Book Review: Defining Urban Design – CIAM Architects and the Formation of a Discipline 1937-69

The link takes you to the original article, but since it is a pain in the neck to register, a full transcript below.


CIAM and Urban Design at Harvard (As it was taught under J.L. Sert) were attempts to unify architecture, urban planning and landscape architecture, drawing from science and the visual arts. I’d be hard pressed to think of an equivalent today, as a matter of fact, I think it is about time that innovative architects and urban planners from all over the world have a platform again in which work can be shared, solutions can be discussed and governments can be taken on.

The books by Eric Mumford on CIAM and on Urban Design are important and nuanced records of the problems these laudable initiatives encountered and why these organizations ceased to exist.

Book Review: Defining Urban Design - CIAM Architects and the Formation of a Discipline 1937-69


Tracing the influence of urban design and CIAM architects

Defining urban design: CIAM Architects and the formation of a discipline, 1937-1969
Eric Mumford
Yale University Press, 262pp, HB, £35
Review by Thomas Wensing for BD, 18 September 2009

An analysis of the development of urban design in Eric Mumford’s new book highlights our current failings

My first encounter with the work of Eric Mumford was his book The CIAM Discourse on Urbanism, 1928-1960, a historical account of the rise and fall of the CIAM movement, challenging the stereotypical views surrounding this important avant-garde association of architects. Defining Urban Design expands this historical reappraisal to the American context and it shows in great detail how CIAM doctrine was received, expanded and finally worked into the curriculum at Harvard University as “urban design”.

Urban design was the creation of Josep Lluis Sert, CIAM president (1947-1956) and dean of the Graduate School of Design (1953-1970). It was an attempt to unify architecture, urban planning and landscape architecture, drawing from science and the visual arts. The historiography of Mumford again succeeds in unnerving some of the prevailing prejudices against modern city planning and reveals how many of the token issues normally associated with post-modern urbanism, such as the preservation of urban city centres, criticism of sub-urbanisation and sprawl, and even a budding environmentalism, originated here.

After the disbandment of CIAM in 1959 the centre of gravity shifted to the United States, where the urban design conferences continued to be the platform for lively debate, critical reflection and healthy and sometimes unhealthy acrimony until the seventies.

Mumford explains that urban design was hugely influential in the formulation of curriculums across the US, and thus in shaping generations of architects, urban designers and planners alike.

So far so good, but since then the urban problems have continued to escalate and we still fail to come to terms with “spontaneous urbanisation”, environmental degradation and the homogenisation of cities under the pressure of private and global capital, to name but a few. The urban challenge has only increased and the power to steer urban developments lessened.

In the Harvard Design Magazine in 2006, it was Richard Marshall who diagnosed that urban designers had illusions of power while real power was wielded elsewhere. The powers guiding urban growth are diffuse and for the most part driven by economic, social and political pressures. The perhaps reductive and too formal view of urban design, such as was offered as an alternative at both CIAM and the urban design conferences of Harvard, was thus destined to become an academic exercise.

Peabody Terrace at Harvard University, designed by Josep Lluis Sert.

These issues are the ones I would have liked to have seen addressed in even more depth by the book. Even though I realise that this book is meant as a historical account of the development of “urban design” at Harvard and its relationship to CIAM, it is the question of how to move forward that haunts me.

For me, Mumford’s book reads as an implicit critique of the status quo, that is to say it makes the absence of public platforms in which professionals discuss, analyse and address these issues acutely felt.

I am grateful that Mumford reminds us that there was a time when professionals tried to analyse problems and steer developments in a more positive and progressive direction.


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About thomaswensing

Architect and Activist. Over the years I have become increasingly aware that I need to actively engage with the issues I care about. My passions and irritations are many and change often, but a red thread is always a deep concern over the fact that capitalism does not work as it is claimed it does, democracies only serve the needs of the few and environmental resource depletion and pressures continue to mount. I think it is time for citizen's activism to create pressure, to bang on the doors of established powers and interests until we get it right. As you will notice, if you continue to follow my blog over time, there are certain fetishes I have; modernism, social housing, the avant-garde. I propose to recuperate the Modern Project from the dustbin of history and re-establish the link between social engagement and architecture. Watch it all come down needs to be followed by let the good stuff blossom!

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