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Saturday, May 07, 2011

The Language of Towns & Cities: A Visual Dictionary / A Book Review by Eric R. Oath

Where we live and how we go about our lives are intertwined. This book helps understand a whole vision of the rebirth of cities. The following book review appears in Traditional Building Magazine and is reprinted with permission of the author.

A Challenge to Today's Urbanists
The Language of Towns & Cities: A Visual Dictionary
by Dhiru A. Thadani
Rizzoli, New York, NY; 2010
804 pp; hardcover; more than 2,500 photos, drawings & charts; $95
ISBN 978-0-8478-3486-0

Reviewed by Eric R. Osth, AIA, LEED AP

From the moment Dhiru Thadani's book, The Language of Towns & Cities: A Visual Dictionary, landed on my desk, I have been enjoying it immensely and making use of it regularly. It really did 'land' there – all 804 pages and 8 pounds, 11.5 ounces of it. The book is nothing short of a life's work, with an inspiring forward by Leon Krier, and an introduction by AndrĂ©s Duany. The lavish praise it has received thus far is well deserved. So my question for my fellow practitioners is: Now what?

This book is very well organized for simple and easy use. The 'encyclopedic' format allows it to serve as a quick research guide (how many times do you recall paging through the index of Hegemann and Peets' American Vitruvius?) with clear illustrations, photographs and descriptions of towns and cities. It is a pleasure to have access to such a wealth of basic, practical, and even unexpected information within a single book.

The book is organized into 544 comprehensive entries that include: the fun: "Noise and Nostalgia;" the details: "Site Walls" and "Signage;" the practical: "Recycling" and "Roof Forms;" and the basics: "Regulating Plans" and "Rail Transit." Beyond practice-based information, there is also historical information on some of our favorite people in the profession including Jefferson and Jacobs, and documentation of some of our favorite cities like Paris and Rome (what a nice reminder of my semester abroad!).

This book illustrates how the field of urbanism has matured in recent decades. Prior to World War II, there were many books of this type. In the years following the war, symmetrical with a lack of interest in city-building, effective books on urbanism disappeared as well. In the last two decades, urbanists have restored their thirst for documentation and the dissemination of information by producing precedent-based, practical books again.

However, because effective master planning takes years to implement, and because the rebirth of cities has just begun over the past two decades, many recent books in the field are largely comprised of visions for the future. Dhiru's book is especially refreshing because it includes a great body of recently built work, which takes the manual beyond theory and makes it valuable to urban design practitioners working with even the most adventurous clients.

Urban design practitioners endeavor to restore urban environments in the face of incredible obstacles. Design proposals weave competing political, social, aesthetic, financial and environmental interests into a seamless fabric. The best solutions to design challenges are often bold, and having the appropriate information on hand at the right moment is critical to moving forward. We rely on precedent examples to learn, leverage, educate and eventually implement these bold solutions. This book will prove to be an outstanding tool at the core of these efforts.

As I page through the book over and over again, I am reminded of a quote in the introduction to Charles Correa's book Housing and Urbanisation: "As Jaque Robertson has so brilliantly pointed out, you can't design a spare part without understanding what the machine should look like, and you can't conceptualise the overall machine if you can't design a spare part – and that American downtowns (being imported indiscriminately all around the world) is just a bunch of spare parts with no one responsible for the whole machine."

It is true: here in the United States, we are living amongst a bunch of spare parts. And here, in this book, we have a wonderful set of tools to help us understand the machine. Dhiru has provided us with a challenge to use this document to its best effect. So, thank you to Dhiru and your colleagues. The rest is up to us.  TB

Eric R. Osth, AIA, LEED AP, is a principal and Architecture Studio Director at Urban Design Associates in Pittsburgh, PA. He is also president of the Pittsburgh Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

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