The Anxious City

‘The Anxious City: British Urbanism in the late 20th Century’ by Richard J Williams; Routledge, 2004. 281pp

Reviewed by Austin Williams | 28 April 2005

This is a very well researched, incredibly detailed and thoroughly insightful critique of the apprehensive period in which we live represented in a critique of a number of British cities.

Through a series of case studies of cities across the UK, Richard J Williams, lecturer at the Department of History of Art at the University of Edinburgh uses the word ‘anxiety’ to reflect our ambiguous relationship with ‘the urban’ in Britain. On one hand, he explores the anxiety caused by the actual competing interests within a city: like private and public spaces, domestic life versus arenas of consumption. In this way, he is able to explore the unresolved physical and political tensions of everyday urban life. As he says, the way that the English have ‘learned to be anxious in the modern city.’

On the other hand, as a counterpoint to this material expose, he adds a metaphorical dimension, suggesting that our more modern anxieties stem from an established cultural uncertainty about the benefits of urbanity in the first place. ‘The city,’ he argues, ‘was long regarded as an alien phenomenon, from which those that could, fled…. The English city since the nineteenth century,’ he continues, ‘has been a place of darkness that is essentially foreign.’

Therefore, societal (although predominantly urban societal) anxiety, he suggests, is a product of a historical-cultural anti-urbanism. With this premise established, the rest of the book then looks at various ways that architects, urbanists and theoreticians have dealt with, moderated or exacerbated the consequent anxiety.

He recognises that UK architects’ predilection for Barcelona, for example – which he describes as a moral city (a moral realm concerned with the regulation of human behaviour) – simply reflects our ‘partial reading of the city to assuage domestic anxieties.’ That we look to examples of foreign cities for success, says a great deal about the lack of ideas, confidence and vision at home. This insight is profoundly important. To make his point he suggests that in all the anxiety about the place of the English city within the European context, ‘English architectural culture (Lord Richard) Rogers has become the self-appointed prophet of doom.’

The chapter’s looking at Liverpool’s Albert Dock ‘as ruin’; Trafalgar Square’s ‘architecture of civility’; or the British Museum’s Great Court as a dumbing down of modern cultural elitist aspiration, are terrific. I have two nagging concerns though One is that the chapters were slightly over-described and consequently heavy going: for an enjoyable book, I took a long time to read it. But more importantly, I felt that Williams’ book had so much new going for it but he didn’t follow through sufficiently. For all his insights and differentiation of the various responses to historic climates of fear, he fails to inform us why these things happen, and what it represents outside the narrow confines of architecture. Instead of using architecture as a device to talk about the cultural, political shifts in society; he really was talking about architecture in its own terms.

I suppose my real concern is that I don’t believe that the anxiety of which he speaks is as eternal – or unchanging – as he presumes. Nor do I believe that this phenomenon is a causally cultural, philosophical, nor even ‘political,’ in the narrow sense of our relationship with the state. However, such is Williams’ intelligent formulation of his thesis that even when you do not agree with him – and I agreed with a great deal – he is sufficiently engaging to almost convince (something to do, maybe, with the refreshing novelty of someone raising so many important areas of inquiry with such aplomb).

Williams’ central thesis explores the ‘attempts to assuage (anxiety) by recourse to picturesque solutions’ throughout history. With extensive reference to post-war articles in Architectural Review (AR) and in particular the then editor-in-chief’s ‘Townscape’ thesis written in 1949, he dissects the tension in AR’s egalitarian post-war vision which simultaneously retained a certain ‘aristocratic world-view.’ After all, that formidable editorial team – Hugh Casson, Niklaus Pevsner, Gordon Cullen, Osbert Lancaster et al – were the establishment (if not at prayer, at least at the drawing board). It is therefore hardly surprising that the end of Empire was an uncertain time for many of these establishment figures. This idea that AR’s sanctuary in ‘the picturesque’ was the defensive (offensive) reaction of urbanists to a cultural revulsion against urban realities is a thesis extremely well structured. Similarly, his idea that this sanctuary has existed before and since as a dominant strand in urban theory is a a challenging thesis. But I felt that logically leaping from post-war architectural journalism to Prince Charles’ New Urbanism – which, I would argue is anti-modern (Poundbury) and not the same as to Townscape’s anti-authoritarianism – was unconvincing for me.

He does differentiate. But even though he recognises that ‘trepidation’, rather than ‘hope’, is the prime mover in the late twentieth-century compared to the post-war experience, I feel that he has confined himself too much to the visual, physical representations of urbanism rather than broadening his thesis out. The terms of his thesis constrain him from revealing that which is so near the surface. The shift in cultural representation is simply a factor of political change and this needs more clarification than given here. Not doing so, fails to challenge the contemporary primacy given to the transformatory power of culture.

That being said, the research detail is extraordinary and he hits so many targets that I do not want to sound as if I would do anything other than recommend this book.


Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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