Review of How Cities Look the Way they Do

Research output: Contribution to journalBook/Film/Article review

Abstract / Description of output

In his book “Why Cities Look the way they do” the contemporary visual culturalist, and eminent author, Richard J Williams takes the reader on a journey through the familiar, our global urban environment, but in an unfamiliar way.

In the book he uses a series of ‘processes’ to describe different influences on the structure and look of cities. In reality this could be an infinite list, but he has chosen money, political power, sexual desire, human labour, violence and culture to investigate and develop thoughts around. These analytical categories cleverly allow him to look at cities not in just a specific historical or geographical context, but rather in a more global manner.

In regards to the ‘process’ he notes himself that he uses the term to relate more to the events that shape our cities. Process implies time and circulation – because ultimately our cities are constantly in flux and change, even if their physical structures change less rapidly. What Williams does extremely well in this book is to use the six processes to discuss this flux, but also to back it up with examples of the physical. This book takes us on a bit of a global and historic journey – from Hiroshima to Dundee, Rio to Leicester – and shows how these processes have changed, for better and worse, the urban environments of these cities. This allows the reader not just a greater understanding of the places he refers to in each chapter, but gives them a tool kit for their own review of other cities.

This is a book you need to read from start to finish to really benefit from the thought provoking information it gives you. It is an easy read, but that is not to say it is a light book. It makes you think and consider cities from a different perspective without initially realising that’s what you’re doing. Within his expansive process descriptions, he includes references to connect his views in part with key urban theories.

Having read the book, you will look at cities in different ways, and hopefully consider other elements in relation to their design and evolution. Williams discusses what you realise is often “hiding in plain sight” and supports a greater understanding of what is right in front of our eyes. Of course, the topic tackled is enormous, and realistically never ending, so sensibly the book avoids being a monolithic tome. Thanks to his coherent editing, it is a clear summary of what has influenced the physical form of our ever expanding cities . From the fake cities of google to creatives in lofts, from subculture nightclubs to national monuments, there are familiar and unfamiliar urban areas revealed and investigated. A city of course is different things to different people, and he does not shy away from tackling the beautiful and the ugly in terms of how our contemporary cities exist. Williams isn’t an architect or urban designer, and clearly notes that he’s not discussing cities in terms of a recognised physical plan. Rather he explains spaces and responses to areas and buildings reuses, and how these each influence the city as a whole.

Rather like Rayner Banham in the 1960’s declaring his love for a city (Los Angeles) that his fellow intellectuals hated, Williams declares his love for processes and cities that have been overlook or ignored – and this book is all the richer for it. It will leave you making your own conclusions of what the future cities will be formed from, and hopefully support better city design as we continue to expand and develop our global centres.
Original languageEnglish
JournalRIAS Quarterly
Publication statusPublished - 30 Sept 2019


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