links
reviews
interview
archive
notation
background
feature

 

Biopolis

Biopolis: Patrick Geddes and the City of Life VOLKER M. WELTER, The MIT Press, 2002 355 pages, 74 b&w; illustrations; £27.50, cloth ISBN 0 262 23211 1

Volker Welter illuminates the work of Patrick Geddes from the perspective of an architectural historian. Biopolis is based on the author’s PhD work at the University of Edinburgh and has also benefited from his work as an archivist cataloguing the visual material of the University of Strathclyde Geddes papers. Because I write here in a journal of art history, it must be stressed that the visual art side of Geddes’s endeavours per se is not addressed here. From an art-historical point of view this is a little disappointing, but it is made up for by Welter’s emphasis on Geddes’s wider importance as a visual thinker. As the title makes clear, the focus is on Geddes’s idea of the city, and if any idea can be regarded as central to Geddes’s thinking, it is of course that one. But what distinguishes Welter’s work is that he understands that Geddes’s idea of the city is just that, namely an idea, and further, that it is to a large extent this idea that drives Geddes’s practical achievements.

For Welter, diagrams which some commentators on Geddes have preferred to avoid, such as the ‘Notation of Life’, with its interdependent four-part division into Town, School, Cloister, and City, become central to the understanding of his thought. Thus Welter makes the move that needs to be made: he begins by taking seriously Geddes’s interest in the city as a conceptual entity that can be expressed both philosophically and diagrammatically. For Welter, to understand Geddes we must revisit the first principles of his thinking. Furthermore, historical origins also must be revisited, and Welter argues that insight can be given to Geddes through a consideration of the writings of that pioneer of the theory of the European city state, Plato. Welter develops this comparison of Geddes’s thinking and that of Plato’s Republic in a way that is both stimulating and elegant, and such thinking characterises the entire book. As with any work on a polymath such as Geddes there are areas where one would have preferred more analysis, but any such quibbles are vastly outweighed by the overall interest of this book. Rather than side-stepping Geddes’s ideas because some of them became tangential to architectural and planning practice as it developed, Welter gives them the attention they deserve. He is thus able to conclude his work with three chapters that give an analysis of one of Geddes’s key concerns, namely the idea and actuality of the temple. Welter ranges through Geddes’s commitment to secular temples of art and science, to the temple as a guiding core-presence in the city. But instead of noting this as some kind of maverick concern unique to Geddes, we find instead that Geddes is operating firmly within a current of European architectural thought, indeed a chart is devoted to ‘secular and quasi-religious temple projects, 1880s to 1920s’, which includes work by, among others, Olbrich, Lutyens, Ashbee and Taut. Welter is able to fimly situate Geddes’s thinking with respect to this tradition.

One should, however, note that while the European dimension is well stated, Geddes’s debt to the intellectual and religious traditions of his own background is not really addressed. For example, coming from a Free Church family, Geddes would have taken the necessity of the building of new ‘temples’ for granted throughout his childhood, simply because he was part of a new church which inherited no buildings. But any such weak points in Welter’s analysis are compensated for by wonderfully suggestive European links such as an analogy drawn between Geddes’s proposed geographical institute and Tycho Brahe’s Uraniborg. The fact that Welter is able to appreciate Geddes as a key thinker in the European modernist tradition, rather than as a kind of northern adjunct to an Anglo-Saxon modernist cul-de-sac, gives this book a major role in any contemporary effort not only to understand Geddes, but also to understand the unrealised aspects of the modernist project. This is an illuminating study and an excellent addition to the literature, both of Geddes and of modernism.

AntliffAnarchist Modernism: Art, Politics, and the First American Avant-Garde ALLAN ANTLIFF, The University of Chicago Press, 2001 289 pages, 4 colour and 84 b&w; illustrations; £31.50, cloth ISBN 0 226 02103 3.

In Anarchist Modernism Allan Antliff tells a tale which at first sight seems to be no more than an interesting gloss on the early twentieth-century avant-garde in America. On further reading one begins to note that this is no gloss, it seems to be the main text, or at least a key part of it. Fascinating light is shed on figures such as Man Ray, Alfred Stieglitz and Rockwell Kent, all in the context of the small magazine, bookshop and gallery culture of New York. Camera Work was, of course, one of these small magazines, another which is given considerable attention by Antliff was The Modern School, edited by a number of anarchist thinkers including Carl Zigrosser. Rockwell Kent was the cover designer, and contributors included the artist Walter Pach.

The contrast between Kent, inspired by Blake, Nietzsche and the Alaskan wilderness, and Pach the cubist-urbanist, gives a sense of the breadth of debate in this radical and creative culture. But this current of activity to all intents and purposes ceased to exist in the aftermath of the USA entering the First World War. The pressures on this cultural anarchism were twofold. On the one hand, there was an active ‘patriotic’, government-sponsored, anti-anarchist drive. This campaign employed a use of language we are more likely to associate with Germany in the 1930s, for example in 1917 Man Ray’s Invention-Dance was described as a ‘degenerate work of art’ an example of ‘the spirit of anarchistic monstrosity’. The other threat came, paradoxically, from the left, namely the success of a Bolshevic model of communism as the main representative of the radical left, throughout the West. The former demanded the self-censorship of the radical artist within a conservative state, the latter demanded the self-denial of the artist in the interests of crudely-construed radical politics. What Antliff does in this study is to bring alive the period immediately before this cultural loss in the USA, years which had at their heart the epoch-marking Armory show in New York in 1913.

Allan Antliff’s work might at first sight seem to have little link with Volker Welter’s book except in so far as it is another exploration of still unexplored aspects of modernism. Yet in fact one of its key figures is Patrick Geddes’s good friend, the Indian art historian Ananda Coomaraswamy. Just as Welter’s work has limited direct interest to art historians but great indirect interest, one can say of Antliff’s book that it has no direct relevance to Scottish art, but is of major indirect relevance. This can be encapsulated, for example, in the fact that Antliff points out that Coomaraswamy’s favourite haunt in New York was a bookshop with the enchanting name of Sunwise Turn. This bookshop published one of Coomaraswamy’s most important collections of essays, The Dance of Shiva, but the name of the shop is redolent not of India but of the rituals of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. On consultation of Antliff’s bibliography and a little further digging, so it transpires, for the name has its origin in the visit of the American Amy Murray to Father Allan Macdonald of Eriskay in 1905 (incidentally, at a time when Geddes’s colleague, the artist John Duncan, was also on the island).

Later, when Geddes set up his new department of Civics and Sociology at the University of Bombay, Sunwise Turn provided the American books needed for the library. Antliff doesn’t mention these links and there is, of course, no reason why he should. What is significant here is that these are the kind of intriguing trails that this excellent book impels you to start following. Antliff gives Anarchist Modernism an overall context by quoting an interview with Peter Blume in which he recalls his early career as an artist in Greenwich Village in 1920: ‘the residue of radicalism in the Village was anarchism’ says Blume. Alan Antliff has successfully performed the task of discovering what and who left that radical residue behind. His book is an outstanding contribution to the history of early twentieth-century ideas.


Reviewed by Murdo MacDonald, this article first published in the Journal of the Scottish Society for Art History, volume 7, 2002.
More book reviews here:

Patrick Geddes and Lewis Mumford the Correspondence, Frank Novak

Patrick Geddes Social Evolutionist, Helen Meller