Ever Changing, Always Themselves

What makes cities endure? 

By Robert Wojtowicz 

THE SEDUCTION OF PLACE: The City in the Twenty-first Century
By Joseph Rykwert, Emeritus Faculty.
New York: Pantheon Books, 2000. 283 pp., $27.50.
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As of this spring, the Thames South Bank is dominated by a 500-foot Ferris wheel known as “the London Eye.” Visitors who withstand the long queue can marvel at its daring engineering—cantilevered over a bend in the river, it resembles a colossal bicycle wheel balanced on extraordinarily thin spokes—even as they are reminded that the entire spectacle is sponsored by British Airways. Nearby, the galleries of the Tate Modern, housed in the soaring spaces of a converted prewar power plant, are packed to overflowing with art lovers, shoppers, diners, and the merely curious. The reconstructed Globe Theatre, less than 100 yards downstream and humble by comparison, nevertheless holds its own in this rather astonishing architectural parade that culminates in the now-closed but still audacious Millennium Dome in Greenwich. New monuments are not confined to South London, however. The British Museum’s central courtyard is now covered by a sparkling glass skylight, a new British Library has risen in a previously forlorn tract by King’s Cross Station, and a new museum complex has been carved from the old Somerset House, a handsome neoclassical complex overlooking the north bank of the Thame. 
      This is the spiffy new London of Bridget Jones. Traffic is heavy, the Underground unreliable, the food international, and cell phones ubiquitous. Starbucks has joined McDonalds on virtually every street corner. The titles on West End theatre marquees are virtually interchangeable with those of Broadway or even Toronto. Peer into a small crooked alley, however, and the old timeworn London of Samuel Pepys may still be seen: the whimsical spire of a church by Christopher Wren or a half-timbered façade that miraculously escaped the Great Fire of 1666. The sober 18th-century townhouses of Bloomsbury today look much as they did when Virginia Woolf resided there in the early 20th century. To paraphrase an old maxim, one might say that the more London is globalized, the more it remains unmistakably London.
        How cities maintain their identity in the face of breakneck change is the subject of Joseph Rykwert’s thought-provoking book, The Seduction of Place. Rykwert, the Paul Cret Professor of Architecture Emeritus in the Graduate School of Fine Arts, brings to his study a considerable knowledge of architectural and urban history and direct observation of the world’s leading cities, including London and New York, where he divides his residence, as well as Paris, Moscow, Beijing, and Mexico City. If anything, he errs on the side of brevity for a subject of such magnitude. The book is divided into an introduction followed by eight pithy chapters, a generous bibliography, and a useful index. Although this is a book intended for a general audience, Rykwert presupposes that the reader has at least a passing acquaintance with Robert Owen, Ebenezer Howard, and Le Corbusier, among other shapers of the modern city. Themes are presented, juxtaposed, and revisited, but inevitably, he poses more questions than he answers.
        The term place, Rykwert argues, is much more useful than the oft-used space. A place has an identity and a meaning to the people who are drawn to it. A space is empty, void of meaning, forgettable or even interchangeable. Impalpable forces, he maintains, guide the development of cities just as surely as the real estate market or a shift in political leadership: “[T]he city did not grow, as the economists taught, by quasi-natural laws, but was a willed artifact, a human construct in which many conscious and unconscious factors played their part. It appeared to have some of the interplay of the conscious or unconscious that we find in dreams.” A witness and critic of the worst excesses of postwar modernism—isolated skyscrapers, highway interchanges, suburban sprawl—Rykwert is nonetheless dissatisfied more recently by postmodernism and its purported remedies. To him, the grafting of ornament on to an office building does not make it an inherently better structure. For all of their stylistic charms and higher densities, New Urbanism towns, since they are founded on the same speculative model as ordinary residential subdivisions, are not inherently better communities.
        Rykwert first defines the problems facing contemporary cities by exploring the historical circumstances of their development. His analysis, although it touches on prehistoric and ancient settlements, really begins in the modern era, broadly defined as post-1600. He spends considerable time analyzing the impact of agricultural reforms and the roots of the Industrial Revolution. The history Rykwert outlines is familiar, but it is given a new twist by such observations as that the conveyor belt—and not the steam engine—is “the essential device” of the Industrial Revolution. 
        A chapter, wryly titled “First Aid,” surveys the wide range of ideal settlements, ranging from actual colonial outposts like William Penn’s Philadelphia to imaginary building complexes like Charles Fourier’s phalansteries, which in turn became the basis for many later community-planning initiatives. Another chapter on the ever-shifting meanings of style in 19th- and 20th-century architecture captures both the early intensity of the professional debate and its rapid devolution as functional concerns become paramount for such unprecedented building types as skyscrapers. In other sections, Rykwert analyzes government buildings, world capitals, theme parks, and even virtual reality.
        The book’s penultimate chapter presents New York as the de facto capital of the world, when in fact it has no political claim on that title other than as the headquarters of the United Nations. Yet, despite his rich historical and architectural analysis of this particular place, Rykwert never quite explains how or why New York has managed to seduce him so completely.
        What of the new millennium? Rykwert sees great promise in the activities of non-government organizations (NGOs), such as the international agency to ban land mines, so long as they are able to make the effective transition from “protest to project.” And, despite his disdain for New Urbanism, Rykwert finds great merit in the charette process—whereby community input is sought at the beginning design stages—promoted by many of its practitioners. Architects, too, must regain some control over the design process:

