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Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014 09:04 am

Peter Hall

A while back, I edited and wrote chapter introductions to a collection of essays on the influence of Daniel Burnham, the architect-turned-city planner whose 1909 Plan of Chicago gave Chicago its famous downtown lakefront and gave several generations of Springfieldians a reason to visit Illinois’ best and worst city. In that work I quoted from Cities of Tomorrow, Sir Peter Hall’s superb history of the ideology and practice of  city planning. I’d traded notes with him about it when it came out in 1988. It became a classic instantly, if only because it is a both readable and wise, and remains in print. Yet in the Burnham book I embarrassingly muddled him with the well-known anthropologist of space and credited the quote to Edward Hall, not Peter.

An apologetic email brought a response from his office in London. Not to worry. These things happen. “They say the only perfect book is the King James Bible.”

Hall was a former Fabian but not a doctrinaire leftist, being a fan of public-private partnerships. He was capable of changing his mind in the face of contrary facts – he started out a believer in what we call urban renewal until he saw the results. (The original campus of UIC was a miniature version of what Hall had in mind for London in the 1960s; had it be rebuilt along those lines, there would have a second Blitz, only this time the bombs would be delivered by disgruntled Londoners.)

Hall was one of a vanishing breed – the independent intellectual. This except from his preface to Cities of Tomorrow suggests what that species sounds like:

 Unfashionably, I had no grant, hence no benefactor to thank, nor an assistant, hence no one to blame but me. And, since I also typed it, I should first thank the anonymous authors of WordStar and WordPerfect; Chuck Peddle for his legendary Sirius I; and the unknown cottage-fabricators of the Taiwanese clone that — following the iron laws of peripheral Fordism -- latterly replaced it in my study. Rosa Husain deftly typed the references and turned them into footnotes, thereby initiating herself into the pleasures and the terrors of WordPerfect’s macros. But, as ever, I want to thank the librarians. Those who argue for the law of declining public services, and we are all occasionally goaded into joining them, must never use the great reference libraries of the world…

 Peter Hall died July 30. Readers who are wondering why they should care about an English urbanist should know that Cities of Tomorrow deals at length with Illinois and Illinois figures to an extent that might surprise them. Chicago likes to call itself a capital of architecture, but in the early 20th century it is also a center of thinking about cities, or rather about people and the ways they do and might live in cities.

Hall is astute about that odd band of missionaries gathered around Jane Addams, who, rather than press to make immigrants safe from the city, worked to make the city safe from the immigrants. He gives credit to the designs of Lake Forest (1856) and Riverside (by Frederick Law Olmsted, in 1869) as models for the more famous English Garden City. In those cases, capitalism built superbly for the upper-middle classes; the poor got cut-rate Corbusier in the form of hells like the Robert Taylor Homes. Burnham of course figures centrally in the chapter “The City of Monuments,” which is a good a quick introduction as you will find to the City Beautiful movement, which gave Chicago its tourist lakefront and gave Springfield a handsome book describing a similar for the capital that was never implemented. And Hall reminds us that Chicago also was where  the development of the “first true school of urban sociology” developed at the University of Chicago in the 1920s.

All these movements were different responses to the same problem – containing or at least rendering harmless the poor, the immigrant, the criminal. None of them worked very well; life in Chicago’s bad neighbothoods is incalculably more violent that was 100 years ago but otherwise little changed. And the fear of such people – much of it perfectly legitimate – still shapes how and where cities develop, including Springfield. So read Hall today not as history but as current events.
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