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The City Shaped: Urban Patterns and Meanings Through History

by Spiro Kostof

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368470,791 (3.81)3
Examination of the universal phenomenon of the city from a historical perspective, considering how and why cities took the shape they did.

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The story of the how and why of cities - their importance and place in civilization. In some sense they are civilization. The organization is topical divided into the city as "artifact" and the history of the city. I found this book one that is great to dip into from time to time to augment my understanding of historic periods and the overall development of civilization. ( )
  jwhenderson | Apr 25, 2022 |
As a history of urban forms, The City Shaped is full of a lot of interesting insights into how and why various planners (both public and private) have chosen certain layouts for cities, and how human patterns of usage both are and aren't shaped by the forms those planners have tried to choose for them. As an example, the grid pattern has been both praised and criticized for seemingly contradictory things - it supposedly either constrains human behavior and forces them into lifeless, regimented order; or it's an efficient, predictable substrate that encourages growth, simplifies transportation, and democratizes the cityscape. Not that forms are completely neutral, but humans are a lot more adaptable then any other animal, which is why our civic forms don't play the same role that the honeycomb does to the hive. Kostof has a dizzying array of examples of how seemingly similar patterns can result in very different cityscapes, in the same culture and even in the same city. Take boulevards, which used to be primarily roads marking the boundary between city and country before they became synonymous with avenues: Berlin's aristocratic Unter den Linden contrasts with its socialist-era Stalinallee as well as Vienna's bourgeois Ringstrasse, to say nothing of Paris' monumental Champs-Elysée, Chicago's commercial paradise of the Magnificent Mile, or New York's Broadway.

This two-way street (sorry) between people and urban building blocks informs the organization of the book. Kostof will take a topological concept, like that of the "organic plan" (as opposed to that soulless grid; ironically, deliberately "organic" patterns usually require much more advance planning than a grid, and as a result put more constraints on the lives of residents), describe its typical usage and variations throughout history, and enumerate examples of how different societies have used that idea, what it meant to them, and what the eventual effects were on the lives of the people who had to live in the end product. Small things, like Baron Hausmann's attempts to make the facades of Parisian buildings consistent, as they are to this day, can be looked at as either heavy-handed government conformity projects or as as insightful bit of forethought that has given the city such a famous, beloved aspect that it's literally illegal to change it now. Some of the best and most interesting parts were where Kostof examined utopian ideals of planning, which have a long history dating back to Plato's Republic and even before. He drew an interesting parallel between plans intended for surveillance, like Jeremy Bentham's famous Panopticon, and the radial plans of settlements where where power was designed to be at the center. What is it that makes designers of social systems think that they need to design cities as well? What makes them think it will be effective?

The book seem to jump around and digress a bit, since it's organized by urban form, but it's no less interesting for it. You see repeatedly cities designed as market towns, military camps, defensive bastions, population overflow catchments, religious centers, administrative capitals, communes, ports, and all sorts of things trying to find their identity while being prodded from all directions, and the way that cities grow and change over time is really interesting to see, especially with all the neat illustrations. Unfortunately the book has a really bad and weak ending - Kostof hates skyscrapers and lauds attempts to reduce them, in passages as meaningless as they are full of high-flown rhetoric. He puts in a lot of confused ideological-aesthetic verbiage about how skyscrapers are symbols of the excesses of capitalism and how they destroy the character of cities. I personally think that skyscrapers not only look really cool, they are incredibly useful for allowing large numbers of people to get together and make livings without having to sprawl out in all directions. Kostof does not deign to actually run any numbers on how expensive and environmentally damaging his anti-skyscraper stance is, but if you stop reading before that section or just stick to looking at its pictures you will have read a very interesting and comprehensive survey on an underappreciated topic. You certainly won't look at the next plaza you see in the same way again. ( )
  aaronarnold | May 11, 2021 |
Possibly best in field. ( )
  clifforddham | May 22, 2015 |
"Spanning the ages and the globe, Spiro Kostof explores the city as a "repository of cultural meaning" and an embodiment of the community it shelters. Widely used by both architects and students of architecture, The City Shaped won the AIA's prestigious book award in Architecture and Urbanism. With hundreds of photographs and drawings that illustrate Professor Kostof's innovative ideas, this has become one of the most important works on urbanization." From Amazon. ( )
  clifforddham | May 22, 2015 |
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Examination of the universal phenomenon of the city from a historical perspective, considering how and why cities took the shape they did.

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