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William H. Whyte is awesome.

His 1988 classic, City: Rediscovering the Center, is a big book with big ideas–he discusses everything from the use and user-friendly design of plazas to the history of zoning in New York City to the emergence of company campuses (PRE-Garreau’s Edge Cities!) to pretty much everything we think of as contemporary urban design issues.

After so many keen observations, insights, and pronouncements about property city form, however, he concludes with a little bit of self-awareness.  Perhaps pointing out his own hubris is in fact a device which further contributes to it, but it is nevertheless an interesting statement on the role of the researcher in observing human behavior.  The perception of objectivity breaks itself down.

Here’s the final page, and a neat way to end a book:

“Let me append a methodological note.

“I have tried to be objective in this book, but I must confess a bias.  In comparing notes with fellow observers, I find that I share with them a secret vice:  hubris.

“Observation is entrapping.  It is like the scale models architects beguile you with; start lifting off the roofs and you gain the sense of power.  So it is with the observation of a place:  once you start making little maps of it, charting where people come and go, you begin to possess the place.  You do not possess it, of course.  The reality continues to exist quite independent of you or any thoughts you may project onto it.  But you feel you possess it, and you can develop such a proprietary regard for it as to become pettily jealous if anyone else arrogates it.

“A further temptation beckons us.  As time goes on, you become familiar with the rhythms of the various street encounters:  100 percent conversations, prolonged goodbye, reciprocal gestures, straight man and principal.  Now you can predict how they are likely to develop and, by predicting them, get the sense that you are somehow causing them as well.  They are your people out there.  Sheer delusion, of course, but there is nothing so satisfying as to see them all out there on the street doing what you expect they should be doing.

“Three men on the corner are in a prolonged goodbye.  One of them is slowly rocking back and forth on his heels.  No one else is.  At length, the man stops rocking back and forth.  I chuckle to myself.  I know that in a few moments another of the men will take up the rocking motion.  Time passes.  More time passes.  No one budges.  More time passes.  At length, one of the men shifts his weight; slowly, he begins walking back and forth.  I am very pleased with myself.”

William H. Whyte.  City:  Rediscovering the Center.    New York:  Anchor Books, Doubleday,  1988 (1991).


Just got back from a showing of the fully-restored version of Metropolis, accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra (live!), brought to you by the fine people at Cornell Cinema.

Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)The music matched the movie pretty well – staccato militaristic drum, mechanical rhythm, scraping metal-on-metal, some kitschy chimes.  Both were melodramatic but pull you in nonetheless.  It’s been a while since I’ve heard the original score, but I’d venture to say this captures the spirit of the film if not the minute detail of historical accuracy.

Just a brief thought on the film itself.

There is the highly dominant message Lang wants you to leave with:  “THE MEDIATOR BETWEEN THE HEAD AND HANDS MUST BE THE HEART!”  And there’s much to be said about the religious imagery, the portrayal of gender and sexuality vis à vis a woman-robot, etc.

Being a planner, however, I was of course more interested in what it had to say about the city.  One could read the “Mediator” as a planner, a community advocate, a voice bridging gaps between city and (disenfranchised) population.  That seems too easy and “feel good,” though.

Metropolis:  the City as Body as Machine.  On multiple levels, this metaphor plays out among the three.  The city has a Heart machine, a Brain, and (many) Hands, not to mention circulation (and a pleasure center).  Human bodies become machines, whether working in the underground city, contorting to move clock hands or gyrating on a club stage.  The actors themselves have a very mechanical quality, holding poses, stumbling rigidly, pointing to their head or heart to indicate feeling.  The transfer of life from Maria to the Maria-robot begins with the illuminated heart, then circulation system.  And the machine itself becomes a body in the not-so-subtle reference to Moloch (had to look that one up!), consuming other (apparently Phoenician) bodies so that the city functions.  And in the end, the city could only successfully function as an integrated body of head, heart, and hand.

I would love to hear a discussion about this movie in the context of post-war Germany, the large-scale industrialization of the U.S. and Europe in the 19th-early 20th century, the Art Deco and Futurist movements, Berlin in the 20s, and especially compared against Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936).  Did Chaplin see Metropolis?  Was he spoofing it?  How did the Depression change perception of the City-Machine?  And was Metropolis a particular city?  It looked a lot like New York, and certainly not like Berlin or other European cities at the time!  Did Le Corbusier have a hand (ha) in the design?