Witold Rybczynski On The Four Paradigms of American Cities
Bettina B. Cenerelli, Trudeau Foundation
Witold Rybczynski could be described as a public intellectual, a prolific writer of accessible books about houses, cities and urban design. He opened the Trudeau Foundation's conference Cities and the Public Sphere: Rethinking the Urban Commons. with the remark that "one of the advantages of getting old is that you can look back in horror and dismay at some of the things that we did as architects and planners."
He then proceeded to look back at the four paradigms of North American cities, and at how things worked out.
1. The Garden Suburb
The Garden Suburbs, as envisioned by Olmstead with Riverside, were much like modern suburbs, without retail or industry; he considered them part of the city, connected by rail. Rybczynski calls them a huge success, and considers the New Urbanist themed communities their direct descendant.
2. The Ville Radieuse
Although designed by Le Corbusier in the twenties, we had to wait until after World War II to see an explosion of the Radiant City. While it didn't work particularly well for social housing, in cities around the world, from Vancouver to New York to Hong Kong, it packs them in tight, achieving densities and efficiencies unmatched in any other form. Rybczynski considers it a huge success.
Frank Lloyd Wright loved cars and the freedom they brought people, and thought that we no longer needed cities at all. Rybczynski suggests that FLW might not have been a bit disappointed at how it all turned out, but that he was "right about everything except the helicopters."
4. The Jane Jacobs Downtown
Rybczynski calls her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities "arguably the most successful and influential in the second half of the twentieth century." But in the end he is dismissive, noting that only a few cities have the kind of character and energy to make it work, and that it has become incredibly expensive, an urban playground for the rich.
The average American family doesn't want to live in a Jane Jacobs neighbourhood; when you get older you want quiet. But she was young when she was in New York , she was excited when she was in New York. The glamour cities with Jane Jacobs neighbourhoods have a high population but few kids.
It is hard to tell if Rybczynski is being controversial and contentious just to be a better dinner speaker, or if he is serious. But there are many who think that the Disneyland type themed subdivisions that that are a lot of new urbanist projects are not a whole lot better than what they replaced, that Frank Lloyd Wright was completely wrong and that Jane Jacobs neighbourhoods are perfectly good , in fact great, places to raise kids.
But he is an entertaining speaker.