Ideal Cities: Utopianism and the (Un)Built Environment by Ruth Eaton

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Posted 2005-10-05

People PlacesBook Notes by John December

This large-format, coffee-table-style book with heavy paper and lush illustrations, like its subject matter, looks good on paper and is fun to think about, but impractical for carrying about in the everyday world. The impracticality of ideal cities is not lost on the author. Introducing the first chapter, Eaton states: "The history of ideal-city design... [is marked by] the belief that it can ignore natural contextual conditions, often in the name of conformity to universal laws to whose secret solution only an élite holds the key" (p. 10). The rest of this book consists of variations on this theme in a stunning display of thousands of years of unbuilt cities that seem to reject, ignore, distort, or mock all the aspects of cities that people actually seemed to love.

The book overflows with illustrations including all the usual suspects: Albrecht Dürer's squares and circles that look like cross-sections of machinery, fortified city fantasies made out many-pointed and absolutely symmetric interiors, cities that look like medallions (p. 77), quilts (p. 86, p. 89, p. 92, p. 93, p. 104, etc.) wedding cakes (p. 129), and Ebenezer Howard's relentless wheel-and-spoke tinkertoy (p. 149). Most frightening are the vast, empty spaces of Hilberseimer (p. 177) and Le Corbusier (p. 205) who seemed obsessed by large-scale buildings arranged in fierce symmetry and surrounded by enormous, inhuman, heart-stopping, merciless open space. These latter diagrams of the modernists would be charming curiosities if they would not have devastated twentieth century urban life (See for example Global City Blues).

It seems to me that this book works best as a cautionary tale. As many writers on urban issues have shown, what makes cities ideal is often the human-scale reality that is not ideal: small-scale, diverse, intricate, and oftentimes messy features that support ineffable human experiences and which cannot be captured by a diagram of fearful symmetry.

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2024-05-14 · John December · Terms ©