Talking Urban: A Review of The Language of Towns and Cities by Dhiru A. Thadani

The Language of Towns and Cities: A Visual Dictionary, by Dhiru A. Thadani (with help from about 50 contributors), is an oddly personal work. I say "oddly," because the book's title invokes that most characteristically objective of all books, the dictionary, and the book's format resembles that of an encyclopedia, also typically objective. And the book has 781 10-inch by 10-inch pages and weighs more pounds than the postal scale in my office can measure -- hardly a slim volume of personal reflections.

The book takes on this personal dimension in two ways. The first is autobiographical. Thadani includes in the book references to where he grew up (in India, and the inclusion of many references to cities in India, otherwise so often ignored, is a definite plus for the book), to how he was educated in the U.S. and became an architect and urban designer, and to city and town planning projects that he has worked on.

The second aspect of the book's being personal is intellectual; Thadani makes no pretense that the book is neutral. The book expounds his perspective on towns and cities, which is that of New Urbanism.

Many planners, and not only New Urbanists, believe that New Urbanism has become the most important planning paradigm to emerge in recent decades, and there is nothing wrong in orienting a book about urbanism in that direction. Thadani might well have used the Charter of the New Urbanism more explicitly as a lens to view the material in the book, relating specific topics and visual data to the precepts of the charter.

However, the role of New Urbanism in the book can be off-putting. Many entries are directed at developers and designers interested in how to build New Urbanist projects, and many pages are celebrations of New Urbanist developments. Thadani may intend these to illustrate the "language" he is trying to explicate, but they tend to be repetitive, and the weight given them is excessive, given their sometimes tenuous connections to towns or cities.

For example, the book contains larger entries for New Urbanist developments like Seaside, Florida, or Kentlands, Maryland (six pages each), than the entries for Rome (five pages), Bombay (four), Bologna (two) or, for that matter, London, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, or Philadelphia (zero pages each). Thadani might not find much in Los Angeles that he likes, but at least taking it into account seems necessary for comprehending the language of cities in the 21st century.

This focus on New Urbanist projects can also result in awkward juxtapositions, such as one in the description of Windsor, Florida (also a six-page entry): in one sentence Windsor is described as "an intimately scaled neighborhood in the urban tradition of the Caribbean," and in the next sentence it's described as "an exclusive sporting community."

If one can get beyond the emphasis on and promotion of New Urbanist projects (unfortunately something many potential readers will not want to do), one will find that Thadani's massive tome is a valuable resource. It is certainly a pleasure to read or leaf through -- the photographs and illustrations are excellent and the book contains many informative entries.

Thadani is also not a New Urbanist who categorically condemns Modernism. He favors the re-working of traditional architectural types, but he is open-minded about design, so long as the urbanism is good. For instance, Thadani includes an entry on Chandigarh, the Indian provincial capital designed by Le Corbusier, and gives credit to Le Corbusier for creating the basis for a successful city. Principles that Thadani attributes to Le Corbusier -- for autonomous neighborhoods with a range of housing types, schools and workplaces and other uses and services -- could come directly from the Charter of the New Urbanism.

Similarly, although an entry about C.I.A.M. (which Andrés Duany co-wrote) considers the role of Modernism in the development of post-war suburban sprawl, Thadani and Duany take care to say that it was "degenerate versions" of Modernist principles that, combined with other factors, led to sprawl, not the principles themselves.

As useful as the book is, an overriding criticism is that any book that concentrates so much on the built environment of cities will slight the human or sociological element. Interestingly, the entry on Seaside makes this point. The entry consists of a talk that the founder of Seaside, Robert Davis, gave in 2009 about the town's history. In a wry and perceptive passage, Davis describes how even though Seaside was designed to foster a connected community, a "counterproject" to gated communities, once Seaside homeowners had settled in, they (or at least many of them) turned out to be as selfish and hidebound as anyone else -- "reactionaries" who wanted to barricade the place.

I fear this short review emphasizes negative points more than my overall favorable reaction to Thadani's book, but nonetheless I will finish with a quibble. This one has to do with appearance: the book is well served by photographs and illustrations, but not by its typography. Perhaps under the influence of the Internet, someone chose to use a sans serif typeface, and to lay the paragraphs out like a business letter: in block form, with blank lines between them. The text looks word-processed, not typeset, which is odd in a book that celebrates traditional design in another context.

The Language of Towns and Cities: A Visual Dictionary by Dhiru A. Thadani, forward by Léon Krier, introduction by Andrés Duany, published by Rizzoli.

Frank Gruber writes a weekly column on local politics, which often involve land use issues, for the Santa Monica Lookout News, a news website. His first book, Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal, was published by City Image Press.