Big Cities, Bolts and All

GREAT cities are man's crowning achievements. Cities embrace history, culture, and architecture. ``The Big City'' or ``The City of Our Dreams'' has evolved into a romantic ideal of urban modernism and progress. Two current books, ``The Exploding City,'' by Robert Schiffer, and ``Skyscraper,'' by Karl Sabbagh, set out to destroy our romantic visions of cities, and eventually uncover a reality that looks like anything but progress.

Schiffer uses the filth, crime, and poverty of today's mega-cities like a wrecking ball. We watch as Sao Paulo and Mexico City - each expected to have 25 million inhabitants by the year 2000 - stagger under increasing human resource and social services problems.

Before writing his book, Schiffer and photographer Jerry Cooke traveled the world's great megalopolises - cities of more than 10 million people - looking for ways to grasp common problems. Cooke's engaging images and Schiffer's clear language weave a coherent story. They keep problems from seeming overwhelming. But they draw us in so we feel the intensity of the ever-more-urban world.

Isaac Asimov, who wrote the foreword to ``The Exploding City,'' says that ``in the course of my own lifetime, the earth's population has increased two and a half times, and most of this increase is now to be found in the exploding urban centers, especially in the slums and shantytowns, of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.''

Schiffer and Cooke address universal activities - childbirth, religion, housing, enterprise - and use powerful photos and language to convey common problems. The third world's exploding population creates problems that growing first-world cities do not feel.

For many, the fiscal crisis faced by New York City in the 1970s is the touchstone for urban crisis. New York barely managed to scrape its way back to fiscal control, through infusions of federal money and the resurgent economic growth of the 1980s.

By the year 2000, 17 of the world's 20 largest cities will be in the third world, compared with only 11 of 20 in 1980. Sao Paulo (Brazil), Mexico City, Cairo, Jakarta, Calcutta, Bombay, Karachi (S. Pakistan), Bangkok, Dhaka (Bangladesh), Lima (Peru), Beijing, and others will be the population boom winners. Lagos, Nigeria, is today an uncontrollable 20 times as large as it was 30 years ago.

``The Exploding City'' shows how the skyscraper itself produces stark contrasts and divisions in modern society. Lives of the upper executive classes are lived on one level. The poor in the slums live on another.

These real-life stories are not for the weak-stomached. But the book is captivating, visually engaging, and helps to promote a more balanced view of the globe.

Sabbagh's ``Skyscraper'' is supposed to be about the end product of a major construction project. It is really about trying to understand a big work of architecture by tearing it down and looking at each part.

The book follows project managers and bricklayers step-by-step through the more than two-year construction of Worldwide Plaza, a 45-story office and retail complex in midtown Manhattan.

Sabbagh's previous work includes the book ``The Living Body.'' That book required that he bring a tight focus on tiny processes inside the human body. Unfortunately, in this book, he stays too close to the construction process. He does not get the reader far enough away from the project to see the big picture - great architecture in the making.

As straight documentary, it is deadly dull. Only rarely does Sabbagh let up from a brick-by-brick account of on-site conversations between construction workers and foremen, project managers, and owners.

To be fair, Sabbagh did not put boring words in the workers' mouths. But it is his fault that the words end up in the book.

``Skyscraper'' often reads like an unedited television script where actors are allowed to ramble. For example, about halfway through the book, a leasing agent for Worldwide Plaza says: ``We went so far so quickly and we were all so elated and we watched the bubble burst. It's sort of sad.'' Another says: ``We found that two things can't occupy the same place at the same time, that it was a horrendous scheduling situation.'' And on and on.

The cadence of uninspired conversation occasionally does give way to a nice image: ``From up here, on a day as clear as this, it was possible to see evidence all around of the frenetic pace of construction that still continues in New York. Within three or four blocks of Worldwide Plaza were seven or eight sites showing the familiar sign of rising steel festooned with orange safety netting, their highest floors swarming with concrete-pouring men who looked tiny from this height, hundreds of feet above street level. Even over in the borough of Queens, the other side of the East River, a new Citicorp building was rising, as if the skyscrapers of Manhattan had begun to seed themselves across the water.''

Certainly this is the definitive book on how a skyscraper actually gets built. And Worldwide Plaza is a dynamic and good-looking building. But the book's cumulative effect is to give the reader the feeling of being swept downward in a flood of detail instead of being drawn upward with the advancing cranes and girders.

The result is the erasure of romantic ideas about the glories of architectural vision, of marshaling workers and resources toward a grand purpose, and of virtuous planning. One is just glad the building gets built.

Readers may have to forego their romantic visions of modern cities to taste the realities of urban experience.

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