes was “osmotic,” as he explains, a product of growing up in a “very carefully constructed environment,” in which he became acutely aware of the surroundings that shaped his—and others’—everyday life.

During a leave of absence from PhD studies in comparative literature at UCLA, Graham was introduced to notable landscape designer Nancy Goslee Power, who hired him as an apprentice after learning of his knowledge of the cultural history of California, architecture, and graduate work in environmental history. On the job, he discovered the euphoria of gardening he calls “garden magic,” a feeling of wonder that hearkens to his childhood days of yard hopping through the bucolic properties that lined his Southern California neighborhood in the 1970s.

In his first book, American Eden (2011), Graham gives a comprehensive history of how modern landscapes came to be and how gardens influenced the environments in which we now live.

“There is no line drawn between environmental history and urban history,” Graham explains. “If you do an environmental focus, you’re engaging with urban issues, and in the U.S. in particular, you’re engaging with urban planning.”

The idea for his latest tome, Dream Cities, came to him in 2009 after teaching his first course on the history of American cities at the School of Public Policy, which dives into U.S. urban and environmental policy and attempts to open the eyes of his students to the world around them.

“We are knowledgeable about things that are portable, like cars or handbags, but not so much about nature or buildings,” he explains. “People are very unengaged with their physical environment. They structure our lives, but we’re blinded to it by training.”

In his class Graham builds a narrative around the forgotten landscapes that we so often utilize but never engage with, monuments and structures that were built to disappear into the background of everyday life. Students are led on field trips to sewage plants and the bed of the Los Angeles River, and are encouraged to contemplate freeway diagrams, all while using Dream Cities as an historical as well as a field guide. “It’s a revelation to us, because we’re not trained to do it,” he explains.

“A light bulb goes on when you realize you’ve looked at something your whole life and haven’t really seen it, and then you go ‘aha’ and understand the relationship behind it: who it serves, what it serves, what ideas it promotes, and what ideas it crushes,” Graham continues. “History, dynamism of environments … my hope is for people to stand in the middle of the street and be able to tell interesting stories about what they see. I’m trying to get people to see their mundane world in a new way.”

Dream Cities is Graham’s personal quest for an explanation for the kind of patterning seen in all modern cities and to shed light on the history of modern architecture, its intentions, its defining characteristics, and its power in shaping our lives. He discovered that, when you stop to look around or while traveling, many cities built in the modern era— which began in 1850—are constructed using the same pieces. The tower blocks, freeways, shopping malls, parks, and gated communities you may see in Los Angeles can also be seen in Minneapolis and Madrid.

“That needed explaining,” says Graham, who was also curious about the overlaps between different structural groups. “You can find a gated community that is also a mall, you can find a city hall that’s also a tower block. I wanted to understand where they came from. They’re kind of like species. They’re incredibly successful. They are the invasive species of the modern urban world.”

The book begins with an exploration of the pioneers who developed the modern world, how they promoted their ideas, and what assumptions their ideologies carry in society. “All of these things are an expression of some kind of idea about what will make life better,” Graham explains. “All of them are Utopian, or even prescriptive. Take the shopping mall: we think of it as a debased form, but the role of shopping architecture is as exalted as religious architecture. It’s the oldest one we have.”

In Dream Cities, Graham reveals that the origins of modernism led to the destruction of the traditional understanding of community and favored the restructuring of human life into segregated spatial zones. He explains that this allowed the modernists to organize society in mono-cultures. In other words, Graham posits that most of modern society’s social and ethical issues—religious divisiveness, childhood obesity, crime rates, incarcerations—are a direct result of the decisions of the original modernists.


“Modernity segregated use by space, and that’s a vast shift of what the modern city is. If you start segregating use by place, you start segregating people,” he explains. “The primary downside of that is that it kills off interaction, it kills off pedestrian life, it kills off diversity, and it kills off the complexity of the human experience. The class and racial segregation was intentional, and it’s hard to reverse those decisions.”

“The modernist project is toxic to community, and that was the point,” Graham continues. “If you want to reverse that, you’re going to have to reverse course on dividing space by use and by types of people and mix them back together. Modernism and community have had a complex relationship, and we’re paying for it now.”

Graham also suggests that one hazardous side effect of urbanization is population growth and the inability of cities to expand in response. His solution is an urban model that can “scale up,” but doesn’t repeat the mistakes of the modernist city.

“In 1960, 250,000 people lived in Nairobi, Kenya, and it is now inhabited by nearly 3.5 million people, but they haven’t built anywhere near enough new roads or sewer lines or proper housing to handle the growth. The overwhelming fact is population growth, and that population growth is coming with urbanization,” Graham maintains. “You have a situation in almost every country where cities are not keeping pace, or cities are built on a model that doesn’t work when scaled up.”

Graham explains that the challenge is returning a level of pre-modern function to modern cities—embracing new urbanism and community-based smart planning that has been emerging all over the world, what he calls a “self-organizing urban organism.”

“There’s this incredible urgency and creativity about how to rethink cities and how to reintegrate use and place,” he says. “That is the great riddle, the great success story. We are beginning to reinhabit our central cities and unsegregating our suburbs. It’s a positive, inspirational story, but also an aspirational one. As yet, it is a very small percentage of our footprint, but mostly we all live in the modernist dystopia of suburbs and shopping malls and parking lots. It’s a common experience, but it is part of a big long arc that we’ve gone through culturally.”

