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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Better Cities, Better Lives

Two books on buildings and design

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Although our lives would be poorer for it, we could live without paintings, music or theater. But we can’t survive without buildings. Architecture and the design of the places we inhabit exert a continual influence on our wellbeing as well as being essential to our existence. A pair of fascinating recent books explores the built environment and what can be done to improve our lives within it.

In Happy City: Transforming our Lives through Urban Design (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), journalist Charles Montgomery takes his cue from a former Bogotá, Columbia, mayor-turned-international urbanist, Enrique Peñalosa. Most of Earth’s inhabitants live in cities, whose pollution drives climate change, and whose congestion and traffic causes anxiety and depression even in affluent quarters. Peñalosa preaches a new gospel of urban renewal, which in piecemeal fashion is being adopted in many cities. Says Peñalosa, urban dwellers benefit from beauty, bike trails, walking paths, public concourses, less reliance on motorcars and a reversal of the trend toward privatization. Happy City is a well-deserved thumb in the eye of the car-driven theory behind America’s urban sprawl.

A comparable sensibility informs architect Witold Rybczynski’s engaging tour of cities and buildings, How Architecture Works: A Humanist’s Toolkit (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). The author begins with a thrust against “the impenetrable poststructuralist jargon” of many contemporary star architects. Buildings are not made for the amusement of theorists, Rybczynksi insists. “Gothic cathedrals were not built for architecture buffs or the cognoscenti but for the medieval man in the street.” If architecture serves any purpose beyond the purely functional, it must speak to a broad audience. Quoting another authority, he compares architects to theater producers, directing the setting for our lives. Rybczynski is catholic in his tastes, but expresses amusement over much of what once passed for dogma, including excessive Victorian ornamentation, white-walled Modernism and the “cold, ponderous concrete creatures” of the ’60s Brutalists.