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Living in the Endless City

December 2011
Edited by Ricky Burdett and Devan Sudjic. London: Phaidon Press, 2011, 432 pages, $69.
December 2011

Reviewed by Craig Whitaker

Seldom does a book make me actively angry, but Living in the Endless City did.  When it arrived with the heft and size of a concrete block, I thought it was an architectural sample. Actually, it is  a collection of essays by 38 contributors from conferences on world cities held by the London School of Economics and Deutsche Bank‘s Alfred Herrhausen Society. The book focuses on Mumbai, Sao Paolo and Istanbul. As such, it is a companion piece to an earlier effort published by the same sponsors called The Endless City, which focused on New York, Shanghai, London, Mexico City, Johannesburg, and Berlin. 

Living in the Endless City
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The Introduction alone is 65 pages long, comprised of a forward and three essays. I bristled at the third sentence of the Forward when Wolfgang Novak posited that, “In cities, all of the world’s problems are crowded together in one place.” This assertion immediately brought to mind the issue of water rights on the Nile and the border disputes in Kashmir—both far from any urban center. Already I was plodding ahead with a jaundiced eye. 

Much of the book’s prose is tendentious, academic-speak. As an example, in an essay called “The Economies of Cities,” Saskia Sassen tells us that “[t]here is a parallel obscuring of a second articulation that is a key part of the present economy in today’s global cities. It is between the advanced economic sectors and backward-looking sectors, which are assumed not to belong in an advanced urban economy and thus considered an anachronism.” You will need a strong constitution to keep reading, as well as upper body strength to carry the book around.

The book offers dozens of colored photos, few of which have captions, and many of which are given two-page spreads. Few of these are worth the space; most are quite ordinary—a teacher at the blackboard with attentive students, a cop directing traffic while up to his knees in water.  There is one, however, on page 70, that is spectacular—an aerial view of the Mumbai waterfront with what looks like half the population of India wading into the ocean below.

The graphics of the book are sufficiently disorienting that I found myself often going back and forth to the Table of Contents. For example, the section on cities announces itself by the word “Cities” in bold type spread across two pages. You turn to the next page and there’s the word “Mumbai” in the same bold type also spread across two pages. Did I miss something? It was back to the Table of Contents.

After the essays about the three cities comes a section called Data. These  data may be fascinating to a group playing Endless Cities—Trivial Pursuit, but  they include few edifying statistics  that could guide policy. We learn that the Luwan high-rise district of Shanghai has a peak density of 74,370 people per square kilometer, while Notting Hill in London, a 19th century five- and six-story neighborhood north of Hyde Park has 17,324 people per square kilometer. Occasionally, a statistic jumps out at the reader. Istanbul represents 22 percent of Turkey’s annual GDP while Mumbai represents only 2.9  percent  of India’s.

The final section of the book, called “Reflections,” contains 11 more essays, the most interesting of which for architects and planners is a short piece by Richard Sennett called “Boundaries and Borders.” He reminds us that the late 19th century mantra of segregation and separation of uses—commercial and manufacturing from residential, for example—don’t contribute to the diversity  marking  the world’s more interesting cities. The piece reminds me of the work of the late Kevin Lynch who pioneered the thinking of cities as places of complexity and richness.

Craig Whitaker  is a New York based architect, author and urban designer.

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