Vital Little Plans:
The Short Works of Jane Jacobs
Samuel Zipp and Nathan Storring, editors
Random House, 2016
Reviewed by Ian Baldwin
In 1864, George Perkins Marsh, a Vermonter serving as the ambassador to Italy, published Man and Nature. Its novel thesis was that human activity was inherently destructive to the environment. Marsh argued for active safeguarding of resources for future generations; a century later, Silent Spring, the Clean Air Act, and Earth Day marked the main-streaming of environmentalism.
Urbanism’s equivalent to Marsh must date from Jane Jacobs’ landmark study The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961. If so, we’re a bit over the halfway mark between her landmark study and the hopeful day when society at large acknowledges the necessity of an urban future. No better time, then, for Vital Little Plans, fresh and compelling reportage from Jacobs’ life and work outside that famous book.
Death and Life was a self-described “attack on current city planning and rebuilding” (and a brave declaration for an author whose day job was editing Architectural Forum). Its keen record of life in Greenwich Village showed how streets, stoops, shops, and sidewalks, imagined as a site of immigrant and bohemian otherness, were instead well-oiled parts of a machine spinning normalcy and economic vitality out of a crowd of strangers.
After its publication, Jacobs and many other activists continued to fight the city’s plans to drive new roadways through the Village, a complicated dance reduced in retrospect to a Jacobs-versus-Moses title bout. But she left New York City in 1969 for Toronto, when her draft-age sons announced their intent to go to jail rather than join the fight in Vietnam.
Well before her 2006 death, a Jacobs cult formed around the ever-relevant Death and Life, trapped beneath the amber coating laid down by hundreds of articles, exhibitions, and books. (Two new biographies this year finally pushed the number of books about Jane Jacobs past those by her.) Her post–Death and Life writing evolved well beyond micropolitan study; in seven books she trained her intellect on the political, moral, and economic systems that had always underlaid her urban explorations. Vital Little Plans is the first anthology of Jacobs’ short works and a most useful tour of her thinking throughout her career.
Its contents range from 1930s pieces for Vogue, which see Jacobs pounding the pavement of Manhattan’s floral and jewelry districts, to a 2004 speech positing the end of a “Plantation Age.” From arriving in Depression-era New York at age 18 to work odd jobs and catch the odd byline to an endowed lecture at the city’s leading public university, was a run of remarkable success and length, but as Vital Little Plans reveals, it was always powered by the same hard-charging, unconventional intellect. Jacobs didn’t want to impose her ideas on others. She wanted to find the answers to some very basic questions about how and why cities and economies work.
Editors Samuel Zipp and Nathan Storring could not be better suited. Zipp’s Manhattan Projects delved into the midcentury urban renewal that forged Jacobs, and Storring’s hometown knowledge of Toronto fleshes out battles against expressways and amalgamation in the city where Jacobs spent half her life. Their textual interventions are frequent but erudite.
Again and again, the book shows Jacobs’ fearlessness, her ability to wield a prose shotgun of counterintuition to cut down conventional absurdity. She was never a radical yet gives no quarter. This might be the problem Jacobs poses to contemporary urban design, whose studios always feature Jacobs on the reading list but never on the boards. Her view of the city as a gradual and granular process is compelling, but hard to realize in the face of regulatory regimes and real-estate economics. Reading Vital Little Plans, we can at least nod our heads and cast our minds to 2061, thinking, “What would Jane do?”
MIT: The Campus Guide
Princeton Architectural Press, 2016
Reviewed by David Fixler FAIA
The reader who expects short descriptions and scripted walks in this architectural guide is in for a surprise: What Douglass Shand-Tucci has done is frame the history and architecture of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as an apotheosis — and an affirmation, to his way of thinking — of the Boston Brahmin culture that undergirds its beginnings and persists in subtle ways to this day.
The guide is structured first as a series of “portals” themed to Boston’s artistic and intellectual life, followed by a number of walks. Almost half is devoted to the history and atmosphere that surrounded MIT founder William Barton Rogers, who set about building an institution that would “overtop all the universities of the land” with its unique mix of hands-on technical learning coupled with a grounding in the liberal arts. The author describes the culture and early history of MIT as part of an ensemble of institutions birthed in the crucible of the newly reclaimed land around Copley Square. This “Acropolis of the New World,” as it was dubbed by Bostonians in the late-19th century, is to Shand-Tucci both the font and the physical and intellectual heart of American modernity: institutions envisioned and built by a culture that represented a progressive, intellectually entrepreneurial view of America in the world.
