Radiant Garden City Beautiful

World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, in Chicago. (newsburglar.com)

World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, in Chicago. (newsburglar.com)

If wizards like Henry Hope Reed can be wrong on occasion, so can Jane Jacobs, who in our era is even more famous for her own pathbreaking book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Its chief claim to fame is to have thrown the fact of the active life of the best city streets into the face of the city-deadly megaprojects of Robert Moses, king of development in New York for almost half a century.

Jacobs spends some time toward the beginning of her book describing the horror brought to cities by the ideas of Le Corbusier and his book, The Radiant City. (We do not marvel at the mistakes of Corbu – he got everything wrong.) This was the idea that city streets were bad and should be replaced by towers in a park. In 1925 he proposed razing central Paris to carry out his totalitarian idea. She then describes the Garden City movement, originating in Britain, which was basically the idea that cities were bad and should be replaced by, in essence, suburbs. She combines these concepts into what she calls the Radiant Garden City, a catchall for bad ideas. How convenient.

But then she ropes in another concept, one that was basically flawless, of which Henry Reed was a strong proponent – the City Beautiful movement. Jacobs exaggerates and misconstrues it, referring to the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 as “a sort of squat, decorated forecast of Le Corbusier’s later repetitive ranks of towers in a park.” She notes that it fizzled but that its core concept of the “Monumental Center” remained, leading to America’s great civic plazas, which Jacobs did not really appreciate because she saw them as countervailing her preferred animated small streets of many shops and eyes looking out from windows. This is indeed a powerful concept – one that Moses sought to eradicate and replace with the Radiant City model – but Jacobs was mistaken, I think, in believing that a great city could not have both her animated street life and a monumental city plaza or two with a sort of Benjamin Franklin Parkway-like monumental boulevard linking them.

Anyway, I wonder whether Jacobs was compelled to rope the City Beautiful into her catalogue of woes by the elegance and charm and wit of the phrase she invented to combine them into a single monolithic pox of modern planning on all houses. Here is that passage:

The architecture of the City Beautiful centers went out of style. But the idea behind the centers was not questioned, and it has never had more force than it does today [1961]. The idea of sorting out certain cultural or public functions and decontaminating their relationship with the workaday city dovetailed nicely with the Garden City teachings. The conceptions have harmoniously merged, much as the Garden City and the Radiant City merged, into a sort of Radiant Garden City Beautiful[.]”

I suspect that as a lively writer Jacobs was so captivated by the phrase Radiant Garden City Beautiful that she twisted the last part into something more awful than she knew to be the case. Or maybe not. Still, the excitement of words can sometimes get in the way of the excitement of ideas. Maybe this is one example of that.

By the way, the World’s Columbian Exposition had over 27 million visitors over a period of six months, which was almost half the 63 million population of the United States at the time, and they could not get to Chicago anywhere near as easily as they can today. On one day over 700,000 visitors attended. In terms of “animated streets,” it would be hard for Jane Jacobs to argue with those numbers.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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4 Responses to Radiant Garden City Beautiful

  1. I think Jacobs knew exactly what she was trying to say. She was tracing a direct lineage from City Beautiful civic districts to Modernist civic districts. She was writing about city planning and city social and economic functions; style, beauty, and monumentality were not in the scope of her discussion.

    As for the Columbian Exposition, the most popular section was the Midway, the forerunner of every carnival and amusement park. The tawdry chaos of the Midway was much closer to Jacobs’ ideas about lively cities than the highly ordered and finely landscaped spaces of the exhibition district. Even so, the Exposition was a short-term event and thoroughly lacked the complex social networks and relationships of the streets she described in her book. Jacobs would respond to the great popularity of the Exposition by saying it was irrelevant to the functioning of established neighborhoods.


    • Laurence, I understand and agree with Jane Jacobs point. I was making another point. I will copy here my longwinded explanation to Michael Mehaffy:
      Michael, you need not be surprised. I understand Jacobs’s point quite well. I don’t imagine even she would expect every street even in a great city to be Hudson Street. There is room for a Pennsylvania Avenue – or, since it could once have been conceived as a sort of Hudson Street on cocaine, say Constitution Avenue – even in her theory of the power of an active street.
      She was not averse to traditional architecture, quite the reverse, but in the lines leading up to the one I quoted she delivered a real sockdolager right in the solar plexus of classical architecture. She wrote: “The Chicago fair snubbed the exciting modern architecture which had begun to emerge in Chicago and instead dramatized a retrogressive imitation Renaissance style. One heavy, grandiose monument after another was arrayed in the exposition park, like frosted pastries on a tray, in a sort of squat, decorated forecast of Le Corbusier[.]”
      I’d say that here she was indeed criticizing the architecture, but more to make a rhetorical point than because she truly disliked it. My point was not that she was wrong to criticize the “decontaminating” effect she thought City Beautiful had. It was merely to point out that the love of a cute literary formulation such as Radiant Garden City Beautiful might have caused her to pounce more vociferously on a concept than she might otherwise, a sort of situational linguistics.
      In short, even the greatest writers are not paragons of perfection!
      This is a very, very roundabout defense of Henry and his tendency to look down his nose at classical variants such as Gothic and Romanesque.


      • Okay David, I think I understand your point better. Maybe Jacobs was attached to a cute phrase. Or maybe (and more likely in my opinion) she was a little confused and ambivalent about traditional architecture. After all, she was a prominent protestor in the fight to preserve Penn Station, which just as easily could have been described as “retrogressive imitation Renaissance style.” Her book is a paean to traditional neighborhoods, yet she was beguiled by Victor Gruen’s banal mega-mall vision for Fort Worth. Perhaps not coincidentally, her architect husband worked in a modernist style.

        I believe she simply did not think about architectural style and beauty with the same rigor she devoted to planning, sociology, and economics. Style and beauty were unimportant in her book. The few comments she did make about traditionalism and modernism were derivative and not based on empirical deduction.


      • If Jane Jacobs was confused, she was not alone. Just about everyone with “expertise” in the past half a century and more has been confused. Only the public has seen clearly. Essentially, what Jacobs saw as the key ingredient in great cities – animation – is the key ingredient in great architecture. Traditionalists understand that, modernists do not. Period.


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