Book Review: The Art of the City

Raffaele Milani is beside himself with concern about the current deplorable state of modern megacities. As an Italian, he has lived the contradictions as his lovely country, with its distinguished history of glorious cities, and has been wounded by industrial sprawl and thoughtless construction, especially in the north. It causes him to draw out how that has become the prevailing truth, like a bad dream, around the world. As a scholarly professor of aesthetics, he reacts to his anxiety not with a knee-jerk emotional rant but through a careful inquiry into what has made it all happen and explanation of why his worry is so well founded. In his book, The Art of the City, Milani takes us on an intensive tour of mythical, philosophical and psychological explanations throughout history about our relationship with cities and what cities have contributed to the human spirit.

In three main sections—entitled “The City as Habitat,” “What is the City?” and “The Art of the City,” the author describes the current state of cities, zeroing in on what he thinks has been lost. He poses a rhetorical question for architects and planners of whether or not the art of city-making still exists. And then, he suggests directions for a revitalization of that art.

The Art of the City, Rafaelle Milani
The Art of the City, Rafaelle Milani

Milani explores what the city has been in human culture by discussing the history and commentary of real cities, celestial and imagined cities in literature, and even apocalyptic cities in films and news footage. He emphasizes how we experience the city, highlighting how we take things in with the “gaze”, the essential act of observing, and do that in motion through what the French call flânerie, or aimless strolling. He shows how scale and pattern, how representation and metaphor, and how natural ecologies came together with utility as the formula for successful and beloved cities in the past. And he posits that urban planning and building, through a political act, puts this all together to create “places,” not just “spaces,” whose “meaning illustrates the limitations of abstract geometric design.” His commentary is awash in his admiration of both the urbs, or stones that have structured the city, and the civitas, or community of citizens that have populated the city.

But Milani declares that the city as it was always used and understood—and as it fed human culture—no longer exists. He laments that all we now have are endless “built-up landscapes” rather than “cities,” where the best that can be said, quoting Rosario Assunto, is that they are places for “the useful.” He suggests that virtual reality, from the cell phone to the hologram, will take our built-up landscapes to an even lower ebb where “cyber-flânerie,” which collapses the public and the private spheres into vacuity, will become more important than fixing the problems. He expresses anguish that mass production, urban expansion, destruction of the beautiful and natural, triumph of the machine, deterioration of historic centres and over-emphasis on functionality have all conspired to obliterate the dignity of urban life. To paraphrase his words, he further says that we see too many things, yet we see nothing at all; that contemporary architects deconstruct historic systems of style only to shock.

In the end, though, Milani is not a pessimist. He notes that the chaotic growth has caused disastrous disorder but hopes that this dysfunction offers an opportunity to rethink society. Then he tries to tell us how this might happen. Through Lewis Mumford, Milani refreshes our memory of the garden city and contemporary extensions of green (as in landscape-rich) architecture. As examples, he describes the architecture of Emilio Ambasz and mentions the Musée du quai Branly by Jean Nouvel. He urges that we go back to antiquity for inspiration. He shows in the work of Kenzo Tange how “the ancient can be the foundation for the modern.”

Milani insists that a delicate understanding of context can help to not only offer suitable contemporary form and fit, along with sensitivity to the historic, but also instill a harmony that is desperately needed. To illustrate, he cites the designs of David Chipperfield, who says that “architecture is an encounter and a gift.” Yet in a dialectic embrace that brings a smile, Milani also enjoys Frank Gehry as the contrarian who creates place by shocking the senses, as in his new digs for the Fondation Louis Vuitton. Milani calls on architects bring a new focus to the meaning and narrative in their designs—that, quoting Vittorio Gregotti, they “express thought as form” to bring the soul back to the city. His suggestion for planners—a little more vague—is to apply what he calls “coherent stereotypes,” which apparently are walkable-scaled modules for living and working, within “territories” (his word for undeveloped lands) to bring humanity back into the urban scene and encourage strolling as the way to take it all in.

Frankly, Milani is better at diagnosis than prescription. His erudite references to historic thinkers and commentators, and the extensive bibliography, are commendable, but his dense style, frequent digressions and difficult language (maybe exacerbated by the translation from the Italian) can make it a struggle to follow his arguments and reasoning. He’s at his best when he tracks the essential qualities that cities need to generate and nourish human culture, by contrasting the past with their modern, vacuous, undifferentiated mass through globalization.

While advocating respect for ecology and natural settings, Milani pays little attention to the extraordinary, progressive work currently happening in the realm of sustainable design. Although he does mention “green building,” it is only in the old-fashioned definition as basically about plants on walls and roofs. He references the “smart city” but does not embrace it, because he sees it as a dominating force rather than a balancing one. And although he decries the generic anonymity of megacities, he does not mention even one of the many district-scaled urban alternatives underway or already built through the efforts of urban designers and planners to address that malaise, such as Hammarby Sjostad in Stockholm. He frets about how urban cores and historic centres are emptying out, but does not mention the strategies for core revival that are showing great success from Seoul to Boston to Vancouver to Melbourne.

So, this is not a particularly helpful book to read as a practitioner’s guide for the future. But The Art of the City is a sober unpacking of the dilemma 
of modern megacities—and a delightful, lyrical view of the traditions of the city from the past.

The Art of the City, By Raffaele Milani, McGill-Queens University Press, 2017.

Larry Beasley, CM, FCIP is the former co-director of planning at the City of Vancouver and the principal of the international planning consultancy Beasley and Associates.