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Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space

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America's cities are being rapidly transformed by a sinister and homogenous design. A new Kind of urbanism--manipulative, dispersed, and hostile to traditional public space--is emerging both at the heart and at the edge of town in megamalls, corporate enclaves, gentrified zones, and psuedo-historic marketplaces. If anything can be described as a paradigm for these places, it's the theme park, an apparently benign environment in which all is structured to achieve maximum control and in which the idea of authentic interaction among citizens has been thoroughly purged. In this bold collection, eight of our leading urbanists and architectural critics explore the emblematic sites of this new cityscape--from Silicon Valley to Epcot Center, South Street Seaport to downtown Los Angeles--and reveal their disturbing implications for American public life.

272 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1992

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About the author

Michael Sorkin

53 books31 followers
Michael Sorkin (1948, Washington, D.C.- March 2020, New York) was an American architectural critic and author of several hundred articles in a wide range of both professional and general publications. He was the Principal of Michael Sorkin Studio in New York City, a design practice devoted to both practical and theoretical projects at all scales, with special interest in sustainable urban environments/green city architecture. He was also Chair of the Institute for Urban Design, a non-profit organization that provides a forum for debate over critical issues in contemporary urban planning, development and design.

From 1993 to 2000 he was Professor of Urbanism and Director of the Institute of Urbanism at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. He has been a professor at numerous schools of architecture including the Architectural Association, the Aarhus School of Architecture, Cooper Union, Carleton, Columbia, Yale (holding both the Davenport and Bishop Chairs), Harvard and Cornell (the Gensler Chair). He is currently Distinguished Professor of Architecture and Director of the Graduate Program in Urban Design at the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture, City College of New York.

Dedicated to urbanism as both an artistic practice and a medium for social amelioration, Sorkin has conducted studios in such stressed environments as Jerusalem, Nicosia, Johannesburg, Havana, Cairo, Kumasi, Hanoi, Nueva Loja (Ecuador) and Wuhan (China). In 2005 -2006, he directed studio projects for the post-Katrina reconstruction of Biloxi and New Orleans.

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Displaying 1 - 19 of 19 reviews
Profile Image for Andrew.
1,975 reviews689 followers
April 18, 2021
Back in the '90s, titans of spatial thought like Michael Sorkin, Mike Davis, and Edward Soja (whose work I didn't know was present in this volume, and running into one of my intellectual first loves is always as nice as running into your college girlfriend, wherever she is, and seeing she's still as beautiful as you remember) put this work together, featuring ideas that were then novel. The city is an amusement park, designed for near-masturbatory pleasure but under brutal surveillance and with an accompanying disciplinary regime facilitated by technology. In the 20-odd years since, these ideas have become obvious, even mainstream, as these conditions have become further exacerbated. It's still excellent reading, but take that caveat, readers of 2021.
404 reviews5 followers
April 29, 2018
Although this book is 25 years old, the ideas in it seem as fresh and relevant as they must have at the time it was written -- in the days before Facebook, Google, Uber, self-driving cars, and volatile weather patterns. Even though it seems that cities are having a major comeback, this book brings a huge warning that our cities are manicured and monitored in ways that should make us shudder, if we think about it. They're not the cities of 50 years ago, and we should be ashamed that our fears and simple-mindedness have let this happen.

The essays tackle a wide range of built spaces, but always circle back to a central idea that public spaces are being eliminated in favor of commercialized spaces that limit freedom and creativity in the service of safety, comfort, entertainment and money. So we tour gigantic shopping malls that have become de-facto town centers, but with guards able to kick out anyone who looks or acts different, or who is just lingering. We have skywalks in cities such as Toronto and Minneapolis that have killed the street life below, while being dead zones on their own. We have Orange County, California, with its gated communities, highly designed plazas, and more Olympic training swimming pools than libraries.

Over and over, the authors of these essays explain how the spaces have dulled our senses and tricked us into believing that the fascimilies we are being served are the real things. This is especially so at the reconstructions of historic seaports in Manhattan (South Street), Boston (Faneuil Hall), Baltimore and elsewhere. A few ersatz images are stuck on storefronts, like lettering in a 19th century style, and we are tricked into buying lobster pots that have never been in the water.

