Friday, August 12, 2005


Book Review: The New Civic Art

The New Civic Art: Elements in Town Planning (2003), By Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Robert Alminana is essentially an updated version of The American Vitruvius: An Architect's Handbook of Civic Art (1922), which is one of the most well-known architecture books ever to be published. It is my opinion that over time The New Civic Art should not lag far behind, and that every planner, architect, or active minded citizen - young and old - should be exposed to the principles that are rediscovered and deeply explored in this seminal text.

The ambitious project that is The New Civic Art includes over 1,000 written entries and more than 1,200 illustrations, which display the best, and sometimes the worst, examples of urban planning from around the world. All of which are treated as important historical documents to be carefully examined by the reader, just as each plan, theory, and diagram was carefully critiqued and reviewed by the authors.

Some of the documents are well known, such as Ebenezer Howard's garden city number 5 diagram or Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Musuem in Bilbao, while others probably have not been uncovered and considered for their grace, efficacy, and contribution to the always evolving urban form in quite some time. The first thing that comes to mind as an example of the latter are the U.S. Housing Corporation public housing projects, which were built during the post-World War I era and were the United States' first attempt at producing public housing. These first attempts at public housing in America shame the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) projects of the 1960's and 1970's, most of which are widely considered to be failures. They also serve as the inspiration for the soon to be defunct (Thanks G.W.) Hope VI projects that have managed to repair much of the urban fabric that was destroyed so ruthlessly by the HUD projects.

Within the book's 369 pages, Duany et. al. were remarkably able to cover every theory, plan, diagram, and practicioner with an honesty and a veracity that only those at the top of the field could produce. The care and clarity from which the authors write make it seem almost impossible that we as a society could even make planning mistakes today. I guarantee that even the most seasoned and skilled architect/planner could take something positive away from this book, and that they should add this new found knowledge, or newly rediscovered knowledge to their own practice.

I believe that the greatest strength of The New Civic Art is that it proves that before we ever look forward, we must always stop and look back to learn from history so that we can adapt and build the kind of places that we all deserve to live in. To me, this is an important lesson, and one that those in the planning field should always remember. Just think of all those amazing places that everyone loves to visit - Paris, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Boston, Charleston etc. -now think of the basic principles that made each place possible. We don't have to reinvent the wheel, we just have to look at it again, and that is exactly what Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Robert Alminana have done in The New Civic Art, and they have done it masterfully. This is a book worth owning, and one that I know that I will continually refer to for the rest of my professional career.

Sounds good, I might have to pick it up.

I just finished Suburban Nation not long ago, also by the same author, and although I am not a planner, I am an avid urbanist, and so do you think this bok would be interesting for non-planning professionals as well?
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