Currently Graham is working on a book on the history of Los Angeles through the neighborhood of Echo Park, which will rely on interviews and a house-by-house timeline of how the city evolved into what it has become versus what it was conceived to be in the 1880s. The book will focus on a local perspective, which will offer an understanding of the larger journey of American cities through racial, economic, political, and cultural changes that have taken place since the late 19th century.

Ultimately, Graham is fundamentally interested in Los Angeles and California. “It is so interesting, so complex, and continuously evolving and eluding simple solutions,” he says. “California is a complicated, interesting place. It’s quite a laboratory to be in to look at policy of all kinds.”

All photos of Wade Graham courtesy of Calvin Lim


“A Field Guide for Your City,” in Washington Free Beacon.

Review of Dream Cities by Blake Seitz, July 10, 2016:

I’m a dabbler by nature. A little Symbolist art here, a little classical architecture there. I have a conversational level of knowledge—or at least impressions—about many things, but a mastery of almost none. I will dip my toes in new waters and paddle around in the shallows, but I’m not going for the free diving record. I don’t have the lung capacity. Being a dabbler serves pretty well, living as one does in a world of opportunity cost and lively receptions where it pays to come armed with a reference or two. If you are reading this, I suspect you may be a dabbler, too. Culture sections attract a type of languid generalist.

Welcome, friend. I have a book for you.

For dabblers, nothing brightens the day more than finding a book that is a good entry-point into a field of study—that offers a way to think about that field and organize facts rattling around in the brain. Dream Cities by Wade Graham is such a book about urban planning and architecture. The book introduces readers to the schools of architecture that have shaped modern cities. It provides a taxonomy of those schools so readers can know them “by their plumage, their calls, their habitats, and behaviors” as they explore the urban jungle.

Dream Cities is organized into seven chapters. The title of each chapter introduces one or two architects and associates them with the Platonic Form of building they designed. For example, Le Corbusier built Slabs; Frank Lloyd Wright, Homesteads; Jane Jacobs, Corals; and so on.

Each chapter follows basically the same format. First Graham sketches the details of the architects’ lives, their bodies of work, and their conceptions of what a city should look like. Then he describes the impact those architects had on the cities we inhabit today—how their visions changed over time as they made contact with reality or were taken up by students. The first part of the chapter describes how the city ought to be in the brilliant studios of the architects’ minds; the second part describes how the city actually turned out in our eminently practical yet still brilliant world. The chapters end with “field guides” to the architectural styles, including bullet-pointed lists of common features and photographs of representative buildings. The photographs—while small and grayscale—are very helpful, this dabbler reports. The rather dense lists of features, less so.

The architects profiled in the book had visions that differed dramatically. Some were radicals, offering plans that would have effectively scrapped the world they lived in and started over again. Famously, Le Corbusier envisioned a hyper-rationalist hive society, or Radiant City, that segmented communities by function, connected the segments by ultra-efficient transit systems, and boarded inhabitants in soaring cruciform towers that were heavy on function and light on form. On the opposite end of the collectivist-individualist spectrum, Wright envisioned a radically decentralized network of self-sufficient homes connected by highways and overseen by benevolent, all-powerful city managers. Every family would receive at least a one-acre plot under this plan—like a Homestead Act for the twentieth century.

Both of these visions were too costly, ambitious, and in their own ways unworkable for city leaders to implement in full. They were implemented piecemeal instead. Le Corbusier’s ideas found expression in disastrous Urban Renewal plans featuring strictly-zoned business districts that turned into abandoned wastelands after 5 p.m. and housing complexes that isolated poor residents from economic opportunity and police protection. The Corbusian ideal—scarcely more attractive on paper than in practice—was “urbicide,” Graham states succinctly. Wright’s ideas found expression in the tract houses of suburbia, cookie-cutter structures that would have frustrated the oddball architect, who had hoped his plan would create space for individual expression and achievement.

Other architects profiled in the book were incrementalists whose visions did not require a blank slate. Victor Gruen and Jon Jerde, the godfathers of American retail, are the subjects of a curious chapter tracing the history of shopping malls from the Palais-Royal of seventeenth century France to the Mall of America in Bloomington. Gruen and Jerde harnessed the insights of psychology and marketing to create capitalist carnivals bustling with foot traffic and affordable attractions. More alluringly, these mega-structures offered shoppers the possibility to make and re-make their identities through shopping—an existential sales pitch, however shallow, that explains the mall’s status as a meeting place for teenagers in the 1980s and ‘90s, just as they were the strutting stage for flâneurs in Bourbon France.

There are many others, from the stirring civic monuments of Daniel Burnham to the conspicuous eco-consumption of Britain’s Lord Foster. Graham handles all this subject matter deftly, and presents it with relative evenhandedness. His allegiances are predictable and apparent—suburban forms are derided in the typical ways, while the defects of New Urbanism and ecological design are attributed to unscrupulous real estate developers betraying the revolution—but not distracting.

Graham’s choice of the term “field guides” is apt. Dream Cities is a field manual, or an especially lively introductory textbook to an interesting field of study. I recommend it highly to dabblers, urban explorers, and the chronically curious.