The Scenes of the Street and Other Essays
Monacelli Press, $50
Twenty years ago, before the Internet democratized access to the international stock of used books, I spent a good deal of time combing the aisles of the late, lamented Barnes and Noble Sales Annex on Fifth Avenue and 18th Street. There I cobbled together an enviable library of canonical books on architecture and urbanism at a price even a poor graduate student could afford.
With the arrival of Anthony Vidler’s new collection of essays, and its inclusion of Vidler’s magisterial text on the transformation of urban European contexts under the influence of industrialization, I was transported back to the day I found a used copy of the Stanford Anderson-edited volume On Streets (1986). That text, which lends its title to Vidler’s new volume codified for me an understanding of a city not merely as a series of episodic and discontinuous moments, nor points on a teleological chain, but as a palimpsest—an organic entity straining under the weight of its accumulated histories even as they mutate, degrade, and revive. This new essay collection represents Vidler’s extended meditations on what he broadly calls “modern urban planning,” considered as contiguous with modern architecture (a topic that he considers separately elsewhere) and as that function of architectural practice embodied by architects when they work on an urban scale.
Vidler claims that these two “disciplines”—planning and architecture—cannot be treated as separate, yet the emphasis here is definitely more on the macro-scale of urban spatial typologies than on the micro-scale of the isolated building. His project, however, is so much richer than merely parsing a legacy of historical precepts. Within a single paragraph of the preface, he interchangeably uses the terms “analyses of cities,” “history of urbanism,” “modernist planning,” and “town planning,” leading the less curious of readers to assume that these all are identical. In fact, the topic of Vidler’s collection is all of the aforementioned and more, grouped under the curiously untranslatable French term urbanisme with all of its implicit and complicated discursive frameworks.
Few late-twentieth century figures possess Vidler’s erudition across such a broad historical range (notable exceptions include Kurt Forster, Jean-Louis Cohen, Robin Middleton, and the late Manfredo Tafuri) and such a fundamental grasp of applied theory, both on proud display here. Each essay is a miniature study unto itself—as so few other essay collections are—while the intellectual strands that bind them arise with limpid alertness.
As an architectural historian with feet firmly planted in social history, Vidler (like his contemporary, the late Reyner Banham) departed from the formalism of his mentor, Colin Rowe, in order to expose the intellectual, social, and aesthetic foundations of modern urbanism. In a text from 2000 entitled “Photourbanism: Planning the City from Above and from Below,” Vidler draws on the work of geographer-ethnologist Paul Chombart de Lauwe whose aerial photography from the 1940s confirmed for Le Corbusier his persistent belief in the primacy of the view from above. As Vidler writes, “The aerial view of a city, indeed, is, in Chombart’s terms, the only means of developing a synthetic vision of its social space.” Here, Vidler brilliantly uncovers the intertwined logic of social relations and their invisible yet implicit mapping onto the conventionalized bird’s eye view of the urban designer.
While his excellent monograph on Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, and The Writing of the Walls (1987), on the architecture of the late Enlightenment, represent the superb quality of his scholarship in the long form, Vidler’s essays have always been, for me, his most captivating and substantial contributions to architectural discussions on the topics of the last 250 years. The popularity of The Architectural Uncanny (1994) revealed to a larger public what many of us already knew, namely that he was likewise a contemporary critic of the highest order (and not just an 18th-century French scholar). Warped Space (2000) confirmed this suspicion and gave us, in its long first section, one of the most important social histories of the urban experience as it radically altered under modernization.
The new collection contains only a small part of that discussion and yet provides the reader with an equally valuable compendium of texts drawn from Vidler’s urban histories, with a range of topics stretching from Blaise Pascal’s horror vacui to Guy Debord’s détournement. He has arranged these essays (some of which are better known than others, such as “The Idea of Unity and Le Corbusier’s Urban Form,” his attempt to situate Corbusier in the long legacy of French social utopianism) chronologically not by publication date but by subject matter, thus allowing the reader to consider them anew, in the context of an extended inquiry into the principles of modern urbanism.
I hesitate to end with a quibble, yet in a certain respect it seems apt: the book has no index. Was this omission an economic decision? Or did it arise from the sense that more people than not will encounter the text in an infinitely searchable digital version, rendering the conventional index obsolete? What does this say about the epistemology of received forms, of the topographies of information, about the reader’s relationship to the text as a social space? Professor Vidler, one suspects, would have a good deal to say about that.