Atop the heap, of course, is Disneyworld, which is referenced numerous times and is the subject of the culminating chapter. It has so totally subverted reality that it gives us a fake version of reality so denuded that we have lost all connection with the past. The phrase in the book is something like that for decades we strived to develop production so that we had time for entertainment, and now that we have entertainment our subject is often production. In other words, we don't do real work, but when we go to Disneyworld, we can see images of people doing old-style work, like washing clothes by hand. So does Williamsburg, by the way. And without the dirt or mud or slavery (though they've actually improved the coverage of slavery in the quarter-century since the book was written).

Here's another great point, just to give you a sample of the depth of thinking in this book. There's a long section on gentrification, and how when it was occurring in the late 1980s in the Alphabet City part of New York City, the people doing the gentrification referred to themselves as pioneers. They were winning the West all over again. It was as much a fable as the first winning of the West. So that's one observation. Then, the author doubles down with a hilarious passage from an ad about cowboy fashions that were all the rage in NYC at the time, thus furthering this myth that the city was The Wild West that needed to be tamed -- as if tens of thousands of people weren't living in these impoverished areas and minding their own business. And then the author triples that with comments on Ralph Lauren designs at the time, which were heavy on African prints (think: savages), though Lauren had never been to Africa and famously said, "sometimes it's better if you haven't been there."

The other point that the book makes very well is that these images of our past are now jumbled together so rapidly and randomly that we've lost all context. This is done in commercial properties or downtowns or Las Vegas, where architectural styles are thrown together. A long section about Los Angeles describes subversions as a library that looks like a prison and a prison that is regularly mistaken by visitors for being a luxury hotel. One of the authors notes that this rapid-fire composition is like TV, which throws images at you one after another that are not connected in real life, either geographically or chronologically -- maybe the Vietnam War, a basketball player, a sunset and New York City's skyline. Of course, this has only become much worse in our Internet era.

One final thing to note: this is not an easy book. The language is dense and purposefully complex. Words are made up sometimes, as professors do, by adding "izification" to nouns, and other such rhetorical devices. But don't get too intimidated, because there are careful observations throughout the book. And every few pages a fascinating observation shines through.
Profile Image for Victoria.
114 reviews12 followers
September 12, 2016
For a city-lover, Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space is a wonderful collection of essays detailing the way in which real estate interests prey on middle class fear of the poor to secure formerly public areas, controlling and limiting access to them. So-called gated communities are an extreme example, but enclosed shopping malls are similarly controlled by private interests while replicating the classic city pattern of shopping streets and areas.

In large cities such as NYC, where the editor Michael Sorkin lives and works, skyscraper developers are granted extra height and thus profitable floor area increases in exchange for what are called public amenities, usually in the form of small outdoor spaces open to the public, and many of which have at least partial public funding. But many have little if any actual amenities -- seating area, shade in the summer, water fountains, custodial care and the like -- and are shut to the public when the owner wishes.

Michael Sorkin contributed the last essay, which explores the evolution of Disney World in Florida from Disneyland in California, and the attendant decrease in accessibility and increase of profitability in the expanded artificial experience of having been somewhere, when one has only been to, in fact, a very large and complex shopping mall after all.

Highly recommended! Long live the classic soapbox, agent of free speech, and long live the truly public parks and streets that, in larger cities and smaller towns alike, foster our communal life.
Profile Image for John.
437 reviews30 followers
October 8, 2008
A very good overview of urban planning theory and criticism. A bit dated in that every single essay name checks either the panopticon OR michel foucualt, tho to be fair those were RED HOT!

Stand out essays :

Margaret Crawford's "the world in a shopping mall" is a great analysis of the W. Edmonton Mall as commoditified urban microcosm.

Neil Smith's "New City, New Frontier" does an excellent job of sketching out the Tompkins Square Park Riots and the NYC efforts to drive out low income residents with support for gentrification efforts. As is Mike Davis' angry little tract "fortress los angeles : the militarization of urban space." Read together they make for a compelling double sided coin of urban crime and retaliation - especially useful for protesters and other civic activists.

The last essay "see you in disneyland" by editor Michael Sorkin, is a bit heavy handed, but a decent primer in attacking the great state of the Mouse.

