Three grand metropolitan capitals: the city as an urban artifact

The City As a Work of Art: London, Paris, Vienna, by Donald J. Olsen. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 341 pp. $35. Illustrated. The reasons for studying cities are perhaps as many and as various as the reasons for living in them. Over a half century ago, the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset offered a classic vision of the city as the concrete expression of the policy:

``... A great innovation ... building a public square and around it a city, shut in from the fields. ... The polis is not primarily a collection of habitable dwellings, but a meeting-place for citizens. ... The city is not built, as is the cottage or the domus, to shelter from the weather and to propagate the species -- these are personal, family concerns -- but in order to discuss public affairs. Observe that this signifies nothing less than the invention of a new kind of space, much more new than the space of Einstein.''

More recently, economically oriented thinkers like Jane Jacobs have focused on the role played by cities in creating the wealth of nations. Indeed, considering that the Roman forum was the setting Both of judicial proceedings and of the marketplace, we are hardly surprised by the frequency with which historians draw parallels -- or even propose a causal relation -- between the political and economic lives of the city, often in support of the old medieval maxim, ``city air makes one free.''

The negative aspects of city life have also received their share of attention, from the dangers of over-crowding, pollution, and inadequate sanitation graphically described by 19th- and 20th-century reformers to the subtler perils of estrangement, loneliness, and the general erosion of communal rootedness characteristic of life in the anonymous big city.

When so many have done so much to dig below the surface to get to the heart of the matter, there is something very appealing about a book that promises its chief concern will be -- not commerce, industry, demographics, government, or even the secrets of civil engineering -- but rather the ornamentation, the decoration, the sheer ostentation of cities. Donald Olsen, a professor of history at Vassar and author of ``Town Planning in London: The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries'' and ``The Growth of Victorian London,'' has explicitly chosen to look at what many might call the most superficial aspects of metropolitan life.

His aim, however, is far from frivolous. His study of three great cities begins when each embarked on the course of self-consciously reshaping itself into a grandly impressive capital. In London, this was the short-lived Regency (still visible in the crescent-swath that is Regent Street). In Paris, it was 1852 when Baron Haussmann launched the amazingly ambitious project that transformed the quaintly medieval city into a modern showplace of plazas, monuments, and spacious boulevards. And on Christmas Eve 1857, Emperor Franz Joseph decided to remove the fortifications surrounding the old city of Vienna, opening his capital to unprecedented expansion, including the creation of the handsome Ringstrasse. Olsen ends his story in 1914, when World War I interrupted the pattern of development, changing everything.

Although the architects had access to the same ideas and materials and were well aware of developments in foreign countries (their descriptions of visits abroad form a large and fascinating part of this book), each of the three capitals evolved a distinctive national style. Olsen engagingly depicts these styles in evocative and often witty descriptions of the kitchens, halls, bedrooms, and eating habits; the restaurants, hotels, clubs, and railway stations; gardens, parks, theaters, and amusements that came to characterize each place. Sometimes he confirms our perceptions, sometimes he challenges -- or overturns -- widely held theories.

But beyond the differences he delineates (the British love of privacy, the Parisian gift for endowing public places with the comforts of home, the Viennese preoccupation with opulence and self-display), Olsen pursues the elusive Zeitgeist, hoping that by examining its most self-conscious productions, the historian may find something of the spirit of the age. What he finds in all three cases is an overwhelming sense of historicism. In their eclectic use of past styles -- Gothic, Italianate, classical, medieval -- the architects of the 19th century employed a rich vocabulary of historical allusions and associations to lend significance to their work.

Just as their contemporaries in such fields as geology and linguistics (not to mention Darwin in biology) undertook to explain the present as a product of the past, so critics and artists came to judge artworks not by unchanging standards of beauty but as manifestations of the age in which they were produced. ``The loss of innocence as to the immutability of ... values,'' Olsen observes, ``contributed to a self-consciousness ... in which everyone was dimly aware that History was speaking through him.'' Thus, he concludes, ``Earlier artists had been unconsciously moved by the Zeitgeist; those of the 19th century strove deliberately to express it.''

Apart from the vague uneasiness I feel whenever I find critics overestimating the relative naivet'e of earlier eras, Olsen's conclusions strike me as persuasive and useful. And certainly, he is anything but patronizing toward the 19th century. Not only do his affection and respect for its achievements shine through his book, but his guiding concept of the Zeitgeist is itself an intensely self-conscious, highly deliberate perpetuation of one of the many valuable and enduring contributions of the last century.

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