The architect’s primary duty, his true art, is to give form to the way in which the building works. To make it work is, often, not all that difficult; but to make legible form out of the working, that is the secret of his craft and skill. That and his ability to manipulate and govern the metaphoric intensity of those forms so that some of the charge that the artist or architect puts into it, the spectator may take out.

       And what of the London Eye? Rykwert deems it an “intrusion,” but like other “temporary” landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower, it will undoubtedly remain for some time, casting its gaze over a city whose seductive elements, both old and new, can never be exactly replicated.

Robert Wojtowicz C’83 G’83 Gr’90 is associate professor of art history and chair of the art department at Old Dominion University.

Small Stories, Emblematic Lives

A poet’s spare—and unsparing—account of family life. 

By Beth Kephart

MISGIVINGS: My Mother, My Father, Myself
By C.K. Williams C’59.
New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2001. 176 pp., $12.00 (paperback).
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In her classic memoir, An American Childhood, Annie Dillard recounts the life she lived with an astonishing accretionary style. About her 10th year, it seems, she remembers everything—the books she read “to delirium” and her youthful assessments (“Native Son was good, Waldenwas pretty good, The Interpretation of Dreams was okay, and The Education of Henry Adams was awful.”); the rocks she collected and the lines they drew (“yellow pyrite drew a black streak, black limonite drew a yellow streak”); even the faces of perfect strangers seen but fleetingly, seen once (“A linen-suited woman in her fifties did meet my exultant eye.”) Even as a child, Dillard felt the need to trap and remember—to record her life so that it wouldn’t elude her, so that what she had lived would be eternally webbed to whom she would become.
       There are many ways to draw a life, many galleries of meaning, and if Dillard’s memoir celebrates the patiently accumulated detail, C.K. Williams’ autobiographical meditation Misgivings: My Mother, My Father, Myself offers the exquisite antipode: an exploration of the spaces between the many unnamed things that happen. There are no dates, no proper nouns, no specific locales divulged in Misgivings. There are no exhaustive reading lists, no revivals of perfect strangers, no cataloguing of seasons or events, no maps drawn out of childhood homes, no allegiance to chronology. There isn’t, even, a narrative arc.
       The dynamic here is that of memory and forgiveness, the way each acts upon the other to both restore and shatter. The plot is that of a man coming to terms with the parents that he had—the ways he loved them, the ways he did not, the ways he was shaped by who they were. Misgivings is construed out of essences and fragments, out of slips of remembered dialogue. “My father dead, I come into the room where he lies and I say aloud, immediately concerned that he might still be able to hear me, ‘What a war we had!’” the book begins. “To my father’s body I say it, still propped up on its pillows, before the men from the funeral home arrive to put him into their horrid zippered green bag to take him away, before his night table is cleared of the empty bottles of pills he wolfed down when he’d finally been allowed to end the indignity of his suffering, and had found the means to do it. Before my mother comes in to lie down beside him. 
       “When my mother dies, I’ll say to her, as unexpectedly, knowing as little that I’m going to, ‘I love you.’”
       What do those first utterances of grief convey? What part of whose history do they reflect? What pain, betrayal, affection, hope will be diminished now that the parents are gone, and what will grow up in their absence? These are Williams’ questions, the frame for the pages that follow, and in his quest to understand, Williams disturbs but a few bare bones from the past—lays them out, returns to them, turns them over and over in his meticulous archaeologist’s hands.
       Williams recalls: His father’s determination to never say that he was sorry. His mother’s accusation, directed to the father, “You used to be such a nice man.” The day his unusually tall father sat astride a too-small horse. The lines the father doled out to Williams himself, “We were kids together, you and I,” but also, “You’re a bastard, just like your mother.” Williams recalls as well the discovery of the possibility that his father, dirt poor in the Depression, a proud financial success later on, might have liked to have been a poet, might have chosen another life—the very life his eldest, brilliant, long-suffering son found a way to live.
       “I’m speaking of my parents as though they were emblematic of something,” Williams confides to the reader early on, “as though there were some aura of meaning about them that transcended the small stories—and I realize they are small stories—that contain them.” But all parents are emblematic, Williams argues. And all children look for meaning. His personal tale is a universal one. His consciousness acts upon ours.
       An impeccable poet whose work has been awarded almost every conceivable honor, including, last spring, the Pulitzer Prize, Williams has traveled fearlessly into confounding literary territory for more than 40 years. He has told stories with his poems, shocking stories. He has been merciless with the truth and, always, merciless with himself, and here, with Misgivings, he’s just as shocking, just as truthful. (In May, the book received the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for the Art of the Memoir.)
       He does not back away from what he finds, does not hesitate to reveal the darker side of the legacy he inherited: “I have my mother’s tendency to brood on causes, her passion to find reason, and, though I don’t like having to say so, her need to lay blame,” Williams writes. “From my father the urge to despise and dismiss anything that doesn’t meet my expectations.”
       And yet the brutal honesty of Williams’ autobiographical meditations does not negate the love he ultimately and so gorgeously finds for his parents, and between his parents, and among the three of them. Love is behind every word of this book. Love and Williams’ final faith in it. For perhaps, as Williams writes, as the story nears its end, “We complete those we love, fulfill their finally unchanging essence, when they’re gone from us, when we take into ourselves those portions of them still available to us, to acknowledge them more perfectly, more purely, and do homage to the fugitive, protean forms of love of, and love from.”

