Garden designer and historian Graham (American Eden: From Monticello to Central Park to our Backyards: What Our Gardens Tell Us About Who We Are, 2011, etc.) explores how modern cities were built on foundations made of the fantasies and utopian dreams of individual architects.
The author examines a variety of conceptions of architecture. He shows how building design and city planning have combined to destroy our sense of community, which is the life of any city. In this field guide to architectural styles, Graham provides examples of each style mentioned, represented by particular buildings, neighborhoods, and properties. Photographs and illustrations accompany each section. His heroine is Jane Jacobs, who organized the resistance to Robert Moses' destructive plans in New York in the 20th century. She helped save the community-based neighborhoods of lower Manhattan, including Washington Square, from his proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway. Moses' bulldozers had forced the large-scale relocation of people on behalf of building and city designs promoted by the architects Graham discusses. Among them is the Swiss utopian Le Corbusier, whose skyscraper slabs and open spaces were intended to impose a sense of “order” as seen in New York City's Stuyvesant Town, which opened in 1947. Frank Lloyd Wright's individualized agrarian homestead communities provided a dream of advancement embodied in the uniformity of American suburbs. He sought to “do away entirely with the notion of an urban or even town center, scattering the center’s traditional functions around the landscape.” These and other styles put structure ahead of community, and Graham outlines their common underpinnings, which are often fantastic dreams about recovering lost golden ages or overcoming present chaos with some abstract future order. The author’s spirited defense of Jacobs' successful struggle against Moses points to an alternative in which people and community again became primary.
Graham delivers an intriguing architectural history and an effective antidote to the excesses of urban renewal and city planning.