The Seduction of Place: The History and Future of Cities

Joseph Rykwert

Published by Vintage, 2002
ISBN 10: 0375700447 / ISBN 13: 9780375700446
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Synopsis: No other place on earth is as full both of promise and of dread as the city; it is at once alienating and exciting. These concentrations of people have not, however, come about as the result of vast immutable, impersonal forces, but because of human choices. The worsening or betterment of urban life will also be the result of choices. Our choices.

That cities display and represent the personal desires of their inhabitants is central to Joseph Rykwert’s argument in The Seduction of Place. Insisting that they are the physical constructs of communities, he travels through history to trace their roots in ancient times and outlines current attempts and future possibilities to improve the metropolis. Rykwert includes a broad range of urban landscapes: 18th-and 19th-century Paris and London, the current sprawl of Mexico City and Cairo, planned cities like Brasilia, and, finally, New York, the world capital.

Always opinionated and often controversial, Rykwert assesses how and why urban projects from the past succeeded or failed and what lessons can be drawn from them for the future. Ultimately, The Seduction of Place is a deeply felt and powerfully reasoned call for a commitment by every citizen to the creation of a more humane place to live.

Review: The subtitle to this, the tenth book by architecture professor (and lively writer) Joseph Rykwert--namely, "The City in the Twenty-First Century and Beyond"--is a whopping misnomer. It is only in the final chapter that Rykwert pays attention (and briskly, even then) to urban developments of recent years and to what we might expect in the 100 years to come. What this book really is, despite what its subtitlers intended, is at once a broad-ranging and satisfyingly detailed social history of some of the great cities of the modern world (mostly the Western one, with a marked emphasis on the two cities Rykwert calls home--New York and London--plus Paris) and an inquiry into how well they have served the material and spiritual lives of the people who inhabit them.

Ranging comfortably and coherently back and forth between the Old World and the New, Rykwert begins with the Industrial Revolution, its factories, the throngs of poor country people that flooded the cities to work in them, and the subsequent 150-year challenge faced by urban centers to house, transport, and entertain these throngs cheaply, space-consciously, and hygienically. But Seduction of Place is not so much a people's history of the city as it is a vibrantly researched and chronicled play-by-play of the big public--and some private--works of the major metropolises. The book also tackles the luminaries--including Haussmann, Olmstead and Vaux, L'Enfant, and Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand (who pioneered the enduring school of axial planning at Paris' Ecole Polytechnique)--whose names are often uttered in the same breath as the parks, boulevards, and edifices they brought to life.

Social critics like Tocqueville, Marx, Engels, Fourier, and Ruskin are just as well-represented here, however, ably providing the basis for Rykwert's persistent question of what cities ought to be and how responses to that have diverged and evolved over the years, apart from what they have become, for better or ill, and how they got that way. Even though the book takes a more or less familiar course through the 20th century--from the emergence of subways, skyscrapers, and modernism through postwar urban planning, suburban sprawl, and subsequent urban decay and attempts at renewal--Rykwert knows when to dart away from well-known people, places, and things to chronicle the planning of lesser-known English "New Towns" or of distinctly 20th-century cities like New Delhi, Islamabad, Australia's Canberra, and--rather famously--Brasilia, the ultimate "zoned" city.

The final chapter pays the requisite nod to the postmodernist implications of, for example, Celebration, Florida, (Disney's controversial new spin on the "company town") but is really distinguished by Rykwert's startlingly on-the-mark reading of how such wildly popular mega-museums as the new international Guggenheim franchise (with Gehry's Bilbao "branch" currently eclipsing Wright's New York "flagship") have come to best personify the encroachment of corporate globalization in the urban civic realm. It is a fitting conclusion for a book that manages so gracefully to wed an engrossing history of urban growth with the deeper intellectual, cultural, and ethical questions it raises--the very questions that the speculators, preservationists, and "ordinary citizens" will still have to answer in creating and sustaining the great cities of the 21st century. --Timothy Murphy

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Title: The Seduction of Place: The History and ...
Publisher: Vintage
Publication Date: 2002
Binding: Paperback
Book Condition: New
Edition: Reprint.

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