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Rethinking the American City

Utilizing an innovative framework as an international, interdisciplinary dialogue, the volume provides an inventory of contemporary thought about the American city across a wide range of topics, including the design of transportation systems, workplaces, and housing to public art, urban ruins, and futurist visions.

Rethinking the American City
An International Dialogue

Edited by Miles Orvell and Klaus Benesch. Foreword by Dolores Hayden

2013 | 232 pages | Cloth $47.50
American History / Architecture / Technology and Engineering
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Table of Contents

—Dolores Hayden
—Miles Orvell and Klaus Benesch
Chapter 1. Energy
—David E. Nye
Chapter 2. Sustainability
—Andrew Ross
Chapter 3. The Multicultural City
—Mabel O. Wilson
Chapter 4. Ruins
—Miles Orvell
Chapter 5. Aesthetic Space
—David M. Lubin
Chapter 6. Designing the City
—Albena Yaneva
Chapter 7. Mobility
—Klaus Benesch
Chapter 8. The Digital City
—Malcolm McCullough
Chapter 9. Future City
—Jeffrey L. Meikle

List of Contributors

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Dolores Hayden

In the past two or three decades, researchers from many academic disciplines have explored the history of the built environment, enlarging the history of architecture from the aesthetic study of individual works by well-known architects to the economic, political, social, and cultural analysis of ordinary buildings. Ordinary buildings are shaped by many actors: construction laborers as well as developers, residents as well as landlords, community organizers as well as architects. Everyday buildings are planned, designed, built, inhabited, appropriated, celebrated, despoiled, and discarded over long stretches of time, so study of the built environment may reveal much more about everyday life than the analysis of high-style architecture. Anthropologists and geographers have joined historians of architecture, technology, and cities in research on the built environment, adding the insights of qualitative social science and bringing the geographers' term cultural landscape to the study of places as the combination of natural and built environments.

Many Americans turned away from reading about the built environment in the 1950s and 1960s because they were profoundly disappointed with mass suburbs, interstate highways, and urban renewal. Popular disillusionment only grew as the ruthless demolition of older urban neighborhoods occurred on an unprecedented scale and bad building patterns became commonplace as government subsidies for new construction favored suburban malls, fast-food outlets, and office parks. Academics and practitioners compounded the problem in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s by wrapping discussions of architecture and planning in impenetrable jargon while ignoring the vast influence of the real estate lobby on public policy.
Historians who believe in the possibility of popular reengagement with American places are now trying to interest the public in historic and contemporary sites as the material expression of culture and politics. To that end, the authors in this volume have created a lively interdisciplinary discussion about architecture, technology, and culture, and their efforts are similar to those of organizations founded in recent decades to support broad investigations of the built environment, including the Society for American City and Regional Planning History, the Urban History Association, and the Vernacular Architecture Forum. (Conferences held by these groups regularly attract two or three hundred scholars, and presentations of research may extend beyond academic groups to public humanities venues.) Yet for all the vitality of this field, definitions of key terms such as space, place, public, private, urban, and suburban remain controversial. There are ongoing debates about the most interesting spatial scale to study: is it the building, the neighborhood, the city, the metropolitan region, the nation, or the globe? And how much does analysis of the built environment need to be visual and spatial versus social, economic, or political? Economic questions often provoke highly critical analyses of capitalism, as well as more positive assessments of real estate development as progress. There is much to argue about, especially when contemporary building projects are under scrutiny and questions of public policy may be involved.

The nine essays gathered in this volume respond to these debates and offer diverse ways to approach the history of architecture, technology, and culture in our present time. The authors examine a wide range of topics, from the design of transportation systems, workplaces, and housing to public art, urban ruins, and futurist visions of the city. They utilize many different analytical frameworks for probing specific examples of land use, infrastructure, and building design across the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries. Because the authors conferred and recorded extended conversations about each essay, thoughtful responses follow each piece, expanding the original contributions with pointed questions about definitions of terms and methods of research. There is some sharp disagreement as well as excited accord. The commentaries and the authors' replies (in the dialogue section following each essay) provide the kind of intellectual exchange that often occurs within academic peer-review processes, behind the scenes, before publication.

The concluding section of the book explores some of the common threads in these papers. Narratives of progress are contrasted with narratives of decline. There is a shared concern for analyzing economic, social, and political power, one participant notes. Another reports that "the voices of ordinary people are becoming a little more audible." And a third commends sustained thinking about architecture, technology, and culture, and the ways they interact. While specialists in the history of the American city will enjoy this collection of essays and the provocative dialogue they spark, these investigations of the processes of shaping space will also appeal to readers in many interdisciplinary programs, including American studies, cultural studies, urban studies, visual culture, technology studies, and environmental studies.

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