While I did not necessarily learn anything painfully new, this collection is useful and highly accessible.
Profile Image for Patty.
507 reviews7 followers
August 21, 2021
Not for speedy reading, the essays in this collection delineated the destruction of the life of American cities, from mega-malls, to underground shopping, to the Disney-fixation of urban areas. What a loss.
Profile Image for Mark Bowles.
Author 19 books29 followers
August 31, 2014
1. We see today the rise of the ageograpical city (shopping malls with chain stores, atrium hotels, endless suburbs without city demarcations)
2. Three characteristics of the ageographical city
a) Loosening of ties to a specific place (uniform mass culture, no local or physical geography, McDonalds)
b) Obsession with security and surveillance over citizens
(1) Technological: Automated teller, electronic workplace
(2) Physical: communities for the rich, also for ex. The Minneapolis underground walkways to allow the rich to circumvent the bad areas of the city
c) A city of simulations (the city as theme park): ex. Architecture. Images are drawn from the past, an architecture of deception
3. This book attempts to describe this new city
a) These are cautionary essays about a potential that could fundamentally alter the city
b) This book pleads for a return for a more authentic urbanity, based on physical proximity
c) As proximity ends so does intimacy and the power of the citizens to act together (I disagree the loss of proximity will mean increased intimacy)
4. Therefore the theme park is this new ageographical city
a) The theme park is a substitute for a democratic public realm
b) The new city hides the poor, crime, dirt, and work.
c) Thus, the effort to reclaim the city is the struggle of democracy itself.
Profile Image for Tito Quiling, Jr..
245 reviews37 followers
November 29, 2016
I finally bought a copy from a friend who happens to have a second one, and to some extent, I wish I stumbled upon this title while I was working on my master's thesis as a supplementary material on spatial analysis and particularly, as an additional to the review of related literature. And while I'm rambling on now regarding what could have been, I enjoyed reading through the articles albeit some of them are quite foreign to me, while others are quite familiar.

With a number of articles detailing urban architecture and landscape design, even delving a bit into environmental concerns and health hazards, the takeaway from this title would be the amount of conclusive statements from each of the study, where the proposed solutions make sense.
Profile Image for Stephen.
595 reviews8 followers
March 7, 2015
Read in graduate school. Fabulous book. A wonderful collection of insightful and scathing essays on the current state of the Clusterfuck Nation. I re-read them occasionally just to keep me thinking and aware about how exceptional we are in fucked up Amerika. They make me laugh, but I really want to cry. What were those Joni Mitchell lyrics? Oh yeah. "Saying laughing and crying
You know it's the same release." The essay by Mike Davis, "Fortress Los Angeles: The Militarization of Urban Space is far and above one of his most excellent explorations of the corporate privatization of public space.
Profile Image for Kara.
128 reviews14 followers
September 28, 2008
First added this book to my collection when taking urban studies in undergrad. Great compilation of Urban oriented writers, including Mike Davis. Great introduction to urban studies and how American cities are being changed with the sometimes, right intentions, but ultimately for the worse. Lots of support here for the New Urbanism theory as well as the organic, lead by the people, city growth. Provides good examples of why the European city has worked for so many centuries.
Profile Image for emma Slachta.
11 reviews3 followers
August 6, 2007
i love this topic, and i love reading about it. a lot of my list on goodreads is from when i used to be in the habit of reading fiction--that whole pre-pubescent madeleine l'engle phase.

this is the stuff that i like to get into now. enthralling essays on how our society is shifting the landscape and hearts of our communities. quirky, fact-filled and insightful. go team non-fiction!
Profile Image for Stephen.
792 reviews31 followers
February 7, 2011
A great collection of heated essays., which predict a present that is all too real. Commerce, privacy, assembley all limited by the production of free floating commercial cities on the far-reaches of places that were once towns and cities. This book analyzes the beginnings of this phenomena, which a decidedly unenthusiastic view of the ramifications.
Profile Image for Katherine.
138 reviews10 followers
October 23, 2012
Analyses of various issues in urbanism, relevant today, though I was constantly thinking how this was written before the internet was widespread, before 9/11/01, when shopping malls were still popular (and the Mall of America was under construction!), etc.
Profile Image for Lee Hunter.
28 reviews5 followers
November 13, 2008
a great collection of essays about urban planning. mike davis writes about LA and there is a great essay about the Lower East side in the late 70s & early 80s. then there are several more essays about shopping and disneyfication.
17 reviews
June 25, 2009
Urban Planning book- starts off good but drags a bit at the end. Gives good insight into creating space to manipulate the public- example: Disney
Author 10 books16 followers
October 30, 2012
Now somewhat dated but still often fascinating essays on the Disney ideal and its influence on urban planning, cityscapes, and the notion of public space.

45 reviews
August 26, 2021
Lefty polemics despairing at the developments of the contemporary city? This is heaven, to me. RIP Michael Sorkin.
Displaying 1 - 19 of 19 reviews

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