Why Cities Look The Way They Do by Richard J Williams

The Blurb On The Back:

We tend to think cities look the way they do because of the conscious work of architects, planners and builders.  But what if the look of cities had less to do with design, and more to do with social, cultural, financial and political processes, and the way ordinary citizens interact with them?  What if the city is a process as much as a design?  Richard J Williams takes the moment construction is finished as a beginning, tracing the myriad processes that produce the look of the contemporary global city.

This book is the story of dramatic but unforeseen urban sights: how financial capital spawns empty towering skyscrapers and hollowed-out ghettoes; how the zoning of once-illicit sexual practices in marginal areas of the city results in the reinvention of culturally vibrant gay villages; how abandoned factories have been repurposed as creative hubs in a precarious postindustrial economy.  It is also the story of how popular urban cliches and the fictional portrayal of cities powerfully shape the way we read and see the bricks, concrete and glass that surround us.

Thought-provoking and original, Why Cities Look The Way They Do will appeal to anyone who wants to understand the contemporary city, shedding new light on humanity’s greatest collective invention.

You can order Why Cities Look The Way They Do by Richard J Williams from Amazon USAAmazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Richard J Williams is Professor of Contemporary Visual Cultures at Edinburgh University.  In this fascinating book he builds the argument that global cities look the way they do due to different, interacting processes operating on them.  He focuses on the impact of money, power, sex, work, war and culture (specifically creative industries) predominantly on western cities, and I came away with a different way of thinking and looking at places.

Williams started his academic career in art history, which means he adopts as a starting point the idea that you can’t take images at face value and have to respect that what they mean can and does change over time.  This is an idea that he comes back to in each of the chapters of the book as he looks at the impact of each of the disciplines he has selected on a number of different cities.  There is very much a western focus to the cities he considers in this book (which, to be fair, is something he acknowledges within the pages) with London, New York, Silicon Valley and Brussels all getting a lot of page time, although Beijing, Singapore and Sao Paolo are also mentioned and I found them interesting in terms of how he brings them in to reinforce arguments that he wants to make.

As someone who has lived and worked in London for most of their life, I found his references to it to be the most interesting, particularly in the context of culture (where he looks at the development of the Tate Modern on an old industrial site) and money (where his observations on how money, exclusivity and commitments to public space very much resonated with me).  However, I also learned a great deal about New York’s development in the chapter on sex (specifically with regard to the pier district and its place in the historic gay scene but also with regard to Williams’s comments on Tokyo and the film LOST IN TRANSLATION) and Silicon Valley (which is a bit of a cheat given it’s not so much a city as an area but which is nonetheless fascinating in terms of the effect of the tech giants and their development of real estate coupled with the impact on workers and housing).

There’s a lot of architectural and sociological discussion within the book with Williams citing a number of sources but this never reads as a specifically academic book and he writes in a way that makes the ideas accessible and easy to follow.  I also enjoyed the photographs that he includes of different buildings and areas to reinforce or illustrate his points and arguments.

As an urbanite, I have to say that I came away from this book with a renewed appreciation of cities and a new way of looking at them.  I would definitely check out Williams’s other work on the strength of this.  

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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