A Short Guide To
Architectural Guidebooks

 


 

 

Poetics of Perambulation: The City Observed

lyndon's boston observed    charles moore's LA observed

Probably the most lyrically evocative architectural guides ever created in America, the "The City Observed" series took a cue from English commentators such as Ian Nairn (himself a one-time Pevsner contributor) in approaching the physical urban fabric from the standpoint of a virtual Baudelairian beholder; if the Pevsner guides and their White-Willensky-Gebhard ilk taught us to "perambulate", then these may rightly be deemed "perambulator literature". (Steen Eiler Rasmussen may be the godfather for this kind of sensuous beholding of the built environment--to say nothing of more outclassingly general-purpose "literary travel" literature like Mary McCarthy on Florence and Venice, etc--for that matter, you might as well throw in Ruskin on Venice or any manner of likeminded pre-Pevsnerian or even pre-c20 forebears.) Launched by then-New York Times critic Paul Goldberger with a New York guide in 1979, the series saw two more volumes, by architects Donlyn Lyndon (Boston, 1982) and Charles Moore (Los Angeles, 1984). Unlike the linear, spontaneous guided-tour flow shared by many of this broad genre (some authored by noted scholars, eg. Franklin Toker for Pittsburgh), these do follow the familiar step-by-step, key-entry guidebook format, except that series of gracefully orchestrated and selective mini-essays substitute for the punchy multiplicity of the AIA-NYC/Gebhard capsule entries. The Goldberger volume set an exemplary standard--its bitingly astute prose should have been enough to launch a million architectural critics. (It was a strong influence on my own architectural inclinations; come to think of it, my East/West entries are kind of Goldbergeresque...). Moore's LA guide, meanwhile, is the ripest fulfillment of Reyner Banham's giddy pop-romantic vision of this unique metropolis, an ecstatic Olympic-year swansong for this unfortunately abbreviated series.


In retrospect, there's a cusp-of-an-era poignancy to this series, created when postmodernism and the rediscovery of history was still an eye-opening breath of fresh air and before the public and commentators became jaded by pseudo-Deco skyscrapers, Eisnerian excesses, and other icons of PoMo-run-amok...including, by extension, the bathwater-baby of architecture itself, as well as the fundamentally, autonomously "architectural" way of looking. It was a zenith for the Mumfordian dream of enlightened, uncompromised, balanced public architectural observation (and it's no accident that Goldberger's now wearing Mumford's shoes at The New Yorker); an ideal subsequently curdled into the populist Modern-bashing of Tom Wolfe or Prince Charles, or else too often lapsed into a mushily Rybczynskian populist humanism, or icy design-magazine trendiness, or self-consciously cross-disciplinary sprawl. These guides offer cogent lessons that are, a generation later, simply begging to be rediscovered. (Or maybe the loss of innocence really has been lethal; the most explicit progeny of "The City Observed"--Gerard R. Wolfe's guides to New York and to Chicago--are marked by a teetering-on-middlebrow populist blandness almost in spite of themselves.)

Introduction

Pevsner and WPA

America: the first wave

AIA Guide to New York City

David Gebhard: America's Pevsner

Goldberger, Banham, and Moore (and more).

Buffalo: Vindication

Chicago: Maturity

The Buildings of the United States series

London + Vienna + Berlin = Cartesian Europe

One Vancouver, many Montréals

Toronto: Opportunity

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