Beth Kephart C’82 is the author of the memoirs A Slant of Sun and Into The Tangle of Friendship. She is working on a book about El Salvador.


A selection of recent books by alumni and faculty, or otherwise of interest to the University community. Descriptions are compiled from information supplied by the authors and publishers.

GENERATION AND DEGENERATION: Tropes of Reproduction in Literature and History from Antiquity to Early Modern Europe
Edited by Valeria Finucci and Kevin Brownlee, Faculty.
Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2001.
327 pp., $21.95 (paper); $64.95 (cloth).
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This collection explores the construction of genealogies in both the biological sense of procreation and the metaphorical sense of heritage and cultural patrimony. Focusing specifically on the discourses that inform such genealogies, this book moves from Greco-Roman times to the recent past to retrace generational fantasies and discords in a variety of related contexts, from the medical to the theological, from the literary to the historical. The discourses on reproduction, biology, degeneration, legacy, and lineage that this book broaches not only bring to the forefront concepts of sexual identity and gender politics but also show how they were culturally constructed and reconstructed through the centuries by medicine, philosophy, the visual arts, law, religion, and literature. Contributors reflect on an array of topics, such as what makes men manly, the identity of Christ’s father, and early writings on the presumed inferiority of female bodily functions. Brownlee is a professor of French and Italian and the author of Poetic Identity in Guillaume de Machau.

Sickle Cell Anemia and the Politics of Race and Health

By Keith Wailoo G’89 Gr’92.
Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001. 360 pp., $16.95.
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Set in Memphis, home of one of the nation’s first sickle-cell clinics, this book reveals how the recognition, treatment, social understanding, and symbolism of the disease evolved in the 20th century, shaped by the politics of race, region, health care, and biomedicine. Using medical journals, patients’ accounts, black newspapers, blues lyrics, and other sources, Keith Wailoo follows the disease and its sufferers from the early days of obscurity before sickle cell’s “discovery” by Western medicine; through its rise to clinical, scientific, and social prominence in the 1950s; to its politicization in the 1970s and 1980s. Looking forward, he considers the consequences of managed care on the politics of disease in the 21st century. Wailoo is professor of social medicine and history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The author of Drawing Blood: Technology and Disease Identity in Twentieth-Century America, he received the James S. McDonnell Centennial Fellowship in the History of Science in 1999.

The Completely True and Hilarious Misadventures 
of a Good Girl Gone Broke

By Angela Nissel C’98.
New York: Villard, 2001. 224 pp., $9.95.
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Struggling financially to put herself through college, Angela Nissel decided to chronicle her day-to-day trials and tribulations in an online journal. Leaving nothing to the imagination, her diary covered a variety of topics, including scamming for free textbooks, dating a chicken farmer just to get a free rotisserie chicken dinner, and entertaining herself at a free, open-mike poetry reading. Before she knew it, Nissel had a loyal following of readers who identified with her plight and began to share their own experiences and stories. Two years after placing her first journal entry on her homepage, Nissel received an unexpected message from Villard, a division of Random House. The publisher loved her writings and wanted to turn her diary into a book. No longer broke, Nissel is co-owner and site manager for Okayplayer.com, an online community that houses sites of several hip-hop and soul music artists. She is also working with The Boondocks comic strip creator Aaron McGruder and director Reginald Hudlin to adapt a feature script based loosely on her book.

