Alex Krieger

 

On his book City on a Hill: Urban Idealism in America from the Puritans to the Present

Cover Interview of January 28, 2020

A close-up

The most propitious enticement for a browser may be the 32-page color insert of photographs, maps and drawings of American environments. A picture may not always be worth a thousand words, but it is easier to discuss places with representative images of those places, first as these places may have been imagined and drawn, then as they were being planned, and finally as they assumed three-dimension.

The images in the color insert are duplicates of more modest black-and-white versions that directly accompany the text. My exceptional editor, Ian Malcolm, argued that the book must foremost be for readers. Excessively illustrated books for Ian distract from the stories being told, as in the proverbial, oversized coffee table volume in which text becomes secondary to images, rather than the reverse. This, of course, is counter to the instincts of an architect whose eyes tend first to focus on the illustration. Thus, the book’s color insert became a compromise among author and editor, allowing this author to compose a few stories with images.

As an example, I juxtaposed each of the five monumental canvases of Thomas Cole’s 1830’s Course of Empire with five analogous moments in the life of Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Cole’s Transcendentalist-inspired intent was a warning against unimpeded progress at the expense of nature. This for him ultimately risked desolation, not of the natural world as we fear today, but of all that artificially built up progress; the fate of Imperial Rome. The Chicago’s World’s Fair was, of course, committed to an exaltation of human progress. However, as a temporal environment its evolution from a swampy field, to a wonderous architectural ensemble, to the demolition of that ensemble at the Fair’s conclusion, to its transformation into a pastoral park, replicated in three dimensions Cole’s haunting course of empire.

This juxtaposition is to help connect Cole’s warning to present environmental concerns. By the end of the 19th century the expectation of sustaining a “Nature’s Nation,” the focus and title of Chapter 2, had receded under the onslaught of industrialization. Cole’s prescient concern about the consequences of not heeding nature resonate today, more so than those architectural monuments of the World’s Fair, their ephemerality, indeed, supporting Cole’s and our anxieties about the despoiling of nature.

Another attempt at a visual story in the book is the 2-page spread with three images depicting an optimized place for labor. It could be viewed as a graphic summation of chapter 5, which discusses a tradition of locating a company town away from town, being today overturned by headquarters of companies returning to town centers. The images are of a canonical 19th-century mill town, a mid-20th-century suburban corporate enclave, and the new Amazon Headquarters, having recently relocated from suburban Seattle to its downtown.