The story of MIT’s move to Cambridge in the early-20th century is well told. William Welles Bosworth’s Main Group, a Neoclassical “Great White City on the Charles,” is also themed as extending a Brahmin ethos manifested in the austere simplicity of the Boston Granite Style, which becomes more overtly Greek in the architecture of Harvard Medical School and the Museum of Fine Arts — both institutions that originally shared Copley Square with MIT. The planning work of John Ripley Freeman — an engineer who adhered to the latest models of workplace efficiency advanced by Frederick Winslow Tayor — was then turned by Bosworth into a sublime work of architecture.
The Main Group anchors an ensemble that, indeed, is unlike that at any other university on the planet, and though the natural references are made to Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia, to me there is an almost humbling power in Bosworth’s design that is most analogous to the visionary, severe — and explicitly sublime — projects of Étienne Louis Boullée; had he wished it, this might have been Boullée’s university.
MIT’s embrace of innovation extended to an enlightened patronage of Modern architecture in the immediate postwar era, when the West Campus was developed as a locus of student life and cultural activity. This began in 1946 with the hiring of Alvar Aalto to design Baker House and was followed closely by Eero Saarinen’s Kresge Auditorium and the MIT Chapel, creating, as Shand-Tucci rightly notes, an ensemble of three of the premier works of Modernism in America.
The importance of MIT’s architectural patronage becomes a major theme of the last walks of the guide, with an extended discourse on the legacy of I. M. Pei (four buildings), MIT’s “Grand Projets” undertaken between 1998 and 2004 that produced works by Charles Correa, Steven Holl, Frank Gehry, and Fumihiko Maki, and the extensive network of public art placed throughout the campus.
Shand-Tucci relentlessly returns to the Brahmin theme, which he posits in recent years extends to the likes of Pei and author Jhumpa Lahiri (who has featured MIT in her books), and to the outsized role that MIT, Harvard, and the research community largely spawned by these institutions have had in the arc of the history of Modern architecture and of the Modern world. There are some notable omissions — such as the works of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill — but he is a lively and engaging author, and if one is willing to accept his thesis and to allow for some minor errors of fact (or perhaps stretching of truths), it makes for an informative and entertaining read.
Now I Sit Me Down: From Klismos to Plastic Chair: A Natural History
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016
Reviewed by Galen Cranz
Now I Sit Me Down is for connoisseurs — those who like to know things rather than think critically about them. Witold Rybczynski shares his knowledge of the history of chairs, organized thematically rather than chronologically, in an amiable and inviting way. He has convincingly demonstrated in the case of the chair — as in his other books on design — how material objects manifest a web of practical, social, artistic, and business activities. But if you are interested in the idea that “sitting is the new smoking,” this is not your book.
Rybczynski takes a natural history approach, usually saved for topics in which no theory yet exists. He downplays theses that chairs historically served primarily to differentiate social status and that the human body is harmed by prolonged chair sitting, even though he acknowledges that “status and sitting furniture are never far apart” and an epidemiological study linking chair sitting with premature mortality.
His approach leads readers to believe that no controversies exist regarding the material culture of chairs. On the contrary. His social history of the chair overlooks one detail about the triclinium: the three-sided banquet couch was for men only initially, but later its use changed to include women. Further, in his chapter on side chairs, Rybczynski misses the genius of the choir stall, about which he discusses only its boxy shape. The seat of those stalls is on a hinge; when flipped up, its specially carved underside serves as a perch, halfway between sitting and standing, identical to what NASA calls “neutral body posture.” Most important, several behavior researchers have demonstrated that long hours of sitting increases the risk of back pain, heart attack, stroke, and cancer.
Rybczynski does not embrace the idea that physiological well-being could be the basis for chair analysis and evaluation, even though in earlier writing he points out that comfort is a value missing from architectural education. His definition shifts, but, like most contemporaries, he assumes comfort means something like yielding ease rather than structural alignment or strengthening. He also assumes that a stool must be uncomfortable to use for any length of time because it has no back. (My own research, outlined in The Chair, demonstrates that using chair backs is precisely what has weakened our core muscles to the point that we need back support.) When one does not want to rethink the effects on the body of what the scholar Wayne Constantineau described as the impotence of the seated posture — neither standing and ready for action nor reclined for restoration — then one incorrectly assumes that earlier peoples who walked, rode horses, and squatted shared our culturally induced weaknesses.
Rybczynski acknowledges the intrinsic difficulties of postures midway between standing up and lying down — a subtle, implicit argument that the chair is not to blame; rather, it’s the interplay between gravity and the human body. Gravity is the field within which humans evolved, and astronauts in outer space suffer without it, so gravity is not the problem; how we design — or fail to design — with it remains a test of our collective/cultural design intelligence.
Aside from these points regarding historical details and body consciousness, Rybczynski’s general themes and attitudes are well founded: Chairs are as much about behavior as about artifacts; the chair is not natural; and it is both a practical tool and a work of art.