Verse and art by Shari Faden Donahue C’79.
Washington Crossing, Pa.: Arimax, Inc., 2001. 43 pp., $18.00.
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A “zebra-striped whale with a polka-dot tail” and a “pink and purple octopus igniting our trail” lead readers on an imaginative journey to a place where “all trues are false and all falses are true.” Shari Faden Donahue was inspired to write this children’s book in honor of her father, Leon Leigh Faden, who suddenly died in 1990. Though the entire verse emerged in a few days, she spent almost a decade creating illustrations from a wide variety of elements, including fabric, paper, cellophane, paint, clay and other dimensional materials. She founded her own publishing company and has written several titles, including Celebrate Hanukkah with MeMy Favorite Family Haggadah, and Philly’s Favorites Recipe Collection.

By Steve Perry SW’95.
Middletown, Conn.: Renegade Books, 2001. 176 pp., $10.95.
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This book, Steve Perry writes in his foreword, “is not an autobiography, but I have bumped into its characters many times.” Written while he was a graduate student at the School of Social Work, this book was born out of the lives of his former students from the city’s Mantua section. Set in 1980s Philadelphia this novel combines their stories to create a realistic portrayal of self-discovery as well as falling in and out of love. Perry is currently the director of a youth program that he once attended. He has previously served as director of a homeless shelter, worked for U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman, been a candidate for state representative, an adjunct professor, and served on numerous regional and local non-profit boards. He has also received several state and regional awards for causes ranging from promoting educational access for low-income students to fighting all forms of sexual violence.

By Aim�e Larrabee and John Altman C’68.
New York: Friedman/Fairfax Publishers, 2001.144 pp., $24.95.
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The tallgrass prairie, which once stretched all across the heart of the continent, is today the most endangered ecosystem in North America, with less than five percent remaining. Yet these native grasslands 
provide home for a diverse range of plants and animals, are integral to the production of fresh air, and played a vital role in our history. Through contemporary photographs and archival pieces, this illustrated journey into the grasses portrays both the beauty of the natural landscape and its importance 
in the lives of the people who settled there. It is the companion book to a documentary film by the same name which aired on PBS in April. Altman has written, directed, and produced more than two dozen documentary films.

How Statistics Revolutionized Science in the Twentieth Century

By David Salsburg C’52.
New York: W.H. Freeman and Company, 2001. 340 pp., $23.95.
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There was a time, in the infancy of science, when great men and women used some form of experimentation and calculation to estimate the validity of their hypothesis, yet there was no way to determine with any real precision whether a so-called proven hypothesis was actually proven at all. Enter the statistical model of reality, which took a foothold in the early 20th century and revolutionized the sciences. David Salsburg, a retired pharmaceutical company statistician, tells about the statistical revolution through the stories of some of the people who shaped the field. A former senior research fellow at Pfizer, the author has taught at Penn, Harvard, Connecticut College, the University of Connecticut, Rhode Island College, and Trinity College.

By Walter Schachtel C’29.
Haverford, Pa.: Infinity Publishing.com, 2000. 216 pp., $14.95.
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Born in 1908, the child of immigrants, the author recalls incidents from childhood, his early education and college years, law school, the Great Depression, the World War II era, his first job, and the founding of the firm where he became senior partner. He also details some of the cases from his 65-year legal career, including the one concerning the only existing replicas of the British Crown jewels and Coronation chair, and the formation of the world’s first supermarket. Schachtel is a retired Philadelphia civil lawyer and has served as president of various civic organizations, devoting many years to the betterment of underprivileged children.

By Beth Sherman C’81.
New York: Avon Books, 2001.275 pp., $5.99.
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In Oceanside Heights, N.J., a quaint coastal community that prides itself on its piety, the residents shudder at word of the newest fad among local teens: devil worship. Despite rumors that Old Scratch himself has appeared at their beachside revels, the kids’ late-night antics seem more ditsy than dangerous—until ghostwriter Anne Hardaway happens upon the corpse of young, would-be witch, Abby Podowski. Anne doesn’t want to touch this case. But when the prime murder suspect—an apprentice witch and grandniece of an elderly friend —disappears, Anne is pulled into an eerie, arcane world of black magic. Beth Sherman, the author of four Jersey Shore mysteries, is a writer, editor, and playwright whose columns appear regularly in Newsday.

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