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The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition Paperback – January 7, 2003
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From Publishers Weekly
Author and urban gadfly Kunstler (Home from Nowhere; Geography of Nowhere) has graduated from the nowheresville of previous titles to a punchy new study of eight cities in as many chapters: Paris, Atlanta, Mexico City, Berlin, Las Vegas, Rome, Boston, and London. Outspoken and straining for an aphoristic style, Kunstler lacks the overt humanistic impulses of urban studies writers like Jane Jacobs or Lewis Mumford. Instead, he favors snappy observations such as "If Las Vegas truly is our city of the future, then we might as well all cut our throats tomorrow." Kunstler tosses off insults to icons like the distinguished architect I.M. Pei: "Few architects have done as much wholesome damage to any city as the partners I.M. Pei and Harry Cobb did in Boston." He also dips into the unconsciously funny during a stroll through London's Hampstead Heath in which he turns out to be possibly the only urban scholar unaware of its gay cruising grounds, or what Kunstler calls "this somewhat sordid destination." While there are more serious reflections here, the book's generally ill temper is most likely to please readers who want a Don Ricklesian poke-and-prod version of urban affairs. And one is also left wondering what the "urban condition" might be in more easterly world cities.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Library Journal
Cities are good. Suburbs are bad. Paris is good. Las Vegas is bad. Boston? Stay tuned. Kunstler, a vociferous, highly opinionated critic of the urban landscape, takes an uncompromisingly hard look at how eight cities (Paris, Atlanta, Mexico City, Berlin, Las Vegas, Rome, Boston, and London), either through inspired ideas or chaotic greed, became sublime expressions of the human spirit or of gigantic monstrosities and perversion. The subtitle is appropriate, for the author makes little attempt to be systematic or comprehensive in his discussions. Although he never raises the analysis above the level of a popular magazine article, his writing is admittedly bold and thought-provoking throughout. One can learn a great deal about Louis Napoleon's renovation of Paris, Hitler's and Albert Speer's megalomaniac architectural plans for Berlin, Bugsy Segal's "setting the tone" for Las Vegas, and more. The real charm of the book, however, is not Kunstler's rambles through each city's historical and geographical spaces but his plea for a more human-focused urban landscape. For public libraries. Glenn Masuchika, Rockwell Collins Information Ctr., Cedar Rapids, IA
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Kunstler describes the historical evolution of each metropolis as it developed through the geography, culture, personalities, and psychology particular to it. In so doing he provides an explanation for the current condition of each, and attempts a prognosis. In earlier days, Kunstler wrote novels (Embarrassment of Riches, etc.), so he knows how to tell a story. And the story of each of these cities is vivid - so vivid in fact that Kunstler could easily bring his ample literary skills to bear on writing history and do it in a way that would enthrall people who otherwise find it lifeless. For example, the first chapter on Paris describes the massive renovation undertaken by Louis Napoleon and his able administrator Haussmann. Those for whom this era in the life of one of the world's most beloved cities is unknown (like me) will find the fascinating details provided (funding projects via convoluted financial schemes, providing water to the City of Light via Roman-like aqueducts) a revelation. Or read about the institutionalized Aztec cult of human sacrifice and cannibalism for a real eye-opener.
From a broad description of the history of each city, Kunstler increases the resolution, focusing on aspects of urban and architectural design. He provides insight into why and how design principles, primarily the classical rules as developed by the Greeks and Romans, can enhance our surroundings where they are employed, or damage them where they are not. These aesthetic considerations are complemented by Kunstler's appreciation for tougher realities, such as the threats imposed by the peaking of global oil production on places like Las Vegas, or the scarcity of fresh water to places like Mexico City. In any case, his message is clear - we must change our man-made environment or risk those things we value most.
No review would be complete without a mention of the mode of Kunstler's writing style used in the service of exposing the dreadful effects of malconfigured urban and suburban landscapes, a style termed "wickedly mordant" elsewhere. This description is too restrictive: one that I prefer is savagely eloquent, a phrase that captures the uplifting, positive aspects of his writing, while acknowledging his masterful sarcasm. Here's an eloquent example as he stands on a hill in Rome, surveying its ruins: "On the Palatine Hill, time's remorseless power is revealed in the silence that shrouds the enormity of a civilization's destruction and the palpable shock waves that still emanate from its physical residue". Beyond all this, I find his prose simultaneously funny, entertaining, touching, instructive, brutal - astonishingly expressive regardless of the subject - and it makes for marvelous reading.
I made mention earlier of Kunstler's humor, which doesn't do his comedic skills justice; at times his stuff can be hilarious. These laugh-out-loud sections I have taken to reading to my family at their request. Read the description of tourists crossing 150-foot wide thoroughfares in Las Vegas in a sort of modern day "Bataan death march", and you'll know what I mean.
Otherwise get the book and read it for all the reasons I've described. It's a special book, one that can evoke and recognize the tragic, and yet be comedic at the same time - classical in a way. In his Roman chapter, Kunstler asks if the classical can rescue us - his book will certainly help.
For Kunstler, Classicism is light, and all else darkness. This has unfortunate implications for the reader as Kunstler appears incapable of throwing any light on non-Classical architecture, city construction or urban planning, with the possible exception of historic water and sewerage. Since Kunstler's Classicism is of a type driven by building codes mandating building height, style, decoration, materials etc., and is influenced more by the centrally planned city planning fantasies of the Renaissance than by either the architecture or planning of the Renaissance or by the architecture and planning of antiquity, he is unable to say much of anything even about Rome, and is instead forced to launch into an essay on Classicism itself.
Paris by contrast, held on a tight leash by the Classicist regulations Kunstler loves, comes in for much better treatment, and Kunstler's mix of history and commentary yields insights, although he fawns over Napoleon the Third and he fails to treat as significant the poor neighborhoods of Paris. The rest of the book however (Paris is the starting chapter), is opinionated, but completely untethered in it's criticism. Opinionated criticism, even exceedingly biased criticism, can be amusing to read if it is humorous, or even well written, but Kustler simply piles on scarcely related anecdotes against the (many) cities he does not like, along with swearing and other crude invective.
To sum up, this book presents an apologism for a fairly rigid classicism, and unswerving harsh and unbalanced criticim, or at best historical trivia for the rest.