The Eternally Sprawling City
by Virginia Postrel • Dec 10, 2005 at 4:38 pm
The LAT's Scott Timberg profiles architectural historian Robert Bruegmann, author of the provocative new book Sprawl: A Compact History. I've long been a fan of Bruegmann's dynamist approach to cities. His emphasis on evolution and adaptation comes in part from his background in art history, rather than urban planning or architecture. From Timberg's profile:
Bruegmann has always been interested in the built environment and urban change. "When I went to study this," he says by phone from Chicago, "I went to a department of art history, because that's where people talked about architecture. It probably wasn't the most logical place for me to go, because when I got there I had to learn about Nativity scenes and the Madonnas of 15th century Florence.
"However, it gave me something that I think is invaluable: a broad panorama of what people have thought about aesthetics over the last couple of thousand years. And because a lot of social scientists don't have that, they're often very puzzled by arguments that truly are aesthetic and metaphysical in nature but are disguised as being pragmatic and about objective things."
He's a historian of the beautiful, documenting something often taken as the height of ugliness. And the issue, he says, really is aesthetic at base. "And aesthetic judgments are not very susceptible to explanation or argument. That's why it's so hard to talk about."
Part of what's startling about the book is its defiance of the idea that sprawl was birthed in the postwar U.S.: Sprawl is not just bad but "American bad," architecture critic Witold Rybczynski writes in a recent Slate review, blaming it, with tongue in cheek, for everything from McMansions to the disappearance of countryside to an oil-driven Gulf War. "Like expanding waistlines, it's touted around the world as an example of our profligacy and wastefulness as a nation."
But Bruegmann's book is grounded in a history lesson--one that finds the roots of present-day Houston, Atlanta and Los Angeles in Augustan Rome or Restoration London. People of means, he writes, have always tried to get some distance from urban centers, often inhabiting villas outside city walls.
"I'm sure you would have found it in the very first city ever established," he says. "Living in cities has almost always been unpleasant and unhealthy--not something most people wanted. If you were in imperial Rome, crowded into dark, dingy, polluted apartment buildings, it would have been a nightmare. Most cities I looked at had just crushing density until about the 18th century."
Timberg's profile also makes the never-repeated-too-often point that the densest metropolis in America is Los Angeles. Just because the city goes on and on and on doesn't mean you can't find just about anything you want, not to mention thousands and thousands of people, within a short walk.