Urban Spaces, Human Places

Two recent books examine the way people shape and use the built environment

THE ENGLISH TOWN: A HISTORY OF URBAN LIFE, By Mark Girouard. New York: Yale University Press. 330 pp., $39.95 THE EXPERIENCE OF PLACE, By Tony Hiss. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 234 pp., $19.95 WE live, to an increasing extent, in a world that we have made. Cities transform the landscape. Pollution in one country triggers acid rain in another. The destruction of the tropical rain forests threatens our supply of oxygen. The concerns of grass-roots conservationists have percolated upward onto the agendas of world leaders.

But even before planetary-scale hazards loomed on the horizon, writers and thinkers like the great 19th-century critic John Ruskin were warning of the dangers of the uncontrolled spread of urban industrial civilization in essays that combined the concerns of art and architectural history with both environmental and social issues. It may be a hopeful sign that, as we develop the power to alter the world we inhabit, we are also developing our powers of self-awareness.

The British architectural-historian Mark Girouard has established himself as one of the leading practitioners of architectural and social history. His works (lavishly illustrated volumes replete with color plates, often published with an eye to Christmas gift-giving) address a popular audience. Entertaining, educational, and well-researched, books like ``Life in the English Country House,'' ``The Return to Camelot'' (in which manners and mores replaced architecture as the focus of Girouard's attention), and ``Cities and People'' testify to their author's deep interest in what might well be called the history of the quality of daily life.

Now, in his latest book, ``The English Town,'' Girouard seems to have reached his happiest balance thus far between tackling a large-scale subject like ``Cities and People'' (which proved too diffuse an enterprise) and concentrating intently on a specific phenomenon like the English country house (a fascinating topic of relatively narrow significance). For, although Girouard focuses on the English town, his book does manage, to a surprising degree, to live up to its ambitious subtitle, ``A History of Urban Life.'' Girouard accomplishes this, not by venturing beyond the cities and towns of his native England, but by examining precisely those areas where buildings and behavior, aesthetics and ethics, planning and contingency, intersect in a pattern that is universal (or, at the very least, ubiquitous).

Girouard is interested in knowing the how and why behind every specific his eye confronts: the width of a street, the arrangement of houses along its edges, the shape of a market square, the ostentatious fa,cade of a warehouse, the opulent d'ecor of a pub, or the theatrical aura of a Nonconformist chapel.

Drawing on a rich fund of examples from towns and cities like Norwich, Wakefield, Hull, Newcastle, Leeds, London, Ludlow, York, Brighton, Blackpool, Bath, and Bristol, Girouard examines specific features of the townscape - and of town life - in 18 chapters with titles like, ``The Waterside,'' ``The Walks,'' ``The New Street,'' ``The High Street,'' ``The Back Streets,'' ``The Parks,'' and ``The Suburbs.'' From the workings of municipal corporations to the role of the master of ceremonies at 18th-century balls and assemblies to the rise of Mechanics' Institutes - and music halls - in the later years of the 19th century, Girouard provides a diverting, vivid, and thought-provoking survey of town life in all its stimulating variety.

Perhaps the highlights of this book are its two chapters called interludes. One is an urbane essay on the ``Polite and Improving Society'' that shaped the Georgian townscape. The other is a contrasting meditation on ``The Victorian Frame of Mind'' and the energies and inventions - from the sublime to the grotesque - that it unleashed.

As we ponder the future of our own towns and cities, it is valuable to reflect, as Girouard does, on the attitudes that produced the Georgian townscape, which many still find appealing. For the Englishmen of the 18th century, scarred by memories of the violent political and religious conflict of the century before, civility and tolerance were dearly prized virtues to be cultivated at all costs. ``Politeness,'' far from being a sign of empty formalism, was the key to avoiding strife and constructing an open and enlightened social order.

``A polite man was someone polished, in the sense that he had no angularities which limited his contacts with other people,'' explains Girouard, going on to quote the third Earl of Shaftesbury: ```We polish one another and rub off our corners and sides by a sort of amicable collision.'' The aim of politeness, Girouard reminds us, was to break down barriers, thus facilitating ``conversation without constraint between people of different rank, religion, occupation or politics. In 1700,'' he adds, ``this was a revolutionary idea.'' It still is.

If Girouard's book helps us understand our environment by looking at our present situation from the perspective of history, Tony Hiss's book, ``The Experience of Place,'' (parts of which were excerpted in The New Yorker) offers an entirely different, but not necessarily incongruous, way of looking at our surroundings. Hiss summarizes current work in the fields of ecology, urban planning, and perceptual psychology to explain the ways in which human beings experience the places they live, work, play, or simply stroll through.

By going with what seem to be innate human preferences - for open spaces, for sheltered areas that provide a feeling of safety, for outdoor light, for grassland and bodies of water - Hiss believes that we can create a world in which everyone will feel more at home.

Although he draws heavily upon the works of modern social scientists, psychologists, and urban planners, Hiss also demonstrates how the work of historical-preservation societies has been instrumental in setting us on the right track to achieving an environment that is not only livable, but lovable.

Hiss's blend of jargon and personal reverie can be off-putting at times, especially when compared with the erudition and urbanity of a book like ``The English Town.'' But despite some tedious patches of prose, ``The Experience of Place'' is a genuinely interesting book, bringing together a variety of exciting - and happily intersecting - ideas.

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