'Direction of Cities': seeking Ed Bacon

December 01, 1996|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

'Direction of Cities," by John Guinther. Viking. 320 pages. $34.95.

For Movie buffs, the diversion of the year is a parlor game called Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. In film clubs, on college campuses, through the internet, players try to stump each other by naming actors who never appeared with the prolific star of "Footloose," "He Said She Said" and the current "Sleepers" - or anyone else who appeared with him. The Philadelphia-born star has made so many movies with so many famous performers that it's almost impossible to do.

For urbanologists, an equally entertaining game would be Six Degrees of Edmund Bacon. The 86-year-old architect and urban planner, who has such a strong impact on the state of city planning in America that it would be even more difficult to find a planning professional who has not somehow been influenced by his work.

The latest sign of Bacon's influence is "Direction of Cities," a scholarly look at what's right and wrong with America's cities and why. Author John Guinther explains early on that he wrote the book after a series of conversations with Bacon , who served as director of Philadelphia's Planning Commission from 1949 to 1970, in an effort to describe Bacon's philosophy about city planning. Although Bacon's insights enriched his thinking, Guinther says the book's thesis and structure "were mine alone to develop and that is what was done."

Guinther starts off strongly by describing Bacon's holistic approach to planning and placing it within the context of the history of American cities.

Bacon believes that leaders must provide an overarching direction for growth to counter the city's natural drift toward chaos. Only with a strong urban vision, he argues, can leaders begin to reverse problems such as middle class flight, poverty and decay and rejuvenate moribund business districts.

But Guinther can't quite decide what he wants his book to be. Is it a biography of Bacon? A chronicle of the reform movement in Philadelphia politics? A primer on city planning? It's a little of all these, and more. But it lacks the strong overall vision that Bacon himself advocates.

This reader kept waiting for Guinther to bring home the Bacon, as it were - flesh it out, convey his personality, show why he is regarded as such a deity by generations of city planners - but it never happens. Much of the book is devoted to a recitation of the woes of American cities, from the negative impact of NTC high-rise public housing to the damages inflicted by interstate highways and the growth of the suburbs.

Although Bacon is quoted liberally, he remains a talking head rather than the charismatic figure Guinther makes him out to be. Those seeking to know why Bacon is such a hero, are likely to get a better sense from another book published this year: Alexander Garvin's: "The American City: What Works, What Doesn't," (McGraw, 477 pages, $59.95.) In one chapter titled "Philadelphia's Ed Bacon," Garvin reveals more about Bacon and his accomplishments, in a more direct way, than Guinther

managed to do in over 300 pages.

In a sense, Guinther painted him self into a corner. His book is too broad to work effectively as a biography of Bacon, yet it's too reliant and focused on Bacon to work well as an objective survey of city planning principles. It reads like a newspaper article based on one interview: lazy, simplistic, But Guinther can't quite decide what he wants his book to be. Is it a biography of Bacon? A chronicle of the reform movement in Philadelphia lacking a sense of perspective.

In the end, Guinther's ambitious work still makes plenty of valid and illuminating points about the direction of cities. But it would have benefitted from a much stronger direction of its own.

Edward Gunts writes about architecture and urbanism for The Sun. A Baltimore native, he has worked for The Sun for 12 years. Before that, for six years, he wrote for the News-American. He is also a contributing editor of Architecture magazine. He studied architecture at Cornell University.

Pub Date: 12/01/96

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