by Alexander Eisenschmidt. Birkhauser, January 2019. 239 p. ill. ISBN 9783035616323 (h/c). $68.99.
Reviewed January 2020
Gabriella Karl-Johnson, Architecture Librarian, Princeton University, firstname.lastname@example.org
Alexander Eisenschmidt, Associate Professor in the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Architecture, has built his career at the interface of architectural design and the city, with numerous publications, panels, and exhibitions to his credit covering similar terrain as explored in his recent book, The Good Metropolis. Working at the place where architectural thought meets urbanist theory, Eisenschmidt’s new book presents an intellectual history of the city, chiefly the city of the modern European avant-garde, as theorized and physically manifested in western Europe and anglophone North America. His work moves beyond a simple history of the design and history of the city, explicating the theoretical foundations of an evolving perception of both the urban environment and architecture’s engagement with the city.
Recasting the oppositional narrative of formless city versus formative architecture, Eisenschmidt outlines a history of architecture’s productive engagement with the urban environment. Predominantly focused on the cities of Berlin, Los Angeles, Paris, Chicago, London, and New York, the text pays particular attention to Berlin, tracing an intellectual lineage from Schinkel to Tschumi. The Good Metropolis is divided into three substantial, wide-ranging sections that are organized by the broad themes of “Imagination,” “Extrapolation,” and “Narration.” The first section, “Imagination,” lays out the visual and aesthetic theories that formed the groundwork for architectural modernism, from Lazslo Moholy-Nagy in western Europe to Reyner Banham in Los Angeles and Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown’s in Las Vegas. Eisenschmidt engages with the notion of standpoint with the attention of an art historian, discussing at length Banham’s explorations of automobile urbanism. The chapter entitled “Extrapolation” delves into the early urban megablocks of Alfred Messel and Ludwig Hilberseimer and the possibility of building-as-city. “Narration” brings the reader to Walter Benjamin’s radio broadcasts, urban housing blocks, and Situationist re-mappings of Paris. Illustrations are abundant and well deployed throughout the book, adding greater clarity to highly visual arguments.
Eisenschmidt’s intentions are no less than to renegotiate the relationship between architecture and the city altogether, to situate a transdisciplinary conversation not as a midpoint between two disciplinary spaces but as “a third site within the midst of both disciplines, simultaneously part of both worlds, or, better, annexing a territory in the center of the other.” The aim is ambitious and timely, as architectural practice endeavors to reform its notorious disciplinary chauvinism. Eisenschmidt’s tone throughout the book is both erudite and highly readable, making the book fitting for research purposes or pleasure reading. The Good Metropolis would make an excellent addition to collections on urban history, modernism, visual studies, and architectural theory.